The alarm went off at six. Indiana is outside the train windows. Sun just touching the fields outside the window, a play of gold light on green shoots. We’re in flat country now.
I got to the dining car right when it opened at 6:30. Two Amish couples in plain dress came in just after I did. I was seated with a long-haul trucker, a woman who didn’t say much at all, and a retired man. The retired man asked the trucker to pass the sugar, then started to put sugar on his Frosted Flakes.
“You sure you want to do that?” said the trucker. “Those already got plenty of sugar on em.”
“Oh, yes.” The retired man smiled. “I’d put more on if I was at home. It’s just habit by now.”
When the trucker got off at Elkhart, the retired man told me about his hobby: visiting every major league ball park in North America. “I was just in Boston, but I couldn’t get seats at Fenway Park.”
“No,” I told him, “they sell out just about every game. You want decent seats, you have to buy them in March.”
He’s visited twenty parks so far. I asked him which he thought were the best.
“San Francisco and Toronto.” What about Baltimore, which everyone raves about? “Oh, that’s a good one too.” He was able to describe the park in satisfying detail: the old B&O warehouse that was integrated into the park; the plaques set into the ground showing where home run balls hit.
“The worst was Tampa Bay. It’s a domed stadium. The dome doesn’t open, though. And it’s so low that sometimes a pop fly will go ‘thunk’ off the ceiling. When you hear the crack of the bat, you don’t want to hear ‘thunk.’ ‘Crack, thunk.’”
On one of his first trips, to Cincinnati, he shared a taxi from the airport with someone. It turned out this other fellow was also visiting all the major league ball parks; he had two left: Cincinnati, and then Toronto. “I asked him how long it took him to do it, and he said five years. But I didn’t want to hear that. I don’t have five years.”
On this trip, he’s going to see Milwaukee, and the Chicago White Sox. But he couldn’t get a ticket to see the Cubs.
A four hour layover in Chicago. I check my pack and my uke, and head out onto the streets of Chicago.
Across the Chicago River, and it starts to sink in: buildings, people, vitality of the streets. The people are the best part: I like watching the people hurrying by — in Chicago, they manage to hurry while still maintaining that relaxed Midwestern attitude; and everyone is so much more polite than in New England.
I walk to the Art Institute. It’s worth twelve bucks just to see Georgia O’Keefe’s huge painting Sky above the Clouds IV. I look at a few other familiar art works, see a few fine paintings by Ren Yi, a Chinese painter whom I am not familiar with, and head out.
Down Michigan Avenue to the Fine Arts Building. The elevator operator is sitting on his stool looking out into the lobby. “Performer’s?” he asks. “Yup, 904,” I say. He nods, and closes the outer door, but doesn’t bother with the inner door. We stop with the wood deck of the elevator just a few inches above the floor. He leans forward, opens the door, and lets me out. I buy some Renaissance-era sheet music, and decide to walk back down to the lobby. I pass three architect’s offices, three art galleries, a psychotherapist’s office; on one floor I can hear a violinist practicing; I pass offices with obscure titles on the doors, pass a piano store, through an open gate that says “Do Not Open Alarm Will Sound” (but the alarm isn’t sounding), the steps are now marble, down another flight and out.
Last stop: Prairie Avenue Bookshop, where I buy some books including one on the influence of Ralph Waldo Emerson on Frank Lloyd Wright’s design of Unity Temple.
It’s time to head back to Union Station. I walk slowly, admiring the city.
On the train from Chicago to St. Louis, I wound up sitting next to Rob. Rob lives in Tewksbury, was heading to Arkansas to see some friends. He asked me where I’ was going, and to save lengthy explanations I said, “To a conference in St. Louis.” The young woman across the aisle leaned over and asked me, “GA? That’s where I’m going, too.” Her name was Heather, she was from Nashua, New Hampshire, and the three of us wound up talking for the rest of the six hour ride.
As night was beginning to fall, we came around a bend. “There it is,” I said, and pointed out Rob’s window. The Gateway Arch was still visible against the pale blue-green sky, beautiful against the handful of skyscrapers that make up downtown St. Louis. “Wow,” said Rob. “It looks like a good place to visit. You see a place like this and you think, I’m going to come back here someday. but you never know if you’re going to see it again.”