Tag Archives: Chicago

Road trip notebook: Indiana, Ohio, a little corner of Pennsylvania, and upstate New York

We had a long talk with Christine, the owner of the bed and breakfast where we stayed last night. She told us about a program she was involved in creating some years ago, an after school program for Latino/a high school youth, designed to help children of recent immigrants stay in school; it has since evolved, and now has the young people involved in creating video documentaries.

Not long after leaving the bed and breakfast, we saw an Amish horse and buggy driving across an overpass above us. I knew that the Amish were in other parts of Indiana — my sister sees them regularly in eastern Indiana where she lives — so I shouldn’t have been surprised to see them in this part of the state.

Since reaching the outskirts of Chicago yesterday, I’ve noticed a definite increase in the aggressiveness, and decrease in courtesy, of motorists. It was even more pronounced today. Nor is it simply a matter of urban vs. rural drivers, because the drivers in the empty spaces of Interstate 90 through Indiana and Ohio are just as nasty as the drivers near Chicago. People in California complain about the bad drivers there, but the worst Bay Area drivers strike me as more polite than most eastern drivers. Consider this a cultural boundary dividing the West from the East.

By now, the scenery is more familiar to me; I’ve taken the Lakeshore Limited train along this same route several times, and driven it several times. The green rolling fields and woodlands of northern Indiana and Ohio; the suburban and urban areas around Cleveland; the occasional glimpses of Lake Erie; the vineyards of northwestern Pennsylvania — all these look familiar, and their familiarity meant that I didn’t particularly notice them. Instead, Carol and I listened to an audio recording of Anthony Trollope’s The Belton Estate. The uncertain course of Clara Amedroz’s love; the miscalculations of her lovers Will Belton and Frederic Aylmer; the querulous anger of Clara’s father; the surprising will of Mrs. Winterfield, which Mr. Amedroz proclaimed to be “wicked, very wicked”; all this captured my attention rather than the scenery.

We arrived in Fredonia, New York, where we’re spending the night, at about seven. We’re in an old hotel in the village center, and we wandered around a little bit before we sat down to eat. Fredonia has a town green with churches clustered round it, a Main Street with old substantial-looking brick and stone buildings, and tree-lined streets with comfortable modest houses. Carol said that it looked like a town in the northeast. It’s clear that we are getting ever closer to New England.

Road trip notebook: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana

We stayed in the Northrup Ofetdahl House in Owatonna, Minnesota, last night. The house is still owned by the Northrup family, and the room we stayed in was named after F. S. C. Northrup, a now-obscure mid-20th century American philosopher who once hobnobbed with the likes of Whitehead, Wittgenstein, Schroedinger, and Mao Tse-Tung.

Crossing from Minnesota to Wisconsin along Interstate 90, you wind down steep dramatic bluffs, some hundreds of feet high, to the Mississippi River, across the several channels of the river, thence into Wisconsin. The interesting landscape continues into Wisconsin, with odd-looking hills shaped by glaciation, and some curious standing rock formations cut out of sedimentary rock by erosion.

We had a long drive today, so we didn’t stop but just kept driving. We drove south into Illinois, crossed the Fox River — we lived for a year just a few blocks from the Fox River in Geneva, Illinois — and into the Chicago suburbs. It was rush hour, and we hit the first heavy traffic since leaving the Bay area some two thousand miles ago. Finally we made it to La Porte, in the northwest corner of Indiana, an hour later than we had hoped.

We went into downtown La Porte for dinner tonight. Carol said, “Let’s go into that place,” pointing to the Temple News Agency. It was not just a news stand, it was also a soda fountain, coffee shop, and used book store. They had a piano in one room, and while we sat eating our sandwiches, two girls, about eight and ten years old, each played something on the piano from memory (the ten year old was pretty good). Half a dozen guitars and a couple of microphone stands were near the piano. I wandered around looking at used books, and discovered that they had about fifty old high school year books available for customers to look through (but not purchase). Temple News Agency is a perfect example of Midwestern Eccentric; their Web page declares, “We’re kinda like a zoo for people.” I have to admit, I felt very comfortable there.

And who found the place? Carol, of course. She has a nose for that kind of thing.

5 hours in Chicago

Off the train from DC at 8:40. Breakfast in the DePaul University Bookstore Cafe (crappy bookstore, great cafe). Quick stop at Performance Classical Sheet Music (a couple of blocks south of Symphony Center) one of the few sheet music stores still in existence — the best part about Performance Music is that you get to ride up to the ninth floor in an old-fashioned elevator with and elevator operator sitting on a stool, a wooden floor, the hand-operated doors.

By then the Art Institute was open. I visited the new modern art wing, which wasn’t open when we lived outside Chicago. Then, just wandering around, I wandered into a small show of work by Hong Kong artist Wucius Wong — incredible work.

Ran back to Union Station, and they just called my train to board….

On the train, 6/26-27

From notebook and memory:

Still dark when I get on the train at 4:30 a.m. As we roll across the Mississippi River, the sky has lightened, and the Gateway Arch catches glints from the east.

North of Springfield. Young man behind me answers his cell phone. Drowsily, I hear the end of the conversation, which to my New England ears sounds like this: “Yahp. Bea raw nair. Bah.” He’s saying: “Yeah. Be right there. ‘Bye.”

Downtown Chicago, 65 degrees, cool and cloudy, the locals wear windbreakers or light jackets. In the Art Institute, two young men look at a painting: “I like that. I don’t know why I like that, but I like that.” They walk away from me, still talking about the painting. They burst into laughter for some reason.

The train is late coming out of the yard. While we wait, Robert and I joke about waiting. He’s on the same sleeper as I, except when we get to the train our sleeper is gone (toilets don’t work), they give us a coach instead. We talk and figure out how to make the best of it. The sleeping car attendant gives us blankets: “Brand new,” he says; they’re still in plastic wrappers. “Keep them, you deserve something for this.”

Robert’s a rail fan and a model railroader. In the dining car, we talk about trains and model railroads.

The sun awakens me somewhere in Pennsylvania. Six hours of sleep.

At lunch, Robert and I eat together for the third time. The two other people at our table talk about being in St. Louis, and I figure out we’re coming from the same event, but I’m tired of talking about religion and move the conversation in other directions. Later: “Look at that,” I say, pointing to a beautifully restored locomotive. Robert looks and says, “An F-7. Nice job on the New York Central colors.” The couple is only politely interested.

I doze some more.

At Rochester, the train is stopped by federal agents from the Department of Immigration and Naturalization Service. We sit and wait. Robert and I and some others get out to stretch our legs. At the end of the platform, everyone from the last car is off the train, with their bags. They start herding people back on the train. As we pull out, I see a police car driving down the platform. Later I overhear: “They arrested two guys.”

The whole way through the Berkshires, I sit in the cafe car and talk with Bob from Chicago. We look at the scenery. We talk about snowmobiles, we talk a lot about how much we like Chicago, I point out a beaver lodge next to the track, we talk about Geneva, Illinois, where I lived last year, he mentions his wife who died a decade ago and his Navy buddy who has cancer, we talk about our favorite fishing expeditions. After an hour: “Nice talking.” “See you.”

It gets dark after Worcester. I doze. At last we make it to Boston.

Millenium Park in Chicago

We were coming back from the Seminary Coop Bookstore’s annual members-only sale last night. Eco-freaks that we are, we took the train to Hyde Park rather than drive. So when we got off the South Shore electric line at Randolph Street Station with half an hour to spare before catching the train out to Geneva, Carol said, “Let’s go look at Millenium Park.”

I had heard a good deal about the Pritzker Pavillion, the stage designed by Frank Gehry, and I had seen it from a distance, but I had not walked through it. In a word, it was disappointing. The curvy stainless steel proscenium arch around the stage was typical Frank Gehry, except more banal than usual. At first it looks wild and new, but pretty soon you realize he’s using a centuries old architectural vocabulary. Basically it is just a proscenium arch that’s not much different from Baroque arches — except in stainless steel, and without the rich detailing of Baroque architecture. After a few minutes, I started laughing sadly at it because it has such an unfortunate resemblance to the hair styles of late-career Elvis — the bloated, sweating, drug-hypnotized Elvis. And after a few more minutes, I began to see the lack of attention to details, which made it look like one of those Western store fronts that looks really big from the front, but which turns out to be a sad, tiny building from the back.

Worse is the trellis of stainless steel pipes over the lawn seating area. Designed to support loudspeakers, the trellis has the unfortunate side effect of making you feel as if you are in a cave. One of the reasons Chicago is such an extraordinary city, architectually speaking, is that buildings in the Loop soar to the sky, taking your spirit with them — it’s the opposite of a cathedral where your spirit soars only to be stopped by a roof, because in Chicago it’s the open sky over your head. But Gehry’s trellis stops that feeling of soaring dead. The trellis hovers oppressively over you, controlling your spirit and channeling it the same way a closed shopping mall does.

Next we walked over BP Bridge, also designed by Gehry. The bridge is almost quite nice — almost. The problem is, Gehry tries to be sculptural, but can’t quite pull it off. The bridge looks kind of cool from a distance, but when you get closer you see there are dead spots in the curves of the bridge, places where the curves are interrupted by an unintentional flat spot, or where the curves don’t quite flow right. Other details of the bridge are badly done, too. (Maybe the architect did not adequately oversee the building contractor?) It’s covered with what looks like stainless steel shingles on the outside, but as you walk across it the walls lining the walkway are dead flat — which is incongruous at best, confusing at worst. And ultimately, the massing of the bridge just curves around and doesn’t say much of anything.

The worst thing about Gehry’s contributions to Millenium Park is that they seem to completely ignore the incredible wealth of architecture to their west, and the glorious natural beauties of the lakeshore to their east. There is no sense of place, no sense that you are in CHICAGO! — instead, you could be in any generic city center or shopping mall from Bahrain to L.A.

Chicago, 5.26.05

s soon as I got out the door of Northwestern Station, I heard an alto sax. A strange riff repeated four times followed each time by a quieter passage; then a slightly different riff a fifth above the first, repeated twice. Back to the first riff. Some of the echoes from the buildings around us made the riffs sound slightly out of phase with themselves, sounding a little sad, ironic, jerky, strange. The man playing it was wearing a navy blue pea coat and a tam that looked like a beret. Half a block after passing him, I finally realized he was playing a bebop version of “Pop Goes the Weasel.”

I noticed the smile first: a private smile, unusual for walking the streets of the Loop during the evening rush hour. She was carrying a bunch of flowers wrapped in a cone of plastic film, and a small balloon. Blue blazer, about thirty. A good-bye party? A promotion?

Near the Art Institute, a young white woman unconsciously averted her eyes as she passed nine black women walking together. Two different cultures. The white woman walked quickly, dressed in conservative chinos and wearing no makeup, alone and self-contained. The black women walked slowly, dressed in going-out-to-dinner clothes, trading jokes and loud conversation.

Veterans with their American Legion caps accepting donations for veteran’s hospitals outside Union Station. They looked out of place among the hurrying throngs of well-dressed mostly young or middle-aged people streaming towards the station. Neither I nor anyone else seemed to stop for them.

The clouds yesterday and the rain today brought back seasonable temperatures, down in the forties instead of in the eighties last week. The house at the corner of 6th and Hamilton here in Geneva is surrounded by red tulips ready to open — but with the cold weather, they have remained shut for the past couple of days.

Yesterday, I took the train downtown to the Loop. Next to the Boeing building, which is on the south branch of the Chicago River at Randolph St., you can walk down some steps to a little pocket park just above river level. There I found green grass, and a few trees with their leaves just opening — and, of all surprising things, I also found a Hermit Thrush, who looked a little bewildered by the urban environment. It flitted back and forth between the small trees, and appeared disturbed by my close presence. By today, I’m sure this bird has flown further north towards its breeding grounds.

Knowing a city by its bookstores

One of the great things about being an interim minister is that you get to move around the country. In the past three years, we have had the luck to live near three of the great cities of the United States. Last year we were near Berkeley, California; the year before that, we lived outside Boston; and this year we’re living near Chicago. I define a great city as one that has lots of independent bookstores.

I just spent the afternoon and evening in Chicago, where of course I spent hours in a bookstore. I was up in the Lincoln Square neighborhood, and stopped in one of those used bookstores with books piled everywhere. “Should I check my backpack?” I asked the owner. “No,” he said, “but be careful going around corners. You don’t want to start an avalanche.” He wasn’t kidding.

You learn a lot about a city by its bookstores. I always zero in on the religion section. In Chicago bookstores, you always seem to find lots of historical criticism of the Bible and general hardcore theology books, which I attribute to the influence of the University of Chicago, and there always seems to be a smattering of “Christian inspirational” books. In Berkeley bookstores, you’ll find tons of books about eastern religions and east-west studies, partly due to the influence of the university, but also because Berkeley is a Pacific Rim city that looks west more than east. In the religion sections of Boston (and Cambridge) bookstores, you find lots of scholarly books about Western religious traditions, but also a surprising number of books on Confucianism because Harvard has become a center for neo-Confucian studies.

Each of the great bookstores of each city tell you a little more about the character of the city. Berkeley has Eastwind Books, specializing in East Asian writers, and where I first got books by Lu Xun, an amazing Chinese writer of the early 20th C. The Seminary Coop Bookstore in Hyde Park in Chicago is quite simply the best academic bookstore I’ve ever seen. And the Mass Bible Society in downtown Boston carries an excellent selection of books on liberation theology and liberatory theologies, as well as good story books for children. (On their Web site, click on the “Bookstores” link, and then on the link “The Bible and Homosexuality” — yup, they’re liberal Christians.)

Trivialobservations, I suppose. But I do find it interesting that different places address different religious questions. And what I’ve seen in the bookstores plays out in the UU congregations I’ve served in each of these three places. Trivial, perhaps, but fascinating.