High and Wet
Wintry Chicago. Cold and wet. Birthplace of roller skates. Once home to Al Capone, David Mamet, basketball legend Michael Jordan and, lest we forget, Buck Rogers.
From the moment I leave my hotel for a day in the toddlin’ town, the rain starts thumping down, hitting the ground so hard the bullets of water nearly bounce back into the clouds. Chicago, I quickly realise, like so many great cities, flourishes in a storm. There is something quietly exhilarating about the paradox of watching the streets washed clean only to reveal the dirt underneath, literal and metaphorical, best kept out of sight. Like a film noir, the city seems most alive in the darkness of a downpour. The wet streets shine, silently singing, silently screaming. The raindrops ricochet off the buildings like sparks of electricity. The bricks almost buzz.
I always find walking in a storm fascinating. Human dramas normally lost in the urban bustle become spotlighted, because all indifference is swept away. Only people with a good reason, from the criminal to the humane, go outside in torrential rain.
With no one else around, I am, of course, sought out by the inevitable panhandler. He assures me he is going to see his sister in Florida. He says he needs $12.10. Exactly. I can’t be bothered to ask why. He shows me some sort of library card, assuring me it’s a rail ticket to Jacksonville. Tired, I give him $20. He goes away, never to be seen again. If I could only get rid of everyone who annoys me for a simple $20, I’d be a poor but happy man.
Despite the weather, Chicago is not actually known as the ‘Windy City’ because of the gusts driving in from Lake Michigan. In 1893, when the city was hosting the World’s Columbian Exposition, visiting New York Sun editor Charles Dana noticed how much the Chicagoans were bragging about the wonders of their home town, and the ‘Windy City’ nickname came to be.
The thick mist sleeps heavily and late, hiding the summits of Chicago’s famous skyscrapers, rendering them somehow unreal, as if not so much built up as set down by some unseen hand working above the clouds. I spend the morning among the plush shops of North Michigan Avenue’s ‘Magnificent Mile‘, waiting in vain for the rain to stop, before trudging along State Street and on to Sears Tower, the world’s tallest office building at 110 stories and 1,454 feet.
In theory, you can see four states from the observation deck on the 103rd floor of the tower. In dense mist, however, you can’t even see across the road. To be fair, there is a sign outside the building, glistening in the morning drizzle, warning everyone of ‘Zero Visibility’.
Undaunted, I step inside and ask for an $8.50 ticket.
“You know you can’t see anything from the Skydeck today, don’t you?” says the lady at the counter, looking at me as if I must be insane.
“That’s OK,” I reply. “I just want to go in the big lift.”
She might have laughed if I’d remembered to say elevator.
Up top, true to everybody’s word, visibility is zero. Literally. On a good day, you can see 50 miles, from Illinois to Michigan and from Wisconsin to Indiana. Today, however, even straining my eyes until they almost pop from the sockets, I can’t see so much as a bird in the sky.
I turn my attentions inward. The only other person on the Skydeck is a young woman wrapped in enough winter clothing to make a curry sweat. But even a thick hood and earmuffs cannot hide the fact she has a beautiful face. She gazes around forlornly. I feel sorry for her. No one wants to spend $8.50 and end up with nothing to look at but me.
Although I’ve seen every episode of Captain Scarlet, visiting the Adler Planetarium in the afternoon marks the first time I have set foot in a building devoted to the wonders of astronomy.
Located in Chicagoland’s ‘Museum Campus’ area, the planetarium stands out at the end of a peninsula reaching into Lake Michigan, the dome bulging like a blister on a fingertip. Nearby is the prestigious Field Museum and the Shedd Aquarium. A less academic neighbour is the Chicago Bears’ Soldier Field stadium, a bizarre concoction, all mighty columns and glorious statues, a neo-classical shell of a building with a football field in the middle.
Opened in 1930, the Adler is the oldest planetarium in the US. The entrance fee is just $5 for an adult, which is nothing these days, and there are three floors to explore. I walk around eagerly, fiddling with the interactive exhibits that allow you to play with planets like Emperor Ming in Flash Gordon.
I learn a lot, especially about lunar affairs. The moons of the war planet Mars, for example, are called Phobos and Deimos, meaning ‘fear’ and ‘terror’, which strikes me as a nice touch. Pluto’s moon, Charon, is almost as big as the planet itself. The decreased gravitational pull means that if you stood on the surface of our moon, you would weigh only one-sixth of what you do now, but, and this is the important thing, you would still look just as fat.
Above all, as if I didn’t already know, I learn never to sit in any sort of cinema with a group of 10-year-old boys, even if they are cub scouts. Gathered in one of those traditional, domed planetarium theatres, where the screen seems to wrap all around you, we watch a film recreating the Big Bang. Every time anything remotely dramatic happens, which inevitably is fairly often, the boys jump up and down excitedly in their seats, which crack against my kneecaps. They seem completely incapable of chewing their malodorous sweets with their mouths shut. In fact, given how much they talk, they seem incapable of doing anything with their mouths shut. Ahh, sweet children, don’t you just love them? So full of life and yet so temptingly easy to kill.
Resisting my evil desires, I move along the shore, as if carried by the tide of rain, from the planetarium to Navy Pier, a pleasure palace stretching out over the lake. With the weather making a ride on the 150-foot-high Ferris wheel out of the question, I decide to take a look at the undercover attractions.
After browsing the stores in the entrance hall, I hurry past the pier’s cinema. Having already seen a 3D IMAX movie, I have no desire to repeat the experience. Achieving the 3D effect involves strapping on goggles that look like electronic egg cups. Staring at the enormous screen, six stories high and 80 feet wide, backed by an 11,000-watt sound system, you feel like Alex being ‘cured’ in Stanley Kubrick’s film of A Clockwork Orange, eyes prised permanently open, unable to look away.
For more dignified entertainment, I recommend heading further along the pier to the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Opened in October 1999, the building’s 550-seat interior is modelled on the Swan Theatre in Stratford-on-Avon. All credit to Chicago for adding a rare touch of class to the notion of end-of-the-pier entertainment. Shakespeare productions in the US tend to suffer from the same disease as their British counterparts – in short, a plague of theatre directors more interested in showcasing their own limited ideas than realising Shakespeare’s visions – but the Chicago Shakespeare Theater offers mercifully traditional interpretations.
If your sprogs are too young for Shakespeare, though, try out the acclaimed Children’s Museum, which greets over 500,000 visitors a year. Entry is $6.50 for all. Alternatively, free entertainment abounds wherever you go on the pier, as family entertainers roam around with comedy acts and juggling shows. Adults and youngsters alike will enjoy the touring art and photographic exhibitions that line the halls. The simple concept of ‘something for everyone’ is what makes Navy Pier Chicago’s most popular destination.
From the end of Navy Pier to the top of Sears Tower, Chicago stretches itself in all directions to impress. There are over 40 museums, more than 150 theatres, the world’s largest public library and over 6,000 restaurants. Take a look. And take a raincoat.