Saturday morning was very relaxing. After waking up without an alarm (still early, but, out of pure excitement instead of necessity) Sam and I both took our time getting ready for the day. My buddy Scott (our host) lives in the suburb of Oak Park; his neighborhood is full of old trees and well-kept homes. The windows were open to the cool air as I wandered his flat, listening to a combination of birds chirping outside and the sounds of CHIRP radio from the kitchen. Much of the morning was spent at Scott’s table, discussing all manner of topics over tea. It was a lovely, slow start. By the time we waved goodbye and put the car in drive towards the heart of the city, it was just after 10:00 AM.
Our first stop was actually a bit north of downtown Chicago. Several friends had recommended a coffee shop there called The Wormhole, stating that it appealed to my particular flavor of geekdom. When I entered, I understood why. The walls were adorned with 1980s posters, lunch boxes, and various other artifacts from my childhood. In the back of the shop, on a raised platform (above the active NES), was an honest-to-goodness Back to the Future style DeLorean! I was in awe. When I reached the counter to order my coffee, I was amazed to discover the barista had grown up in Tulsa. We talked about the local coffee scene back home (he knew that Hoot Owl had opened recently) and we both smiled in mutual nostalgia as I complimented the shop. I ordered a coffee, Sam had a hot chocolate, and we both enjoyed a pastry while engulfed in a delightful ambiance. Highly recommended!
Somehow, I had completely underestimated Chicago traffic the previous night. When I had difficulty finding the entrance to the Planetarium, I became uncharacteristically stressed and aggravated. As I wrote before, Samantha was instrumental in calming me down and guiding us to our destination. I didn’t want to go through the same thing again, so I’d booked a spot at a parking garage downtown in advance. It was delightfully simple: I reserved a time using an app on my phone and checked in by scanning a bar code on my screen. No wandering, no worrying. Coincidentally, we walked out of our parking garage right on Adams Street, which is also were Route 66 begins.
There’s a sign on the east end of the street, right by the Art Institute of Chicago, marking the start of Route 66. I smiled with childlike joy as Samantha took my photo at this iconic spot. At the same time, an old homeless man came up to us, introduced himself as Billy, and started questioning me about the history of the road. I’d heard about him before from my roadie friends, and smiled as he told me about the ‘secret’ Route 66 shield in the office window on the north side of the street as well as the reason why it’s called the Mother Road. He asked me if I knew when the Route started and was astonished that I was able to rattle off the exact date in 1926. We had a lovely conversation, at the end of which I had no qualms about giving him a few dollars. It’s all part of the experience.
We didn’t have enough time to peruse any of Chicago’s wonderful museums, but we did decide to explore Millennium Park and walk down Michigan Avenue for a bit. I loved hearing Samantha’s perspective on the city, considering she grew up about an hour from the Big Apple. I learned one of the major differences between their respective sidewalk crowds are that New Yorkers tend to walk in defined paths (left vs right) whereas folks in Chicago were all over the board; people bumped into you often and there wasn’t any organization to the flow of pedestrian traffic. As soon as she called it out, I noticed it. She loved the reflection of The Bean and admired the eclectic variety of the downtown architecture.
We crossed the Chicago River and spent a decent amount of time appreciating the Tribune Tower. It was high on Sam’s “To See” list due to its unique construction that incorporated pieces of famous architecture from around the world. I grinned from ear to ear as she told me about the research she’d done into the 1920s contest to design “the most beautiful and distinctive office building in the world”. Although I’d seen the building before, I hadn’t appreciated it nearly as much as I did with her.
By the time we’d walked down to the historic Water Tower on Chicago Avenue, our stomachs were rumbling. This is where my breakdown began. Samantha had been talking about eating authentic Chicago-style pizza in town; being a New Yorker, she feels that pizza should be folded, not deep as a casserole. However, she wanted to give it another try in the place where it was born. We walked into Gino’s East and waited for a table. I was fidgety; I wasn’t sure if Sam would like it. When she asked me if it would be possible to get just a slice instead of a whole pizza, my brain went into overdrive. “She’s not going to enjoy this, it needs to be perfect!” I told myself. Besides, walking around downtown with a box of pizza sounded like a terrible idea. I decided we’d be better off if we changed course and headed elsewhere for lunch. So we walked south, towards a place Sam had discovered in her research last week called “Eataly.”
Eataly is a two-story collection of Italian restaurants and a robust marketplace. I knew we’d be able to find something we’d both be satisfied with there. As we walked the half-mile from Gino’s, Sam was quiet. Had I made the wrong decision in changing lunch destinations so suddenly? I asked her what sounded best, and she deferred to me. I could feel my brain continuing to short circuit with anxiety. When we finally walked through the door, I breathed a sigh of relief. There were over a dozen different restaurants, all specializing in different types of Italian cuisine. Sure, I don’t really like tomatoes or tomato sauce, but I’ve grown very fond of Alfredo pasta. We looked over various menus and I wasn’t seeing much that I recognized; the layout of the place was confusing and every dish was a lot more complicated than I was used to. I walked up to a friendly looking gentleman at one of the restaurants. “Do you know which places here serve fettuccine alfredo? I haven’t found it on any menus.” I asked. His smile faded with an almost comic quickness. “We don’t have alfredo.” he said matter-of-factly. After a slight pause, he added, “There isn’t any alfredo sauce in this entire building.” My inquisitive smile faded, too. Not only did I feel like this guy was talking down to me, but my decision to abandon Gino’s had backfired in a spectacular way.
We wandered a little more before stopping at one of the standing tables. Sam asked me what was wrong as I stared off into space for a few minutes, trying to gather my thoughts. I’m a picky eater, but I can always find something. There were PLENTY of things I would eat in the vast Eatalian network, but I hit a huge mental block and couldn’t make any decisions. I was frustrated with myself and absolutely sure that my behavior was ruining our entire trip. I finally selected a simple sandwich and ate it in silence, trying to calm by screaming brain. Samantha ordered a lasagna that was decent, but seemed to be made with a bare minimum of tomato sauce (her primary ingredient in ANY Italian dish). We both left Eataly unsatisfied and tense.
On the walk back, we talked. Samantha had wanted me to find something I really wanted, not just something I settled for. I felt the same way. Therefore, the last hour and a half of back and forth meal decisions was born out of each of us putting the other first instead of ourselves. I was so obsessed with making sure we had the best experience with our limited Chicago time that I worked myself into a frenzy, rendering myself unable to communicate effectively. At the end of the day, as long as we’re together, that’s all that matters. Once again, Sam talked me down from a crazy mental cliff that I’d climbed up onto. I’m so very thankful for her.
The rest of the day went much smoother. I’d keep going, but this post has already turned into a novel. We’ll finish the REST of Saturday, which takes us outside of Chicago and into central Illinois, in my next update.