that toddling town

Before this past weekend, Chicago was a place that only existed in my imagination. Not because I didn’t believe in its existence. No, it was because my father, who lived there during his young adulthood, would recount numerous stories of the city to me when I was little.

“It was so cold during the winter, and I had to walk to work knee-deep in snow every day!”

At 20, my father was working in a pizza place in the city in order to put himself through school at Devry University – you know, the technical institute for which you always saw commercials on television. There’s a photo of my dad wearing his graduation gown and holding his diploma with an ear-to-ear smile on his face. He had escaped Vietnam by boat as a war refugee in the late 1970’s and came to the States to seek a new life. That photograph was taken during a pivotal moment in his new life here. He had a degree under his belt, meaning he would be able to get a job and send money back home to his family. He would be able to provide. No wonder he was smiling.

Still, starting over was no easy task.

“I’d go to the store and buy some sliced bread, ham, and cheese. Then when I got home, I calculated exactly how many sandwiches I could make for the week using what I bought and lived off of that, one week at a time.”

When I was walking through the city, I tried to imagine what it would have been like to be in my dad’s shoes. Did he have time to peruse the Art Institute? What was his favorite deep-dish pizza place? Did he, like so many others, look deep into the Millennium Park bean just to find himself looking back?

Henri de Toulouse Lautrec's 'La revue blanche'

Lou Malnati's

One thing that stood out about Chi-town is that everyone who lives there takes pride in being a part of Chicago’s history. Everyone you run into has a story about the town and is proud to tell it. As a tourist, you don’t feel as if you stick out like a sore thumb. Rather, the locals make you feel welcome and give you free rein to explore.

I’ll always remember how one bus driver went above and beyond for Celeste and me. We had missed our bus stop, and instead of simply kicking us out of the bus and letting us fend for ourselves, the bus driver stopped and walked us over to the right bus. He had that driver drop us off a block away from where we needed to go. Incredible! Some Orange County natives will grumble at the thought of having to point you toward the Matterhorn at Disneyland, much less do something extraordinary for a complete stranger. If there’s one thing to learn from Chicago, it’s that one small kind gesture goes a long way.

Other than the locals’ natural goodwill, Chicago has tons to offer. Art it not only alive in the city. It is thriving! Concert halls, jazz clubs, museums, theaters — so many spaces for artists of all disciplines to showcase their work. Caught a show at The Second City, where the likes to Tina Fey and Steve Carrell came out of. The Hideout Block party was also going on that weekend. I sat down at a cafe in Wicker Park and found that someone had left the travel, book review, and lifestyle sections of the New York Times sitting on the counter, which I found to be indicative of the territory. Grabbed an edamame salad at Cipollina Cafe and a mate chai tea, browsed some books at Myopic Books, then some soy hazelnut ice cream at iCream, thanks to my lovely tour guide, freshman Chicago resident, and high school friend Simone.
I’ve only scratched the tip of the iceberg, so to speak, when it comes to exploring Chicago. Because of the pouring rain and my ever-so-permeable shoewear, I never made it to the Sears (now Willis) Tower. I didn’t catch a show at a jazz club like I intended, and I still have “Chicago vegetarian hotdog” on my to-do list.  My father’s stories brought me to this city, but my own experience of Chicago this past weekend will keep me coming back.

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