Crash Course

What if I told you that my entire dispatch happened during a car ride? That’s right a card ride, with only one stop.

Okay, so it’s Monday November the 21st, at around twelve o’clock and I am waiting in the freezing cold. Then a large navy blue SUV pulls up at the corner. It contains my GTA, Jeffry, and his wife, Lillian. I open the door, get in, do the whole “Hi” spiel, and Jeffry starts to drive. The moment he pressed the gas petal, this ordinary SUV turned into the information/history mobile, with two kinda historians in the front seat. As we drive down LaSalle Street, Jeffry’s wife begins to ask me about myself: Where am I from, What’s my major, Why did I choose Columbia? As I answer, I am just staring out the window, in awe of Jeffry and his wife’s willingness to take me on this expedition – mission get Anna in touch with Chicago, make her more familiar with the city, and stave off that fear of getting lost that comes with being directionally challenged in a new place. I had great anticipation about what we were going to see and do. I felt like one of those kids in a movie who is moving with their family, and they have their head out the window just absorbing the new environment that they’re going to be a part of.

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Then Jeffery says that the first thing we are going to see is The Rookery. As we drive, he and his wife begin to tell me that The Rookery is not only the first Sky Scraper in Chicago but in the world,  and that it was built by William Le Baron Jenney in 1885. Then I turn and there it is, and, while it’s high, its height isn’t that impressive because of the other taller buildings that now surround it. But, it is gorgeous. You could clearly tell that a lot of work went into this building. It is composed of red brick with mind blowing carvings and sculptures all over it, the arches, the entrance, the windows. And, I couldn’t help but think, where has all this detail and love gone? Now all we see are mostly tall buildings surrounded in glass.

After coming out of my awed state, we headed toward the theater district, where I saw all the theaters that were currently showing the most popular plays. It was a field of commercial lights and play posters. After exiting the field, we headed toward the West Loop. As we drove down Wacker Drive, we passed the Merchandise Mart. All I could think was “Wow that building is massive.” Jeffry and his wife then proceeded to tell me that the Merchandise Mart was indeed the largest building in the world at the time it was built in 1930. It was owned by Marshall Fields; he later sold it to the Kennedy family. The building is so large that it actually has its own ZIP CODE.

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Headed toward the West Loop, I just stared out the car window looking and thinking there were just buildings, and people, and cars for miles. I started to see how large just this one section of the city was, and how small I was in comparison. Driving around in a car is different than getting off at specific “L” station, walking around, and getting back on the “L” at the same station (things seem smaller and disconnected that way).

By now this cool dynamic has formed in the car, it’s like there’s this switch. As we drive from sight to sight, the three of us joke and talk and trade stories; but when the next sight comes up, the switch is flicked, the conversation stops, the history lesson begins. Once we pass the sight, the switch is flicked back, and the conversation starts again. So, the switch flicks on and off, on and off.

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Now, we are in the West Loop on Randolph Street. Jeffry has told me to take out the neighborhood map that he asked me to print and bring so he can show me where we are. He wants me to get my bearings, so the city won’t seem so confusing. As we drive down Randolph Street, Lillian is pointing out all these neat buildings and giving me fun facts about them. She points out the Delaware Building. It’s one of the buildings that went up after the great fire. As we slowly drive toward Wicker Park, I learn that, Oprah’s old “headquarters” building is being torn down, and the McDonald’s headquarters is replacing it. Both Jeffry, his wife, and I agree that this is stupid because right now McDonald’s is located in the suburbs and that is much less expensive.

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As, we drive around Wicker Park, I ask what Wicker Park was like before it was this hip and happening place. Lillian tells me that mostly mansions were located here. She then tells me a story about when she was in one of the mansions for her job. Then we pass a vacant lot, and Jeffry tells me the building on it caught on fire right after it was sold. Tell me that isn’t a sign of foul play? Then we all decide we’re hungry. So, we stop at Big Star, and get one of the best taco’s I’ve ever had. After, finishing lunch and telling each other horrible teacher stories, Jeffry and his wife have me explore on my own. I look at the expensive shops, none of which I can afford, and dream of being able to afford them and envy the people that can. Then I take out my phone and start taking pictures because there are some great shots. Like in the middle of a busy street corner, there is an old fashion red telephone box. After wondering for about an hour, I meet back up with my two tour guides and we’re off again. This time we’re headed towards Logan Square.

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As we drove down Milwaukee Avenue and into the boulevard area, I saw all these pretty lush parks, with the trees losing their leaves in preparation for the winter ahead. Jeffry and Lillian told me how people picnic outside in these spaces during the spring and summer, and about the farmer’s markets that take place on them. As they talked, I was thinking about how I had been there not too long ago with my roommate trying to find an animal shelter, but then I was lost and a bit bewildered. Now, I was clear about where I was, and where it fit in Chicago’s topography.

Next Jeffry drove into the Southport Corridor, and my guides told me about a few good restaurants in this small hip area that I might want to try if I were to go on a date. We then jumped over to Wrigleyville, where I thought I had never been to until I got there. As it turned out, I’d had a pretty bad experience in Wrigleyville, trying to get to a restaurant, getting hopelessly lost at night for about an hour and a half, and needing someone to come and get me.  We laughed as we drove through the neighborhood because it was row after row of nothing but bars, bars, and more bars. I could just see Cubs fans coming from Wrigley Field after a game and getting drinks to celebrate winning or drown their sorrows after losing.

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Then we were in Lake View. Lake View made me a little home sick. It reminded me of DC. First, there were the areas still in change mode where there were regular apartments with new nicer ones sandwiched in-between. Then came the sprinkle of up and coming businesses. Small but really good shops and restaurants like my family and I hang out in on weekends in D.C. Then we went to Lincoln Park. I think it shocked Jeffry and his wife a little that I said I had never been there given that it is such a well-known, go to place. This is where we passed the Steppenwolf Theater. Jeffry asked me if I wanted to go inside. I said no because my friend and I are trying to get out and see a show once a month. So, I would hopefully be there soon enough, and my friend and I could take it in for the first time together.

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Up until this point, to be totally honest, all of the neighborhoods were blurring together a little bit because many of them had a similar look and vibe. But, I remember hitting Old Town and ending up on Wells Street quite well. The first thing I remember is Jeffry asking me whether I had been to Second City. When I said no, I got a very energized, “You must go there!” We didn’t see the actual Second City building, but we talked about how hard it is to get into a conservatory like Second City’s.  And, as we passed this little comedy theater, Zannie’s,  Jeffry’s wife told be how she constantly gets discounts for it because she left her business card there. I laughed; and Jeffry announced that we were going to start heading back, and go through Gold Coast on the way and then to the Magnificent Mile.

I didn’t know what the Magnificent Mile was, and, again, I didn’t think I had been until I got there. I stayed there with my mom when she came to visit me on parent’s weekend. It brought back some fun and happy memories, us walking through the city starving trying to figure out where to eat, laughing, talking, and going across the bridge to her hotel in the freezing cold. I tried to take a picture of the bridge, but a massive white SUV got in the way. Lillian then began to tell me why they had restaurants right on the docks. She said that it was just like a truck stop back in the day, except for sailors and boat captains. They would dock their boats and go inside the restaurants on the dock to relax, eat, talk, and just have a break.

When we got across the bridge, we were on the rich side of Chicago, with nothing but expensive, expensive, expensive for as far as the eye could see. The whole car got a laugh when Jeffry’s wife told a story about how snotty the people can be here. A man who owns a coffee shop , down a bit from where the car was, decided to open up a tiny gelato shack on the street. The snotty rich people in the area started a petition to change this guy’s gelato because it wasn’t amazing enough. They said they should get to decide what new gelato they would sell there (they wanted one that met their standards). We all laughed, and Jeffry’s wife and I laughed even more when we passed an H&M amongst all the expensive Gucci, Vera Wang, Rolex, and other designer stores. Maybe the people that shop at H&M would have liked the low-end gelato place.

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Then we were done. Jeffry and his wife dropped me off at the theater building at 3:30, so I could make my rehearsal. After one last story exchange, and saying goodbye and thank you, I exited the car with my stuff and they drove off.

At first, I had sort of dreaded this trip, afraid it was going to be awkward and odd. But, it was so much fun! I had great conversations with my two historians, and learned so much, not just from seeing the sights but just talking. It’s amazing how much we fit in one car ride. I got a crash course in Chicago, realized that there is definitely more to Chicago then the loop, and that I live in a place much bigger than I originally thought. The main goal was to make me more comfortable and familiar with the city, and chip away at my fear of getting lost. I’d say, thanks to an afternoon in a car with my very warm and generous GTA and his wife, I’m more comfortable and familiar with Chicago. Now, whether I’m still going to get lost is another story. I mean, I’m better schooled and less intimidated now, but, I am still me. (Anna Paliga/CoS Student)

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