The California Zephyr slowed to a stop at Union Station in the middle of downtown Chicago or should I say underneath the middle of downtown Chicago. We walked down to the lower level of the train car and exited out the doors onto a long concrete platform that stretched out of sight and only about ten feet wide and bellied up to another train. As seems to be the case in most mass transit systems, we really didn't know which way to go so we just followed everyone else like lemmings.
Once inside the station doors, it for all practical purposes looked like your average airport terminal. There were plenty of signage pointing the way to taxis, ground level, baggage claim (who checks luggage on a train?) and various other options but we only saw one sign for lockers, which is what we were after. It was only 5:30 and we knew we had a 45-minute train ride yet to the motel so we figured we could knock off a few hours downtown before heading out that way. Despite carrying only a small shoulder bag each with a couple changes of clothes, books, maps, etc., I certainly didn't want to tote it all over. We saw the one sign for lockers but after walking in that direction for a way, we never saw anymore signs nor signs of lockers. Finally after ten minutes of fruitless searching, I asked someone and learned that the lockers were located in the baggage claim area. Ten minutes later we had our bags safely stowed in the lockers sans a map of the downtown and were on our way up to street level.
Typical of big cities, there is concrete everywhere and people walking to where ever they are going and for the most part, oblivious to us. So we headed east across the canal and towards the Sears Tower, the third tallest building in the world in terms of highest occupied floor and the tallest in the world if you count the spires. We entered the building to a beautiful lobby by with absolutely no signs pointing the way. I had figured there would be tons of signs but there wasn't a single one. That is when a man dressed as a bell cap asked us if he could help us and directed us to another entrance on the south side of the building.
Once in that entrance and directed to an elevator that took us one floor DOWN, it was readily apparent how big a tourist scam this was. There were signs and roped lanes leading to ticket booths where you had to pay somewhere around $12 a pop to go any further. I coughed up the money and we continued through the rope maze that led us through metal detectors, picture taking (for pictures that would be ready when we got back down), through some models and signs denoting the history of the building, a short movie and finally to an elevator that shot us straight up 103 floors while forcing us to listen to some garishly loud animated cartoon on the television overhead. Finally we were released onto the floor and without ropes restricting our movements. Of course there computers, big displays and a souvenir stand where you could buy a roll of film for $20 scattered liberally around.
I had been here over 20 years ago and remember nothing about any of this. In fact, I'm fairly certain that none of this even existed back them even though it was then the second tallest building in the world. Despite my disenchantment with the whole affair, the views were of course spectacular and we did a circle around the window pointing out places where we were planning on going and guessing what others were. Night fell and we decided that we should find a place to eat. The ride back down still had the garish cartoon playing and there were still ropes guiding us past where we could buy the pictures taken earlier and of course right through the center of a huge gift shop.
Before the trip, I had used Google Earth to find an authentic Chicago deep-dish pizza place called Giordano's just a couple blocks from where we now were so we headed off in that direction. Google doesn't lie (very often) and we found the place with no problem and an hour later walked out with some leftover pizza in a cardboard box in a plastic bag destined for our breakfast tomorrow since we both needed an early start. It was no around 8:30 in the evening as we headed towards our final destination, back across the canal to the Clinton Street CTA Blueline subway entrance.
I've been to Chicago perhaps a half dozen times so far and was used to the fact that bums come out at night to hassle you for money. They are never aggressive and when you ignore them, the stop asking almost immediately. So I was surprised when the first bum pushing a bicycle we met let than a couple blocks from Giordano's asked me for my pizza instead of money. He didn't say a word until after we had passed him and then started saying, "sir, sir, sir, sir, sir, sir, sir, sir" over and over as he followed us for over half a block. When I still ignored him he then asked for my pizza a few times and then started repeating sir another dozen times. After a block and a half of this, he went silent and I thought he had stopped following us but suddenly he appeared right up beside me startling me and causing me to jump just a little. Then he blew up.
He went on this litany asking why black men don't have the freedom to walk down the street with out white people jumping nervously. All he wanted was a slice of my pizza. I told him that he certainly wasn't going to get any of my pizza after accosting my like that and he stopped dead in his tracks. By this time we were back at Union Station and after we got half a block from where the bum was still standing, I heard him shout towards me, "sir, sir, sir, sir, sir can I have a slice of your pizza"?
We recovered our bags from the locker and started heading south the few blocks to the subway entrance when we encountered two more bums, one who again asked for the pizza and one who asked for spare change and then the pizza but neither were as aggressive as the first bum. After getting back home later in the week, I asked a few friends who had been to Chicago recently if they had carried leftovers at night and if they had gotten hassled for them. Whenever I asked that last part of the question, there eyes would light up and answer in the affirmative usually with a similar story. So the moral all of this is to pack your leftovers in a backpack or other bag where the label can't be seen and you will get hassled far less.
After a little hassle and a blog story for another day, I had purchased some 3-day vacation passes for the mass transit system that included all trains, ells and buses for only $12 each. Having paid $25 a day just to park my car in the past not including steep taxi fees, it was a steal but I couldn't rest easy until we had successfully used them for the first time. It took us a few attempts to find the correct orientation of the card to pay for our fare in the stalls but it was late and there weren't crowds of people pressing behind us. We caught the train seconds after reaching the platform and were whisked away to our hotel out near O'Hare, 15 miles away. The rest of the story shall wait for another day.