Commonly known as "The Bean", the Cloud Gate sculpture is a popular draw in downtown Chicago's Millenium Park.

Commonly known as “The Bean”, the Cloud Gate sculpture is a popular draw in downtown Chicago’s Millenium Park.

What a great place! Not long ago my husband and I were in the Windy City (more about that later).

It was early October, unusually warm; in fact, temperatures were in the high 70s with a smattering of rain. After disembarking at O’Hare Airport, we pulled our suitcases through a corridor, shedding the layers of clothes we had put on that morning in our hometown of San Diego.

Return to the heartland

This was the trip I had been thinking about for years. I was born in Chicago in 1950, and had not been back since I was 16 years old. On that trip, my grandmother met us at the airport in a mink stole and pumps. She said we were taking the El downtown to see a movie. These many years later I can still picture the ornate movie house with dimly lit sconces on the walls and a stage with dark curtains. Behind those curtains was a big screen. We settled back into our plush seats, feeling sleepy from the flight, and were enchanted to watch Julie Andrews, in a white apron, stretch out her arms and gloriously sing, “The hills are alive…”

The Sound of Music in that theater was to be a marker on my list of why I wanted to return. So, in 2018, I searched Chicago avenues for that movie theater, with no luck. Movies in downtown Chicago are now multiplexes wedged between CVS drug stores and 7-11s.

I also hoped to find the apartment house on West Berwyn where as a newborn I and my parents lived with my Norwegian-born grandmother until Dad packed us into the Studebaker to go west in hope of finding a post-war job. Eventually, he found work and we lived in a rented house in Sun Valley, a suburb of Los Angeles. There were freeways and orange trees, the ocean, sunshine, and occasional windy days. Mother said that she was “never going to stand at a cold, windy bus stop again.” More mystery to my young ears heightened the allure.

We did go back to Chicago a few times. One trip on the Santa Fe Line included a stop in Albuquerque with Indians (we now know to say Native Americans) on the platform selling toy hatchets and feathered headdresses.

Continuing eastbound across flat territory, Dad nudged us and said, “Girls look out the window! Here, we’re crossing the Mississippi River!” His excitement let us know that this was a special moment in our traveling lives. This time it was my Uncle Ed who met us and we got into his big car for the short drive to Arlington Heights, a sprawling suburb of Chicago, where he and Aunt Fay, Karen, Eddie Jr. and Curt lived in a large, white ranch house. Uncle Ed was a master carpenter who had built much of Chicago’s fancy pants Hugh Hefner’s famed mansion. I think I heard Dad asking something about the Playboy bunnies. I was very impressed with the expanse of lawn in the front yard, and even more so with the backyard, which like so many in Arlington Heights, had no fence or wall around it. When you barbequed or played croquet your neighbors could see you and also the clothesline flapping with stiff white sheets.

South Side exploring

As an adult I hadn’t kept in contact with my Chicago cousins, but Eddie had found me the Facebook way, so I asked him what the street number was of that red-brown apartment building where my earliest years were spent, on West Berwyn in the Scandinavian section of Chicago.

He turned to Karen, a few years older, and she sent back two possible addresses for the three-story apartments on that block. Tim, my husband, is a whiz with bus and subway schedules, so after a train and two buses, we landed on the sidewalk a short distance from West Berwyn. It’s a wide and weary tree-lined street, and the apartments looked a lot like the ones I’d seen in my mom’s old photo album. Except that those black-and-white pictures, their dog-eared corners coming loose from the tiny black triangles meant to keep them on the pages, made the street look cosmopolitan and elegant. West Berwyn in 2018 was not the tony scene I had imagined, and yet it seemed perfect for a young war-weary couple with a new baby to settle in with doting grandparents and plenty of pin-curled housewives on all sides.

We were about to leave when a man in a muscle shirt stepped out of one of the likely suspect apartment front doors. I related my story to him, unrealistically hoping that he might remember Melvin and Martina Wall and little Susan, but of course he had lived in the building only 13 years now. Came from Manila, like most of the families in his apartment complex. I thanked him and we “Have a good day-ed”-each other.

The morning was warming as transited to our next stop. It was still early and we were hungry, ready for breakfast at Valois Cafeteria, also on the South Side, not far from Hyde Park. Trip Advisor lists it under things to do, although I doubt many tourists take the trouble to go there. Valois Cafeteria has been in the neighborhood for generations, but currently is famous because Barack Obama would grab breakfast or lunch there before heading off to his classes at the University of Chicago’s Law School. Just another block over lived a pretty friend named Michele who lived with her parents, and whose house is today guarded heavily from the public.

The cashier, a petite, older woman wearing a hair net, confirmed that student Obama was “real cute.” His picture smiles down from the dingy walls of the restaurant, and when I ordered my food, I almost felt that he was telling me to get the 2-egg special with coffee. My husband ordered steak, potatoes, eggs, and a cup of hot chocolate. All of this set us back no more than twenty dollars, and although we would have been within our budget to take home a triangle of cherry or cheese cake, we resisted.

Valois is truly a blast from the past, with its low prices, greasy grill and friendly grill cooks, glass pie safe, and unremarkable, almost square floor plan. Outside, I laughed again at the sign that read: “Valois Cafeteria: See your Food.”

My husband and I couldn’t wait to see the legendary sights in Chicago, at first wondering if five days would allow us to see everything. As it was, we experienced everything on our list and more.

Downtown: River North & West Loop

Outside the airport, we boarded a city bus which got us within a few blocks of the very cool Acme Hotel, a boutique accommodation a short walk from Lou Malnati’s Pizza.

An early riser, one morning I went down to the café in the lobby to drink my morning joe and socialize a bit. The barista had obviously made friends with the regular patron, but she was interested in hearing my back-to-my roots story. I learned that she was a young mother who wanted to go back to school and study writing. “That’s something I have thought about doing myself,” Jasmine said, when I told her I was working on a children’s book. I have a feeling that she‘ll go on to do just that.

Our first night we asked for a Thai restaurant recommendation near the hotel. There were varying opinions, just as we found when inquiring about the best pizza in Chicago. We followed that with a late night view at Ballast Point Brewery, a sudsy offspring of Ballast Point founded in San Diego.

We were already feeling at home in Chicago and happily anticipated more exploring the next day.

Architecture and happy hour

The following morning it had turned chilly, and we boarded our bus (be sure to reserve a place on the tour far ahead, as it attracts residents of the city as well as tourists) to Oak Park, a suburb an hour from downtown, to visit Frank Lloyd Wright’s studio and house and eight other homes designed by the architect on a quiet, sycamore-lined cul de sac.

On the Frank Lloyd Wright tour of Oak Park.

Our very classy tour guide, Anne, quizzed us on which of the houses were progeny of Frank (I like to think of him as a personal friend!), and which were not. Oak Park was every bit as thrilling to me as standing outside the fences surrounding John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s childhood homes in Liverpool, England.

Back in the city, the weather warmed in time for us to see some sun reflected on the magnificent skyscrapers along the Chicago River on the Chicago architecture tour (buy your tickets early!). Our articulate, funny tour guide pointed out the gleaming steel and glass buildings, told us which architect was the mastermind behind them, and described tenants who inhabited the structures. Chicago is home to the first American skyscraper – not New York City, as commonly thought – and up until 1998, the Sears (now Willis) Tower was the tallest building in the world.

Chicago architecture boat tour.

Quite satisfied with what we had seen and done on day 4, we still looked forward to happy hour that afternoon at Cindy’s Rooftop Bar. Cindy’s is an elegant restaurant and bar that offers an afternoon tea and drinks event garnished with a view of Lake Michigan.

It was standing room only, so we went outside toward the low wall and heat lamps, a gray Lake Michigan and its shoreline just a short distance ahead. The tallest amusement park rides on Navy Pier stuck out to our right, and a small red-and-white lighthouse stood neatly on an island in the lake to our left. I found some paper and a pen and wrote a short poem, “A Lighthouse on Lake Michigan,“ which pleased me and got compliments from Tim.

Last day

The next day was our last in Chicago, and needing to get back to O’Hare Airport by 3 p.m., we decided to revisit Lou’s for a late pizza lunch. First, though, we were fortunate to have snagged a noon appointment to record on Story Corps, which broadcasts from the third floor of the stately Chicago Cultural Exchange Center. If you have heard any of the Story Corps episodes, you know that they are short conversations with two people who know each other and have shared a common, often profound experience. Our story was smaller, if you will. We talked about our trip to Chicago, our marriage, children, dreams, feelings, and I read my poem over the air. We left knowing this would be one of the most memorable activities of the trip.

A brief visit to the Palace Hotel with its million dollar gold Tiffany-designed peacock doors and a peek into Russian Tea Time, and we were off to catch the El to the airport.

Chicago is a wonderful city to visit, and very accessible via Southwest Airlines. The city has an efficient public transportation system, good restaurants, interesting avenues, and friendly people.

Will I go back to Chicago? I turn 70 this year, and I doubt that I will return. It was great to revive my memories and to contemplate the importance of family and place, and to see and do so much in this beautiful city – but I have many places I still want to visit for the FIRST time. I can listen to Sinatra belt out, “Chicago, Chicago, that wonderful town”, and grab a slice of Pizzeria Uno pizza in San Diego, look at my old photos and recent pictures. I can reread this article and be happy that I visited Chicago in October of 2018.

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