It was the sort of trip, much like our honeymoon, where we made sure to plan every microsecond, leaving Orlando at 6:25 AM (which, of course, means that we had to leave our house to drive to the airport before 5:00 AM (which, of course, means that Heather had to wake up at 3 or 4:00 AM to do her “get ready” thing)) so that we could get to Chicago’s Midway Airport, hop on the el and rumble into the city (all of our bags taking up an extra seat on the super-tight car, earning us dirty looks from the veteran Chicagoans around us), climb off the el onto a three-story-tall wooden framework boarding/de-boarding gate which might or might not have been under construction, right there in the middle of “The Loop,” the busy financial district of downtown Chicago, where we tried like hell to keep track of our bags, lugging them through turnstiles, around corners, hanging onto them so that they wouldn’t fall onto the el tracks or onto the crowded streets three stories below. We lugged them down a long and twisting flight of stairs, my laptop case, her laptop case, my suitcase, hers, my garment bag, her carry-on, and her purse, all those seasoned city slickers passing around us as we struggled and sweat, shaking their heads at the two “country come to town” tourists who were now standing directly under the giant “Chicago Theatre” sign in the middle of one of the loudest, busiest, fastest paced, and powerful cities not only in the United States but the entire world, and we clutched our luggage as the businessman passed, as the homeless people even looked at us like we were clueless. And where to go from there?
Already we were exhausted, overwhelmed. Already I was in the Central Time Zone, unsure when to begin the Diet Coke binge I had planned for so long, so that I could become reacquainted with an old friend.
We waited under the Chicago Theatre sign for my cousin Diana, who works downtown, and we shared a cab ride across the
“Can I?” I asked Heather while we checked our bags with the hotel.
“A Diet Coke? Please, Nathan. It’s too early.”
It was still 9:00 AM, I think. Maybe 10.
“It’ll be there when we get back.”
"Am I sure, what?"
"You're sure it's going to be there?"
"We're in a hurry, Nathan."
Okay, so yes, we were. We’d arrived early because we had tickets to the Cubs game with Diana, so I gave up…Wrigley was more important than a Diet Coke, and I’d have one at the game, right? And so it was go, go, go, down Michigan Avenue to catch the bus to take us to the North Side to Wrigley, but first a quick stop in Walgreen’s so I could get some cash back for the bus ride because apparently in big cities, cash is still important for such things, but I had to buy something with my debit card for the cash back, so (bingo! I win!) a bottled Diet Coke (boo! Not a first choice, but I had to take what I could get), then onto the bus, where I tried to hand the driver my money and he sighed and told me to insert it into a machine at the front, and I scratched my head and apologized and complied. And then to an underground subway, and then to
“Not enough time,” Heather said, noticing the gleam in my eye. “We need to get lunch.”
And so we followed Diana to
And if I’d hoped to fall back into some sort of schedule while in
And then it was Saturday, and Heather needed to shop the Mile, and yeah, I finally got myself a 44-ouncer from the 7-Eleven across the street from our hotel--
--but Super Big Gulps are always a bad idea when you’re shopping because you always have to place them somewhere inappropriate as you pick things up, and then you have to use the bathroom while you’re in someplace classy, like Tiffany’s or the Coach store, and you look like a giant goober because you’re the guy with a 7-Eleven cup asking the meticulously dressed Louis Vuitton salesperson where the pisser is at, and he gives you a look like, “We’re Louis Vuitton. We don’t have ‘pissers.’ In fact, we are all mannequins, and thus, do not ever need to use the bathroom at all.”
Then lunch at Potbelly’s, and cans of soda once again! Cans! Then on to “Wicked” at the Ford Theater for some Broadway in
“You can’t drink this in the seats,” he said.
“You have to drink it out here. In the hallway.”
“However. You can certainly purchase a souvenir cup with lid, and then we allow you to take your drink back to your seat.”
(And this is the story of how I spent five dollars on a 20-ounce Diet Coke, and why I now have a “Wicked” souvenir cup in my pantry back home.)
Then check-out at the hotel, cab ride across town to the intersection of Wrigleyville and Boy’s Town, where we stayed with our old friend (and groomsmen in our wedding) Ira, then dinner at a noisy, noisy North Side Italian joint, margaritas in some sort of Mexican basement that only accepted cash, then a 5K in the wee hours of the next morning, starting near Buckingham Fountain in Grant Park, through the Museum Campus, around Soldier Field, and back down Lake Shore Drive to get our less-than-impressive times and places. Then purple Gatorade, but no Diet Coke, and a long walk across Chicago to grab a cab to take us all the way back to Ira’s place, where we showered, dressed, and walked through a sputtering rainstorm and a Gay Pride Parade (which could receive an entirely different blog to itself), where Heather and I clearly stood out as the only straight people in streets filled with every imaginable manifestation of gay pride one can conjure.
Then…finally…finally…a cab ride to Avis Rental cars back in the Loop, where I controlled a mid-size vehicle, and could stop any damn place I liked, any place I knew there to be Diet Coke.
Relegated only to walking and to cab rides and to public transportation, Diet Coke addiction is an enterprise of limited resources, limited availability. When you’ve got a car, you’ve got control. This is why vacations are always so nerve-wracking for me. If, by chance, you visit a city that is populated plentifully with 7-Elevens and other acceptable convenience stores (as Chicago certainly is…hell, 7-Eleven is a major sponsor of the hated White Sox), you are still constrained by where you can walk, and (as I’ve discussed in my blog before, when we visited Memphis) whether or not you can convince others to go with you where you need to go. With a rental car, you have control. With my rental car, there in
For four days, as we drove out to Lisle in the suburbs, I could stop anywhere I chose! Suddenly, my addiction seemed back on track, my schedule seemed to right itself, life seemed to be reassuming normalcy. We still ate horribly: bratwursts on the grill at my uncle’s house, deep-dish pizza at Lou Malnatti’s and solid scoops of cookie dough in
But only for those few short days.
Then it was back to downtown
There were attempts to resume a healthy lifestyle. A job along the lake that lasted for a few minutes. A lot of walking, walking, walking. But too much of it included beer. I even drank at the aquarium.
Then: with Kanye West playing over loudspeakers throughout Grant Park, fireworks over Lake Michigan, a bottle of wine (for which I had to borrow a corkscrew)--
--and—through the windows of our bar at our hotel—a shooting, a mob of police officers tackling young men, and the straight line approach of the SWAT team. Yes! Vintage Chicago! That's the kind of stuff you don't get to see on the tours!
And finally, in order to get more cash for cab rides and el fare and a thousand other big-city incidentals that keep presenting themselves, I found another 7-Eleven, four blocks from our hotel, purchased a Super Big Gulp for probably 50 cents more than it would cost back in Florida, got some cash back, and packed my bags and prepared to lug all of that luggage back up those rickety wooden stairs, through the turnstiles, onto the el, through over a mile of Midway concourses…back into my friend Jay’s trunk at Orlando International…back home to my new place…where hopefully I could resume a normal, healthy schedule once again.
The thing is, though, when you’ve started to experience a bit of chaos in your life, it never leaves of its own accord. My ten-day trip to Chicago had certainly been a new and interesting jolt to my system, a remarkable time, but the food was all still bubbling and turning around in my stomach, and the next weeks would come to feel not only like an extended hang-over, but would also present a new whirlwind of activity—some exciting, some depressing—that would continue to alter my life, and my Diet Coke addiction, irrevocably.