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A first take on the Second City

Published on September 25, 2018 10:22AM

The view from Chicago's river architecture tour

The view from Chicago's river architecture tour

An unexpected guest at the hotel

An unexpected guest at the hotel


I have mixed feelings about traveling back east to my old hometown. I love seeing my family, of course, but it’s hard to escape that sense of been there, done that.

So this year we decided to make a stop someplace new on the way home and, given we almost always fly in and out of O’Hare, Chicago was the easy pick.

First Pennsylvania. Like traveling there, I have mixed feelings about the state itself. In certain places, it can feel like stepping back in time. Just by virtue of living in Oregon, I am generally regarded as ‘that liberal from out west.’ And it seems people there are, well, different from people out here. Let’s just say, life moves at a faster, more impatient clip, as evidenced by the jackass who laid on his horn for a half a mile over our apparent inability to merge to his liking.

There are plenty of things Pennsylvania gets right. The old stone buildings dating back hundreds of years are stories in their own right, with legit claims of having hosted notables like George Washington, and I can still slip into some of the same restaurants my parents took me to as a child. The winding, country roads often feel a bit perilous, but I never tire of the rolling green countryside they travel through. Likewise, the quiet summer evenings punctuated by the chirp of crickets and lit by the flash of lightning bugs — lightning bugs! Still, as much as things stay the same, they change, too. I miss the old open-air shopping plaza, the orange and teal Howard Johnsons on the PA Turnpike and the Dixie Drive-in, where we parked under covered stalls, ordering from the little intercom mounted on a pole.

Ms. Been There-Done That also discovered a few new things about her old home state. Like the hotel restaurant housed in an old brick building that’s been around since 1800, and the tavern that’s been in the same location since 1804 and served some of the best chowder I’ve had anywhere. (Sorry, coast chefs). As I’ve noted before, I resist going home in the hot, humid summer months, but the pools close after Labor Day and if I want kid-time in the chlorine, it’s gotta be before that. These days the pool for my niece’s family means the country club. I’ve had only a handful of country club experiences, the first coming when I was 11 and my friend’s grandmother corralled me in a corner and informed me I would not be returning as it was for members — like the sons and daughters of doctors and lawyers in attendance — only. This time, as a more welcome guest, a friend dropped me off at the club gates where my niece met and escorted me inside. An afternoon at the country club pool isn’t a lot different from an afternoon at any other pool — except they have wait staff, most of whom look like they are soon bound for some ivy-covered institution of higher learning. The other difference about the country club pool is they serve alcohol. This season’s cocktail of choice was the rosé slushy, which came with the option of a shot of vodka. I passed on the vodka, though it probably would have been a great improvement over what I later determined was largely a glass of frozen sugar.

And then it was on to Chicago. After two delays, two and a half hours on the plane and an hour-long shuttle ride, we arrived at our fancy pants hotel on the Magnificent Mile to find the entrance smack in the middle of a public works construction project, necessitating the out-maneuvering of several pieces of heavy equipment. But it was a beautiful old hotel with fabulous views of Lake Michigan — views we soon discovered we shared with a number of dangling fat brown spiders. A note warned not to open the windows lest the spiders join us inside. Some things you don’t need to tell me twice.

We had a only a day and a half in Chicago, not enough time to do nearly as much as we’d have liked, but I was definitely taken by the Windy City. Loved the architectural boat tour and watching the clouds float reflected in “The Bean.” But the prices, not so much — four cocktails (house alcohol) and a four-slice pizza: $88 (without the tip).

Which means that maybe Chicago isn’t so different from Pennsylvania after all — seems I have mixed feelings about it, too.

Lori Tobias is the author of the novel “Wander” and a journalist of many years. Follow her at loritobias.com.



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