I spent two weeks in Chicago in January 2012 while loafing around the States. For me Chicago is a city I’d always wanted to visit. The vast industrial and slaughterhouse underbelly of the American Midwest, the tales of politics and prohibition-era hoodlums, home of the skyscraper.
I landed some work writing travel guides for Guidepal, a startup travel guide company that has seen many millions of it’s free smartphone app-based guides to 70+ cities downloaded in barely two years. For two weeks, I Couchsurfed my way around the city. From Greektown, to the Mexican heartland of Pilsen, to the golden onion domes of the Ukrainian Village, I found inspiration, dug out hot tips and found the low down from people I met in the bars and cafes, my wonderful Couchsurfing hosts, Time Out Chicago, Lucky Magazine and many other places. Braving the snow and -15 C temperatures, I spent an enjoyable fortnight (American readers: that means ‘two weeks’) heading out into the huge Chicago metro area, from the Lakeside, to the hipster paradises of Wicker Park, to the home of America’s favourite architect Frank Lloyd Wright in the suburbs, and even a couple of nights deep in Englewood, in tragically neglected, derelict south Chicago. My Airbnb hostess, Annie, swore vehemently that the police were wrong to say it was the ‘worst place in Chicago’.
“Can’t be anything worse than the third worst place in town,” she cackled, flashing her toothy grin.
At 8.5 million people, Chicago is a huge city best seen from the top of the John Hancock Center at dusk, where the lights of the city grid stretch off to the horizon in every direction. By foot or by bike or by the elevated L-train metro system, it’s a great city to explore, with over a hundred varied, characterful neighbourhoods. Chicagoans have a bluff, Midwest down-to-earthyness about them, a welcome relief from Los Angeles and New York City, where practically everyone you meet seems to think they’re the next big thing.
I loved it, and would move there tomorrow. If only winter wasn’t coming around again so soon…
Six Flags New Orleans, formerly Jazzland, is a theme park on the outskirts of New Orleans. Hit by Katrina in 2005 it was for a time submerged under several feet of water – the brown tide marks are still visible throughout the site. While the City and the park’s owners are tied up in legal wrangles over responsibility for the mess, Six Flags lies abandoned, its rollercoaster carcass steadily stripped for scrap and sinking slowly back into the bayou.
Night becomes day while I slip in and out of a truly uncomfortable sleep despite Greyhound’s claims of extra legroom and comfort, for which they congratulate themselves heartily whenever possible. Outside is a bland cityscape – a hinterland-scape – of turnpikes, roadside diners and McDonalds, nondescript housing and brown inbetween-land somewhere in New Jersey. But my heart skips a beat when I turn to see, stretched across a window of bright skyline carved out against the barely lit foreground, the crests of Manhattan’s spike-topped tower blocks and domes.
A sharp turn flings the bus into the Lincoln Tunnel, an entrance that shares the great square brownstones and muscular turn-of-the-century style as the city’s tenements, while inside its honeycomb white-tiled surface feels barely high enough to hold a modern supersized bus. The yellow sodium lights flicker flicker hypnotizing orange as we advance through the tunnel, and I awake with a start only minutes later at the base of a giant tower block at the Port Authority Bus station in the heart of Manhattan island and the middle of the madness of the city.
“Welcome to New York City”, says our driver Jarrold, a south Asian Montrealaise. “Sorry for the delays. Because of those officers at the border, we’ve been together almost 11 hours,” he chirps irrepressibly. “If they do that again, we will fire the lot of them.”
“Goodbye, have fun, enjoy Detroit”, says one of the group from Montreal who has come down for New Year’s Eve, as I have. She laughs at her own words, thinking on my travel plans to the motor city. “You know when you just can’t believe what came out of your mouth?”
One bag, two bags, three bags, coat. I struggle out of the surreal underground car park that is the bus terminal, built over several floors with road exits emerging at several different heights above ground level. I have no idea how that plugs into the rest of the city. New York City planners have clearly been hitting the meth pretty hard. I see a sign that says 8th Street and head towards it, only to be faced with turnstiles. An automatic gate opens from the other side and I walk through it. “Excuse me sir,” comes a firm voice, and I turn to see a sturdy female member of NYPD’s finest beckoning me. “You have to pay to come in here.” “Where’s here?” I ask, wide-eyed. Her eyes smile even if she doesn’t as she redirects me out of the subway and up to street level, another first timer inhaled into the city and sneezed out onto the streets.
The first thing I see at street level is the New York Post building, a modern skyscraper wrapped in fine steel gauze thrusting up with journalistic integrity from among lesser buildings. Modern towers and stone and brick buildings from two centuries ago jostle for space along the streets, where the height of adjacent buildings careens wildly up and down depending on, apparently, nothing.
I am heading to 6th and 31st Street. I am at 8th and 46th. I stride off. Wearing one bag and carrying two others I am a wide vehicle from whose bow-wave pedestrians have to move. In combat jacket and bags as far removed from Louis Vuitton as can be imagined, I feel like a human White Van – battered and in the way, but would you argue with it when moving aside is easier? I eye up street stands selling pastries and coffee, but the weight on my back demands to be dealt with first.
Cars are everywhere, but go nowhere. Having a horn is a sufficient reason to use it. At 8 degrees it is a full 15 or even 20 degrees warmer than the snowy Montreal I left behind almost 12 hours ago. Snatched conversation slips past my hood, American, Spanish, city speak. “An’ did your driver give you directions? Nawh, he did nawht”, someone behind me says rhetorically, loudly. A middle-aged businessman in a suit strides past in earmuffs. Three streets later I see a young, pale, wiry latino with gaunt cheeks and sunken eyes rocking a very different look but wearing the same utilitarian black ear muffs. For two so completely different styles, either one of them must be doing it wrong or earmuffs have a broader appeal in this city than I’d imagined.
40th, 38th. The streets tick down. But which way is 6th from 8th? I stop and ask. “6th Street? Well this is 36th Street. Do you mean 6th Avenue?” My first lesson: Streets run east/west, Avenues run north/south. Off I lurch, a greenhorn again, with a pocket full of Canadian funny money and too many bags.
I cross streets at traffic lights, walking in front of hordes of yellow cabs that are corralled behind the zebra stripes like a Red Sea held temporarily in check. I fight the urge to turn to complete strangers and say: “Hi there! I’m Mick Dundee, noice to meetchya.”
Where 6th Street should be instead I find Broadway, which feels strange to see that actual signage of such a remote and yet familiar name. But it doesn’t look like Theatreland at this end. I turn into a crowd of people and find myself next to a bold brass plaque and imposing doors bearing the name Macey’s, the department store. Shoppers are looking at fantastical mechanical window displays, steam-punk creations of ice blue and white and glitter, with pale, huge-eyed marionettes playing instruments, riding rockets, dancing on strange clockwork devices. On the other side of the street, Giselle’s already preternaturally long and slender legs are elongated to biblical proportions across the length of a 50ft advertising hoarding around the Victoria’s Secret store. All bee-stung lips and smokey eyes, propped on her shoulders her legs stretch up like a ladder to Babylon; or perhaps Babel, effortlessly compressing the distance between different spoken languages into an unspoken one.
I can see the apartment building now, as a siren screams the passing of a NY fire department tender. Only a few minutes wrestling with the door locks stands between me and whatever I feel like doing after 11 hours on a bus. But the view pretty much just brings me to a halt.
Nothing says New York like the Empire State Building, and it stands close enough from this apartment’s floor-to-ceiling windows for me to see the texture of the marble fascia and the art-deco fan motifs on the window casements, close enough to see the flash guns going off from the black specks looking down from the observation deck, far above me. Just beyond that is the instantly recognisable sunburst arches of the Chrysler building peeking above its nieghbours, and to my right a tower capped with a golden spire as if it were a cathedral, but the effect makes it look like something from Ghostbusters and I suddenly think of angry Sumerian gods and marshmallows. Beyond that, resembling two giant oil well pump heads on some super-sized oil field, are the supports for one end of the Brooklyn Bridge. And in the distance, an impossibly long way away visible only because I am 35 floors up already, is more and more and more New York disappearing into smoke and haze.
Everyone in New York was once in New York for the first time. And now me.