March 2010 Archives

Being a blogger, I was lucky enough to get a copy of Slow Trains Overhead as an uncorrected page proof, yet to be released by the University of Chicago Press. Gibbons, a professor at Northwestern University, writes of the kind of intimate encounters, eccentric occurrences, and everyday life that comes with our city. Through a variety of short stories, versed and unversed poetry, Gibbons recreates the experiences that long-time Chicagoans know and that every newcomer yearns to know.

Gibbons is a father, a daughter, a son, a neighbor, an observer, a woman named Esther. He lives downtown; he lives in a run-down neighborhood, fifth-story apartment; he lives in the suburbs. In this selection, Gibbons writes himself into the many different characters of life in Chicago, exploring their viewpoints, bringing us along with him into their fears, their dreams, and their joy in the little things. He contrasts nature and architecture, wretched and healthy, homeless and sheltered and everything in between. He tells stories of them all: old and middle-aged and teen-aged and child-aged.

Gibbons takes all of these parts of Chicago and shows us how we live together, how we misunderstand each other but struggle together in the same ways. He shows Chicago with its cold, black heart, with a happy heart that throbs itself into blackness, with a nurturing heart. As a reader, I was pulled into the city by his writing in a way that I had always wanted to be inside of it. Through his poems and stories, I became each one of the characters, not just imagining their appearances or their sounds and smells, but really becoming the desperate street-man and the teenage delinquent himself, knowing his and thus my own thoughts of the rushing life around us.

In this way, Gibbons encourages a sort of understanding between the different parts of Chicago, almost forces it upon us with his writing, bringing them all together by taking the reader out of his own character and into another. And despite the many characters, he maintains a strong, particular voice throughout the selection. This voice is, to me, precisely the voice of this purpose of greater understanding and solidarity. Living in this widespread and heavily separated city, living neighborhood by neighborhood, south side by west side by north side, it is a voice that speaks within any one of us when we think of all the people with whom we share this city: its history, its cultures, its fame, and its everyday happenings.

Salt Caves in Chicago

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So what did you do over spring break?

--Oh, I had the equivalent of three days at the seashore.

At least that's what the soothing, disembodied voice told Anna and me, as we lay in beach chairs below styrofoam stalactites in a windowless room within spitting distance of O'Hare. Just forty-five minutes and we'd breath the equivalent of three days worth of seaside air; ten sessions and we'd be as rejuvenated as if we were returning from a month-long summer holiday. All for a student prince of ten dollars.

Behind a facade of strip-mall baroque along busy Irving Park Ave stretch the Galos Caves. Now, you might say, "But there aren't any caves in Chicago!" and two years ago you'd have been right. But since 2008, a Polish venture has been treating Chicagoans to the healing airs of man-made caves saturated with Crimean salt, and it has the certificate from the I.M. Sieczenow Crimean Republican Scientific Research Institute of Physical Methods of Therapy and Medical Climatology to prove it.

This certificate, along with many others in English, Polish, and Ukrainian, hangs on the walls in the reception area, clean and somewhat clinical in a non-threatening way. The receptionist asks if we remembered to bring our clean white socks, which we had, and leaving our shoes in the cubbyholes we wait sock-footed for our session to begin. I don't know why the white socks, but the session before ours had a woman dressed head-to-toe in a white sweatsuit. When that group passes, the receptionist takes a rake to salt-gravel floor of the cave, and when she emerges again we are free to enter ourselves.

The mineral-soaked air, suffusing the body through the lungs and skin, is reputed to sooth all manner of ailments, from asthma to hypertension to ulcers, respiratory, digestive, cardiovascular, even nervous system problems. It certainly wallops the taste buds. There's an ambient flavor to the cave, salty and metallic, strange but not unpleasant, that most decisively marks it as a world apart from the reception area and the city beyond. Then there are the stalactites and seashells, the warm salt crystals underfoot, the dim pastel lighting that fades after a few minutes of acclimation to this artificial littoral microclimate.

The soothing power of the cave is brought on as much by the salt airs as by the lounge chairs' zero-gravity ergonomics, the rose-tinted semi-darkness, and the audio loop of gentle mood music and the constant crash of waves. Close your eyes as the light recedes, and listen to the surf below you. Imagine the high, yellow sun warming the white cliffs, the olive drab scrub clinging to dry land as the blue-black sea stretches off into the distance. Outside, warships and oil tankers power on towards Sevastopol, Odessa or the Straits, but from within this crumbly cavity in the rocks, you can all but shut out those concerns. Imagine generations of Polish princes and industrialists, artists, bishops, generals, fine ladies and Tatar Khans sprawled about as you are now. Lay back into your rattly recliner and with each squeak think of the factory in Łódź where proud men and women worked to assemble it.

Think! Perhaps, just perhaps, here a crippled American, an intemperate Englishman, and a pock-scarred Georgian once momentarily loosed the weight of the world from their shoulders and laying among these ancient stones let the mineral vapors wash over them.

Then, without the waves receding, a rosy glow permeates the cave. Perhaps the setting sun has glanced upon a crystalline seam, and its rays, filtered through mineral translucence, now warm our briny depths. No, for now the floor of the cave glows electric blue and green. Modern wizardry reveals itself, we stretch, take a last breath, and reenter the world. The Galos Caves are of course not ancient, nor majestic, really. It's a single, smallish, room on the northwest side of Chicago (a second cave, a private dining room, licenses the use of the plural); there are no traces of past aristocracy, but plastic shovels and dump-trucks in a corner suggest prior activity of children.

Still, we are relaxed, our ailments soothed. Though the effects are likely to be shortly undone by the hour and a half of public transportation back to Hyde Park.

Galos Caves Spa
6501 West Irving Park Road
Chicago, IL 60634-2416

This story was submitted by first-year SoonKyu Park

Finals were over. The sun was shining, and it was warm outside for the first time in a while. Some people were actually wearing shorts. I hadn't been out of Hyde Park in a month and had to go somewhere--somewhere exciting and different.

So, without a plan in mind, I got on the 55 Bus and started thinking about all the places I could go. Of course, Chicago is a big place, and there were many possibilities: Wicker Park, Lincoln Park, Pilsen... But there was another place that I hadn't yet visited that seemed really popular among my friends: Lakeview. So Lakeview it was.

Forty minutes after I left Hyde Park, I arrived at the Belmont station on the Red Line. I got off the train and walked along Belmont Avenue until I came to North Halsted Street, which is the main drag. Although it was a Tuesday afternoon, there were quite a number of people milling about. I could instantly tell that the scene was different from the Loop or the Magnificent Mile. There was no Nieman Marcus or Nordstrom. Instead of skyscrapers stood three-story brick buildings and quirky shops and cafés.

Then I came across a huge thrift store called the Brown Elephant. I had to check it out. (Who could pass on a good thrift store?) The staff was busy, running around sorting the donations that had just come in. I wasn't interested in clothes, but in the kitchenware section I found shelf after shelf of mugs and dishes in great condition and bought a few coffee mugs. Then I saw the furniture section, where I came across a large couch and a reading chair for $35 each. If I had had a car, I would have taken them both back with me. I promised myself that I would come back if I get an apartment in the future. When I was leaving, I learned that all the proceeds went to running the Howard Brown Health Center, a medical center that provides health services to the LGBTQ community. I left the Brown Elephant feeling great.

Then I had dinner at the Chicago Diner, a famous vegetarian restaurant. Even though I am usually not a big fan of vegetarian cooking, the polenta lasagna I got was delicious. The price was reasonable, with most of the entrée around 10 dollars. The best part, though, was by far the peanut butter cookie-dough milkshake. They also had a vegan pastries and cakes, but I was too full to try some.

Overall, the trip to Lakeview was fantastic. It was refreshing to see a neighborhood so different from downtown or Hyde Park. Whether you are looking for a change in scenery or a cheap dining hall table, you will not be disappointed. And, of course, there is great food. After all, it is in Chicago.

Spring Course Round-Up

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Just some of the Spring 2010 courses that connect to Chicago:

  • Anthropology of Museums, Morris Fred
  • Calumet Quarter (3 courses simultaneously, Environmental Science), Madeline Macleester, et al.
  • Chicago Film History, Judy Hoffman
  • Child Poverty and Chicago Schools, Chad Broughton
  • Colloquium: African History, Rachel Jean-Baptiste
  • Documentary Video: Production Techniques, Judy Hoffman
  • The Evolving Social Sector; The Business of Non-Profits (Campus Catalyst), Debra Schwartz
  • Feeding the City: The Urban Food Chain-2, Pamela Martin
  • Prairie Ecosystems: Lessons of Sustainability in the Past, Present, and Future, Justin Borevitz
  • Process & Policy in State & City Government, Clayton Harris
  • University of Chicago Campus (Art History), Katherine Taylor
  • Urban Economics, George Tolley and John Felkner
  • Urban Structure and Process, Omar McRoberts
This is just a few of the possibilities of connecting your studies to Chicago.

Showing at the Apollo Theater in Lincoln Park, Million Dollar Quartet is a play that is based on the true-life event of the night when Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, and Jerry Lee Lewis came together to play music.

The show wasn't performed at a sold-out, million-dollar theater, but rather in a tiny, old auto-parts store in Mississippi where all four had gotten their start. Sam Phillips, the man who had turned the store into a the small recording studio and named it Sun Records, narrated the entire play. He talked of the lives of each star, from before and after their big break, and the kind of transformation each musician had to go through in order to find his unique sound.

The theater itself was filled with teenagers, and senior citizens, and everybody in between, but it spoke to every age group on a unique level. The play was nostalgic and inspiring at the same time, reminding us of the amazing era of the American synthesis of blues, jazz, and rock as well as the beautifully American dream of starting at nothing and working towards everything.

Eating the Habañero

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Submitted by first-year Teddy Kent

In Little Village, the city's second most popular commercial strip, an unassuming restaurant is deceptively bold. A goat's skull sitting on top of their oven was just the start.

You eat the pepper. There's no question about it. In territory unknown to us, with a food unfamiliar to us, you eat the habanero. I grabbed it, sized it up, and let it hang from my fingertips as all the possible disadvantages of eating it rushed through my mind. I took a decent sized bite off the end, and tore off a piece of tortilla and grasped the table with my other hand in anticipation...

Birreria La Barca would not cause many people to take a second look--its unassuming taqueria-like storefront, combined with a woefully misspelled entry in Google (Bereara?) would further throw people off the culinary trail. But once inside, it is clear that La Barca asserts itself. If the goat head sitting above some of the kitchen equipment was any indication, La Barca was going to offer up a unique experience.

The waitresses were warm and patient, and my CSLTC buds Alice and Juan and I split a plate of birria. This is roasted goat at its full-flavored best. Accompanied by handmade tortillas and two housemade salsas on the table, the goat along with the accompanying juicy consommé was delicious. The goat's varying texture only made each bite like trying a new batch. The flavors were made even more powerful by the addition of dried peppers, whose innards opened to add another dark and deep level of roasted, mellow heat. The little, pinky-like green peppers which also adorned the table, however, packed a wallop of a punch. The waitresses enjoyed watching Juan and I add these to our tacos and see the moments where we were hit with the spice. We gladly sopped up the birria until there were neither juices nor tortillas to have anymore.

But our waitress had a different idea--she was having too much fun to let us leave on just the birria. Watching us eat the peppers gave her an idea. She coolly walked back to the kitchen area and brought out a wooden bowl, far too big to carry what was in it. A bright orange habanero, waxy in its phosphorescence, sat. Now it was understood exactly where we stood in the restaurant. We were no longer customers and they no longer servers, but they were the courteous people to take us into their restaurant, and we were the gringo guests, obliged to try whatever they put in front of us. She calmly brought out a glass of water and a tortilla without prompting, and leaned on the counter as Juan, Alice and I looked at one another.

This isn't so bad," you think to yourself. "It's starting to get a little worse," you declare a few seconds later. And goodness knows, those are the last words of some brave souls. Because what hits you not seconds, after realizing the pepper is going to be pretty spicy, is the most full-fledged spice one will likely ever experience.

Gnawing on the tortilla does not help quell the spice, but instead eliminates the space in one's mouth that the spice permeates. Water helps more than one would expect--not only for its illusionary respite, but for its temporary distraction from the taste bud inflammation. "My mouth is on fire" is an oft-repeated phrase in today's society, but if you can actually imagine dousing your tongue in gasoline and lighting it up, this probably would best approximate the feeling.

The waitresses goaded Juan to take a bite of the habanero, too. Juan, partly out of solidarity, partly out of the dumb curiosity that I also shared, and partly at the pressure of the waitresses, joined the pepper eating. He took a small bit off the outside. He smiled, knowing that the heat was not there yet, but would soon come. But nothing. Shockingly, Juan seemed immune to the heat. He asserted it wasn't even a little hot. Then, Juan came to a conclusion that surely explained things--he hadn't eaten any of the middle, where the seeds lie in waiting. Juan mustered up some courage and took another bite. The same smile crept onto his face. And it didn't go away. He started to move his hands in a circular motion, signaling to us that the heat was coming. And through the smile on his face, Alice and I both knew that there was pain behind it.

Five minutes later. I am rationing out the sips of my water, strategically trying to figure out when this heat would leave. I turn around, and Juan is pacing outside the door of the restaurant. He catches the attention of everyone, who sees him, coatless, trying to douse the spice with the brisk, crisp air. Juan comes back in, convinced that it at least helped a little. We spent the next fifteen minutes laughing, laughing in pity, laughing in pain, laughing in our stupidity, laughing at our laughing. Of course, laughing only made the pain worse. The waitresses hid smirks on their faces; we were clearly their entertainment today.

An old Hispanic man sitting in a booth behind us had been watching the whole ordeal. He asked the waitress for a fresh tortilla, and stood up, with his leather cowboy-like hat looming over everything. Grabbing the remainder of the pepper (about a third, including the stem), he was handed the tortilla by the waitress, went back behind the counter to slather on some refried beans onto the tortilla, and plopped the rest of the pepper on the tortilla to create a taco. Tacitly acknowledging us, he took a bite. Poker face or not, I was convinced the heat wasn't getting to him. Another bite, and no reaction. Eventually, he cracked a little smile and took off his hat and fanned his face. But he didn't truly mean it. It was clear by the theatrics and timing that he was just trying to make us laugh a little. That grizzly old veteran of a man must have had his fair share of peppers in his life.

We had conquered a little of the unfamiliar this day. Hubris had gotten the better of us--I will be the first to admit this. Pride and swagger, I learned, as exhibited by the old man, can only be gained through experience. This was my first habanero pepper, and I don't know if it'll be my last. But what is clear is the neighborhood dubbed "Little Village" might just have big pride.

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Submitted by first-year SoonKyu Park

A couple of weeks ago, I saw a movie called Outing Riley, directed by Pete Jones. It came highly recommended by friends and by Netflix, and it was exciting to see a LGBTQ movie set in Chicago.

The movie is about Riley, a forty-something gay architect who lives in Chicago, and his struggles to come out to his Irish-Catholic family. Although the plot may seem predictable, Riley stands out from other gay men in the movies. He is completely at home with himself and with his sexuality. He has already come out to his friends and colleagues and is in a long-term relationship with his partner. He is not like the two cowboys in Brokeback Mountain and isn't flamboyant like Truman Capote in Capote. Instead, Riley looks, talks, and acts like an average Joe living in Chicago, just another guy obsessed with the Cubs and the Bears.

Many of the movie's differences can be attributed to the setting. Riley doesn't live in 1960s Wyoming or 1940s New York, where homophobia was still widespread, but rather in twenty-first-century Chicago. Outing Riley is a portrayal of a modern gay man who is rarely seen in mainstream media.

What made the movie especially memorable is the way it portrays Chicago. At the beginning of the movie, Riley introduces himself: "I've always imagined my life as a movie. The problem with my imagined movie is, it might be boring. I'd add helicopters. Helicopters make everything exciting. But nobody's going to believe I have helicopters....If I were a guy from L.A. or New York, well, maybe. But I'm just a guy from Chicago." To Riley, Chicago is a different type of city than L.A. or New York. But as the country's third largest city, Chicago has skyscrapers and is a major financial center, home to the Chicago Stock Exchange, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, the Chicago Board of Trade, and its own professional sports teams.

So how is Chicago different from the other two? The director's answer seems to be that Chicago is more American than its two bigger sister cities. He believes that Chicagoans live "straight from the blueprint." They are born, go to school, get a job, get married, and have babies. Then they move to the suburbs, grow old, and die. If L.A. and New York are cities at the forefront of fashion and popular culture, then Chicago is the city of the average Joe.

When I think of New York, I imagine youngsters in chic clothes carrying "it bags." In contrast, Chicago reminds me of people in Levi's and sweatshirts. If I were to compare the two cities to alcoholic drinks, New York would be a martini and Chicago would be a local beer. New York is the city of Marc Jacobs and Donna Karan, and Chicago that of the Gap and Levi's. Such generalizations simplify things too much, and there are of course average Joes living in New York and fashionistas in Chicago. After all, Chicago also offers a rich cultural experience with its many immigrant neighborhoods such as Pilsen, Little Village, Chinatown, Little Italy, and the Ukrainian Village. And yet Chicago manages to maintain its identity, making the city a wonderful mixture of American and international culture.

Overall, the movie is delightful, filled with humorous episodes of Riley and his quirky brothers. The largely unknown cast shines, and the script is witty yet poignant. The film also takes you to numerous Chicago landmarks, including the Navy Pier, the Buckingham Fountain, the Lakeview neighborhood, and the lakeshore. I highly recommend the movie to anyone who interested in the city of Chicago or in LBGTQ culture--or both.