Auburn was even better than I’d been expecting, and that was saying a lot. It was a real highlight of the trip. I had a wonderful time visiting with my sister Camilla in South Bend, catching up on both our lives. From there I took a short detour to the Indiana Dunes National Park right on Lake Michigan. Much to my surprise, I could actually see the Chicago skyline from there. The drive to Chicago was slow going, due to the congestion around Gary and the usual Friday afternoon traffic. I was sure glad to have the nav system as I got closer to downtown, particularly when I drove on the Dan Ryan Expressway. At one point there were nine lanes across in each direction, five of them express and four of them local. Unless you knew exactly which lane to be in and when, it was easy to miss the crossover between express and local and thus miss your exit.
The hotel was in a fantastic location, right downtown with top-rated restaurants all around it, and within walking distance of just about everything. It was practically next door to the John Hancock Tower, which was one of the tallest buildings in the world, and it was only a twenty-minute ride on the Red Line to the Willis Tower, formerly known as the Sears Tower, and the famed Art Institute of Chicago. To be fair, the most expensive hotels were right on the Chicago River and commanded a premium price. It was gradually starting to sink in that I could afford them now, but that just wasn’t me, and I hoped it never would be. When it came to flying, I’d fly first or business class for sure. When it came to cars, I’d always drive something nice, on a par with or perhaps slightly nicer than the Tesla I drove now, but I wouldn’t even consider a car that couldn’t be driven through certain neighborhoods or parked anywhere because of security concerns. What was the point in owning a million-dollar Ferrari if you could never actually drive it? Was it not better to stay in a V.I.P. suite in a more modest hotel where everyone treats you with respect than in an average room in a luxury hotel where everyone looks down on you? I was staying in a nice room in a nice hotel, which was the best option of all.
I was only a few blocks from North Lakeshore Drive and Lake Michigan. Likewise, I was only a half mile from the Navy Pier, the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Chicago River. It was about a mile to Lincoln Park, with the History Museum and the Zoo. It was about a half-hour ride on the Red Line to Soldier Field, the renowned Field Museum, the Shedd Aquarium and the Alder Planetarium. For just about everything else, including the Museum of Science and Industry, the Oak Park neighborhood with its famed Frank Lloyd Wright houses, I’d drive. Easily reachable by either car or public transit was also the National Museum of Mexican Art. Who knew something like that would be in Chicago? There were so many parks to see, such as Grant Park, Washington Park and Millennium Park, which was right by the hotel. There was the Chicago River Walk, and there were cruises on the Chicago River, including an architecture cruise that was of particular interest to me, and maybe a dinner cruise.
It was going to be difficult fitting it all into five-and-a-half days, but there was only a little time left before the Memorial Day weekend, and I definitely wanted to be off the road and back home in Omaha by then. As it was, I was skipping spending any time in Des Moines. Des Moines was only a couple hours away from Omaha and could always be seen as a day trip whenever I visited the Gonzalez family, my family, in Omaha.
Greg and Billy wouldn’t be arriving in Chicago until just after 11:00 PM – and quite possibly not until midnight, given Amtrak’s track record, pun intended. By the time I checked into the hotel and had the hotel valet take my car to charge and park it, it was already approaching 4:00 and many things would be closing soon. I still had more than seven hours before Greg and Billy arrived at Union Station. Consulting my phone and my list of things to see and do, I saw that most museums were closing at 5:00 with the exception of the Museum of Contemporary Art, which wouldn’t close until 6:00, and it was very close to the hotel. I would start there. After that, two of the largest downtown shopping malls were also right near the hotel, Water Tower Place and the 900 Shops, both of which were open until 8:00. I doubted that I’d find anything to buy, particularly since these were malls with high-end shops, but it was something I wanted to do while here and I had the time. After that, the John Hancock Tower observation deck was open until 10:00, which was a great time to view the Chicago skyline. Finally, I’d need to grab dinner, and there was a Cuban restaurant nearby that had stellar reviews and a terrific menu. I’d never had Cuban food before and was looking forward to going there.
I’d had the chance to visit art museums all over the world during my travels and was coming to appreciate fine art and to recognize the styles of individual artists. That was in spite of having been raised without any exposure to art while growing up and learning about the arts from online resources in the Jennings County High School library. I tended to favor impressionist and post-impressionist art the most, as it represented the transition from painters as photographers to painters as interpreters.
Contemporary art took that a step further, but it was much more individualistic and strongly subject to personal taste. A lot of contemporary art was highly controversial – for example, nude photos of children that some considered to be child pornography. I always tried to keep an open mind and to evaluate art in terms of aesthetics, subject matter, context and artist’s previous work. The Museum of Modern Art in New York was probably the best known such museum in the U.S. but there was no time to visit museums when I took Shaun to New York for his sixteenth birthday or when I interviewed for the job at Applazon and graduate school at Columbia. I was anxious to visit all the major museums in New York and would have ample time to do so if I moved there. I wasn’t sure what to expect of the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art and was pleasantly surprised by the breadth and quality of the collection. I actually wished I’d had a bit more time there and would consider returning later if there was time.
My next stop was the Water Tower Plaza, named after one of Chicago’s most famous landmarks, the adjacent Water Tower of Chicago, one of the few buildings to survive the great fire of 1871. The Water Tower Plaza was a vertical mall and one of the first in the nation. However, the stores were no different than the stores I could find in the malls of Omaha, anchored by Macy’s, which I found offered nothing I couldn’t find back home. I made quick work of the mall and then walked the short distance to the 900 Shops, which was another vertical mall, but it was immediately evident that it was much more upscale. The anchor was Bloomingdale’s, which actually had a nice selection of clothing, most of it pricey, but some of which I might actually like to buy, particularly if it was on sale. Of course, the flagship store was in New York, and I’d have a lot more time there.
The other stores were designer stores such as Gucci, with merchandise that was well beyond my means, or perhaps better put, what I was willing to spend. On paper I might be a millionaire, maybe even a billionaire, but I couldn’t picture spending $500 for a wallet. That just wasn’t the kind of man I wanted to be. It was kind of funny, but when I entered those stores, I was summarily ignored. Maybe they figured a kid didn’t have the kind of money to spend in a place like that. More likely they noticed the clothes I wore and assumed I’d have no interest nor the means to buy designer things. I did like the shirts at UNTUCKit, and I could afford them, but I could also order them online.
I was starved beyond reason, having last eaten in the late morning, and since the Cuban restaurant closed at the same time as the John Hancock Tower observation deck, I headed to Cafecito when the 900 Shops closed at 8:00 PM. The food smelled wonderful from the moment I entered. They had an impressive selection of vegan specialties, but I was so looking forward to eating meat. I ordered a bowl of black bean soup and a saltado platter, which was a steak with tomato, onions, bell peppers, yucca, soy sauce, vinegar, rice and beans. It reminded me of the Oaxacan food Mamá used to make, and it was every bit as good. The prices were excellent, so perhaps I’d come back there.
Lastly, I headed across the street and into the Hancock Tower, where I purchased a ticket to the observation deck and boarded a high-speed elevator to the top. The view from the top was outstanding, with the lights of the city amongst the backdrop of the fading colors of the sunset. It was magical. I tried to photograph the view with my phone, but the result wasn’t at all satisfactory. Increasingly, I was thinking I should buy a decent camera and not a cheap one, either. I could afford to spend three or four grand on a really good camera, and maybe I should. Better that than a designer wardrobe.
I texted Greg and confirmed that he and Billy were on the train and there hadn’t been any delays. Miraculously, it was expected to arrive on time. I texted back that I’d be waiting in my car out front and to text me when they arrived. I headed back to the hotel and had my car brought around at 10:50, pulling up in the tow-away zone in front of Union Station at 11:08. I got a text from Greg shortly after that and then spotted them a few minutes later. They shared a carry on, and I helped them load it into the trunk.
“How was your trip?” I asked.
“It was nice,” Greg replied. “You didn’t tell us you bought first-class tickets for us. We usually travel in second class, which is still very nice. I’ve heard horror stories about air travel, but this was like my fourth or fifth train trip, and even in the cheap seats, there’s plenty of room to get up and walk around, and the seats are comfortable. There are decent snacks available for sale at grossly inflated prices. I like traveling by train.”
“I traveled by train a lot in Europe and even more on the Shinkansen, the bullet trains, in Japan. Those trains are way better than ours,” I related. “Did you guys eat?” I asked. “Do you need to get a snack before heading back to the hotel?”
“We brought food with us,” Billy filled in. “We’re good.”
“Great,” I replied. “Let’s head back.”
It only took about seven minutes to get back to the hotel. Billy and Greg both were impressed by the location and even more by the view once they got to the room. We were fast asleep in no time.
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The alarm on my phone seemed to go off as soon as I fell asleep, but it had been eight hours since we went to bed. Getting out of bed, I arched my back and stretched with my elbows out and my hands behind my head. “Time to get up, sleepyheads. We want to make the most of your stay here.”
Greg was facing away from me, and he lifted his middle finger in the air, but Billy, who was facing me, said, “God, Adam. That has to be one of the sexiest poses I’ve ever seen.”
“Is he stretching with his arms sticking out like chicken wings?” Greg asked, still lying inert in bed.
“Yeah, that’s the one,” Billy replied.
“It’s really hot when he does that,” Greg agreed. “Not hot like you, Babe, but it makes for very nice eye candy, especially when you’re trying to wake up in the morning. The trouble is he’s way too cheery in the morning.”
“You mean he’s, gasp, a morning person?” Billy asked.
“Yeah, he is,” Greg answered.
“Fuck, I thought they exiled all of them to Madagascar in 2013,” Billy joked.
“He’s devious and managed to hide out during the roundups,” Greg explained.
“Very funny, guys,” I responded, “but we really do need to get going.”
We all rotated among the toilet, the sink and the shower. Greg was the only one who needed to shave, so we made quick work of getting ready. The weather was ranging from the sixties at night to the seventies or eighties during the day, and a quick check of my phone revealed that it was going to be on the warmer side today and sunny. Today would definitely be an outdoor day, so we applied sunscreen to our faces, arms, torsos, legs and thighs, helping each other to apply it to our backs. I doubted that we’d be going shirtless; nevertheless, we went prepared.
Donning tank tops, shorts and sneakers with no-show socks, we were good to go. The hotel restaurant was too fancy, too expensive, and not very filling, serving a typical American take on a French continental breakfast of pastries and coffee. A real continental breakfast as served in Paris would include not only pastries, but an assortment of breads, cheeses and meats. We opted instead to eat across the street at Tempo Café, which provided standard American breakfast fare. I ordered the scrambler skillet, with turkey sausage, spinach and mushrooms. It included three eggs, hash browns with American, mozzarella, cheddar and Swiss cheese melted on top, and toast. Greg had the spinach-and-feta, five-egg omelet with hash browns and Greek toast, and Billy had the banana-nut pancakes with bacon and hash browns. Of course, we all had coffee, too. I wouldn’t have called the food outstanding, but it was very, very good, and it got the day off to a great start.
“So, I take it you’ve both been to Chicago before,” I began. “This is my first time here. First, is there anything in particular you guys want to see?”
“Giordano’s Pizza,” Greg announced, and then both boys laughed.
“They don’t have pizza in Springfield?” I asked.
“Are you kidding?” Greg responded, “Giordano’s is a Chicago institution. Chicago is known for its deep-dish pizza, and Giordano’s is world famous.”
“I’ve been all over the world before and I’ve never heard of it,” I said. Then, getting out my phone, I googled ‘best pizza in Chicago’, and responded, “According to Time Out Chicago, the best pizza is Vito & Nick’s and number two is Middle Brow Bungalow. In fact, on their list of the top 21 pizza places, Giordano’s isn’t on the list at all.”
“I don’t care what Time Out says,” Greg countered. “They always go for obscure, hole-in-the-wall kinds of places that are nowhere near you.”
“But isn’t that the kind of place that’s worth going out of the way for?” I asked.
“If you ask any pizza connoisseur anywhere in the world who makes the best Chicago deep-dish pizza, they’ll tell you it’s Giordano’s,” Billy chimed in. “It’s simply the best pizza you’ve ever tasted, period.”
Quickly checking the next item on my phone, I responded, “It’s not even in the top 25, according to the Chicago Tribune, and I’d think they’d know if anyone would.”
“Meh, what do they know?” Greg asked. “Giordano’s rules!”
“Okay. Perhaps we can have dinner there tonight,” I suggested. “Is it far?”
“It’s a chain,” Greg explained. “They have them all over the Chicago area.”
“That explains it,” I replied. “California Pizza Kitchen, Cheesecake Factory, Five Guys and even Junior’s all started out as individual restaurants and then expanded. That doesn’t mean the food’s not excellent, but when something’s widely available, it’s hard to say it’s exceptional anymore. That’s just the way it is. If you say Giordano’s rules, then that’s where we’ll go.”
“There’s one that’s just a five-minute walk from here,” Greg said. “The only thing is that we might not get a table on a Saturday night, but we could always order takeout or have it delivered to our hotel room.”
“We’ll make a point of it,” I said. “It’s a nice day and we need to plan what to do today. I suggest we do things better done by car since I have one, but I’d like to hear what you’d like to do.”
“Oak Park, for sure,” Greg suggested.
“That’s on my list, too,” I replied, “although it’s easily reached by transit. I planned to go there by car so I’d have more flexibility. The Unity Temple isn’t open on Sundays, and the Frank Lloyd Wright house and studio isn’t open Mondays through Wednesdays, and we should really plan on spending the whole day there, so let’s plan on seeing that today. We need to try to get there by ten, so let’s make tracks. We can discuss what to do tomorrow over pizza tonight.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Greg agreed.
When I used my phone to try to purchase tickets, however, all the tours were blacked out for the weekend. WTF? Then I discovered why: it was the weekend before the Memorial Day weekend, which was the weekend of the Wright House Walk. But could we get tickets on the day of the event? For an extra fee? “YES!” I shouted, “but we’ve got to make tracks!”
“What is it, Adam?” Greg asked.
“Every year there’s one day and one day only when people have access to all the houses designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, and that’s usually the Saturday of the weekend before the Memorial Day weekend,” I related.
“That’s today?” Billy responded. “You’re shitting me, right?”
“No shit, guys,” I replied. “I just bought the tickets, but we’ll need the whole day, and it’s already underway.”
“How much do we owe you? It sounds expensive,” Greg asked.
“It’s actually not that bad” I answered. “Only a hundred each, plus a late-booking fee, but don’t worry about it; it’s my treat. The guy with the Tesla can easily afford to take his friends.”
I called the hotel valet to have the car brought around. I paid the check, and we were on our way.
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“Wow, each one is better than the last,” Billy exclaimed as we walked around Oak Park, following directions on the tour app on our phones.
“I can’t believe how lucky we were to get those tickets,” I chimed in, and it was true. The tour had been sold out months in advance. People were on a wait list for tickets, but then a block of tickets became available when a large group canceled on the day of the tour. Most people who were waitlisted couldn’t change their plans at the last second, and we were the beneficiaries.
“It’s still awfully crowded,” Billy commented.
“I think that’s because it’s the first real post-pandemic tour,” I explained. “They had to cancel it in 2020, and last year, they had to limit attendance because they were still social distancing. Everything was strictly limited.”
“Yeah, I get that,” Billy agreed, “but I can’t get pictures worth shit.”
“That’s because of your cheap phone,” Greg pointed out.
“Yeah, I know,” he replied. “It’s what I could afford.”
“If it’s any consolation, I have the top-of-the-line Applazon phone, and my photos don’t look much better,” I said. “It’s hard to get good photos with a hundred people in front of you. However, they can only do so much in Applazon OS and Android to compensate for tiny lenses and tiny sensors.”
“Yeah, I know,” Billy agreed. “My dad’s a major photography hobbyist. He’s won awards, including the prestigious National Geographic photo contest. He’s spent tens of thousands of dollars on camera equipment. He even uses film for some things, and he has one of those professional monitors for digital photo editing.”
“I’ve been thinking of buying a real camera,” I weighed in. “I’ve traveled all over the world, yet all I have to show for it is a bunch of selfies.” I told them about meeting Franklin and his parents while riding to the top of the Arch in St. Louis.
“The Sony a7C got mixed reviews,” Billy responded.
“You’re familiar with it?” I asked.
“Only from reading about it,” he replied. “The issue is that you can make the camera more compact, but you can’t get around the optics. Full-frame sensors need full-size lenses. Attaching a large lens to an a7C kinda defeats the purpose of the compact design, so they ship it with a kit lens that’s only 28–60mm. For general point and shoot, that’s actually pretty good, but it doesn’t allow for telephoto, and telephoto lenses are huge, heavy and expensive. If you really want something that compact, Sony’s a6000 series cameras might be more practical, with their small size and built-in flash. Although the APS-C sensor has less than half the area, it’s a good compromise for the serious amateur. Lenses for APS-C cameras weigh about half as much.
“You might want to consider an advanced travel camera like the Sony RX100 series, which has a one-inch sensor. That’s less than a third the area of an APS-C, but several times larger than the sensor in most point-and-shoot cameras, and it’s small enough to fit in your jeans pocket. The latest model does cost about $1300, though.”
“What would you buy if you had the money?” I asked.
“Hands-down, a Leica SL2,” Billy answered. “It’s a no-compromise, ultra-compact, full-frame ILC, and Leica’s optics are second to none. With their 24–80mm zoom lens, however, the cost is over ten grand, and you can figure another four or five grand for a telephoto zoom lens.”
“Holy fuck!” I exclaimed.
“Hey, you asked what I’d get if I could afford it,” Billy replied. “In your case, I’d get a Sony RX100 Mark VIII if your primary interest is casual, a Sony a6800 with the dual-lens kit if your interest is more advanced or a Sony a7C or a7R VI with the dual-lens kit and flash if you’re planning to enter contests. If you decide to become a professional, however, you should consider something with stellar optics like a Nikon ILC or a Leica.”
“I may be moving to New York,” I said, “and no place has better camera stores. B&H Photo, Adorama, 49th Street Photo and Focus Camera are all there, and Beach Camera is across the river in New Jersey. It’s one of the few places you can shop in the store and not feel guilty for ordering online.”
“Just don’t let them pressure you into buying something on the spot,” Greg cautioned.
“I’ll almost certainly buy it from Applazon,” I replied. “I can get an insider’s discount.”
“Guys, here’s the next place,” Billy interjected. “Shall we take a look?”
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“I can’t believe there’s one in Des Moines, but not in Omaha,” I noted. “I’m incredulous. There’s one in Denver, one in Minneapolis, one in Kenosha and three in Indianapolis, and not even one in Omaha.”
“How do you think we feel,” Billy countered. “We’re in Illinois, and yet there aren’t any within a hundred miles of Springfield.”
“Are you sure one of these will be enough for the three of us?” I asked.
“It may not look that large, but it’s filled with cheese. It’s stuffed, and we’ll be stuffed when we’re done,” Greg answered. “Just keep in mind that I don’t eat red meat.”
“Yeah, what’s up with that?” I asked. “I’ve heard of vegetarians and vegans, and even pescatarians, but why just no red meat?”
“Although my dad died because of a congenital heart defect and the coronavirus, it got me to thinking of the effect of what we eat on the heart. Red meat is bad for the coronary arteries, and it contributes to colon cancer, too. Besides which, I’d rather not eat my fellow mammals.”
“I guess that makes sense,” I noted. “Hey, they have a pizza with chicken sausage, spinach and mushrooms. How’s that sound?”
“It sounds fantastic,” Greg agreed, and Billy nodded his head.
“If you’re worried about going hungry, how about we order the cheesy garlic bread and the mozzarella triangles, as well as root beer for all of us?” Billy suggested.
“That sounds good,” I agreed.
I placed the order on my phone with pickup around when we expected to arrive back at the hotel. I ordered the pizza unsliced, so we could cut it into six slices instead of the usual ten. We could’ve had it delivered, but we’d practically be going right by there on the way back from Oak Park. Traffic back into the city was heavy, so we got to Giordano’s Magnificent Mile about twenty minutes later than we’d planned, but better that than for it not to be ready. Greg went inside as I waited by the curb. When he got back in the car, he said, “It’s a damn good thing we ordered takeout. It’s crazy inside.”
When we got back to the hotel, we turned in my car and went up to our room. We set up the desk as a table and set the pizza, mozzarella triangles and garlic bread in the middle, as well as root beer, plates and forks in front of each of us. Oh, my god, the pizza was excellent. Everything was excellent. I’d never tasted pizza like it; it was so rich and filling. We didn’t need the starters, though. We each ate a couple of the mozzarella triangles and about a third of the garlic bread. I sliced the pizza into six slices, and we each could manage only a single slice, leaving half the pizza to eat for breakfast in the morning. When we finished, we were as stuffed as the pizza we’d just eaten.
As we ate, we discussed my proposal to go into business with them, and they agreed to let me look into the specifics of setting up the bicycle shop as a corporation and using it to fund their college educations. We discussed things we might do tomorrow before Greg and Billy had to be back for their train at 7:00 PM. We’d be sure to get them back to Union Station at least an hour before that. For outdoor activities that we could drive to, I suggested the Chicago Botanic Garden, which was a half-hour drive north of the city but could be reached by public transit, or the Garden of Phoenix and the Museum of Science and Industry to the south. There was also the National Museum of Mexican Art, although it was easily reached by transit. Other possibilities within walking distance included Lincoln Park, the Lincoln Park Zoo and the Lincoln Conservatory, the Navy Pier, Millennium Park, Grant Park, the Field Museum, the Shedd Aquarium and the Alder Planetarium. We could also take the architectural cruise. There was a lot to see!
Both Greg and Billy had been to the Field Museum before, so we scratched that off the list. I could go there during the coming week in conjunction with the planetarium and the aquarium, and perhaps Millennium and Grant Parks. We all agreed that the science museum was geared more to younger kids, so we decided to pass on it, and the adjacent Garden of Phoenix. Lincoln Park, the Zoo and the Conservatory might make for a nice way to spend the day that we might not do otherwise, so we decided on that. If there was any time left, we could walk around the Navy Pier and then walk back to the hotel to pick up their luggage before I dropped Greg and Billy off at Union Station.
Disclaimer: This story is purely fictional and any resemblance of characters to real individuals is unintentional. Although it takes place in actual locations, in no way are any official policies, opinions or events inferred. Some characters may be underage and at times engage in homosexual acts. Anyone uncomfortable with this should not be reading the story, and the reader assumes responsibility for the legality of reading this type of material where they live. The author retains full copyright and permission must be obtained prior to duplication in any form.