The Family and I saw the movie "Hidden Figures" recently, on the recommendation of my eleven year old guide to Chicago. The week before, she’d told me about the movie which her school had taken her class to see as we walked through the Adler planetarium. We liked the movie, and recommended it to many others. The first text book on programming that I had ever read had a photo of Dorothy Vaughn in it; it has taken me many years to find out why her photo appeared there.
The movie reminded me of descriptions of the first flights, and the expertise that had to be created. It was not known what physiological effects space flights would have, how hot or cold the capsules would get, and, as the movie tells us, how to even predict the orbits of the capsules. I found a recent newspaper article which talks of the way those early flights were put together.
We stopped in front of one of these early space crafts, Gemini 12, which you can see in the featured photo. Standing in front of it, I understood why they were called capsules: they are nothing but a couch with a few controls in front of it, and a heat shield behind for re-entry. In 1966 James Lovell (famous later as one of the three astronauts in Apollo 13) and Edwin Aldrin (famous as the second man on the moon, in Apollo 11) flew in this little capsule for over four days. I usually feel cramped in a space like this in a two hour flight, and have to get out into the aisle to take a walk. Aldrin took three walks in space during this flight.
I doubt that I will ever be a tourist in space, but wouldn’t it be a wonderful if I had a photo of the earth from space on my phone, as a souvenir of my last vacation?
Growing up in ancient India, I thought cars were either white or a dull grey. Doctors were subject to a different rule; they could have black cars. My grand uncle was an iconoclast. He would emerge with his stethoscope in hand from a dark blue car with cream coloured leather seats. That was it. Until the advent of red cars much later.
So I’m still taken by surprise when I see pink cars. They have to be special. The pink car which I saw on Valentine’s day in Chicago was clearly special. It stood in one place for hours, while the dull traffic flowed around it. The tarmac on the road was the grey of charcoal. The buildings surrounding it were dark and brooding black, or the brutal colour of concrete. The pink Valentine car was a touch of joy in the morning.
In the colourful and boisterous traffic of Bangkok you might not be surprised by cars coloured bright greens, yellows and blues. But when I see taxis in pink I’m still shocked. I was taken aback at the Bangkok airport when I saw a whole line of taxis in pink, as I got into a green and yellow cab. After that I kept my camera handy, and managed to take the featured photo while we were stuck in traffic next to one of these flamingos of the road.
On a walk near the Bell and Drum Towers of Beijing I saw a pink car parked primly on the road bordering the plaza between the two towers. I’d begun to get used to seeing pink cars on the road in India by now. I took a photo and asked my Chinese colleagues the next day about pink cars. It turned out that these colours were also relatively new in China. My colleagues had roughly the same reaction to pink cars as me.
I’m happy to see pink slowly diffusing over the world.
On my last morning in Chicago, as I started to pack, I looked out of the window and saw a pink vintage car standing outside the IBM building. I kept an eye on it through the morning as I got ready to leave. It was stood there through the morning’s rush. As I was about to leave my hotel room, I took a parting shot of Chicago, the one you see in the featured photo. I spent that day and the next in flight.
Later, after I’d arrived home, I showed the photo to The Family. Her diagnosis took into account the date, something I’d forgotten about. "It must be someone’s Valentine," she said.
On a cold day I walked into the Art Institute of Chicago, past the people taking selfies with the lions at the entrance. I checked in my coat and walked down to the basement to look at the collection of photographs from Japan, and was distracted by an odd collection. There was a room full of paperweights! The display was in a little corner, and most people seem to have walked in by accident or out of curiosity. I don’t know whether there was anyone there who looked at the displays with an expert eye. I walked around and took a photo of the stunningly kitschy piece that you see in the featured photo. I guess if you want to make an arresting piece which sits on a table and is seen every day you could do worse than load it with little details which can keep the user’s attention for years. I think this one succeeds.
The Art Institute has a beautiful small collection of classical art from Asia and India. One of the pieces which I spent some time admiring was the wooden image of the Shinto god Hachiman in the guise of a monk which you see above. The calmness is a special characteristic of Japanese divine images. I admired the texture of the wood, and wondered how the sculpture would have looked when it still had paint on it. This is over a millennium old. How old must human emotions be, to be able to communicate over such vast periods of time.
One evening I walked down Ontario Street in Chicago looking at the buildings around me. Some seemed to belong to an earlier generation of skyscrapers. The one in the featured photo seemed to be special. Unfortunately, I did not mark the crossing it was on, so now I find it hard to figure out its name or research its history.
There are many reasons it stands out. First, it is only fifteen stories high, a dwarf amongst today’s buildings. But more than that, it has a red-brick and plaster exterior, the kind that I associate with Louis Sullivan, the originator of modern skyscraper architecture. Is this building by Sullivan or his firm? I can’t check, since I didn’t note the address, but I guess it is not likely. But notice that the bottom two stories are plaster clad. This is certainly a deep homage to Sullivan’s style. So are the decorations around the windows on the top floor. The white vertical lines emphasizing the height of the building are also typical elements of his style.
I am a little distressed at not being able to place this building, and would appreciate hearing from you if you know more about it, or are able to identify it.
I entered the US at the end of the week which was full of rancorous controversy over immigrants. My plane arrived in O’Hare airport at the same time as a flight from Brazil. The immigration queues moved fast. I picked up my luggage and exited to find banners welcoming immigrants, and people ready to give legal aid to travellers in distress. Right at the point of entry, I saw the best of the US: both in terms of efficient officials and a participatory democracy.
On a short visit for a meeting, one sees little of the hurt that many people feel since 2008, in terms of jobs and incomes. The people I’d come to meet included native Americans as well as later arrivals (but, as far as I knew, none descended from the Pilgrim Fathers). All of us, legal US residents, as well as foreigners on short trips, were lucky people, because we had steady jobs and medical insurance.
When you are in a country for a week on work, the immigrants you get to meet are usually those in the hospitality industry and transport. I had interesting conversations with four taxi drivers, one from Bulgaria, one from Benin, one from Nigeria, and another from Ethiopia. The last person drove me to the airport as I left the US. His opening statement was that I was leaving on a nice day. I said the whole week had been nice, and I’d liked being in Chicago. He replied, "Yes, I guess we will pay for it later." I laughed, and asked "Nothing comes free, eh?" He burst into laughter and said, "That’s the US for you. You think you’ll earn a lot, but it all disappears."
There, just as I was leaving, I got the distilled essence of the immigrant experience. This echoes what I’ve heard from immigrants in India and China, Europe and the US: they arrive thinking they will lead a much better life; it is better, of course, than what they left behind, but it isn’t as easy as they thought it would be.
The Chicago river is probably the tamest in the world. It has been engineered to reverse its flow, and since the year 1900 it flows out of Lake Michigan. As you can see from these photos, this segment of the river has been straightened out. Unfortunately, it can’t take much rain. It floods if it rains for more than one and a half inch in a couple of hours.
The reversed flow eventually connects Lake Michigan with the Mississippi river system. This bit of geo-engineering was, quite appropriately, celebrated by the American Society of Civil Engineers as the biggest civil engineering project of the last millennium. The reversal of flow was originally meant to check pollution of the drinking water from Lake Michigan. Next it served water-borne commerce. Now, it also provides a pathway for invasive species to spread from the lakes into the rest of the USA.
The bridges that you see in the photo can all be raised. I tried to keep a watch for this, but never saw it happening. Since water traffic has decreased tremendously in recent decades, barriers are now being built to prevent invasion by invasive mussels and carps from spreading into the Mississippi river waters.
I pushed open the doors to the gilded lobby of the London Guarantee Building and was taken aback by the glitter. My faint earlier acquaintance with this building was due to its connection with Cannonball Adderley, Bill Evans and Ahmad Jamal, who played in the Chicago Jazz Nightclub and Steakhouse which was once situated in this building. Looking at the lobby I found it easy to understand why one would move to the Vanguard in the Greenwich Village.
But the building itself is historic, as old as the storied Wrigley building. I walked out to find a plaque which said that Fort Dearborn was situated roughly here, at the mouth of the Chicago River. The area came to be part of the USA in 1795. The fort was first built in 1804, and became the nucleus around which the city of Chicago eventually grew. The Neshnabe native Indians defeated the army in a lightning strike and burnt down the fort. This is commemorated in a plaque at the head of the bridge across the Chicago river on Michigan Avenue, just across the road from the London Guarantee Building. The fort was rebuilt in 1816.
In a sense, I was standing at the historic beginning of Chicago when I entered this lobby.
I passed by a wall of shiny black granite on Michigan Avenue and looked up to find that it was the facade of the Carbide and Carbon Building. It reminded me of an interesting conversation I’d had the previous evening about things to see in Chicago. At dinner with a group of colleagues, all visitors to Chicago, someone asked about art in Chicago. There was a discussion of museums and famous public sculptures. Someone brought up blues. But in my mind the major art form of Chicago is architecture.
The Carbon and Carbide Building is an example. The lobby, which you see in the featured photo, reminds you of Flash Gordon comics. This is not an accident: this is how the future was imagined in 1929, when the building was finished. This Art Deco future influenced the look of the Flash Gordon comic strip of the 1930s. The vertical bank of video screens added to the lobby adds to this retro-future look.
When you step back a long way, the upper part of the building comes in view. It is an interesting burnt green in colour, with gilding at the top. The whole thing is mounted by a golden structure which is supposed to be a battery, but has led many people to think of the whole structure as a bottle of champagne.
Why a battery? Because this was the headquarters of the infamous Union Carbide, a company which was responsible for the world’s worst industrial accident in 1984. I remember the shock with which I read the headlines about a poisonous gas leak from its plant in Bhopal which affected about half a million people. The company got away lightly, some say with the collusion of the Indian government, paying a compensation which came to a little less than one dollar per affected person. Responsibility was diluted even further when the company merged with Dow Chemicals.
The building is now the Hard Rock Hotel. I prefer to think of this Chicago Landmark as a bottle of champagne.
One of the recurring themes of Westerns is the cattle drive. Most of these drives used to end in Chicago. So, if you eat steaks, then you could suspect that you might be able to get good food in Chicago. You would be right. It is possible to eat a good steak every evening at a different restaurant if you are a tourist in Chicago.
For those who like a little spice in their lives, the first bit of variety one can think of is the deep dish pizza. One Saturday evening I made my way to an old and well-known pizzeria just north of the river. This was either fun, or a big mistake. No reservations are taken, and there was a forty five minute wait. The energetic eleven year old who was our guide for the weekend was beginning to wilt. The bar food (photo above) included a few things which she was happy with, while her parents and I sampled some of the other things available at the bar. Was it worth the wait? Does Chicago stand by a lake?
Earlier in the day we’d walked through Chinatown looking for good dim sum. Some of the most popular food known across the world as Chinese was invented by Chinese immigrants to the US over a century ago, but I believe dim sum is not among them. We passed interesting restaurant like the one in the photo above before reaching a place which Yelp considers one of the best for dim sum in this area.
I used to put on weight when I visited US even for periods as short as a week until I realized that I have to stay off sweets and muffins. This time around, the weather helped with working off extra calories. Some of the other tricks involve not eating muffins which come on the side of an order of fruits and yoghurt. It was easy to find places with calorie count indicated with each dish. This works as long as you stay off uncharted bits like salad dressing or bread and butter on the side.
Chicago has wonderful Italian restaurants, and Asian restaurant with amazingly good sushi. I’m told by a local authority that there are wonderful Indian restaurants; in fact such a diversity that you can eat at places which specialize in regional Indian food.
Whatever you eat, its good to remember that it started off as 96% water. It got tastier as the water was replaced by butter.