First tourists

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 (later 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?

A car for your Valentine

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.

Two beautiful pieces

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.

Hachiman as a monk, Japanese, 10th century, Art Institute of Chicago

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.

Sullivanesque, or Lost on Ontario Street

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.

A foreigner in the US

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 all 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

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.

Fort Dearborn

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.

Where’s the L in Chicago?

How many movies have you seen which show the elevated trains of Chicago? I can recall The Blues Brothers, The Fugitive (the one with Harrison Ford on the run), Ocean’s Eleven, While You Were Sleeping, to name just a few. So the bleak look of the parking lot below the century old tracks which you see in the featured photo didn’t come as a surprise. One of the amazing things about the USA is that the transport infrastructure is as old as it looks. The elevated tracks were finished in 1897!

What do you call it? The Chicago Tribune gives you the definitive answer: the L is preferred over El.

An elevated train in Chicago

“How often do the trains run?” Jake (John Belushi’s) asked in The Blues Brothers. Elwood (Dan Aykroyd) gave the definitive answer, “So often that you won’t even notice it”. That’s right. Before I finished cursing myself for fumbling a shot of a train passing the intersection in the photo above, the next one came along.

The electrical power to the train is, famously, supplied through a third rail. If you are wondering about it, then it is supplied at 600 Volts. Although, as Billy Crystal says in Running Scared, as he chases a bad guy along the rails, “It’s not the volts, it’s the amps”.

Not in Kansas any more

Of course not, Chicago is in Illinois, and, like Kansas, allows people to carry guns around with them. But, in the sense of being deeply outside my zone of normality, the phrase "Toto, I don’t think we are in Kansas anymore" passed through my mind when I saw the notice in the featured image at the entrance to my hotel.

This reassuring sign reminded me that Chicago is more dangerous than Sao Paolo. But crime in a city is not evenly distributed, so I searched for safe neighbourhoods in Chicago. Once I found that the downtown area called the Loop is safe, I figured that I might as well enjoy the experience of being in the city where Alphonse Capone worked, and where sudden death is not a term in football.

Since Chicago was unseasonably warm, I walked a lot. I walked north of the Chicago river a little past the Magnificent Mile, up to an area called the Near North Side, and southwards down to Chinatown. I took buses and trains in this part of Chicago. All this felt perfectly safe to me.