25 September 2000

Best of Chicago 2000

Best VIP pillow turn down
Ritz Carlton Hotel
We've seen weather reports, menus, remote controls, bookmarked TV Guides, mints, condoms, mint-flavored condoms, and they have their place when you're living your so-called lush life out of town. What do we know about Chicago hospitality? Friend calls during the June food show, she's been left a pallette of chocolate, she says, hurry before she eats it all. It sounds like "pallet"--a slab of chocolate? THat's no fun, and dangerous, to boot. But the half-eaten carcass we encounter once there: a fist-sized artists' pallette, held aloft by profiteroles and surrounded by gorged, feverishly red strawberries, dipped in a thick cap of even more chocolate. Chicago never seemed so sugared.

Best 90-second shopping
Joe's Shoes, 2122 N. Milwaukee
It was a good bet. Can you walk into a store in ninety seconds and come out with something substantial that you need? Our friend laughed when we told her it would be a shoe store--"Not even a man can get out of a shoe store in nientiy seocnds"--and she took the bet, for twenty dollars. To the man behind the counter at Joe's, "Orange Chuck Taylors, size 9, and I want them now." He looks at the pair of us, nods, reaches for a box, sets them on the counter. "$21.80," he says. There's only one thing to add to that: "Got a twenty?"

Best movie popcorn aberration
Goofy cheese
The savor of popcorn is usually defined by the quality of the topping, some kind of butter or oil or oleo. But the new Landmark Century Cinemas offers a variety of toppings for your popcorn that are as eccentric as the layout of the place. You can take the brewer's yeast: we'll take white cheese.
Landmark Century

Best Chicago nostalgia magazine
The Our Town section of the Reader
There's a certain age where one reads the obituaries less out of curiosity of the many talents of the fallen than out of an increasing awareness of mortality. Live long enough, you'll joke that you're just making sure you made it through another day, not finding yourself there. That kind of clogged-artery self-referentiality steeps most issues of the Our Town section these days. Their Town finds less time than in its sundry past for celebrating the motley liveliness of somewhat thriving down-at-mouth commercial establishments than to mark or mourn the death of yet another dry cleaners dear to the particular scribbler, or a dance auditorium, or a some mom-'n'-pop confectionery, or some little doggy in some little window. History is fine and good, but celebrating a thing or defending it before its loss would make for good reading as well. The relentless past tense chafes. The sentimental ennobling of one's own experience aches. On that count, Chicago must be grateful for Barfly, badly written, hardly edited, ugly as sin, but a boozing, bruising present-tense chronicle of our day.

Best presumptuous CTA design
"Cannot Add Value"
Whether stranded in summer's savanna swelter or winter's hoarse slap, each rider has their own customer-tailored litany of complaint about our gosh-darn transit system. The little things are niggling, too. Let us not consider the Chicago tribune's recycling boxes, a "public service" advertising the newspaper while discouraging the communal practice of picking up a paper left behind that the Tribune won't get their four bits for. Nor the Pepsi placards that score the walls of many stations, advertising the official drink of the CTA captive. Nor the magnetic fare cards that often encourage us to gamble or to have a breath mint. Let's look at the weekly cards: twenty bucks for unlimited rides. Not a bad deal if you have to get around. Put it in your wallet and a thin line atop the card will stare at you each time you stare at it--"Cannot Add Value." Jeez, that's what we've been thinking about the CTA for decades.

Best automated CTA announcement
"This is GRAND!"
It's not even a Chicago voice that booms from overhead throughout subway cars, and we don't know if we prefer it to the mumbles and sing-songs and braggadocio of the now-discontinued conductors. It's more personable than the electronic directory assistance "voices," yet after a dozen repetitions of the same inflections, stop announcements become stuck in your head like bad jingles for food you'd never eat. You find yourself taking on the inflections after one ride too many: "This is Grand! This is GRAND!" The voice announcing the Blue Line stop at Milwaukee, Halsted and Grand becomes a druggy, deluded thing in the head, like kids muttering in the face of imminent calamity: "It's all good." Just keep saying it, be happy: "This is GRAND!"

Best invented Chicago
The world of "Stir of Echoes"
While a Madison, Wisconsin native, David Koepp's spring spook story made a convincing fictional topography, filled with a convincing damp and a brooding mood. It's not one of those movies where the house is right next to the El, yet it's a fabrication. Koepp's attention to his made-up Chicago is impressive: an autumnal pastiche of parts of Wicker Park, Polish Village, Brighton Park and Joliet, it has the feel of a real city where real people work, live, fight, and have more nightmares than sweet dreams.

Best street apparition
Young Sam Elliott
There was a day a couple summers back where Young Sam Elliott showed up in two neighborhoods the same day, down by the Art Institute early that morning, up near Irving Park Road come dusk. The man [ITAL]walks[ENDITAL]. Usually dressed in a threadbare 1970s-style leisure suit, he's a lanky rasher of a man, rail-thin, with a full head of hair and an uncommon resemblance to the Sam Elliott of that era: a consumptive cowboy looking like a ghost in cream polyester. He pitches forward as if into the wind, speed-walking, looking straight ahead, occasionally tugging at the long, thick mustache that completes the picture: this man decided what other man he wanted to be three decades ago, and he is that man still, and he walks, and he does not stop walking.

Best lost signage
Cosmopolitan Drugs
There is a shell at Chicago and Clark, awaiting some kind of shiny build-out for some shiny store, but we'll miss the pharmacy and cig store that stood there, with the sign out front with the wigged-out dancing lady caricature: "I get all my drugs at Cosmo's." Walking past or looking out the bus window, it was reassuring: yes, this is where I can get all my drugs.

Best sign gentrification has triumphed in Wicker Park
When the cow comes down
In the chatty gloom of Mas, you can survey faces and dishes and attitude and the drink menu and feel you are in any gentrifying part of our nation, keep to the faces, forget the street outside. Division Street has undergone any number of modifications of late, but there is one symbol that, once snuffed, will likely signal the final blow against the neighborhood that once boasted the battlers and strivers of Nelson Algren's much-noted notes on the area. It doesn't even matter if the reconditioned battery story on the northwest corner of Division and Paulina stays in business; what matters is if the cow comes down. Proud, goofy, made of seasons-stained papier-mache, this steer says: I am camp, but I do not know it; I am a visual blight, but I do not know it; my meaninglessness is an eyesore to newcomers, and I must be going.

Best bus line to make you wish you'd brought your pistol
Chicago 66
The 666, as we're fond of calling it, may be just the same as any other bus line at rush hour, with its own brand of crazies and noise and multilingual, multicultural jabber and gibberish, yet the stop-and-start traffic that lines the stretch from Western Avenue all the way to Michigan Avenue, with ungainly short blocks nearer the lake and double-parking in front of the stores of West Town leads inevitably to the five or six packed buses in a row syndrome, full of good people made irritable and snappish by the unpleasant lurching from stop to stop and the foreknowledge that the only thing that will make it better is getting off.

Best place to commit suicide
We don't know the stats. It probably comes down to slit wrists in a tepid tub after a tawdry TV dinner, a bottle of cheap, gargle-unworthy Merlot, a few pills in pudding, self-pitying thoughts, and an Aldi bag over the head. But we're romantics. Forget the bravura, gonzo, take-'em-all-out schemes: what is the most lyrical way to leave this city and this earth? In olden days, a swell swan dive off a building or bridge would have been worthy of a fine tabloid headline, but nowadays, you'd get a nod from the half-dozen faces watching CLTV and two mentions on WBBM Newsradio. Doesn't seem to be one, so the Dorothy Parker approach seems best in the modern city: "Gas stinks, nooses give/You might as well live."

Best way to keep yuppies out of your bar
Change the music
It was middle of the drinking man's night a few months back, and the local sudseria boldly asserted its contempt for a sudden assemblage of partying strangers, a knot of baseball caps and their perky gals, celebrating some key event in their major, major lives, but choosing to do it outside of where they're known. The loud fuckers had blowsed their way through some Tortoise-like post-pop noodling and now were burping and slapping and snorting their way over a bit of Miles Davis. Oh you should have seen their faces when the fourth movement of Glenn Branca's "Symphony # 6" came on: a little bit of multi-layered, strangely-tuned guitar noise, a dozen or more guitarists nearly levitating, almost as if with the sound of bees massing at the gate of hell. "What is this shit?" demanded the lead baseball cap. "Another Genuine Draft?" the bartender asked, eyes smiling, mouth firm. Five minutes later, they were gone, and the Miles was back.

Best chocolate airborne smell event
Blommer's chocolate, the skies of River North
Check the yellow-brown-gray crinkled pages of any defunct publication with "Chicago" in the title, there will be at least a couple awestruck references to the ongoing airborne smell event that we must note still: the powdery, oily, heart-seeking scent of cocoa that dusts its way from Kinzie Avenue near the old railway yards and across River North and points south. It finds you especially in sub-zero weather: the blistering cold crusting your nose, the air mentholatum to your lungs and now the sudden physiological whiff of chocolate aborning, searing into your bloodstream and darkening it.

*Best diner moment
A late summer afternoon, Leo's Lunchroom on Division. Crickets and construction sound in the distance, voices from the patio. Older woman nurses a coffee at the counter near the open door, dressed in fringe leather and other hippie accouterments that mark the favorite era of her life. Man at the front window, beside the neon sign of a coffee cup, nursing his mobile, soothing it as if for sleep. "Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yes. Of course. Mmm. Yeah." It is as steady as rain on a roof. The woman watches. "Hey," she says after a while. "Can you get the Cubs score on that thing for me?"

Best tavern moment
It is an ordinary evening in this bar we know: fashioned like a holding pen for looking and being seen, a kind of horseshoe bar undulating amid the faces and forms, the tavern is host to the usual suspects, some fresh meat, the occasional angry stare. The front door bursts open a little after midnight, the smoker-harsh voice louder than the bar's hard music. Look this way: the gentleman has spiked blonde tendrils of hair, thinning; spiked, drugged eyes; a yellow t-shirt above dingy cargo pants. He moves as against the moon's gravity. One hand clamps a cell phone to his ear, which is not so uncommon, even as he shouts a friend's name into the device repeatedly, like an incantation. No, what is special is the hand that holds the yellow shirt aloft, leaving visible to all his compulsive nipple-twiddling, twiddle, turn, as if this existence were a distant radio signal he could not quite tune into.
Best impromptu music venue
2120 W. Chicago
Although air conditioning somehow found its way into the low-ceiling all-purpose-room ecosphere of Odum6 late this summer, surely the noise and semi-noise bands and internecine conspiracies and alliances in the audience will not shift in this low-, flat south of Ukrainian Village space with all the atmosphere of an unimproved party in an unimproved loft amid strangers who might shortly become friends.

Best airport bar
Where there's booze
It's not location, truly, it's mood, and let us restrict ourselves to O'Hare instead of the despondent-making irreality of Midway, where any MGD makes MDW more tolerable. here is the best airport bar: the one where the game is turned down, if not off; there is no line; no lonely-looking middle-aged woman is crying into the beer next to hers; where business deals are not being tacked to the all in person or on cell phones and where the plastic cup is topped to the rim and the smell of the tubesteaks swilling nearby is wafting toward K6 and not your person.

Best multiplex movie theater
City North 14
N. Western Avenue
Stadium seating is a sweet thing coming out of somebody else's overextended corporate pocket, and within the city limits, the City North 14, despite eight to ten screens showing stuff we shouldn't admit to seeing except at a drive-in, offers a layout in the arrival and departure areas that are coherent, sound and pjection that are competent, and but for the unwarrantedly warm glow of the Exit signs near the screens, seats that allow you to fall into the near West side's dreamiest public darkness.

Best restaurant death corridor
Milwaukee Avenue, south of North Avenue
Make a shit sandwich out of two slices of shit with some shit in the middle and you might get some idea of the cold, cruel landscape the wind whistle through on Milwaukee Avenue south of North. Soul Kitchen thrives, Souk persists, but do tell why, in what is supposedly the longest post-war economic boom in a thoroughly gentrifucked neighborhood, there are so many fly-specked, whitewash-windowed storefronts vacant along that stretch of commercial real estate? Must Burger King hold such seniority? More restaurants have fallen of late--That Fish Place! is now minus the ! and tenant, as well.

Best hotel bar moment
The man's hand has been between the woman's legs for at least one round of drinks. (Ours, not theirs.) There is no view here of skyline or city, only plush darkness that is teak or mahogany or money. Her eyes do not leave his. His are more jittery, checking the room for something--cops, creditors, or cronies? The pair are healthy, fiftyish. Game or affair, can't tell. The bartender signals, another? "Double Stoli, straight up," she says. He waves "no" with his other, cigaretted hand. Their voices are low, conspiratorial. She stares. His eyes circuit the room. A sound rips their murmur. She says something. His voice is a little boy's plaint, caught out, suddenly hard, "I did not fart!"

Best O'Hare moment
The woman is weeping. She is old and dear. Surely a beautiful child, she is more beautiful now. It's the United terminal, with its crazy gassy scrawly neon sculptures, like rice noodles dried in an auto body shop and the spazzed electronic iterations and reiterations of "Rhapsody in Blue" and the canned warning, the moving walkway is now ending, please look up. Our elder friend is parked scooch in the middle between the two walkways. A couple bags stand beside her. She stares directly, confidently, toward you as you pass. There is the Babel of arrival and departure all about. her fingers, if you look down the walking is ending, please look down, trickle across a blank plain of cream paper--she is finding her way in this visual din in the tactile, near-invisible alphabet of Braille.

Best restaurant bar moment
She says her name has a color in it, but it would make you sad to remember it. The smell of ingredients thrown one by one into the sizzle of the line rises from behind her young, round, almost blank face. A train rumbles nearby. The subject is Montana. The conversation is strained. A cell phone rings. Several people jump to attention--do Chicago humans intuitively all select the same ring? But it is hers. She looks at the caller I.D. Her eyes shoot to the man behind the bar, who is also on the phone. She takes it the call. Looks his way, this. Folds the phone, looks this way. She leans forward, a hoarse whisper. "The bartender? My roommate? He says you're trouble."