After spending a morning in botanist’s paradise, James and I needed to fill our bellies. Both of us, over the past few years have really gotten into the idea of eating local food or at local establishments. We’re into authenticity, culture, and sometimes even strange stuff we may never have heard of. And, in Chicago, this type of food is not in short supply. So, for guys like us, it would be blasphemy to eat at a Subway, Chili’s, or even the Bubba Gump’s at Navy Pier. These are restaurants that look exactly the same no matter where you go. You can close your eyes and be in Chicago, Murray, Jackson, or Boise Idaho. Doesn’t matter cause it’s the same. So, it’s also almost like you’re nowhere. You’re in a Chili’s alternate universe, that’s sort of like Texas or at least what people not from Texas probably think about Texas. Not that I don’t occasionally enjoy a big mouth burger from Chili’s, but it doesn’t really give me any sense of the place I’m in. We wanted to be in Chicago and see what real Chicago people eat.
James suggested we go to the New Maxwell Street Market. This Market has been going on over 100 years, and began on (you guessed it) Maxwell Street, which has been surrounded by immigrant communities almost as long as it’s been around. It was a hub for blues music in years past. So, all these groups gathered to hock their wares and try to find deals better than the department stores on State Street. You just walked the street and there were booths selling jewelry, food, clothing, all kinds of stuff. The market has moved to Canal Street and now to Des Plaines St., and so we have the New New Maxwell Street Market on Des Plaines Street. Why isn’t it just called the Des Plaines Street Market? I searched, but the best I can come up with is that that’s just what they called it and they didn’t want to change. In it’s hey-day, the Maxwell Street Market had big ties to the Jewish community, but today you’ll mainly find Mexican-Americans. And, we were in the market for some real-deal Mexican food.
James and his wife, Sarah, had come to the market on their last trip to Chicago, so he was my guide in this new world. Basically, a city street gets closed off on Sunday, and people set up a bunch of tents and food trucks. In the background, hovering behind this near West side street is the Willis Tower, tallest building in Chicago. Those black building blocks and its white horns at the top of the tower point up at the sky and get closer than any of the others. It looms in the background of this carnival atmosphere. James mentioned that he and I were probably the only non-Chicagoans there, and for me that’s a cool feeling. We had made our way into this part of the city that most outsiders don’t know about. We were rubbing elbows with regular people. People who lived and worked here. People who knew the real city.
We found one of the food trucks with the longest line (we figured if they locals are willing to stand in line, they know something), and tried to figure out what the menu items were. This is a place where most people are placing their orders in Spanish. In line, I practiced my order in Spanish to try to sound as normal as possible. It’s a cool feeling to pronounce a language the right way. The worry, though is that you’ll pronounce these 3 words in your order so well that they will start asking you other questions you aren’t prepared for, and you’ll be found out. Luckily, my order was simple enough that I didn’t have to come out and admit that I was dumb and only really spoke English. So then, we just found a seat in the shade on the sidewalk and enjoyed this authentic feast, with kids and their families running back and forth, enjoying the booths and their food. For dessert, we got churros, still hot, filled with chocolate and strawberry filling. Oh man, was that good. All this for about $5 a piece.
Our next destination would be the Green Mill Night club for the Uptown Poetry Slam. We had the afternoon to get there, so we took the trail from the near West Side to Uptown, on the North Side, following the shore of Lake Michigan. Along the way, we filled the afternoon stopping off at some of our favorite places: Lincoln Park, the Lincoln Park Zoo, and Wrigley Field. This is a fantastic part of Chicago–there’s always some way to pass the time. You can have the quiet of a park with a lagoon and tall prairie grass or a 100 year old major league baseball park in the middle of a residential neighborhood. And, this is just what happened to be on the way to our destination.
Few tourists get as far north as Uptown. Wrigley Field or maybe Graceland Cemetery is probably the northern terminus of your standard Chicago must-sees. But there is so much more if you stay on the Red Line of the El. Uptown was a big deal in the 20s. It was the place to be. You’d see Chicago gangsters in the theaters here among the other movers and shakers of the day. Since, it was abandoned almost to the point of falling apart, and in the nick of time, preservationists swept in and are rescuing some of the landmarks. One landmark in Uptown that has never needed rescuing is the Green Mill. It was a speakeasy back in the Prohibition Days. There are stories of secret passages under the building that lead all the way out to Lake Michigan where bootleggers would pick up booze from ships. The decorations are very similar to what it must have been like back in the 20s. It’s dimly lit, tight, and a great place to have a drink or hear a performance, music or otherwise. The old cash register, rings every time a purchase is made, and is about as loud as any other sound in the building.
Slam Poetry, an enthusiastic performance of poetry supposedly began in this building, and every Sunday night is dedicated to this popular way to get poetry heard. Basically, people get up and perform their poems. And, I do mean perform. You ain’t just reading your stuff, or you’re gonna get booed. You better bring it. James and I sat at the bar, and listened to these people bare their souls on stage. There is a jazz band who will play behind you as you read your poems, and I was just blown away by how quick they were, backing up the poets. There was a playful attitude throughout, and the emcee was great at his job. We heard poems ranging from comedic to deep, deep and dark. I’m very snobby about my poetry, but even in the times that I felt like the words were sub-par, I had to admire the consideration to inflection and sound, and just the fact that these people were getting up in front of perfect strangers and letting it all out. And there was a freaking jazz band behind them. What a cool night.
So, James and I closed out the evening, hopping back on the El to head back to Greektown. It was late and we were tired, but we had seen a lot. A conservatory, a street market, a zoo, the greatest baseball field on Earth, and a night of spoken word poetry in a former speak easy. And that’s just one day. We were only halfway through this trip, but, as I wrote in my journal, I already felt like this wouldn’t be enough time. But then again, I could probably live there 100 years and it not be enough.