The Welcoming Heart of Chicago

She shed a tear. Followed by another. And another. And another. A sea was beneath her eyes, and the floodgates had sprung wide open in a vast field of deep dish pizzas, free-flowing beer pours, and slightly tipsy cocktail sips. I sat in awe at the end of the spider’s tangled web. I still sit in awe as I type this blog entry. I traveled to Chicago merely in search of adventure and stories. What I found in my final full day in the city is worth so much more.

Curious Like A Chi-Town Cat

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Skyscrapers. Zoos. Parks. Freedom. I felt alive stepping off the plane in a new city as I eagerly discarded the advice of hailing a taxi from O’Hare airport to downtown. The famed “L” train had my name written on one of its 1.6 million trips each day. “L” signs beckoned me with overtures as I followed the more subterranean route and swiftly purchased my transit ticket. A few miserable minutes waiting for the train in humid, underground heat soon gave way to an air conditioned trip downtown. Joyfully, I soaked up every bit of decay and development while I zoomed past gridlocked drivers. I was content in my restful wanderlust but only for the 45 minute ride into the city. Then, I flitted about the city like a travel butterfly in search of the most delectable travel flower nectar. Lincoln Park, Gold Coast, Wrigleyville, Bridgeport, and Garfield Park among others all served as playgrounds on my merry-go-round journey across the city. And my nectar? Hot dogs, and only the best, most unique in the city! Duh.

The hustle ‘n’ bustle didn’t detract from the friendly Midwestern faces. Random “L” train and restaurant bar small talk with strangers about their injuries, stories, and love for the Chicago Fire Major League Soccer team filled my head like the sugar plum fairies at Christmastime. They danced, and I happily obliged in their delicate waltz. Was I really learning the Chicago Waltz? Was I becoming that attuned to their city vibes? It appeared possible as I adeptly skipped from neighborhood to neighborhood–each unique yet seemingly connected to the rest like some unseen spider web trickery.

Hugged the Spider to the Butterfly

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Traversing the Chicago web happens thanks to a wonderfully interconnected Chicago Transit System featuring the traditional “L” trains, Metra trains, buses, and more. For my junior-grade city purposes, the “L” train lines served me well until the weekend when the transit authority closed 50% of the loop, diverting traffic through other lines’ routes. Lost in the shuffle, I found myself wandering downtown, searching leisurely for an elusive open station for a couple hours before finally finding my way to the Garfield Park Conservatory and the Garfield Park area. (Okay, okay, I went shopping during those two hours. But I didn’t buy!) The Conservatory was fabulous, filled with plants-a-plenty in rooms themed like desert landscapes or dense tropical bogs. But that’s not what ultimately drew my attention in retrospect.

I strolled south after my Conservatory exploration to Garfield Park, a vast park filled with people and mass greenery. I walked through grass, down sidewalks, across parking lots, and beside celebrations. Although a stranger, I felt connected. An older woman sitting on a park bench smiling at me as I passed. A rap DJ locking eyes and nodding in rhythm with me as he dropped phat beats. To my glee, a series of elderly people smiling, waving, and greeting me as I walked down their sidewalk.

I learned later from a friend that the Garfield Park area is one of the most dangerous in Chi-Town. I had “escaped” the riskiest part of the web. Yet these were just nice, welcoming Chicagoans. I felt just as at home in this neighborhood as any in Chicago. I would dare say I felt more at home; I received more smiles from strangers in this this neighborhood than any in the city. How could that be? I would hope it’s because they’re the kind of people that represent Chicago.

Dangerous part of Chicago? You could have fooled me.

The Heart of Chicago

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I rode the “L” Web strands back to the heart Chicago. Green-brown-blue-red-purple, all the lines blurred together. I skated lines by instinct and the wafting scent of hot dog heavens. Rail and foot led me to the Gold Coast, a vibrant set of city blocks in constant motion. The tangled web of Chicago unfurled as I walked to the bar at Lou Malnati’s, home of some of The Windy City’s best pizza. Locals swear by it; and my Navy Pier/Gold Coast guide from The City Sidewalks, Ana Dominguez, insisted forget touristy Giordano’s because it’s ALL about sweet Lou’s.

That Chicago heart beat strong with passion and compassion in a kind lady sitting on the stool next to me. She told me stories about Chicago and the best foods in the city while challenging me to share the best restaurants in Nashville. Then, she explained her day at a charity event for kids. There were such great prices that she would have absolutely loved–tickets to White Sox and Cubs games, dinners, and other Chicago cultural experiences. She actually won a children’s’ summer camp package as a lottery prize and knew exactly what to do. She donated it back to the charity and gave instructions to give it to a child in need. The charity officials offered to allow her to choose the child; but in her giving spirit, she immediately refused. She wanted no recognition, no thanks, no affirmation. The audience offered enormous applause. She wasn’t moved. Her words shifted to talk of children being the future, worthy of our investment, and worthy of our love. Her eyes formed tears. I swear her pupils were heart-shaped. And then, just like that, she paid and left. I tried to collect my thoughts.

Be Still My Hot Doggin’ Heart

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I moved from pizza to a mighty triple sampler dessert called the Tre Dolci and Game 7 of the NBA championship with a set of characters quite worthy of the game. A traveler from the West Coast pulling for Golden State, a local pulling for Cleveland, an elderly man who came for some grub and a good game, and a man talking to himself for two hours while clairvoyantly commenting about the upcoming moments of the game barked to and fro. The Tre Dolci was divinity on my tongue but really too much for just one person. Rich and thick key lime pie, a countering light tiramisu, and a home-style peach cobbler competed for room in my tortured, burgeoning stomach. I’m not sure how I finished, but I cleared my plate. Sadly, my Woman Vs. Food moment didn’t garner a single picture on the wall or free “I was Tre Crazy for eating the Wholci Tre Dolci” T-shirt. But I did receive some man-ffirmation from the bartender in a grin and head nod respecting my impressive feat. The game ended. I sauntered outside toward the nearest “L” station.

As I fluttered away, the night and minimized activity allowed me to reflect on my time in Chi-Town. To the friendly people of Garfield Park. To the smiling waiters and waitresses of the city at some of the most banging hot dog joints you could hope to find. To the giving woman at Lou Malnati’s. My spidery maze path through so many neighborhoods had led me to the prize at the end–the giving heart of Chicago. Ranging from this woman so compassionate about children to strangers sharing stories on the trains. Even when I walked through “the bad part of town,” the people offered only welcoming smiles. How do you feel when you find people like that? Like you don’t want to leave. It’s an infectious attitude. Addicting. Lodged in my heart. It’s the way Chicagoans are. It’s the way people should be.

This series has been a pleasure to create. I look forward to showing you some cool facets of the city. But the best one, from what I now know, can only be experienced in Chi-Town.

Welcome to Chicago.

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