Chicago, Illinois 8/29/2003 - 9/1/2003

Friday, August 29, 2003 - Arrival

Steve dropped us off at the airport at around 5:15 pm. Our flight was supposed to depart at 7:15, but since we were there early they offered to put us on the 6:15 flight. We said ok, and then got into the longest security line known to man. We got to our gate just before boarding. The captain told us after we had boarded that there was bad weather and we had to wait 30 minutes before takeoff. Then, after 30 minutes he said we had clearance to go, but there had been a security breach at Logan at 6:22 and the Feds wanted to vacate the plane. Our plane's doors had been shut since 6:08, so the captain said it was his opinion that we shouldn't have to be searched. He was obviously frustrated by the delay. He convinced them to let us go. We watched "Anger Management" on the flight. Standard silly movie fare but it was funny; and it especially surprised us that Jack Nicholson was the comedian and Adam Sandler was the straight man!

We landed in Chicago at around 8:30 Central Daylight Time. We caught the Airport Express to the hotel. We had to wait to pick up more passengers at the airport, and it turned out that the Express lanes on the highway weren't open. The ride was slower than last time, and it ended up taking about an hour from door to door. We dropped off passengers at other hotels first, so we ended up arriving at the Omni Chicago around 9:45 p.m. We checked into room 1418. There was a slightly different configuration from last year's room; it was a bit smaller, had no doors separating seating area and bedroom, and didn't have a circular flow. But it was still very nice. It had a better view than last year's room. There was an ugly greyhound painting on the wall, but we had free wireless internet access! Yay! We were glad we brought the laptop. We sent some email home and then went out to wander. We took a few pictures of a statue in front of the St. James Cathedral Episcopal Church Center on Michigan Ave. I bought a StreetWise newspaper (that benefits the homeless), but only too late did I realize that the vendor wasn't licensed. It was obvious when I gave him money and he immediately harassed me for more. Oh well.

At 11:15 pm we passed the Rock Bottom Brewery. We were given free rum T shirts on the sidewalk in front of the building. We noticed that there was a bar on the roof. The weather was great, so we decided to head up there and enjoy the beautiful night. The rooftop bar was very nice, and had a great view. Craig got a Brown Bear Brown and I got raspberry vodka and lemonade. At midnight the roof closed so we finished our second round downstairs. Then we wandered some more, but most places had covers and since it was 1 am we didn't feel like paying for such a short remainder of the evening. We saw at least 4 people on Segway scooters going down the street. It was our first time ever seeing one in person, let alone four! We passed the Rainforest Cafe, which has a huge statue of a red-eyed tree frog perched on the roof. We noticed that Isaac Hayes' Music, Food, Passion club was no longer in business. It had been the happening place last year. How quickly things change. We went to the Clark Street Ale House (right next to Blue Chicago). We had two rounds of silver tequila shots and Craig got two beers (Bell's Two Hearted Ale). I ran across the street at 2 am to the G's Dawgs 'n Burgers to get a cheese dog. I brought it back to the bar, and it made a delicious late night snack. We left the bar at 2:45. It was a fun drunken walk back to hotel. Craig never gets drunk, so it was amusing to see him pointing out flower boxes for me to photograph, hiding behind a church buttress, and sitting on the sidewalk under a no parking sign. I journaled as best I could and went to bed at 3:30.
Statue, St. James Cathedral Episcopal Church Center Rock Bottom Brewery rooftop beer garden Rainforest Cafe
Water Tower Blues guy playing in front of the Water Tower View down State Street Hypnotic Brass Ensemble Big Time Sarah and the BTS Express at Blue Chicago

Saturday, August 30, 2003 - Michigan Avenue, Big Time Sarah

We woke up at 10:30. I realized that somewhere on the walk home last night, I lost my StreetWise. I lost my free T-shirt too, but Craig still had his. We disagreed initially about whose shirt was actually lost, but the evidence from the digital camera proved it once and for all. Oh well, at least I kept track of the most importat things - camera, pocket book, and Craig! We had hoped to go on the StreetWise Not Your Mama's Bus Tour today. It is a tour run by former StreetWise vendors which visits various sections of the city and presents them from a homeless person's point of view. I had called them a week prior to try to make reservations, but they weren't sure if they'd have enough customers to run one. They never got back to me. I called them again to check, but they still didn't know if they were running one, so we gave up (they wouldn't know until noon and the tour was supposed to start at 1). So instead we had a liesurely morning. We left the room around 1 pm. We went to Giordano's for pizza, since it was so good last year. The restaurant was busy as usual, but they do a great job of managing the crowds. We seated ourselves in the lounge and had a drink. Then after 20 minutes, we ordered our pizza. About 30 minutes after that, our table was ready. Our stuffed pepperoni and sausage pizza arrived soon after we sat down. I had 3 pieces but Craig had only one. He wasn't feeling so well (hot and cold at the same time), so we took most of it as a doggy bag. Craig had iced tea and I had Diet Coke. Note to self: next time get small pizza! The leftovers barely fit in the mini fridge. We went to Dunkies so Craig could get a coffee (maybe the lack of caffiene isn't helping him?) and then we walked down by the water tower. We saw the "Puertorriqueños en Chicago" photo exhibit by Carlos Flores at the City Gallery inside the water tower building. It was an exhibit of historical b&w gelatine prints of the Puerto Rican community of Chicago, mostly focusing on the 1970's. We hung around outside the water tower for a while listening to a blues guy with a small generator, electric guitar and amp, and a tambourine between two pieces of plywood that was standing in for a kick drum. The day was absolutely gorgeous (air rather chilly but warm in the sunshine), and we were enjoying just being outside. After the musician finished his set, we headed back to the room at 3:30-ish to drop off the leftovers, etc. Craig was starting to feel better; the fresh air (and maybe the coffee?) seemed to be doing him good. So we headed back out again.

We walked over to House of Blues (in the Marina City section of downtown) to get tickets for tomorrow's gospel brunch. The noon seating was sold out so we had to get tix for 9:30 am. Yikes that'll be difficult after a night on the town! We went to the Jazz Record Mart and bought CD's by Big Time Sarah, Eddy Clearwater, and Willie Dixon, a blues calendar and a couple blues magazines. We bought a legit StreetWise from a very nice, friendly, appreciative vendor. He even invited us to ther vendor appreciation picnic te next day! We went to the Rand McNally store and bought the Chile Insight Guide and some journals and games for the nephews. We saw the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble performing on the sidewalk as part of the African festival. They were a bunch of brass players and drummer (all brothers, sons of trumpeter and composer Kelan Phil Cohran) performing Afro/Cuban/Dixieland music on a Michigan Ave. streetcorner in front of the Virgin Megastore. They were very good; we bought a disc for $10. Then we went into Virgin to do a little Xmas shopping. We admired the creepy Gollum statue (several feet tall, cast in resin crouching on the ground) in the window display for The Two Towers. We walked back to the hotel by 7 pm. We got fresh apples at the front desk. Craig, finally having a bit of an appetite, had a slice of leftover stuffed pizza. We listened to our new Big Time Sarah disc while I typed up the journal.

We headed out at 8 pm to Blue Chicago (located at 736 N. Clark). We were some of the first ones there, so we got a good table, the same one we sat at last year when we saw Willie Kent and his Gents. We really like this club. It has nice ambiance, and the music is always good. The bartender uses an antique cash register whose bell rings each time the drawer is opened. It makes the place seem older and more authentic. It's certainly not a purist juke joint or anything, and it seems to attract mostly a tourist clientele. But it is in a very convenient location, has a very comfortable atmosphere, and features great music. For a $7 cover you can come and go between the two Blue Chicago clubs located just blocks from one another. While Craig was in the rest room, the drummer caught me spacing out and told me to smile, which would be a running joke for the remainder of the night. Craig ordered 3 Goose Head Honker's Ales and I had 3 margaritas over the course of the 6 1/2 hour evening. After last night's "tequila incident", as it came to be known, we decided to keep it low key.

BTS Express played four one-hour sets, with 30 minute breaks in between. Big Time Sarah herself joined the band for the second half hour of each set. Sarah is a great blueswoman whose voice can get down and raunchy (and so can her stage persona). The band was made up of her extended family, and they were quite good (drums, rhythm and lead guitar, and bass). We enjoyed such tunes as "Hoochie Coochie Woman", "Fever", "Cold Shot", "Chicken Head", etc. Carlos, one of the guitarists, did some really amazing volume swells. The club seems to only sell various artist Blue Chicago discs. We didn't buy one as we already owned them from last year. But we had our Big Time Sarah and BTS Express disc ("Lay It On 'Em Girls") with us, and we asked her to sign it when she walked by our table. She said this isn't her newest album, and that they should have the newest at the Jazz Record Mart. We said that is where we bought it, and she started to get a little concerned that maybe they weren't carrying her newest release. We said that it had been there, we had just picked this one because we really love "Ain't No Sunshine" and "Summertime". She asked if we were going to be around tomorrow. She is having a party at her West side house w/ plate lunches benefitting kids from drug addicted families in her neighborhood. There will be a band (a guy who played with Duke Ellington, and Sam Good, who has played with Buddy Guy, etc. and who was in the house tonight for her show). She really wanted us to go as she's trying to raise funds. She told us that the plate lunches would be $5, then proceeded to try to justify the price by saying there would be "at least $8-10 worth of food." Craig and I thought "What kind of fundraiser undercharges for food?" She gave us her address and phone number, along with explicit directions as to how to get there by cab. It was clear she wanted us to go ("Now don't forget!") and it sounded like a lot of fun, so it's definitely on our agenda. The party runs from 2 - 8 pm. So cool!! We'll gladly go. She invited some other people who bought discs at the show and made a general announcement toward the end of the night, but we weren't sure if people took her seriously. The show got out at 2:30 am and we walked back to the hotel.

Sunday, August 31, 2003 - Gospel Brunch, Big Time Sarah's BBQ

We got up at 7:45 to get ready for gospel brunch at the House of Blues. Leaving the hotel around 8:50, we took a roundabout route to the House of Blues in order to explore a little more of the downtown Marina City area. It was a nice morning but with heavy cloudcover. We got there around 9:15. We walked into the lobby and a couple of employees were playing emcee. They asked trivia questions for prizes. The first one was how many HOB's are there. A kid got it right eventually (8). They said the second question would be harder. I had a feeling about what it was going to be and I was right. What was the first HOB? I shouted out "Cambridge" (beating out Craig by seconds), and I won an HOB T-shirt size M. The kid had "busted a move" when he received his prize, and they encouraged me to as well. I shook my thang a little (how do I always end up in these situations?) They then let us in to the venue. There is a floor section, then the soundboard, then a tiered section behind the soundboard. There was also a balcony. We were in the tiers. It was much different than the HOB we are used to in Cambridge, both inside and out. This was not a "house" at all but a performance hall, and was shaped almost exactly like the inflatable "slug" that Pink Floyd had designed as a venue for their "Wall" concerts. Unlike Cambridge, whose attic room has standing room for 180, this one seated a couple thousand. We sat with two guys from Kansas City and two women from Ohio. At first the women seemed like they really didn't want us there (wanted to leave their purse on the extra seats instead of letting us sit there), but the men were very nice and helped to break the ice.

We went through the main buffet line and got biscuits and gravy, scrambled eggs, sausage, bacon, hash browns, tortellini salad, sweet potatoes, potato salad, shrimp, fruit, jambalaya, etc. Then we hit the dessert station which featured cookies, brownies, cheesecake, etc. There were also other stations we didn't even get to because we had so much other food: a carving station and an omelette station. A caraffe of coffee, a pitcher of orange juice, and a pitcher of water were on the table for us to help ourselves. The staff was very friendly and attentive. We ate from 9:30-10:15. Then the gospel music began (William Smith Jr. and the Renewed Voices for Christ). The choir was dressed in white robes with purple and gold accents, and bearing the word "Renewed" in embroidery on the front. The choir director played a Hammond B3, and there were drums and a guitar as well. The choir encouraged audience participation, and they put on a very lively 45 minute set. It sounded fantastic. At 11, we were told by our emcee,"Your money has run out and you've got to go." They began setting up for the noon seating as we exited the performance hall. On the way down the stairs we bought the choir's CD for $15. The whole experience had been very nice, but we couldn't help coming away with the feeling that we'd just been to Disney World. The entertainment was good, the food was good, and the people were friendly, but it had a contrived, overly antiseptic feel to it, and the commercialism of the whole thing was pretty blatant. It left us pining for the House of Blues in Cambridge at home, with its small intimate size and cozy feel. The irony of all this is that when we got home we found out that the Cambridge House of Blues had been sold and will shut down in two weeks.According to the Boston Globe, the footprint was too small and they are looking to find a Boston-area location which is larger so that they can have a larger performance hall, lager restaurant, and larger retail space. Talk about how to ruin a good thing! Take the place with character and intimacy (not to mention a certain historic value...first House of Blues and lots of great talent has played there in the past few years) and replace it with a bigger, impersonal, commercialized thing. But I digress...

When we got back outside, it was raining. We walked over to Jazz Record Mart. The place was hopping as they were celebrating Delmark Records' 50th anniversary with a free jazz brunch. They were in between bands when we arrived, so we didn't hear any jazz. We bought the other two Big Time Sarah discs, then we stopped at Walgreens, bought some water, and headed back to the hotel for a little rest.

At around 2:20 it was still raining. Sarah hadn't indicated that the party was weather permitting, so we assumed it was still on as planned. We took a cab approximately 8 miles to her house (it cost $12.50). When we arrived we were greeted warmly by Sarah and her guests on the front porch. We followed the walkway around to the fenced back yard and sat under a small tent with some of Sarah's neighbors and friends: Barbara, Janice, Jimmy Lee (named after her father), and Tyrone. A little boy came out and said, "Excuse me, Sarah says she'll be right out." Everyone was working together setting up. Vicki and Bertha were cooking chicken, ribs, etc. in a huge smoker made out of a home-sized oil tank. Sam Good from the club last night was setting up a drum kit and the amps under a tarp which was attached to Sarah's brick house. A bassist set up his bass. A common driveway for all of the houses on the street ran parallel to the street, behind the houses. This driveway was lined with separate garages for each house. Three little girls ages 3, 4, and 5 (whom Sarah helps to raise) were all dressed up and were quite friendly towards us. They had a lot of attitude with one another (swiveling their heads and doing "talk to the hand", which made all of the adults giggle), and were really quite adorable. They started rapping (not exactly sure of what they were saying but it sounded like "baby girl and baby BOP"). They emphasized the last word and started chanting in unison getting louder and louder as they went.

We had fun talking to the other party-goers. One of the neighbors came by with his five month old son J.P., who had just undergone surgery. Apparently the baby was prone to asthma, and after the mother yelled "Bring me back my baby!" a few times from a house three doors down, the proud daddy finally acquiesced and brought little J.P. back home. Since the band was not yet playing, Sam put the mic up to the radio (which was set on an r&b station). Music reverberated through the yard, and Tyrone danced in the driveway. The women sang along with the radio, and I joined in on "Chain of Fools". After a while we headed over to the smoker to get some plates of food. Each plate (at $5) was piled high with our choice of meat (we chose rib tips, but they also had hot links, fried chicken, and fried catfish), spaghetti, bbq baked beans, white bread, and cornbread. There was so much food and it was so delicious! Sarah sold us a beer and a rootbeer for $1.75 total. How would she even recover her costs at this price? But it was clear that not only was she trying to raise money to help the neighborhood kids, she was also showing the adult neighbors a good time at a very reasonable price. Everyone was very nice and went out of their way to talk to us and make us feel at home. The weather went from sprinkling to full-fledged rain. Sam had been noodling on the drums but soon the band decided to break down the equipment before they even officially starting playing so they wouldn't risk damaging their equipment. They loaded their instruments into their cars and left. What a shame! Sarah had hoped for a block party where neighbors would be drawn in by the music, etc., but the weather had conspired against her. The turnout was pretty small (20 people?) and seemed limited to neighbors, family, and friends. Noone else from the club showed up, and Sarah had introduced us to everyone as her friends from Boston.

After the band left, it was 5:15, and it was a little awkward for a while because we didn't know whether to stay or go. They were packing up the food and heading inside as it was clear the rain wasn't going to let up. When she noticed that we were unsure of whether we should stay or leave, Sarah made it a point to personally invite us inside for a while and said she'd have a cabbie friend drive us back downtown when we were ready. So, the next thing we know we are in Big Time Sarah's house. There were folks sitting around the dining room table, and Sarah told us to make ourselves at home on the couch. She had a poster from one of her gigs on the wall, and there were stacks of 45's on her shelves, along with lots of family photos. She had Music Choice Digital Blues on the TV (funny, as that's where we first heard her music at home). She offered us a drink "on her". Craig asked for a Bud. I asked for water. She gave me a hard time as if I just didn't want to accept her offer, then she backed off and said "Oh, you don't drink?" I told her that I was allergic to beer, so she offered me some brandy, which I accepted. Tamika (one of the little girls) brought our drinks to us.

Without her cronies for support (the other two girls were downstairs), Tamika was being shy. Sarah came over and sat next to us. We talked about Music Choice, Boston (she's played at Harpers Ferry and most recently a lobster festival in Maine), etc. Sarah was singing with Tamika, teaching her the call and response type of blues, teaching her to clap along with the music, and to "work it" (shake her booty). It was a very touching moment, where the blues culture was being passed down from one generation to the next. I took a picture of Sarah with Tamika, and then Sarah took a picture of us with Tamika. I got a picture of the rest of the group (Sarah's neighbors and friends) and a guy gave me his email address and asked me to send him a copy. Tamika was dancing, and the two other girls came in. The three of them danced with Sarah, shaking their booties to the music. They were very cute kids. Sarah asked if we had kids. We told her about Craig's brother Steve's kids, who live upstairs from us. She gave us some back-to-school supplies for them (crayons, notebooks, erasers, pencils, and folders) as a gift. We were floored by her generosity. Here she was trying to make money to fund school supplies for the kids in her neighborhood, and since we had kids living at our house she gave some to us. Around 6:45 we decided to head out; it was obvious that Sarah was tired (how much sleep could she have gotten with her gig ending at 2:30 that morning?). She insisted on giving us a plate of food each to take back to the hotel so we could just spend a quiet evening without having to go out to a restaurant. She called a cabbie friend who picked us up about 5 minutes after she got off the phone with him. I gave her a hug as we said goodbye. She kept thanking us for attending. Craig insisted on paying for the doggy bags that she gave us. She wouldn't hear of it and argued (making a scene on the porch in front of the whole neighborhood) until Craig said he agreed with what she was doing and wanted to help out. She finally gave in and said she'd buy more books for the kids with the money, which made us very happy.

Sarah's cabbie friend drove us back to the hotel for $10. We noticed a life-sized hula guy in the window of the Sony Store. I had to get a picture of it. Craig had to use the bathroom but we noticed Garrett's Popcorn (which we still hadn't visited and our second trip to Chicago was drawing to a close) was still open. I went to Garrett's while he went back to the room. The line only turns one corner but looks infinite due to the mirrors. A nice man from Detroit was behind me in line, and chatting made the time go by. I got 4 oz of caramel popcorn for $2.10. I took a quick picture of the exterior and then headed back to the hotel. Craig and I broke out the popcorn. It was delicious; so fresh and buttery. It truly melted in your mouth and it left your fingers all greasy. At 9 pm we raided the minibar and attacked Sarah's leftovers (catfish, spaghetti, beans, bread, rib tips, etc., etc.). Craig had a Heineken and I had oj and vodka. I journaled while Craig started packing things up. We went to bed at around midnight.
Michigan Avenue Bridge Steph on a drawbridge in the Marina City section of town House of Blues Big Time Sarah's backyard Tamika and Big Time Sarah Tamika, Steph, and Craig Sarah's friends and neighbors The girls dancing to the blues Leftovers!

Monday, September 1, 2003 - Departure

We woke up at 7, made coffee, and finished packing. Another rainy day. Craig ate some Giordano's pizza leftovers. We were checked out by 8:20, and the Airport Express shuttle arrived at 8:30. Our driver told us about some troubles that Illinois has been having with unlicensed drivers purchasing licenses.He assured us that he passed his test with flying colors. He was a character. We arrived at O'Hare and checked in at 9 for our 11 am flight. We went to the gate of an earlier flight and luckily they were able to fit us onto the 10 am flight. I ate a Cinnabon and we had some orange juice before boarding the plane. I journaled for pretty much the whole flight, and we arrived in Boston at about 1 pm.

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