The train, the fog, and the Bruckner: Chicago, part 1

In the relatively immediate aftermath of my breakup earlier this year, I somehow decided that I was going to do “something nice for myself,” and this “something nice for myself” eventually turned into a trip to Chicago to see the symphony perform Bruckner, theoretically crossing two things off the bucket list that I don’t have. I booked myself a room at the moderately swanky Hilton Chicago, got expensive tickets to the symphony, and bought Amtrak tickets because taking the train is fun (and in no way because of my not-actually-debilitating fear of flying). Friday morning I checked a third thing off of what is now a pretty sad retroactive bucket list and took the train out of Union Station in Kansas City. It was not nearly as cool as it seemed in my head.

But that’s not to say that the train trip itself sucked. I spent a good deal of time in the Observation Car staring out at some terribly depressing small towns that had been run roughshod over by an equal mix of winter, human sadness, alcoholism, and probably the economy. This should have bummed me the fuck out, but I was listening to a lot of that late Schubert music that I posted about a couple weeks back and the scene took on a strangely moving quality; there’s beauty to be found in decay and an inexorable downward spiral if you’ve got the right accompaniment.

We arrived in Chicago and I walked from Union Station to the hotel over on Michigan Avenue, which was significantly further than I anticipated. By the time I got there I was burning up even though it was 33 degrees and rainy outside. After unpacking and regrouping, I set out for something I would repeat at least four times over the course of the weekend: just walking around and seeing all the people and listening to some music and eating food and soaking in the city. Not far from the hotel was a guy playing what was essentially funk clarinet on the street. He had a speaker blasting a groovy funk beat and he was fucking jamming man, so much so that he had a homeless dude groupie who was SUPER amped about the music. After that I walked up and down State Street which was teeming with shoppers, teenagers, and white girls in leggings and knee-high boots (a look I’m ALMOST completely unashamed to say I love). I’m sure if I’d have had business to attend to the crowd would have driven me nuts, but since I was there to watch the crowd anyway, it was a great scene, especially the part when I listening to the Cantus Christmas album and the Franz Biebl Ave Maria came on when I was in front of the completely overrun Macy’s. The juxtaposition of the swarm of humanity and the stillness of the music was awesome, though it only came in second place in the night’s juxtaposition contest to the perfectly contrasted flavors of the bad ass Cuban sandwich I had at Cafecito. SOMEONE FINALLY USED ENOUGH MUSTARD YOU GUYS!

Saturday morning was set to begin with something that I had discovered by happenstance in a New York Times article. There’s a CD store (because record store would be wholly inaccurate in this case) in Oak Park called Chicago Digital that has an inventory of 30,000-40,000 discs and specializes in classical and jazz. So yeah, I was going to that. As if that weren’t enough, right across the street was a Brazilian restaurant that served feijoada and not just 20 different kinds of steak. But before any of that, I swung by Oak Park Bakery and had the greatest donut of all-time, a chocolate-covered cake donut that was so flavorful and texturally satisfying that I literally stared at the last bite for about 20 seconds making sure it was a cake donut.

Chicago Digital was…not what I expected. There weren’t rows of CDs to browse. There were thousands of plastic sheets filled with printouts from Amazon or copies of the CD cover. And they were only loosely organized. You’d just pick up a stack of plastic sheets and rifle through them seeing what they were, then you’d put those down and grab another stack. It was like searching Amazon for “orchestral music” and then scrolling, only you weren’t scrolling. You were standing there picking through papers wrapped in plastic. Basically it was, only there was no .com and you could get your shit immediately if you could find anything. I ran across a DVD box set of Nielsen symphonies completely by accident and ended up buying it, but I was out of there in 20 minutes. The dude working behind the counter was very nice, and I’m never going to say an unkind word about someone keeping a music store open (especially one with so much classical), but it was certainly not my thing. Fortunately, the feijoada and guarana was. Insert Portuguese word for delicious here.

I walked around town again in the afternoon and ended up stopping at the Willis (used to be Sears) Tower. I almost fell over backwards looking up at it from the outside and figured I had to take a stab at going up to the top. Five different employees told me the visibility was zero, but I pressed on anyway because why the hell not? And let me tell you, they weren’t kidding:


It was still kinda awesome though. When I went out on the overhang and knelt down, I could see down the side of the building for about 100 feet before the fog thickened. It was like staring into the abyss. In a good way, if that’s possible…?

That evening I went to eat at a place called Old Town Social because my good friend Shahzore’s brother Zeeshan is the chef there and it sounded pretty good regardless of who was cooking. And it was. I tried the mac and cheese, and it has only one real rival in my opinion, that being Jake’s Grill at the Governor Hotel in Portland. Then I tried all four of the tacos they had, and they were all ridiculously good. The pork belly one was especially tasty – probably one of the five best things I’ve eaten all year – and the spicy shrimp was a very close second in my book, which I’m not actually writing.

I took the train back downtown and went to Orchestra Hall. After listening to the pre-concert talk, which was mostly an interview with Bernard Rands, it was time to sit. I managed to be seated next to an enormous German dude who laid claim to the armrest and a healthy percentage of my personal space like I was Poland and this was 1936. He was there with three buddies, and they all spoke in German and laughed about the things Germans laugh about. But they weren’t even the most entertaining patrons within 3 feet. That would be the dude in front of me who looked like gay Louis Farakkhan, whose judgmental sneer greeted not just me but literally every single person who walked by. It pissed me off at first, but after about three minutes I was laughing my ass off. I mean, the contempt on his face was fucking delightful.

Then the concert took place. As if I haven’t already bored you to tears, I’m gonna talk about it in a separate post. Stay tuned for that!

Sunday I walked around some more, had a pretty tasty breakfast at a place called Yolk down from the hotel on Michigan Avenue, and was at the train station by 2 for my 3 pm train back to Kansas City. We did not leave at 3 pm. Or 4 pm. Or 5 pm. But we did leave at 6:15, which is 3 in Alaska I think so there’s that. On the plus side, the guy sitting next to me is cool as hell. Willie from The D who’s going to see his daughter in Overland Park for his first ever foray into Missouri, you’re the man. I’m typing this sentence from the train at 8:05 pm. I was planing on going to work tomorrow 10 hours from now…we’ll see how that goes.

I waited 15 years to hear my first ever live Bruckner symphony. There’s no way in fucking hell I’m waiting that long again. It was an absolute revelation. Commence calendar search!


3 thoughts on “The train, the fog, and the Bruckner: Chicago, part 1

  1. Great post. If you want to hear Bruckner for free, Indiana University’s School of Music puts on an orchestra concert every week during the school year. Their graduate orchestra is doing the Bruckner 9th this term. Free. No Amtrak to Bloomington though.

  2. Thanks for the heads up! Wednesday 2 April 2014 for those wondering. I just might have to make that trek.

  3. Pingback: The train, the fog, and the Bruckner: Chicago, part 2 | Everything But The Music

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