“Is that a cop?” my wife asked.
“We’re getting pulled over.”
We slowed down and pulled to the side, directly in front of the theater. My wife and I were on vacation, one of our first couple-only trips in almost three years. I wasn’t terribly nervous, as there didn’t seem to be time to even consider what was happening. It felt as if I was simply along for the ride. Sure, I definitely had been drinking, but…
Police were suddenly on both sides of the car. The one on the left was aggressively shouting, seemingly before he had even arrived at the vehicle: “Proof of insurance! Proof of insurance!” I didn’t move and, frankly, wasn’t sure what to do.
After a few tense moments, my wife asked: “Can we get out?”
“What is this? Uber? Lyft?” the first cop asked.
“Uber,” someone, maybe me, said.
“Yeah, you can go. You’re lucky we were here, though. It looks like this guy doesn’t have any insurance.”
My interest in whether or not our Uber driver, Akmed, had insurance waned considerably after we got out of the car. We exited in front of the theater where a crowd had now gathered—probably the same people who had just been part of the audience with us at the Second City show. “Uber,” I mumbled again and we quickly turned and walked down the sidewalk leaving the flashing blue lights behind us.
After half a block, we flagged a taxi that was stopped at a light in a busy Chicago intersection. It was vacant. As we scurried into the street, I heard my name shouted from the surrounding Saturday night. I very quickly identified the perpetrator from what appeared to be a block-and-a-half away, a high school friend of mine whom I probably hadn’t seen in 15 years. This was a weird series of events, I thought.
“Hey!” I yelled back, just before getting into the cab. “Our Uber just got pulled over by the cops.”
“Ha! You should write about it!” she said.
COW VOMIT + INTERNET RESEARCH
The NFL draft is headed back to Chicago this month, a perfect time for this Titans fan to write an essay and share some recommendations about what to see and do in the city that holds my favorite team’s lifeless future in its hands. It does seem like drafting college football players is a bit like picking where to eat on vacation in a new city. Sure, you can do plenty of research; you can talk to people who have been there before; you can scour the Internet, watch videos, and read what anybody has ever said about the option; you can even go stand outside the restaurant window and stare at what’s going on inside while holding a whistle. But, at some point, you have to place an order. And the Titans, like me, apparently have some issues picking out good spots. For instance, Vince Young: great meal, great experience, we left that place feeling completely satisfied and happy … but then four years later we find out we have mad cow disease and, all of a sudden, that meal didn’t seem like it was quite worth the brain-melting illness that ensued. Or Pacman Jones: fun, exhilarating experience at the restaurant, but then later that night at the strip club, someone ends up shooting you. And those are just the fun ones, the old classics. More recently, it’s been mediocre meal (Bishop Sankey) after mediocre meal (Jake Locker)—just that slightest bit of food poisoning that lingers and simply won’t go away.
I have some history of failing in spectacular fashion when trying to pick out places to eat on vacation in new cities. I blame the Internet. Probably my best example was the time that my wife and I were fairly certain that I ordered and at least ate some parts of a plate of cow vomit. Stay with me: I’m not going for the cheap joke here. I wouldn’t describe the dish as cow barf unless it had some characteristics of actual barf. I’m also not saying that it necessarily tasted like vomit, at least not human vomit. What I am saying is that we had two fairly well-educated people examining my dish and after a reasonable amount of consideration we put our heads together. The best guess my wife and I could come up with was that the dish had something to do with a cow, but not any part of a cow that we had ever seen. Most likely, based on all available data, it was something a cow had eaten and then barfed all over the plate. I wouldn’t recommend* it.
*As for what I will recommend, a disclaimer first. I am not a food critic so, unless pontification otherwise occurs, all of my reviews will simply be a few words and lots of exclamation points. Here are some examples: So yummy!!! So great!!! Try the fish!!!
We were in Hong Kong, though, so I guess I can’t blame myself too much, and I’m pretty sure the restaurant’s English translation of the menu made less sense than the Cantonese. But I had discovered this particular storied eatery from a Travel & Leisure article and, thus, was a little frustrated.
Then on a separate trip to Savannah a few years later, we tried out two spots from one of those New York Times’ 36-hours-in-X articles and both were closed—just straight-up out-of-business. There we were, holding hands on an abandoned street in Georgia, clueless as a bag of grapes, visiting a shuttered eatery. And the article was nary two-years-old. Nary two!
So prior to this trip to Chicago, we did what any reasonable person would do under these circumstances, especially when going to a major American city known as a culinary hotbed: we asked a number of friends for recommendations, got a bunch of great options, and then we completely ignored all of them because I found an article on the internet that purported to highlight where famous chefs like to eat while in Chicago, and we went with all of that article’s recommendations because the internet never lies.
CHEETOS + HJs
From Nashville, you can catch a Southwest flight to Midway that feels and probably is, when considering only time in the air, 45 minutes. Then, you can hop on public transportation and probably be somewhere close to your hotel in another 30. When coming from a city with no viable public transportation (like Nashville) and going to one with a basic system, it’s a marvel. In the end, in this age of Uber, who knows if two tickets on the elevated train were that much cheaper than a car, but it sure felt like it: quick and sensible and suddenly you are walking your suitcase down a city street with buildings wavering above. Not long after that and we were in front of a church in a city square, where a large crowd was rallying before a woman with a megaphone. Crackpot counter-protestors were on the other side of the street with signs about women or God or something, huddled together with a line of city police stationed behind them. We had to traverse the square diagonally, point to point, and we never did figure out what the conversation was.
After a quick check-in, my internet article lead us to GT Fish & Oyster. I don’t know about you, but I enjoy going on a trip and just blowing it out on the first meal: $160 lunch, middle of a Friday? Sure, we’re vacationing. Obviously, value exists. But when we’re talking about a noteworthy meal—indeed, probably one of the best meals I’ve had in three years and one that I would feel compelled to talk about for weeks to come—I probably would have paid twice that much for the experience. To be fair, a restaurant with homemade hot sauce would get five stars from me even if they were serving up warm plates of Mamwich, but throw in oysters, liquor drinks, fish tacos, beautiful weather, vacation and … Yes!!!! Very good!!!!!
Next, we took the train to the Art Institute of Chicago. I wanted to see, among other things, the Seurat from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. The museum is huge and, like a major metropolitan city’s art museum should be, completely overwhelming. But small moments seemed to abound. At one point, we walked into an enormous room adjacent to Chagall’s glowing-blue-stained-glass America Windows. The room was supposedly the original trading floor for the Chicago Stock Exchange. It was ornate and largely empty but for about three people, sitting in wooden chairs in the corner, one of whom was pounding out classical music on a piano. The acoustics seemed special in this place and the sound reverberated. We lingered listening to her play, staring at the ceiling. This went on for several very long minutes before eventually a security guard came and shut her down. We moved on.
After a walk through Millennium Park, a momentary retreat to our hotel, and a very long Uber ride to dinner at Community Tavern (Yummy as all get-out but kind of in the middle of nowhere for us tourists!!!), we went to B.L.U.E.S., a rhythm and blues bar across the street from Kingston Mines, another famous R&B spot. I compare the scene in some ways to some of the better honky tonks in downtown Nashville—in essence, a hole-in-the-wall slummy bar, primarily packed with tourists on a late Friday night. But the prevalence of tourists doesn’t seem to take away from the authenticity of the locale and ultimately doesn’t mean the music isn’t good. Because the music is good. The band consisted of a guitarist in a bright red suit sitting down and wailing, a small set of drums and maybe a horn, crowded onto a little stage in the corner. At first we had to fight for a seat, but as the night wore on, we were able to secure spots at the bar and drink Goose Island IPAs and, for some reason, MGDs. My cousin who lives in the area met us for drinks. She told us she had endeavored for the past five days not to spend a single dollar on anything. I told her, you’re good here; next MGD is on us.
I went to the bathroom during one of the set breaks. The bathroom was straight through the crowded bar, directly past the little stage, in a back alcove. I had to stand in line for a moment and directly across from the bathroom line sitting on a bench with his head down on his forearm, apparently trying to get some sleep, was the man in the bright red suit, the main guitarist.
It appeared to be a momentary scene of pathos, of suffering. Our entertainment for the night, wearied, exhausted, trying to catch just the tiniest bit of rest between sets while the crowd of tourists clamored for more. Sad, perhaps, but as a guy I knew in college used to say, life isn’t just Cheetos and HJs. Or in our case, a couple’s weekend. Rhythm and blues doesn’t spring fully-formed from nothing and you can’t cut it off with the click of a remote control or the closing of a barroom door.
Another jabroney tourist came back to the bathroom alcove, saw the musician, tried to shake his hand and when that failed, went into the vacant women’s stall. I finally got in and out quickly and went back to the bar. My MGD was waiting for me.
BRUNCH + BLEACHED BOTTOMS
Saturday breakfast was at Trencherman in Wicker Park, where we strolled in like locals at 9:01 a.m., a minute after it opened, waving our Open Table brunch reservations that we dutifully printed off and kept snugly in our manila vacation folder. Needless to say, we were the only two people in the restaurant. But we slammed coffee, some type of grits stew, maybe a bloody and then walked back through the neighborhood, stopping off to buy copper salt-and-pepper shakers and peruse vinyl shops and Myopic, a used book store.
This all happened in the late summer, when it was warm. But in Chicago of course, even at that time of year, there was no guarantee. Sunday, indeed, was foggy and cool, but Saturday was glorious, perfect weather from the start. That morning when we woke at 7:30 or so, high in our hotel, we could see all the way up the side of Lake Michigan and there were already volleyballers out hanging nets and practicing their bumping. Later in the day, after our brunch, we decided to go for a run up the coast, so to speak.
And again, a new marvel revealed itself to me: the scene. Perhaps what’s most notable about it is the regional difference. I simply can’t imagine a scene even remotely similar happening just a short plane-hop away in Nashville. Maybe it does; maybe Chicagoans marvel at the Iroquois Steeplechase horse race, but this was more spontaneous. As I’m sure many of you know, the coast of Lake Michigan is lined with a little stretch of beach. And on this particular day, it was like one of those old Disney national park cartoons: the park opened, or in this case, the sun rose in the East, and a cloud of people and things immediately rushed in and filled the beach to the brim, all the way up the coastline: volleyballers, sunbathers, umpchaumpchaumpachaloompas clubbing out with drinks in hand, young people out for a picnic with solo cups, chess players, old men, chess-playing old men, young families cruising along the running lanes in reclining beach bikes, a stray weirdo or five, a comatose middle-aged woman, sprawled like a starfish, sunbathing on asphalt, poised to roll into the sea.
I gazed at the cross section of people on this little stretch of sand between the blacktop of a bustling city and the swirling waters of a lake that no one really wants to swim in, as we ran the footpath, dodging bikers and strollers. We eventually meandered to the end of a pier that looked out into nothing. The city towers reigned behind us.
Another related concern with the urban vacation is fitting in as many cool drinkeries as possible. I’m not complaining; it’s just part of how we travel. But when going out to dinner, you first want to hit up an interesting place for a drink first, and that can be treacherous. As a tourist you are far more likely to make dinner reservations or have a set game plan for the evening and try to execute that game plan perfectly, unlike most locals. On this particular occasion it meant getting a drink at 5 p.m. Thus, should we hit up some hipster speakeasy, I had a feeling we would have been the only people there. This apparently is a great fear of mine, the getting-a-drink-at-a-place-where-you’re-the-only-people-there-and-you-feel-like-a-big-galoof. So although I was tracking a number of intriguing places on my phone, in the end, I was like, let’s just go to the hotel bar.
We were staying at The Westin on Michigan Avenue. This same weekend, the hotel was being used by the Atlanta Braves and an international ballroom dance competition, so it was not abnormal to find yourself riding the elevator with a Louis Vuitton suitcase with a Braves tag and/or shiny sequins draped over buff ladies.
We made our way to The Grill on the Alley, an upscale Irish pub on the main floor of our hotel that was bustling with people. All tourists? Maybe. Ballroom dancers? Sure, quite a few. But it was anything but lonely and depressing: people constantly shuttling in and out; strange photos of bunny rabbits wearing suits on the wall; more Goose Island. Very wonderful!!! Just what we needed!!!!
Before the ensuing Second City show and aforementioned Uber excitement, we had deep dish at Lou Malnati’s on the Gold Coast. Some old guys gave us their seats at the bar. I convinced myself they were ex-NFLers—not sure why, but I’m pretty sure I was right. I bought them a beer for their accommodation. We scarfed down deep-dish pies. I have no idea how it compares to other Chicago pizza eateries, but it certainly worked for us at the time.
We walked from there several blocks north to Second City, which is a large square building with multiple levels with theaters on each. We saw “#DateMe: An OK Cupid Experiment,” a scripted comedy show. We sat in a small, multi-level theater as if we were taking the SATs and were served drinks from floating, overworked waiters.
I had seen a few other comedians recently, including Jeff Garlin at a comedy club in Nashville. He told us during his set that he had not prepared anything for his show. He then talked about how he liked to look at women’s butts. He then reamed out some poor bastard for wearing shorts. I did not leave terribly enlightened.
We also saw Chelsea Handler in Nashville recently as part of the Wild West Comedy Show. She was definitely better but, well, I am no prude, y’all, but the show was most definitely X-rated. And I kind of feel like if you’re going to go X-rated, you need to give me something other than shock value. And Handler was definitely out there, pushing her rating, hitting up the “bleached a**hole” bit and all. But, in doing so, I wasn’t sure there was anything else there, other than the “bleached a**hole,” you know? I feel in some sense it’s in the same ballpark as when my 3-year-old says “poopy diaper” and then starts laughing hysterically. I’m not saying I’m above it, I certainly laughed in the face of the “bleached a**hole” and I laugh sometimes at the “poopy diaper,” if it’s delivered well, but I feel like you gotta give me just one more turn, one more moment of insight on what “bleached a**hole” means. What it means to me.
The premise of the Second City show was that a woman had created fake profiles on a dating website. Then, weaved throughout the show, she and other comedians would read off real messages that had been sent to her. They definitely were in the range of the “bleached a**hole,” but my goodness were they funny. At a comedy show, I think it’s fair to ask for multiple moments of laughing uncontrollably and this one certainly obliged. But somewhere, jammed right up in there, was indeed a little something more: a point, about desperation, about longing, about the suffering of the human experience.
The ride back to our hotel was, for the most part, uneventful.
TIES + LOATHING
This is a men’s fashion website, right? (Editor’s Note: Not exactly, but let’s go with it.) So, let’s end it where it really matters: on Sunday, pre-flight, we went to Nordstrom Rack. It was crowded and terrible. I wandered off by myself and looked at pants. Reams and reams of really great pants. I bought a tie for $15, but, let’s be fair, it’s a Nordstrom tie for $15. Very decent!!!!
Travel or maybe travel writing is an interesting thing. I feel if I were to create one of these ubiquitous lists of things to do in Nashville I would be self-consciously trying to avoid one of the many places that have been repeatedly written about as Nashville has blown itself into a hot city over the past five years. (Ever heard of Hattie B’s? So unique!!!) And, on vacation, the inclination is to desperately look for a different, non-tourist place. In the end, though, all I’m really looking for on these trips is just for a weekend, a day, a moment, to free myself from the bone-chilling loathing of everyday life—oh wait, no, sorry, did I say that? What I meant is all I’m really looking for are places that might facilitate interesting experiences. And maybe that is all anyone wants: something to talk about later, to fill up some airtime at a cocktail party, or maybe to write a little story about if you’re so inclined. And, well, Chicago provides plenty.
Stuart A. Burkhalter is the author of Catawampus: The Fertility Process from a Man’s Perspective, which was named a Finalist in Foreword Reviews’ 2014 INDIEFAB Book of the Year Awards. Stuart is an attorney and lives in Nashville with his wife and two daughters. You can read his previous J&T essays here.
All photos courtesy Getty Images and Burkhalter