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May 7, 2006

City of Big Showtunes III – A Chicago Journal

As with Saturday, I spent Sunday morning alternately writing and procrastinating. That’s why I get to write articles on project management! I took the Red Line uptown to Uptown – David’s neighborhood (he lives equidistant from the Lawrence and Argyle stops). I told him I would call him when I was approaching so that he could meet me at the station (the ride is 20-30 mins). “David, I’m at Addison, who are all these people in funny hats with “C”s on them and why are they all getting off the train?” I had timed my trip to coincide with the rush of Cubs fans heading for a game at Wrigley Field.

David met me at the station; I already had plans for lunch. When we had walked to Argyle the night before on the way to the Joffrey I saw that this was a neighborhood packed with Vietnamese and Thai restaurants and joy of double happinesses, there was a Vietnamese Bakery selling Banh Mi. I think I am making it a rule to try Banh Mi in every city I visit. The irony is I have never eaten one in New York. The bakery is called Ba Le and is mentioned on Chowhound and other online food sites, though I found it by serendipity. We split a Chao Tom – shrimp wrapped in sugar cane and a BBQ pork (thit nuong) Banh Mi. It falls well above those I have had in Toronto, but below those in Boston or San Francisco. The bread is baked on the premises, but heavier than in SF and Boston and the pork filling a bit less interesting. David also got a banana tapioca dessert that tastes suspiciously enough like vanilla yogurt that I think it is mislabeled. Sandwiches are $2.95 apiece; we spent about $8 with tax.

I wouldn’t have done this in New York, but since I am in Chicago and not knowing when I will have an opportunity to try these restaurants again, I convince David that the Banh Mi was but an appetizer and drag him across the street to one of the pho restaurants; Pho Xe Tang, or “Tank Pho”. The logo is, unnervingly a military tank. The place is absolutely packed, which I take a good sign. We split summer rolls (Goi Cuon) and then both get gringo pho (I#43 on the menu, no tendon or tripe). David was a bit nonplussed by the size of the portion. As Mom said often when I was a kid, my eyes are bigger than my stomach so to his shock I finished the bowl – he made it through about one quarter and took the rest home. Right next to his house there is a community garden; David said that much of the produce grown there was grown by the Vietnamese and ended up in these restaurants. It seemed quite plausible; the bean sprout and herb plate that comes with pho contained some saw-toothed leaves that they don’t include in New York, and I bet were grown a few blocks away. The pho was quite good and the meal for two with tax and tip was $20.

I waddled back to David’s place where Gatsby was waiting. Gatsby is David’s marvelous pooch, a mix of Basenji, Sheltie and probably Shepherd since he is bigger than both the first two breeds. I tried to take some pictures of Gatsby, but sadly the batteries I bought on the trip crapped out after one bad photo (lesson learned – only use alkaline batteries in a digital camera). The most important thing to know about Gatsby is that he has a Kong. To non-dog-owners, this object is a mystery. Dog owners will know it well. I mentioned it to my neighbor Janet and her response was “Oh yes. Mozart [her border collie] has two.” “It’s a fetch toy and it looks like a butt plug,” David explained helpfully. Gatsby, still very active at 11, has a clearly defined Kong ritual, or at least we created one together.

Pace back and forth on the parquet flooring.

Click click click click
Click clickety click clicky.

When the human finally gives in and notices you, drop spittle-drenched Kong in his lap.

Human picks up Kong (gingerly).

Human moves it slowly. Prick up ears and be very attentive.

Human suddenly tosses Kong straight up in air. Leap and make spectacular mid-air catch.

Drop spittle drenched Kong in his lap.


David asked me if I wanted to go to the Art Institute or Oak Park to see more stuff by Frank Lloyd Wright but by this point (2:30 pm) it was too late and I was too lethargic from the meal. What I really wanted to do was take a nap, which I did on Gatsby’s sofa. This suited David, who used the time to potter around and do odd jobs. When I got up, we headed back two stops on the Red Line for my walking tour of Boystown. As we passed Addison on the train, we could see a blue flag hoisted above the stadium with an L. The Cubs lost.

Sidetrack is a Chicago institution. It’s now expanded over four storefronts (David called it “the bar that ate the North Side” and Sunday afternoons seem to be a particular institution. The theme on the video monitors is Showtunes. The gayest show tunes, including Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Funny Girl. To fully experience it, go to the darker middle bar rather than the airy glass roofed one. That’s where the Showtunes veterans are, and that’s where they shout the alternate lyrics. Think of it as an even gayer “Rocky Horror”. The best I heard was during Evita; the camera moved from Madonna singing to a shot of Antonio Banderas’ face in a crowd, and the regulars shouted, “THERE’S WALDO!” At the tumultuous end came a shower of cocktail napkins and the cheery but long suffering bar back with a broom and dustpan to sweep them up. It’s quite a phenomenon; someone even did a grad school paper on it – but then again, no topic is too arcane for a grad school paper.

Also in the bar I also met Adam, whom I knew from years back when we took ballet classes together. He stayed at the Joffrey and is now helping run the company. We had a long, funny and interesting conversation about the ups and downs of the company. It seems all of Chicago is there on a Sunday afternoon.

From there, David took me to his favorite hangout in Chicago, The Pepper Lounge. This was a perfect complement to Sidetrack; a small and mixed hangout that served good drinks and good food. It’s extremely friendly, but since David is a regular we got even warmer treatment, and a free mini shot of some delicious chocolately poison. David joked that he didn’t take dates there anymore because the proprietor was giving them thumbs up or thumbs down. We stayed at the bar and chatted with Rex, the bartender, who moved to Chicago from San Francisco. Yes, people do that. David felt that Chicago’s winters are exaggerated, but they were taking about days that you had to wear three scarves. To me, bitter is single digit Fahrenheit; they were talking -10°F. NYC definitely has winter, but that’s about 20 degrees colder than deep winter here; we have the ocean and the concrete to warm things up.

David had his signature martini, dirty with blue cheese stuffed olives. Are blue cheese olives a Midwestern thing? I have never seen them at a New York bar. I had some sort of pansy drink that was pink and peachy. I freely admit to being a pussy boy drinker who can't hold his liquor and prefers sissy drinks, preferably those that have umbrellas in them. Because of the enormous lunch, we only had appetizers but the portions were generous enough to serve as dinner. David had the tuna tartare, I had the beef medallions; both were delicious. Prices are not cheap (a drink and an appetizer came to $29 with a generous tip) but I felt they delivered for what they charged.

Fed and buzzed, I headed back on the El to my hotel and my 5:30 am wakeup call. My internal alarm clock didn’t trust the hotel’s and woke me up at 4:00 am anyway. I wrote a bit, checked out and headed to the airport, contemplating a jam-packed flight with an upgrade that did not clear. It took just about an hour again from hotel to gate; but part of that was luck. The security line was horrifyingly long, but the TSA employees started plucking out anyone whose flight was less than an hour ahead; mine was exactly at the cutoff time, so they took me to a concession screening area and I got through in five minutes.

The airport gods kept smiling on me. At the gate I approached the agent and said that I didn’t expect anything but could she check on if an upgrade was possible? “Are you Platinum?” she asked. I am Gold, having slipped from Platinum. She looked and said, “Believe it or not, you’re at the top of the upgrade list and I can clear you.” A mystery, but I have two theories. I made the upgrade request at the time I booked the ticket and I was Platinum at the time – AA seems to rank upgrades on your status at the time of the request, rather than at the time of the flight. Also, earliness of check-in matters, and web check in counts. I checked in online almost as soon as applicable. It was a bulkhead seat without any storage on the floor, but as I said before, it beats coach.

And then a few days later I even got miles for the meals at the Signature and Pepper Lounges!

Posted by Leigh Witchel at May 7, 2006 7:01 PM

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