#208: Trapped in Fake Chicago

August 26th, 2013

So I was at the Grant Street Metro Transit station, waiting for the Blue Line to Fremont or, if the spirit moved me, hop over to the Black Line to Banacaville.

I was thinking I could visit my friend who lives by the Jeebs stop, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go all the way out to Noreast. At the end, I just kept going to Welk Island to pick up those tickets for that new show the lady wanted to catch at the Jenson.

None of these things so much… exist really. But they did on Saturday, during one of my latest forced excursions to fake Chicago.

Fake Chicago is a land where people with walkie talkies glare at you and tell you you can’t walk on certain streets or go down certain alleys. It’s where you wonder what the choppers are for and realize they’re going to CGI in some Transformers.

And it’s where the Green Line is delayed because someone wanted to turn the Clark and Lake ‘L’ stop to a magical fairy land complete with fake transit maps, ads for opera houses with 555 numbers and signs for menacing-sounding corporations that make me think it was a movie shoot and not a commercial like Julia L. of Motion Theory claimed.

I’m onto you, Julia. And it’s probably not safe to put your full first and last name on your walkie talkie.

My first forced trip of the weekend to fake Chicago came Friday night, when I was walking back from dinner with the girlfriend and her out-of-town fam.

We were walking up Damen in Bucktown to get the Kansas crew back to the B&B when we noticed bright lights, a glaring sign for a sports bar, several model types wearing skin-tight referee costumes (which I swear I didn’t notice at all, honey) and a spotlight on a cherry picker blasting an apartment building so bright you would think they were summoning the Dark Knight. Which was also filmed in Chicago.

The sports bar was, in real life, a local boutique. There were some sundresses and jewelry still visible in the window behind the glowing sign saying “SPORTS BAR.”

The sign was there in case the big “GAME TIME” sign above it, the neon that also said “SPORTS BAR” and the referee stripper-waitresses weren’t enough to clue the viewers of NBC’s “Chicago Fire” that this scene takes place in bar where one can watch sports.

On the way back from dropping the Kansans at the B&B and the ladyfriend at the bus, I was stopped by a chubby, white walkie talkie man so they could film a scene of SPORTS BAR patrons and sexy referees I totally didn’t notice at all, babe, evacuating the building.

The walkie talkie man stopped me right next to the Chicago Fire Department Engine Co. 35. I was now watching actors playing Chicago firefighters while standing among Chicago firefighters.

How did these brave men feel, watching actors parody their heroics? Were they as offended as I was by the pantomime, by the bright disruption, by stopping me briefly when I really wanted to get home?

I asked one of the firefighters what he thought.

“Naw, they’re really nice,” he said. “They shoot in the firehouse sometimes.”

Just like I thought. Choking on his own rage so much he invented a parallel reality just to handle the pain.

The next day, Saturday, I went to meet the ladyfriend and the Kansans for a day at the Field and Shedd, because you can do that and still be cool when relatives are in from out of town. That’s when I entered fake Chicago #2, which Julia L. claimed was for a commercial that she wasn’t allowed to tell me about.

I’m onto you, Julia, even though your company primarily works in commercials and I could find no evidence of any connection between Motion Theory and “Transformers 4,” that Mila Kunis thing or more “Chicago Fire.” You best watch yourself, L.

It was, I admit, fascinating to watch. They had closed the same half of both platforms. One they loaded with extras dressed as workers, tourists and other city-dwellers about for their day, the other with camera crews to film the people from across the tracks.

When the crew would yell “Action!” the workers, etc., would start walking in a pre-set path, happily chatting on phones or pushing past. Once they got out of camera range, they would stop and turn around to stand by a crew member. The crew member would then wait for a signal to send the extras back in the direction they came from for more walking, chatting, pushing and hopefully avoiding the eagle-eyed viewers who notice that, yep, it’s that same Asian businessman in the tan suit walking by again.

As fascinating as their eternal waltz was, it couldn’t top the oddity and detail of the bizarre maps the set designers created for this fake world.

Clark and Lake was now Grant Street, next stop Hill Street on the way to Fremont, at least on the side where I and the camera crew sat. The circling extras were heading toward Huntington or North Park, depending on the spur.

The massive spaghetti-fling maps covering the real ‘L’ directories had real-life Chicago spots like Irving Park and Pilsen sharing the same reality as The Tees, Germantown, Geronimo and Short North (which, in either a gag or an oversight, was south of Short South).

Someone decided you would have to get off the Red Line at Bakers if you wanted to get to Camptown, but if you were heading to Willis, you would have to get off at Scourge. The Northpark Line map from Double to Avonlake was identical on its own map as on the map of the Noreast and Bridge branches as on the map of the entire Metro Transit system, including Greektown, Welk Island, Stinson and Russian Hill.

It was a better-designed transit system than the real one.

There were some cracks, of course. It was quite clear when whoever was tasked with creating the transit maps got tired of coming up with names. “Scootch,” “Santa” and the twin stops of “Youz” and “Suks” sneak to mind. The fare tables were unmodified cut-and-pastes of the real Metra route from the Ogilvie Transportation Center to Kenosha, Wisc.

But walkie talkie woman Julia L. wouldn’t tell me what the commercial was for and I had Kansans waiting at the Field.

I decided to take a cab, which is when I walked into a chase scene for more “Chicago Fire.”

“We’ve got a bogey,” a young man with dreads and camo cargo shorts said into a walkie talkie when one of us broke the cordon closing Wacker and crossed our own goddamn street.

Fake Chicago hasn’t found me since that crosswalk. My Sunday was mostly at home and I haven’t been out to Welk Island in ages.

But it’s always waiting, lurking in the wings. You never know in this town whether you’ll turn a corner and end up in Gotham, in Decepticon HQ, in whatever the hell that Mila Kunis thing is about or in a land where the firefighters are all really very sexy and have perfect hair.

I still like my real Chicago, with its inferior transit system and often unattractive firefighters.

For starters, fewer people with walkie talkies glare at you.

Check out some pictures of the shoot

Read a story (or three) about real Chicago

You think those maps were elaborate?

Update, Aug. 28: According to an e-mail from Ruth L. Ratny of the excellent Reel Chicago online industry trade publication, the shoot was for the last of a series of Exxon commercials. You win this round, Julia.

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