Her parents relented to her squirms and wiggles, and let the little girl run back and forth in the bus aisle.
The scattered riders looked on the girl with approving, sad smiles and a bit of envy. The bus hadn’t moved in minutes, lodged in a gum wad of red brake lights in the dark. We were about 200 feet from our final destination.
We wanted to run free too, to scamper and skitter in a place promising to be as well-lit and safe as the aisle of a traffic-locked city bus.
So we went to Navy Pier.
I feel ashamed that I feel ashamed. I went there for a work gig of no import. Not pier-based WBEZ public radio, alas, but a solid job nonetheless.
But even as I walked to a place where people live, breathe, work and make quality public radio, I felt embarrassed to be there, like even a visit to this shiny, glittery, nonsense version of Chicago would be a betrayal of the Real City.
The gum wad eventually loosened, letting the bus lurch around a few curves to get to the depot area. We ambled out into a Saturday night at Navy Pier.
Dates were there, teenagers who found at least a decent substitutes from the bars they’ll hover at in a decade’s time. Some local-looking families, taking the kiddos for an age-appropriate night out to the Ferris wheel and kids museum.
Tourists, of course, wandering with heads flitting around between stores, tours and chain restaurants.
A young woman from either Bubba Gump’s or Harry Caray’s called out reservations for parties, one after the other, telling them their tables were ready. She rattled them off auctioneer-style, moving on to the next names the moment the prior didn’t show.
Middle-aged couples playing young guzzled mixed drinks from a neon-dangled Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville tucked by a McDonald’s. Slightly green-faced diners lumbered about with massive doggy bags filled with the remainder of the Giordano’s stuffed crust pizza they underestimated.
I’ve been to Freemont Street in Vegas, the Khao San in Bangkok. I’ve hit touristy strips from Grafton Street to Insadong Road, with South Beach and the Gaslamp in between.
There’s a certain fun to all of them, and a certain sameness. A certain look in the eyes of the people who work there, like they’re so so so chuffed to share their city with the enthusiasm tourist trade demand, but with occasional dead-eyed glares at the clock when they think no one can see.
Here there are bright lights and a palpable security presence. Here there are T-shirts and hats that say the name of the place they’re sold loudly on the front, the country where they were made hidden on the tag. Here there are comestibles culturally relegated to a particular area, so you can say, “Why yes, I did have [deep dish in Chicago/tom yung goong in Bangkok/a Guinness in Dublin]. And I got a T-shirt too!”
“Everybody hates a tourist,” the band Pulp sang in the ‘90s, “especially one who thinks it’s all such a laugh.”
I am as disappointed and angry with these people as they are at me when I come to their town. I want to take them for tacos at La Pasadita, sandwiches at Mr. Beef, slap that Giordano’s crap out of their hands and put in a slice of Pequod’s.
Or, better yet, not stuffed crust pizza because it’s gimmicky and overrated. I’ll put ketchup on my hot dogs if I want to too.
I want to show them the murals in Pilsen, the beach in Calumet Park. I want to send them honky-tonk dancing at Carol’s or just wandering by the lagoon at Humboldt Park.
But I don’t have kids who gape at bright lights and spinning Ferris wheels. I’m not a bored teen looking for a booze-free place to hang. I’m not a business traveler airlifted overnight into a city only known from Ferris Bueller. If this is in fact the extent of their exploration ambition, if this isn’t an embarrassing side note to an otherwise fascinating excursion into the hidden corners of Chicago, I can’t really fault them.
I’ve been to Freemont Street and the Khao San, the Gaslamp and Insadong. And on a packed Saturday night, I’ve also been to Navy Pier.