Spontaneous Chicago: Part 1 – Peasants, Ghetto, and Pharaohs

I don’t have many flaws that I will admit to. I’m a Leo and we don’t do that. But, I will tell you that I have a terrible problem with procrastination. As I’ve said many times in the past and will continue to do so until my dying day:  always put off until tomorrow what you can do today. That’s sound advice and yours for free. You’re welcome. All week long, I had written on my to-do list (which is more of a mocking slip of paper than a motivator) that I needed to write out directions for all the things I wanted to see. I don’t know much about Chicago and I knew that I needed to figure it out before I left lest I should be lost for the day.

Good intentions and all, but I promptly went to sleep and woke up about an hour before I needed to leave. Panicked, I ran into the shower and then into the ensemble I had thought would be most appropriate for the day:  grey dress pants, European leather shoes, custom Tommy Hilfiger shirt, and custom Indochino blazer. I reeked of elegance. This was one of my poorer ideas, upon reflection, but we will touch on that later. For the most part, I looked stunning and the part of the fashionable downtowner, but, there was one point where I wished to Allah that I had been dressed in sweatpants and a trashy hoody. If you know me, you know that I never would wish this on anybody — but I’m getting ahead of myself.

I scratched out a quick map and was amused at how well I’m able to do things under pressure. That’s probably why I never got around to correcting my procrastination problem — I still get everything done. With my electronics and papers stuffed into my numerous pockets, I was off to town to meet my father who was dropping me off at the bus station. Along the way, we pulled off on the side of the highway for a lesson on tying ties…at ten o’clock at night. It was odd. I’m sure the passersby on the road were watching on curiously as I failed again and again to do my tie. I don’t know why, but this is something I just can’t do. I have tried so many times and the only times it ever looks any good is by pure chance. I remember once in Paris when I was going out to a very nice dinner, I spent a good hour watching videos on YouTube and still doing an abysmal Windsor knot with my vintage Cartier tie. That’s a great tie. It went excellently with my vintage Dior suit. I’m label dropping, forgive me.

My bus wasn’t due to leave until half past midnight and with plenty of time to kill we made our way to the Village Inn for breakfast. There’s no better place for an omelette. Trust me. I know what I’m talking about when it comes to food. Perkins will give you what appears to be a dozen egg omelette, Denny’s is hit or miss, and IHOP is a place I don’t like being seen. Seems very démodé, tu sais? Anyway, we finished our meals and went to wait for the bus downtown.

The bus was not coming. Nobody was waiting around for the bus. This struck us both as a bit odd, so I looked again at my ticket and discovered that the pickup area has moved to a completely different part of town. Hauling ass through downtown we made it with about ten minutes to spare before my scheduled departure. Of course the bus was a half hour late, so what did it matter?

When I stood amongst all the other people going to Chicago, I couldn’t help feeling a bit out of place. They were all peasants. There didn’t appear to be one person there who cared about their appearance or even combing their hair. What’s this about? Do people not realize that life is more fun when they’re at least a bit attractive? I wish I had a television show where I transformed ugly people into passable human beings. It isn’t hard. Annoyed, I leaned against a chilly concrete post and listened to The Great Gatsby soundtrack and pretended I was a flapper. Not an unusual event, mind you. My mind is a strange place.

The bus finally loaded and I found a seat next to a skinny person. That’s a good tip — you’ll have more room if your seat partner is anorexic. Another plus is if they’re already asleep so you don’t have to make polite conversation. I thought I was doing great, but then she stretched and yawned and reader, I don’t think that woman has ever brushed her teeth. I about fell off my seat gasping for fresh air. Thank the sweet Buddha that she shifted and leaned away from me. I leaned the other way and I could breathe decently — never mind the clinging scent of the unwashed masses that made up the peasantry on the bus. I’m not a bus person. Give me a private jet, please!

It took me a while to fall asleep as it’s impossible to do with a mass of strangers on a bumping bus. I did though and when I woke up, I remembered that gentlemen should not fall asleep in public places…am I right?

Conscious, and strangely awake for only having a few hours worth of sleep, I watched the skyline grow larger in the distance as the sun heaved itself up into the sky in a rather gloomy fashion. It was a cloudy day and never made it out of the very low sixties. Not my kind of weather at all, but what can you do? Bitch about it, and I did, it’s one of my hobbies.

The bus pulled into Union Station and I fled the bus and hurried into the gorgeous station. I had lots to do and I wanted to get started with my day trip and not have any regrets. I did a pretty good job, too. I only failed to hit up a few places on my list.

Union Station is beautiful when you’re in the old part of it, the Amtrak area is rather gross, but I wasn’t lingering. I was taken aback by the presence of a Relay, though:

960190_4875412771417_455234563_nWhat are you doing here, I thought, Relay’s are only in Paris. That’s where I buy my trashy magazines and postcards! I remembered seeing one in the Toronto airport, too, though, so maybe it’s a national brand. There were no trashy Parisian magazines inside, so I left in a dignified huff and made my way to the Metra ticketing center to buy my day pass. With this mission accomplished, I went back into the city and ignored my first beggar of the day.

IMG_4935I crossed this lovely bridge — are these canals? — and delighted myself by looking at the skyscrapers. I live in the country and have done so for the major part of my life, but I am not a country boy. I’m a city boy who has been unlucky enough to not be a city boy. I love the bustle and the mystery and the hint of danger and the shops and the busy people and the trains and the constant opportunity for something new. You don’t get any of that in the country. You don’t get much of anything but fresh air, lots of land, and the ability to tan nude without worrying about public indecency. What? Like you haven’t? Please.

“Hey mister!” a new vagabond shouted at me. I didn’t turn or acknowledge him and picked up the pace as I heard him shuffle up behind me.


Slowly, I turned, [holla at the I Love Lucy reference] to look at the man — nothing out of the ordinary, your general run-of-the mill hobo. “Can I talk to you?”

“Make it quick,” I snapped, trying to sound like I was busy.

“I’m a veteran.”

“Okay.” I muttered, what does that matter?

“I’m depressed.”

“Aren’t we all?”

He wasn’t amused. “You’re dressed nicer than the others down here.”

“Thank you kindly.”

“I’m also bipolar.”

What was this, a threat? “And?”

“Well, I need bus fare.”

Why do beggars think it’s my problem? It’s not. I barely have enough money for my little trips and schemes. If you only knew how I juggled to get the things I have — it takes enormous thought and restraint.

“Um,” I began, thinking of something quick. Thank Krishna for the Starbucks behind me, “Well, I need a coffee. Have a good one.” I then scurried into the shop for an espresso. He watched me for a while and finally vanished. Good riddance!

Back on the street, I was delighted to come across this campus:

IMG_4936This is one of the best, if not the pastry school in the nation. I highly recommend this documentary that features one of the co-founders:

The school wasn’t open and they sadly don’t have a bakery, which I find odd. Come to think of it, we didn’t have one at Le Cordon Bleu either, we had to gorge ourself on our pastries or give them away to the people in the Métros who had come to assume we’d feed them. I was happy to see that the London campus has a little shop where the students work. I think that would be a lot of fun.

I found the train stop and was immediately charmed. It looked as if I had been transported to 1897 when it was first constructed. I asked about this when I went inside and was told that the stop had been renovated several times, but at the most recent renovation many of the original features had been restored. It’s absolutely gorgeous. I love nothing more than turn-of-the century architecture and this was quintessential.

IMG_4937I loved everything. The ticket booth with the richly paneled walls, the antique signs, the lighting, it was perfect. And there were pigeons!

IMG_4940It wasn’t too long before my train arrived and took me to what I soon discovered to be my favorite place in Chicago:  Sheffield.


It’s an historical district and also the garden district stuffed with charming shops and gorgeous brick townhouses. I could have amused myself all day studying the architecture and browsing about. I was rather taken by it.



I stumbled upon a farmers market and nibbled on a rather good spinach and feta croissant as I mindlessly wandered the streets. They had everything:  Bonobos, American Apparel, L’Occitane, everything!


I was here to visit Floriole Bakery, so I figured out where I was and about died as I walked down the road and saw so many perfect houses. I could barely remain conscious from all the swooning I was doing. Let’s take a look at all my dream houses, shall we?

IMG_4947I am a huge brick fan, but I was charmed by this one and what appears to be a little balcony above the entrance. It’s not, but I would totally squirm out there.

IMG_4948This house was practically begging me to move inside. Look at those massive windows, the arched window, and the bay windows! It’s too much! Then I saw this:


IMG_4953This stunner is my dream home. It has absolutely everything I have ever wanted in a house. Brick, black trim, mansard roof, divided windows, perfect alignment, a wrought-iron gate, and character. When I get rich and after I buy my Parisian apartment, I’m knocking on this door and forcing the owners to sell it to me. I can’t live without it.

IMG_4945The whole area is stunning and felt like the Kensington District in London. I was swept up.

Soon, though, I reached my destination and ordered a multitude of things: cheddar and arugula quiche, espresso, and passion fruit tart.

IMG_4946This is a very nice bakery, but it is standard and in no way did it outshine any other place I’ve ever been. This is a common problem I see in American bakeries. They all seem to be the exact same place all over again, no matter  their decor or location — a tragedy, really, but it was still a good place to relax. I was pleased that they had a window looking into the kitchen, that’s what I’d like in my own bakery. The quiche was served far too hot and I worry it was microwaved. The passion fruit tart was good, but lacked intensity. Raw passion fruit juice is very reminiscent of a tart citrus, so I was disappointed that it was reduced to nothing more than a pleasant sweetness.

I enjoyed the crowd though. I can’t understand hipsters, so I studied them in their natural habitat and am as baffled as ever. What is it that they do? I sat next to some college girls who were back from a run and I will delight you with this direct quote that nearly made me do a spit take with my espresso: “You know, I’m not racist. You know that. But…there’s a difference between Koreans and the Vietnamese. I can look at them and I can see it.” They went on to discuss a spiritual yoga class they were taking that afternoon. They were utterly boring and I can’t imagine being a person so vapid. It would exhaust me.

Finished with my breakfast, I slowly made my way back to the train station and watched the charming little area fade away as I made my way further and further south. This soon became worrying. Somehow, I don’t know how I manage it, but I always end up in the ghetto. I usually have fun in the ghetto. It’s a cultural experience. I have been in all kinds of slums all over Europe and have never felt anything but intrigued, but this place was different. It had such a negative atmosphere and I couldn’t help but be wary when a man at the other end of the train shouted out, “What’s a white boy doing in Garfield?”

I took offense at this immediately. Why couldn’t I be in Garfield? I can go wherever I like, just like him. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you look like here in America, that’s one of the things that makes us great. If we want to go to Malibu, we can go. If we want to go to Skullbone, we can go. We can do what we like without having to worry. But I found myself having to worry and I didn’t like the constant feeling of being in danger. Also, how dare he say something like this? Just because I’m white means I can’t have friends in the ghetto? What a jerk.

Off the train, I looked around me in bewilderment. This did not look like my little map I had sketched. This was not next to a park. This was on top of a bridge in the middle of an interstate far away from the ease and relative safety of downtown. This was dirty and crude and I tried to figure out what to do. The CTA people (the public transport people) are all great, I’ve never met a rude one, and they told me that I had to take a bus.

Immediately I felt a panic. A bus? Ben Phillips does not do public buses, no way, no how, it’s not happening. I don’t know why, but I have an irrational wariness of busses. Give me a train, please and thank you. This has quickly changed and if I’m in Chicago, please give me a bus, please and thank you. More on that later.

Outside the station, my experience quickly resembled a poorly constructed scene in a Tyler Perry film. I tried to act casual, like I belonged there, and I think I did a decent job, but did I ever look out of place. Me, looking like a resplendent businessman surrounded by people at the bus stop who appeared as if they were going to shiv each other or do a drug deal. (I saw a drug deal later that day, mind you, but that wasn’t in the ghetto.)

I discovered that I was at the wrong bus stop and had to cross a very busy road to get to the other side. I felt very much like I was in a desperate game of Frogger and was very happy to make it to the other side and was even more delighted when a gregarious and wonderfully eccentric woman arrived and started asking me questions about the bus. She was in a desperate hurry to get to the University (WHERE I WAS GOING!) to see a TED talk. Thank you, God! I could follow her and she was nice and she wasn’t going to jack me for my bling. Very kindly, she offered to be my guide to the University and I have never been more relieved in all my life.

The bus quickly came and swept us away to the University of Chicago, which is a shocking change from its surroundings. It’s a respectable, clean, and quite picturesque neighborhood and I felt myself melt into a relaxed calm. It was so nice to be away from the ghetto. I don’t know why it affected me so much, but I haven’t really ever felt that psychically wary before in my life and I don’t want to experience it again.

She pointed me towards the Oriental Institute where we parted and I floated towards the gorgeous Art Deco building. I was finally here!

260360_4876081868144_51184057_nLook at the joy radiating from me!

IMG_4957Though this was my first time here, I’ve always thought I might end up here. Egyptology is one of my only professional passions and someday I would like to get a degree in this field. This school is the best in the nation for the topic and it’s also where my favorite author, Elizabeth Peters — who wrote my beloved Amelia Peabody series — went to school. It was a very exciting moment for me.

IMG_4958Above the entrance this relief showed ancient man presenting modern man with his knowledge and history. Gorgeous. The entire place was stunning and the lobby looked ripped right out of the early Twentieth Century. I was soon inside the museum, and I’ll narrate my experience through captioned photos:

IMG_4961The exhibits start with Sumerian and Babylonian artifacts. I’ve never studied these cultures much as my area of interest has always been ancient Egypt, but these people had a fascinating culture. There was a great display that showed the development of their language from pictographs to these rather odd etchings. I could not make head nor tails of them. I guess that their language was spoken all in one syllable. I didn’t understand this, how would they have enough variation? But, each symbol stands for one syllable that can be combined. So, the phrase for eating would be the symbol for mouth followed by the food symbol. My brain hurts already.

IMG_4963The Institute has a massive collection of cylinder seals, which I’ve always been intrigued by. The desired pattern or phrase or picture was etched into the stone cylinder and then when it was rolled over wet clay, a negative relief would be created. These were all surprisingly clear  and quite lovely. I really enjoyed seeing all the varieties of this.

IMG_4964The Oriental Institute was began during the first World War. Because of the international difficulties, field work was absolutely impossible, so at this time, the University made their massive existing collection their focus and created this place for research and to share with the public. Quite a clunker of a sentence, that, forgive me. The building drips with Art Deco touches and I can’t think of a lovelier museum.

IMG_4965These glazed bricks once made up part of an imposing entryway in a Babylonian city. Before this year when I was assisting in a seventh grade social studies class, I had never known about these and had been intrigued. I wondered if any had survived, and well, now I know! They are stunning in person and I can’t imagine how beautiful they would have been when they were new thousands of years ago.

IMG_4966Another look at the imposing creature.

IMG_4968This massive forty-ton statue was once part of the king’s reception room. There were several of these as well as other reliefs showing other scenes. Several examples were at the Institute. It would have been overwhelming to be taken to see the king surrounded by these stone monsters.

At this point, I did a lot of thinking about museums and their collections. Ever since the turn of the last century, there has been a lot of angry discussion about where artifacts belong. Nationalists believe that artifacts discovered need to be left in that country. Others believe that they make up part of our rich global heritage and should be shared with the world. I don’t know what to think or where my opinion is. I know that neutrality is not an option, truthfully, and I would by lying if I didn’t acknowledge that it is strange that so many of these pieces are so far away from their native lands. Yet, I can’t say I disapprove because how could I and so many other people have seen them if they hadn’t been there? Seeing a relic with your eyes is so different from seeing it in a book or online. I suppose my opinion on this is continuing to evolve.

IMG_4970A close up of the intricate carving that went into this enormous statue.

IMG_4973And people say that ancient aliens aren’t real! Ha! I scoff at nonbelievers.

IMG_4975This is what I came for. ANCIENT EGYPT! I was so excited to be here and I was delighted by the enormous variety of exhibits and things to see. This statue of Tutankhamen is one of the few relics that is known to be his outside of the contents of his famous tomb. I was annoyed to see that the Institute had restored it to what they assumed to be its original appearance — surely right, but why do this? Why not let the artifact show that it is ancient and still beautiful and still able to convey a powerful message without being perfect.

IMG_4976Tut and I were chilling.

IMG_4978This is from a tomb depicting the “Opening of the Mouth” ceremony. This was a necessary ritual that allowed the mummy to come back to life. Egyptians believed that their bodies were going to be used again after death, so that is why they took such care to preserve them.

IMG_4979I was delighted by how clear and unweathered these reliefs were. It was as if they were carved today.

IMG_4984This is one of my favorite pieces in the Egyptian wing. It’s so beautifully preserved and colorful and shows a unique time in Egyptian religion when the common people were allowed to commune with the gods instead of through an intermediary like a priest or the pharaoh.

IMG_4985Cats were very important in ancient Egypt and were often depicted as half human-half cats as well as your standard feline. I adore cats!

IMG_4987This is a piece of unleavened bread from inside of a tomb. Does not look all that appetizing. No wonder the Egyptians had such dreadful teeth!

IMG_4989I really enjoyed the display of glazed tiles. I wonder if there is a company that specializes in reproduction pieces? I’d very much like some. Perhaps I’ll need to start that company myself?

IMG_4990This was once displayed in Persepolis. Amazingly beautiful in person, the picture doesn’t do it justice.

IMG_4993This is part of a massive bull statue that once guarded the entrance to Persepolis with a matching bull on the other side of the gate.

IMG_4996Horus’ beak was made of solid gold!

I had a great time at the Oriental Institute and was so glad that I finally went. Now, it was time for lunch and I headed back downtown after looking around the campus for a little while.

IMG_4998One of the beautiful dormitories.

IMG_5001Another townhouse that has everything:  mansard roof, brick, curved glass, archway, ivy. The only thing missing is a black front door.

I knew how to get back, so I went back to the bus stop and was eager to get this all over with. On board, a group of loud gentleman got on board and tried to pay with change out of a jar.

“Where you going?” the driver asked.

The guy who sat next to me replied, “He ain’t goin’ nowhere! His name’s POOR! HA!” Then, turning to me, he asked, “How you doin’ young man? You an executive or a CEO or something.”

“No,” I smiled.

“Well, you look the part, boy, and we believe you is.” I liked him.

We were soon back at the train stop and I got aboard, expecting to relax for a half hour or so as we made our way back downtown, but instead I was placed into the most uncomfortable situation of my life.

It was all going well until about two stops into our ride when a gentleman boarded our train who, well, I don’t know, I don’t think he was completely sane. He was probably on meth or something. I don’t want to say for sure since I don’t know, but he was not acting in a way that a normal person would act.

I was just thankful I wasn’t alone on the train.

He began to mutter things like, “White boy…white boy…where you goin’ white boy? Oh shit!” Then he’d start maniacally laughing. “Seven to one…white boy.” I didn’t know what this meant, exactly, but he was obviously talking about me and I was very uncomfortable with it. Several other people on the train made eye contact with me and subtly shook their heads — I don’t know what they meant by it, but it was friendly, I was going to be okay as long as they were there. The man kept laughing and he kept saying things I won’t repeat on this blog. I had to get off. I looked at the woman next to me and she asked me what line my stop was on.

“Red,” I whispered and she told me to follow her. I did, and so did most of the people on the train. As we all got off the man began to shriek and jump around and I couldn’t look. I can’t really write about it here and convey how I felt, but I’ve never felt quite so shaken in all my life. I was trembling and so glad to be out amongst people again. There is safety in crowds.

It wasn’t as if he threatened me physically, but he was frightening me and he was judging me based on my skin color. I was saddened and worried and upset by this. I am proud that I am not racist and that I have friends who have all kinds of backgrounds. I don’t care if you’re purple as long as you’re a nice person and you make me laugh. But this guy thought I was something just because I was who I am and I did not care for that at all. Even as I type this I feel a bit sick.

I thanked the older woman and made my way to the train I needed to catch and about collapsed with joy when there were no less than fifteen police officers waiting to catch the same train as me. I got on that car.

Finally, and with a great sigh of relief, I emerged back on State Street. I did not take another train that day.

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