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Chicago

I arrived in Chicago on a Monday morning. It wasn’t particularly painful to leave Charlottesville this time. I had time to clean my apartment over the weekend, so I did not have the sinking feeling of knowing I would be greeted with a chore on my return. But it had been a tumultuous week leading up to the trip, and I needed the kind of distraction travel uniquely forces on someone. Between New Orleans and this trip, I’d snuck away to Los Angeles to spend the weekend with someone–for a second time in two months, actually. (Neither trip is documented here.) At the end of the trip, I initiated some kind of discussion of whether or not we were dating, and he said it wasn’t something he would consider, and despite all we’d gone out to see and do that weekend–from horse racing to gallery openings at the Brewery, the world’s largest colony of artists–it cheapened the experience for me a bit. I’d seen it coming. So going into this trip, I had a fresh start for, essentially, everything. Everything except, of course, my job.

So I arrived in Chicago on a Monday morning. This is a warning: if you get grossed out easily, you may want to jump to the paragraph about the hotel. Like the courteous traveler I usually am, I waited in the taxi line and went to the driver to whom I was directed. The driver looked like he could use a good Brillo Pad scrubbing, but, then, so could a lot of guys I’ve dated. I got in the car, and it had a distinct smell I know from when I worked for MTV Room Raiders. It was my job to do on-camera interviews, get the kids in their rooms at the end of a campy house or apartment tour and get them to tell-all about their personal lives and show me their stuff, and I’ll be honest—there was a real art to finding out what they did in their other free time. We only casted singles, and we were looking for wild streaks. On rare, special occasions, it didn’t take much to find them—I’d arrive at a college student’s apartment in the mid-morning and he or she would be saying goodbye to the previous night’s hook-up. Simply put, the cab smelled like sex. It’s not pleasant if it’s not yours, and it’s probably not pleasant even then. It being a spring day in Chicago, I thought 50 degree wind was preferable to that smell, so I cracked my window several inches. Somehow, the air circulation in the cab was such that when I opened my window, the driver’s own distinct smell (a different smell, also known as B.O.) passed through the 8-inch by 8-inch window in the barrier separating front from back—to me. Here, I should stop and mention that I was going to Lincolnshire, a 30 to 40 minute ride to the tune of $62 before tip. I plugged in my iPod earbuds, turned to some jazzy Gershwin, and calmly reasoned I could be wrong, and this could be a most unfortunate natural body smell. Smells happen. This does not: the plastic signage with fare rates posted was screwed into the back of the passenger chair directly in front of me, and caught in one of the large screws were 10 or 15 long, black strands of presumably human hair. As the 50 degree wind and B.O. swirled around me, the hair almost danced before me, blowing out from the screw, closer and closer to my knees with each big gust. I considered moving to the other side, thinking perhaps the B.O. might not hit me there, but I was somewhat appreciative of the distraction from the smell of sex, and I did not wish to expose my white Anthropologie ($19.99 clearance!) slacks to germs on the opposite seat as well.

After the meeting, I cabbed to the Libertyville Train station for about $25, then took a $5 train into the city–clocking in at a total travel time of about 3 hours for the return trip. Perhaps the cab was worth it. From Union Station, I cabbed to the James Hotel, enjoying the ride through downtown Chicago’s underground labrynth of roads. By the time I arrived, I was gross. My white slacks were stained and my hair was disheveled, but the concierge gave me none of the “look up, look down, nose up” I occasionally get. The lobby is incredibly white, without being sterile, and is surprisingly well lit by natural sunlight, always a pleasant surprise in large cities where skyscrapers usually make that an impossibility.

My room was surprisingly spacious, again, for a large city hotel. I’ve had a good run of enormous rooms lately, and I can’t help but wonder if there’s a secret register of the Top 1000 Pickiest Travelers (that I would definitely be on) or if new boutique hotels are being constructed with bigger rooms. [Note: I am writing this from the Wyndham in Nashville, and no to both, but I’ll respect my hand-written notes from the trip.] It wasn’t just big. It was cool. There was an invisible line dividing the room–bed and bathroom in one half, parlor furniture, TV, and closet in the other. The “parlor” was a glass table and bench seat against the far wall, and a red vinyl chaise lounge and wood side table, an abstract piece carved from a tree stump in one piece that just screamed for a cocktail to rest on it while I finished my day’s work. I obliged. I descended to the lobby bar and ordered a cocktail of Absolut New Orleans (mango and black pepper flavor), Asti, and lime. The bar had mirrors placed strategically to effect a larger space but served narcissistic need, too (see below). As I sat sipping my drink and calling in the cab story to my dad, the bartendress did her hair and make-up. She was cute; she didn’t need to do that. A great take-away was the James’ take on bar mix. Pringles has just released cracker sticks in several flavors, and the wheat sticks were served in a glass tumbler with chili oil in the bottom, not more than a half-inch deep. Creative, addictive, and healthy.

As much as I wanted to go back to Avec, whose chef Paul Kahan had just appeared on “Top Chef,” I decided to dine at Sepia after my evening meeting. I arrived at about 9:30pm. My research paid off: its chef Kendal Duque had just found out he was voted best something-or-other in the city, and the staff was trying to close early to go celebrate with him. Unfortunately, this meant I felt rushed, and Duque was not on the line. To start, I ordered sweetbreads with celeriac remoulade and bacon-pecan vinaigrette. Simply put, they were the best sweetbreads I’ve ever had. They were perfectly cooked–tender, but firm. The sauce was salty and sweet and did not cover the taste of the pancreas, which had been the case up to that point. For my entree, I ordered the skate wing, with salsify and raisin-caper sauce. The sauce was very buttery, and not subtle like a beurre blanc can be. What bothered me was the choice of vegetables it was served with. I understood onion and to some extent carrot with the raisins, but tomato was a horrible choice. The color, acidity, and consistency were inconsistent with the rest of the dish. To the restaurant’s credit, the serving was huge, and it was perfectly deboned. All in all, a really enjoyable meal, spent with an article about village life in China in the New Yorker.

After a long day of meetings on Tuesday, I again ventured out late in the evening for a bit of entertainment and fine dining. I’d attended a comedy show on my February trip to LA, and I’d been curious to go to Second City. When I arrived and picked up my will call ticket, the host said something about my having the best seat in the house, and sitting next to some rich guy. Indeed, I was seated in the exact middle of the theatre, next to a really attractive, well-dressed Australian with a really unpleasant negativity about him. My server seemed to have such a distaste for him by the time I was seated there that he charged my martini to him. Long story short, it was nice to be in the company of fellow Obamaniacs with expensive taste who enjoy tasteless humor.

My sister recommended that I eat at Japonais, having been in Chicago just the week before me. It was packed at quarter to ten on a Tuesday night, and I was led to a seat at the sushi bar. My location was a bit frustrating, because there was no server stand for sushi orders but they all seemed to come to where I was sitting to collect plates to run to tables. Regardless, I was on a mission.

Last year, I ate at Aria and had a humorously bad experience–I got a bit drunk by accident, urchin nearly induced my gag reflex at the dinnertable (and did induce it many times over in private), and I tripped in melted snow on my way out the door. It bothers me if I do not like a food–I have acquired tastes for most vegetables, grilled cheese sandwiches, egg, avocado, hummus, and beer by choice, and only beans and coffee remain–so I decided that if I am going to try urchin again, this would be the time to do it. I ordered one piece of urchin, two different kinds of tobiko, a spicy octopus and spicy tuna roll with unagi sauce, and my favorite, an unagi and avocado roll. It was a lot of food, and I ate every bite of it. It was really, really good sushi. And I don’t know if I can get past the color and texture, but I can finally say that I think urchin tastes delicious.

I enjoy circular stories, but I could live without ending with another memorable cab ride. My cab driver got us in a fender-bender. It was a really appropriate way to end the trip–with a bang. A literal one. As opposed to–well, you know.

Dallas

I have a love-hate relationship with Dallas. I had a lot of fun when I lived there for two months, working for MTV casting. I walked in on a social life I had neither the wealth nor the influence to deserve. Of course, I was doing shallow work with low pay and no insurance, and despite a horrible diet of fast food, no dinners, no exercise, and excessive booze and cigarettes, I somehow ended up more underweight than I’d ever been. (No, no drugs.) In the end, it was all inconsequential. I don’t stay in touch with my coworkers or any of the socialites I knew, and it would be impossible to eat sweetbreads and truffle oil and look the way I did. Two and a half years have passed since I left, so most of the bars where I used to see and be seen are either closed or are headed in that direction.

My first night, I stayed at the Belmont, a boutique hotel community just west of the city. It felt like a cheap Texas roadside inn with a good scrubbing, a fresh coat of paint, and new furniture. It probably is. My bathroom tiling was cracked, and my linens had a spot or two. But it felt like a hotel for rockstars, cool and understated, where you can enjoy your private view of the city skyline or hang out at the lobby bar with the other travelers and probably hear some really good stories. (I had a phone conference with Singapore, so there was no bar time for me.) None of the staff or other lodgers had the look of frivolity that so many young people in Dallas revel in; real substance, in my opinion, can’t be purchased at the mall.

The second night, I arranged for an important person with whom I work to stay at Dallas’ newest hotel, conveniently near the event venue, the W. It was a terrible choice. My exposure to the W brand was on trip sto New Orleans and San Francisco. Their W hotels exuded an aura of class and composure. Such was not the case in Dallas.

In a word, excess.

My first impression was the guy–my age–who checked me in. While I’m thrilled that, like so many other people, he felt immediately comfortable talking with me, but he should never, ever tell strangers that he was fired from his last job because he was accused of stealing a couple thousand dollars. At some point, common sense must kick in, right? Is there something in the hair gel? After our deep check-in experience, my room keys weren’t even activated. (Sigh.) The elevator alcoves were lit with red bulbs and furnished with cowhide chaise lounges. The rooms were attractive and unisex, with slate and tan coloring. But there were so many mirrors. A large mirror next to the television. Floor to ceiling mirrors for closet doors. A mirror on the front and back of the sink. Had there been one on the ceiling over the bed, I would not have been all that surprised. Every time I turned I thought, “Oh… you again.”

Spectacle and narcissism culminate in Ghostbar, the hotel’s 33rd floor nightclub. I brought the faculty member back to the hotel and we had a really embarrassing parting of ways for the evening. I decided it would behoove me to at least see Ghostbar, since I had read about it in a number of travel reviews. I refused to dress up (or perhaps had not even brought evening attire), but my one concession to Dallas “scene” was to apply a thick coat of eye makeup. I waited only a few seconds before I was invited to pass some guys through the velvet rope to take the elevator up. I might have once expected that, but two years later, I was nervous and insecure. Once upstairs, I was back. I had forgotten everything–how in Dallas, when men pass you in a tight space, it is perfectly acceptable for them to put one or both hands on your waistline or lower; how women all seem to have enormous breasts and no men show signs of balding; how women wear black dresses made of cheap synthetic materials that probably cost hundreds and how men all wear black button-down shirts and gel their hair; and how incredibly selfish, careless, and presumptuous social interaction tends to be. This is the city where a 50 year-old man once poured a drink down my back, where I was abandoned for most of a date while the guy did lines in the bathroom, and where an elementary school teacher wanted to put his head in my chest at a karaoke night. It set in right away. A cute guy took interest in me at the bar, and he was hitting on me by making fun of me for wanting a girly cocktail then reminding me I better tip really well. Then I ran into a guy I’d “mixed” with in my MTV days, an infamous player whose self-made dad had allotted him a small fortune of allowance to play with, which he did, with his unfairly gorgeous face and perfect body. After we screamed our hellos through the loud house techno music, he leaned in and said to me with thick, pungent breath that he wasn’t “partying that hard” because he had to work. I charmed him, just to see if I still had it. My fragile ego enjoyed a bit of stroking–not literal. (Just think of the cooties.) Not long after, the guy from the bar found me and, looking genuinely happy to see me again, gave me a hard time for drinking my plain non-girly-cocktail so fast. I’d sucked it down fast so I could leave. it was expensive, and I did not want it to go to waste. A sharper Kate Malay would have conveyed this and delivered the perfect comeback, but instead, I stood there, staring into his glassy, droopy eyes, furrowing my brows and curling my lips in frustration, until I finally turned and walked to the elevator line to return to my room.

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