Illinios (updated)
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Chicago, Illinois

Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly, John Dillinger: all American gangster legends. They used bare-faced cheek to rob people of large sums money in broad daylight, often using violent means to achieve their aim. And guess what? The gangsters are back in town. But the 21st century version of these rogues don’t deal in lead and bundles of dollar bills stuffed into leather briefcases; they deal in Chicago Cubs tickets and bundles of hundred dollar bills stuffed into their oversized jeans. For the first time in almost ninety years, the Cubs are playing the ‘World Champion’ Boston Red Sox, and tickets for the game are like gold dust. So I roll into town a couple of hours before the game, without a ticket, and decide to have a look around the stadium to see if I can get a ticket. I don’t mind paying a few dollars more to see a ‘slice of baseball history’ (tacky sports talk radio hosts description, not mine!), so I look for somewhere to park. Ha! Wrigley Field is in downtown Chicago, and on game day the parking spots two miles from the stadium will set you back $20. Apparently they all offer ‘Easy Out’, whatever that is. Probably easy out onto the road outside the ground where you can sit in traffic for a couple of hours. So I am limited to driving around the stadium asking people if they have got any tickets to sell. At least the traffic was hardly moving, so leaning out of the window and shouting “Oi!” to everyone wasn’t likely to cause a major accident. The first chap I asked seemed to mistake my accent for Japanese, because I think he quoted me the price (“thousand a piece”) in yen rather than dollars. The second chap made a similar mistake and gave me a number in Italian lira, not realising that they’re stuck with Euros over there now. It soon however dawned on me that they WERE talking in dollars. The ‘best’ quote that I got for a $20 ticket was $500. Blimey! It’s not as if the game was particularly special either, and I didn’t even know who the Cubs were playing until I turned up to the ground. I made what I thought to be the prudent decision, kept my money in my pocket, and went to watch the game on TV.

Warwick's Roadtrip Photo Illinois

I had a day to spare in between ball games, so I thought I would make the most of it and explore the whole of Chicago. Of course by the time I had dragged myself out of my pit it was afternoon, so this would have to be a swift tour of the local attractions. Being a big city, the first hurdle that confronts you when you’re downtown is finding somewhere to park. Most of the parking lots are multi-storey, and so the height restrictions mean that the Dream Machine won’t fit in there. Not unless I drive at the entrance really quickly and turn it into a convertible! So I’m cruising around the city for almost an hour, desperately looking for an open air parking lot, when I spot one down a road to the left. Tunnel vision locked in and I made a beeline for it. Unfortunately, when you have PTV (Parking Tunnel Vision) syndrome, your attention is concentrated on your destination and you tend to miss minor details such as ‘No Left Turn’, ‘No Entry’ and ‘Wrong Way’ signs. Oops! At least that would explain why all the cars were coming in the opposite direction. Fortunately it wasn’t too busy, and I was able to drive along the pavement for a while before turning around. Some of the pedestrians weren’t too happy, but then again they weren’t protected by a couple of tons of steel! Heading up to the entrance of the ‘$6 Weekend Special’ car park, it seemed like a bargain because some of the multi storey places were charging a fortune, even though it was a Sunday. And then you get to see the small print. You get up to 30 minutes for your $6, and if you want to stay there for the day then the price rockets to $24. By this time you’re practically inside, so it makes it very difficult to get out again. Of course this is their cunning ploy to get your cash, but they reckoned without my inbuilt unwillingness to part with my cash to rob dogs. There were a couple of small cars behind me, but they soon scattered when they saw my reversing lights come on and the ‘Beast’ heading blindly towards them. After another half an hour I managed to find parking for under $10, although of course this was about five miles away from downtown. Good job I enjoy hiking!

Warwick's Roadtrip Photo Illinois

More than an hour, and a couple of large blisters, later I find myself in downtown Chicago. The first thing that hits you about the city is the skyline. Wow! The city is dominated by skyscrapers, and although there is a mixture of architecture all the buildings are extremely impressive and fit together very well. And not a gangster driving around with a machine gun in a violin case to be seen! The city centre is filled with parks, tree-lined avenues, fountains, and because the city is on the shores of Lake Michigan, there is also a beach. Complete with scantily-clad young people playing beach volleyball. Excellent! But once the sun goes down and the beach volleyballers are washing the sand out of their bits, some parts of the city become no-go areas and are home to violent gang drug wars. Charming! The tourist information office, actually called ‘Tourist Information’ rather than ‘City Concierge’ or something equally poncey and unrecognisable, gave me a map and a guide book full of useless information (such as the fact that the great fire of Chicago in 1871 was started by Mrs. O’Leary’s cow), and I strolled the streets pretending I knew where I was going. The Chicago Blues Festival was also taking place, so I sat there and watched some master bluesmen practicing their art. And of course I had to visit some of the places features in the Blues Brothers. Cruising down Lower Wacker drive (without hundreds of police following me), taking a look around the honourable Mayor Daley plaza (not a single SWAT team in sight), and zooming across the bridge over the Chicago river (while it was open to traffic) were just a few of the movie-inspired events of the day.

Warwick's Roadtrip Photo Illinois

You can also take a trip up to the top of Sears Tower, the tallest building in the United States, and have a look around. Once you’ve bought your ticket, you are forced to walk through a maze of exhibits telling you how great Chicago is, watch a short film in a theatre telling you how great Chicago is, and stand in the elevator watching a video telling you how great Chicago is. Once you finally get to the top the views are spectacular (once you have battled your way past all the billboards telling you how great Chicago is), and well worth all the promotional bumph that you have to go through in order to get up there.

One attraction that Chicago isn’t promoting much at the moment is the City Zoo. In the past couple of months, eight animals have died of mystery illnesses. It’s possible that all the deaths are coincidental, but unlikely. It’s no coincidence though that the zoo is free to get into: you would almost certainly have to pay to look at living animals!

After the tourism frenzy was over with, it was time to give my blisters a rest and go to a baseball game. What a shocker! After my unwillingness to pay $500 to see a game at Wrigley Field over the weekend, luckily the cubs were at home on the Monday so there was still a chance to go and see them. Even more fortunate was that they were playing the Florida Marlins, who are pretty low down on the ‘fan interest’ charts and so getting a ticket wasn’t too difficult. It’s not as if tens of thousands of people are going to make a trip from Florida to Chicago to watch a game, especially as not many people actually living in Florida go to see their games either.

Despite it being a relatively low-key game, the Cubs fans really get into supporting their team. The average Cubs fan is between 25 and 35 years old, makes frequent visits to the beer stand, and enjoys shouting abuse at players (sometimes even players on the opposing team, although much of the vitriol is saved for their own underachieving superstars). By far the most popular t-shirt at the game was one being sold on the street outside the stadium, which has “Shut up and drink your beer!” plastered across the back of it. And yes, I did buy one! They have even coined quaint phrases to describe themselves. The team are ‘The Cubbies’, the stadium is the ‘Friendly Confines’, and the team’s recent history describes them as ‘Lovable Losers’.

Warwick's Roadtrip Photo Illinois

I’m not sure about the stadium being the ‘Friendly Confines’ though. It is very old, which is the majority of its charm, and the atmosphere is always excellent (particularly if you have been shutting up and drinking your beer!), but the capacity is small (hence the high ticket demand and high ticket prices), a lot of the seats have a really bad view where you can’t see a lot of the field, and in seats where you can see the field the tops of the players heads are cut off because of the huge overhangs. The overhangs have been modernised somewhat though, but only by adding nets underneath them to catch the lumps of concrete that occasionally fall off the structure! Still, the ivy is very pretty all the way around, the place definitely has a certain charm, and it makes a pleasant change from the modern stadiums that are springing up everywhere.

Because the stadium is in the middle of a residential area, a lot of the surrounding houses have cashed in on the team by putting seats on the roof. These started out as a few deckchairs but have mutated into every overlooking building installing large fixed grandstands, seating hundreds of people, and also selling tickets to the games. Of course with this being America, the Cubs weren’t going to let this go without taking somebody to court, so they hired a bunch of lawyers and managed to get the residents to pay them wads of cash in order to carry on watching the games from the rooftops. It wouldn’t surprise me if they tried to get a cut of the beer takings as well!

The good thing about the modern stadiums is that you can wander around wherever you like. Also, the more it costs to get into somewhere, the less flexible the ushers appear to be when it comes to you going into parts of the stadium that you don’t have a ticket to. I was doing my typical wandering around taking a few pictures, when I wanted to go into the bleachers to see what was happening there. I had heard that this was the place where the majority of drinking and fighting takes place, and thought a few pictures of that would be more interesting than the usual dozen boring stadium pictures. No sooner had I put one foot in the section than I was stopped by some bloke who has probably been sat on the same chair doing the same job since the ground opened (around the First World War). I asked him if I could go in and take a photo. Not a chance! I didn’t have a ticket for that section, so I couldn’t go in. Pah! He did make what for him must have been a heart-wrenching decision to let me stand where I was and take one photo (“just the one, no more though”). I was standing against a wall, wasn’t in anybody’s way, and wasn’t blocking anyone’s view, so what does it matter to him how many photos I took. Still, I took a couple just to spite him, offered my thanks for the ‘one photo’ by offering him ‘one finger’, and went back to my seat, sulking!

During the seventh inning stretch, it’s traditional at Wrigley Field to get a celebrity to lead the crowd in singing “Take me out to the ballgame”. Today there was some football player who had just signed Chicago, and he did a decent job (at least he remembered the words). But as I was driving around Chicago a few days before, there was uproar because they had got some NASCAR driver to do it. He accidentally insulted the fans by getting the name of the stadium wrong, then didn’t bother singing at all and decided to grin and laugh his way through it instead. People were calling in to sports talk radio shows threatening this bloke, he was warned never to across Chicago’s city limits again, and they all took it a bit too seriously. After all, it’s only some stupid song, and a while ago they had Ozzy Osbourne doing it, who was too drug-riddled to remember his own name, never mind what he was supposed to be doing up there.

Warwick's Roadtrip Photo Illinois

The Chicago White Sox, on the other side of town from the Cubs, provides the fan with completely the opposite experience. The stadium is in a very dodgy part of town, so you’re pretty much forced to use the ‘official’ parking. $17 – ching! Then you wander up to buy your ticket. The cheapest seats cost $7, which isn’t too bad. Unfortunately that’s only on Mondays, and all other days (including the day I was there) they cost $14. But they only cost $14 on ‘Regular’ game days; there are also ‘Prime’ games when the ticket price goes up to $18. And the fleecing doesn’t stop there; on top of ‘Prime’ games there are ‘Premier’ games where the ticket price goes up to $23. Tonight the Dodgers were in town, and they aren’t even in the same league as the White Sox never mind the same division, but nevertheless this team from over two thousand miles away was classed as a ‘Premier’ opponent. So I part with my $23 – ching!

Once getting inside, and finding out that my seat is made of plastic rather than the solid gold that I would expect for $23, the first question I find asking myself is that if this is a ‘Premier’ game then why is the place half empty on a Friday night. So I take another look at my ticket, and the ‘$23’ printed on it gives me the answer! It’s a new stadium, and the seats are very clean (because nobody ever goes there), the walkways are very clean (because nobody ever goes there), and the toilets are spotless (because … well, you get the idea).

And not content with charging you an arm and a leg to get into the place, you find out when you’re inside that your ‘cheap’ $23 ticket only allows you access to the ‘500’ section, presumably called that because that’s approximately how many yards you are away from the field! Armies of jackbooted officials strut up and down making sure that you’re not thinking too seriously about throwing yourself against the barbed wire in an attempt to escape from Stalag Luft Section 500. There’s more chance of getting the miserable old git from the Wrigley Field bleachers to buy you a drink than getting around the White Sox new place (it’s named after a phone company, but I can’t remember which one).

Warwick's Roadtrip Photo Illinois

Abandoning my plans to tour the stadium, I pick one of the ten thousand or so empty seats that I am allowed to sit in and settle in to watch the action. After spending the previous three hours trying to navigate Chicago during the rush hour, I am starving, but a combination of being broke and being pigheaded prevents me giving another penny to the money grabbing White Sox so I sit there with stomach gurgling.

All through the game the scoreboard kept going on about the 1959 ‘Go Go Sox’, whatever they were (a scantily-clad female dance troupe, perhaps?), set off fireworks and sirens at every possible opportunity (players hitting home runs, players catching the ball, players managing to tie their shoelaces themselves), fill the scoreboard with what can only be described as gigantic rotating fiery pairs of testicles whenever anyone came to bat, and generally did whatever they could to make up for the crypt-like atmosphere inside the stadium. And despite the White Sox being the best team in baseball at the moment, the fans don’t really seem to be too bothered (apart from a light smattering of ‘Cubs Suck’ t-shirts). And why? $23 a ticket – that’s why!

Warwick's Roadtrip Photo Illinois

Other non baseball related activities during the game included the increasingly annoying practice of showing ‘celebrity fans’ on the big screen (a chap called Vince Vaughn, who I think might be an actor), a giant green hippo careering around the field, who I am guessing is the White Sox mascot, and of course the compulsory girls firing t-shirts into the crowd. And despite the failure of everything else to entertain, these t-shirt girls certainly hit the spot. Young, pretty, and amply-endowed in the mammary department, they seemed to have taken their job one step further by wearing children’s size t-shirts and firing all the adult size shirts into the crowd. The shirts must have been made with high quality stitching and cotton because they were TIGHT. Not quite worth the $40 that it had cost to get in, but pretty close!

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