from Swoon

The Great Escape: A couple flees from suburban plains for some Windy City action


For days on end, Andy and I found ourselves stranded in the suburbs of Chicago, visiting his parents. I was becoming increasingly agitated at the leisurely (read: boring) pace of it all -- driving from mall to mall, trying to decide which Chili's to eat lunch at. I hit my limit in aisle five of a Burlington Coat Factory. While the rest of his family was trying on waterproof Totes hats, I turned to Andy and suggested we ditch the clan and head to the city.

We hijacked Andy's mom's car and headed into town. Skyscrapers! Rattling El tracks! Already, the blood was returning to my brain. We parked on a side street near Lake Shore Drive (noting that after 6 p.m. you must be a resident to do so) and started exploring an area called The Gold Coast. Its name makes no bones about its generally ritziness, but I was convinced we could find several cheap places to go. We had both lived in Chicago throughout our (tuna) salad days and still prided ourselves on our ability to sniff out dollar-beer dives and places that serve cheap burritos the size of fetal pigs.

Speaking of pigs, even when I'm not on a budget, I always visit the zoo of any city I'm in (provided it has one, of course). I consider it the best place to watch the local citizenry; people do the oddest things while watching animals. So, Andy and I headed to the zoo in Lincoln Park, which is free. Although the zoo's facilities are somewhat medieval (lotsa concrete), the upside is that you can see the animals really well. I found myself looking straight into the milky eyes of a sea lion. And apparently, it's true what they say about eye contact triggering aggression: He barked, loud and hoarse, and people turned to stare at me. Andy and I then moseyed on down to the indoor botanical garden and ducked inside for a little warmth. It was moist and rain-foresty in there; a welcome reprieve from the blustery autumn day outside.

After leaving the zoo, we crossed the great lawn of Lincoln Park, just alongside Lake Michigan. Post-Daylight Savings light filtered through the trees, casting a lovely chartreuse pall on us and all the other folks enjoying the last of Chicago's outdoor weather for the year. I felt like tossing my tam o'shanter up in the air à la Mary Tyler Moore, but I wasn't wearing one. A jambox was blaring George Thorogood's "Bad to the Bone." We stopped to play with some guy's dog -- a hyperactive, Frisbee-munching Labrador.

We exited the park at the south end onto Lake Shore Drive and ran smack dab into the Museum of Surgical Science, which we'd heard about but never visited. Admission? Free! We were greeted at the door by a friendly girl who armed us with maps and told us to stroll around at will. Four floors of medical history...and we were the only two people there. Depending on the strength of your stomach, you may have to adjust your mealtimes around a visit to this museum. If you can make it past the room full of Civil War field-amputation kits (and accompanying illustrations), don't miss the Myerson Tracheal Punch, Helvetius' Mammary Clamp (for use with the Solingen Fork!), Quist Bone Sphere Introducer and the (apparently no-name) Anal Retractor. Aside from the shock value of these horrific instruments, there is a wealth of information. "War, ugh!" I used to think, "good God y'all, what is it good for?" Evidently, just about every major medical procedure known to man.

Much as I loved this place, my stomach grew queasy after about an hour -- just after the blood transfusion room. As for Andy, he was ready to leave after seeing the array of kidney stones set esthetically upon red velvet in a glass jewelry case.

Out of sight, out of mind, it was, because as soon as we hit the sidewalk on Lake Shore Drive, we headed over to Gold Coast Dogs for our first cash outlay of the day -- and my! what a bargain. No trip to Chicago would be complete without trying one of these famous hot dogs. A mere $1.80 gets you a delicious all-beef Vienna frank on a poppyseed bun topped with mustard, relish, tomatoes, onions, peppers, celery salt, and a bun-length pickle. There are so many vegetables on top that it was like eating a salad (or so I told myself). Gold Coast also offers turkey or veggie burgers ($3.25), for those who can't commit to a full-blown swine encounter. And with three hot dogs and one large Coke between us, we were only $6.50 lighter. Now entering Yumsville. Population: Two.

By then, it was almost time to fetch the car before risking a ticket. (Chicago police are notorious for being generous with the citations.) We made one more stop, though, for a bit of liquid refreshment. We ducked into the Zebra Lounge, a (yep, you guessed it) black-and-white-striped hideaway on the ground floor of an apartment building. We ordered a couple of beers ($3.50 each) and snuggled into one of the leatherette booths. Then I noticed the huge bowl of crunchy snacks on our table: a spicy, salty melange of goldfish, mixed nuts, pretzels and melba toastlets. After some lightning-quick calculations, I turned to Andy and said, "We've got $6.50 left. Two more beers would put us just 50 cents over our $20 budget." It took us about a second to decide: "Another round, please."