The wind whips around a crowd huddled at a Michigan Avenue bus stop. It's a steady, penetrating wind from the lake -- the kind that chills you through and through, leaving little doubt that this is Chicago. Muffled pedestrians press against its force, their heavy coats and hats gathering moist, white snowflakes.
But by mid-May all of this will change. Spring will arrive, and trees in the parks along the lakefront will leaf out. Flowers will appear in the plazas of the high-rise office buildings and almost overnight will unfold like a morning glory in summer.
Many of us from the South and Mid-west got our first taste of big-city life here before moving East or West. And memories come alive at the mention of familiar State Street, Dearborn, Wabash, Clark, Rush, Lake Shore Drive and fashionable Michigan Avenue.
This is the city where some of us heard jazz for the first time, saw shady burlesque shows on the Near Northside and danced in ballrooms with colored lights revolving overhead. Memories lurk in the brownstones of the Near North, beneath the State Street clocks of Marshall Field, at Comiskey Park and Wrigley Field.
But Chicago is more than memories.
It's a vital, changing city. It's alive. In fact, Chicago is a dazzler.
"What I'm going to do today is give you my Chicago. It's a hit and go tour."
Those were words of Marc Michaelson, a former newspaperman and native Chicagoan who became the first director of public relations for the Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau and later moved to United Airlines as regional manager of public relations. He has a life-long love affair with this. city and likes showing it off.
With the exception of an hour or so for lunch in a nifty Mexican restaurant called Su Casa at 49 E. Ontario, his tour (which took place before the recent blizzard struck) was a soul-cheering and sole-wearing 9 a.m. till 6 p.m. walking odyssey.
Our route was a couple of miles between the Old Water Tower on Michigan Avenue, south to the Art Institute (which continues to reign over Michigan Avenue like a royal palace), west under the elevated train (the E1) that continues to rumble around the loop -- just as in the old days. Then State Street (that great street now being converted to a pedestrian mall) and back to the Continental Plaza Hotel and Hancock Center (which Michaelson touts as the fifth tallest building in the world and recommends the bar on the 96th floor for a twilight cocktail and spectacular view of the city).
Michaelson reels off statistics about his favorite city with agility. Superlatives flow like the waterfall-fountain between the first and second-floor escalators of a new, super-styled Michigan Avenue shopping building called Water Tower Place. It's a high-rise shopping mall, seven floors of sh ops anchored between branch stores of Lord & Taylor and Marshall Field.
Glass elevators race up the hollow core of Water Tower Place, revealing boutiques and brasseries. Shops feature games for adults, fashions of Halston and Courreges, jewelry, leather goods, tobacco, candy, cookies and books. More than 80 stores are a mecca for shoppers. Late-night lookers stroll through the building like extras on a Main Street movie set. There's a theater, too, and a sophisticated little theater cafe for shoppers and the aftershow crowd.
Water Tower Place is named for the nearby water tower that survived the 1871 Chicago fire. In its new role as a Visitor Information Center, the tower is graced by a small park that encircles it.
South from here to the Chicago River and the Wrigley and Tribune buildings is what's known as "the magnificent mile." Adding to the magnificence are Tiffany & Co., Gucci's and other highfalutin' businesses where the beautiful people buy. Chicago has always been a great shopping city, with no fewer than eight department stores -- some cheek by jowl -- on that great street, State.
But if you haven't been here recently, State Street will be an eye-popper. Its conversion to a pedestrian mall is well under way. Soon it'll be a verdant oasis smack in the center of downtown with only two traffic lanes, and both are for buses only.
Department stores are already getting their faces lifted for the new lifestyle. Carson Pirie Scott's fancy old iron facade has a new paint job. Wieboldt's is now faced in buff stone, and the Marshall Field and Co. first floor has undergone a total remodeling.
More than $2 million has been poured into the stately Palmer House, its top two floors converted to a hotel-within-a-hotel where whims of the idle rich are answered by a separate staff. But the hotel's Empire Room has lost the evening crowds to the magnificent-mile area and is open now only for lunch.
The Palmer House's renovation may be a bid to keep some of the vacation crowd in the downtown area. In recent years much of the action has moved to the Near North, where the Continental Plaza has built a tower opposite Hancock Center, and other spiffy hotels such as the Ritz Carlton, Whitehall, Marriott, Sheraton Plaza, Drake, Ambassador East and Playboy Towers get the mainstream of vacationers.
Then there's the little jewel-box of a hotel, the Tremont at 100 E. Chestnut. In addition to its quiet charm, there's direct access from its lobby to Cricket's, Chicago's answer to Club 21 in New York.
The walk down Michigan Avenue gave Michaelson a chance to praise Chicago as Museum City.
"I call it 'curator's syndrome.' It's a term I dreamed up for collecting items and putting them in glass cases with little white signs saying, 'Do not touch.' In some museums I believe curators would prefer that you not look at the exhibits, because you might get fingerprints on the glass."
"Museums in Chicago aren't in the curator's syndrome," he explained. "Take the Museum of Science and Industry, for instance. There are buttons to punch, gizmos to turn and bells to ring. And the Field Museum is matched only by the British Museum in London and New York's Natural History Museum.
"Exhibits in Chicago museums talk to you, move for you. Instead of a bundh of dummies in glass cases, our museums develop exhibits that communicate with you and provide a palatable learning experience for adults as well as children."
He closed his dissertation with a Lincoln Park Zoo commercial:
"It's right downtown, the most visited zoo in North America," he said, just as he ducked into one of the grande olde dames of Michigan Avenue, the public library. The library has been dusted off to reveal startlingly brilliant glass mosaics in the walls and ceilings. And while it still has library facilities, the building is now a cultural center with a wide range of activities scheduled daily.
Back on Michigan Avenue the familiar lions smiled down to us from the Art Institute, now more than twice its original size. There's a suggested admission price of $2 for adults and $1 for students.
"But that doesn't mean you have to pay that much," Michaelson said. "If you've only got a dime, you pay a dime."
We paid our $2 and Michaelson wheeled through the museum like a tour guide in the Louvre.
"Please notice the works are hung in chronological order. This is probably the biggest and most comprehensive collection of French Impressionists and post-Impresionists in the world. "Manet, Monet, Van Gogh, Gauguin. They're all here."
We went down another level to see the relatively new, vivid blue Chagall windows and the trading room of the old stock exchange that was moved in toto to a new wing of the Art Institute. In the same wing is a new public dining room and a cafeteria. And with talk of restaurants Michaelson really turned on.
"Chicago is probably the most undersold restaurant city in the world. People think of us as only serving beef, when actually we have h undreds -- or thousands -- of ethnic restaurants as well.
"Most cities were settled by people of one or two ethnic strains: Boston is Irish and Italian; Milwaukee is Polish and German, and Minneapolis is Scandinavian. But here, because at the turn of the century you couldn't go East to West without getting off a train or boat, Chicago became a melting pot of the world," my guide said.
"At one time we had more Germans than Hamburg; more Italians than Milan. We still have the third largest Polish population in the world, next to Warsaw and Krakow. And while San Francisco and Vancouver probably have the largest Chinatowns, I'd guess Chicago and New York would have to argue which is third. Many of these immigrants went into the restaurant business," Michaelson added. "That's why we're a great restaurant town."
Nightlife has changed some. Most of the "big rooms" are gone, but there's still club life. The Blue Max is a bit noisy, but features some good comedy acts. It's near the airport at the Hyatt Regency O'Hare, 9300 W. Bryn Mawr, Rosemont. You might keep it in mind for a lengthy change of planes. (The hotel has a courtesy bus.)
The Bar in the Ritz Carlton, 160 E. Pearson, features Norman Wallace in a cozy setup. Music starts at 8:30 at Deni's Den, 294 N. Clark, and dancing begins around 11. There's no cover here, but drink prices are steep.
Classical guitarists strum the flamenco at Geja's Cafe, 340 W.Armitage. It's usually crowded, so have reservations.
The big band is back -- at least on Monday nights -- at Wise Fool's Pub, 2270 N.Lincoln. Also good music and atmosphere the rest of the week.
Earl of Old Town, 1615 N. Wells, tosses out some of the best folk music, and keep in mind it has a license to operate until 4 a.m. The Quiet Knight, 953 Belmont, is anything but what its name implies phonetically. Entertainment varies: folk, jazz and popmusic.
But jazz fans gather round, 'cause here's where it's found: Rick's Cafe Americain at the Holiday Inn on the corner of Ontario and Lake Shore Drive, and Jazz Showcase at 901 on THE jazz street, Rush, raises the rafters at 9, 11 and 1 with some of the best performers around. Should you want an early start, try Jazz at Noon in the Dearborn Room at Marina City. Every Friday from noon till 2:30. Two-dollar admission, and the price is right for lunch and drinks.
The magic hour of 5 had come and gone when we rounded the corner of my hotel and I said goodbye to Michaelson and headed for the nearest bar to ponder what I'd seen and heard about a city I left 20 years ago. Michaelson stood on the corner for a minute or two, still looking around at the city that to him stands tallest in the world.
He may very well be right.