In early 1980, when I proposed marriage, I said to Jane on bended knee, "Let's get lucky." In the 10 years since, few couples could have been luckier.
Our two children have been a boisterous blessing. We have never missed a meal or a mortgage payment. We still make each other laugh. Clearly, our 10th wedding anniversary called for a major celebration.
My in-laws agreed, in a particularly welcome way. As an anniversary present, they volunteered to look after the kids for four days and three nights in late April. Just like that, we were free to spend 84 hours all by ourselves anywhere in the world.
But where would that somewhere be?
The discussion began on Jan. 1. By Jan. 2, we had stalled, badly. By early March, we had hit the wall.
It was brick.
I'd propose a fancy resort on the Gulf Coast of Florida. Jane would declare it too expensive. I'd propose another, in Bermuda. Too far away. A third, in Georgia. Too snooty. A fourth, in Cape May. Too New Jersey.
Since she loves urban history, Jane counterproposed cities. How about Boston? Too unexciting, I said. New York? Too New York. Montreal? Too caloric. Paris? Too expensive.
Finally, one Monday morning, during the 3,175th attempt at a meeting of the minds, I said:
"Let me pick. Let me surprise you. Let me arrange everything. You won't know where we're going until we walk up to the gate at the airport."
Ten years with me have not killed Jane's sense of adventure, or her trust. She blinked a couple of times. Then she said sure.
She did lay down three conditions: 1) The choice could be no more than one time zone away (Jane hates long flights). 2) We could not drive for hours after flying for hours (she wanted to conserve our available time). 3) Our destination had to contain more of interest than the hotel where we would be staying (Jane is no sit-by-the-pool type).
Condition One buried California, Europe, Mexico and Hawaii. Condition Two sank northern Maine and the Florida Keys. Condition Three finished off the Greenbrier, the Poconos and any stray dude ranches.
Which left what? I thought about it and came up with a list of five possibilities: New Orleans, Philadelphia, somewhere beach-y in the Carolinas, Quebec City and -- believe it or not -- Chicago.
The whittling began. New Orleans was out because Bourbon Street sounded like a pricey tourist trap. Philadelphia was out because it was so close; we might as well choose Hagerstown. The Carolina coast was out because we had been there with the kids several times and this trip had to be For Us Only (no echoes). Quebec was out because there were too few direct flights and too much food sauteed in too much butter.
Hello, State Street. Hello, flat vowels. Hello, city of the big shoulders. And hello uncomprehending friends.
In the weeks before our trip, I must have mentioned my choice to about a dozen people. All gave me the same pained, perplexed look.
Grubby, gritty old Chicago?
Well, hey, big guy, if that's what you want ...
Translation: Robert has lost his mind.
No, he hasn't. Our four days and three nights in Chicago were marvelous from top to bottom. For variety, affordability, accessibility and style, no trip we've ever made comes close.
The key to it all was the hotel. Chicago has dozens. But it has only one Raphael.
"Chicago's Elegant Little Hotel" is only 18 stories high. It sits in a Near North Side neighborhood of Drakes, Westins and Hyatts that blot out the sun. It has a small lobby and a plain check-in desk. It doesn't even have a taxi stand in front.
But the suites are roomy, lush and cheap ($99 to $105 per night on weekends, which are defined as including Thursdays). The amenities are first-class (the help-yourself bar features Jack Daniels and Remy Martin). The king-size bed is neither too soft nor too hard (and blessedly, it comes with three pillows per person). The clientele is well dressed and well-mannered (no conventioneers from Texas slapping backs in the elevator). The staff is smooth and unsurly. The hotel is within walking distance of all the famous shops and two main "El" (for Elevated) lines. And the minute you close the door of your room behind you, it's quiet. We didn't hear the beep of a horn once.
A Cadillac limousine met us at O'Hare International Airport. This was my one pass at flashiness, and it was worth it. The limo cost $61including tax to take us to the Raphael -- about $35 more than a cab would have cost. But how many cabs have a back seat you can sink into and shock absorbers that are still worthy of the name?
Since Jane had never been to Chicago before, we decided to learn the place with our legs. On a gorgeous spring day (and no, it wasn't windy), we spent the first afternoon walking hand in hand beside Lake Michigan, through tucked-away North Side streets and Lincoln Park. We were escaping kids, but we couldn't help noticing great kid destinations: the beach along the lake and the superb old-Chicago exhibit at the Chicago Historical Society.
North Clark Street turned out to be like Washington's Columbia Road, only more so. A yuppified walk-up condo sat beside a musty antique shop that sat beside a seen-better-days Chinese restaurant. Punks walked past. So did working-class women dragging shopping carts. In the news rack, the lead story in that day's Tribune was about a 10-cent increase in the bus fare, not about hostages or Lithuania or Bush. The constant sense was of a hometown that isn't embarrassed or surprised to be one.
That first night, we indulged an old passion of mine, which Jane had long tried to appreciate on my old, scratchy records: Chicago blues. At a storefront joint on North State Street called Blue Chicago, we drank ginger ale at a buck a throw and listened to the usual run of lost, vanished and spurned love. Jane was sold. As we walked back to the hotel, singing an old Muddy Waters tune together, in harmony, no one we passed seemed surprised.
Day Two: Memory Lane. I had graduated from the University of Chicago nearly 24 years earlier, but had been back to campus only once since. We rode the commuter train five miles south, wandered into the student activities building (utterly unchanged) and talked our way into the empty office of the student newspaper.
A little shuffling through the bound volumes, and I found it: LEVEY ELECTED EDITOR-IN-CHIEF FOR NEXT YEAR, the yellowing headline read. Jane smiled, and filched a photocopy for the scrapbook.
After lunch at the Medici, a neighborhood burgatorium with the same exotic menu it had a quarter of a century ago, we took the El back downtown. The ride takes you through the largely burned-out South Side. I remembered the Indiana Avenue curve from my student days.
As you pull into this station, the high-rises of the Loop glimmer grandly, about three miles away. But directly below you are stripped cars, crumbling buildings and knots of haggard men camped in doorways. The contrast is about as stark as urban contrasts get.
That night, we visited another North Side haunt that used to be a personal favorite: Second City. This comedy cabaret is celebrating its 30th anniversary, and it has spun off a satellite room -- Second City ETC. But big-time prices haven't set in (ETC costs a very reasonable $9.50 per customer), and artistic arteriosclerosis hasn't, either. We saw a lively show that lampooned everyone from yuppie parents to Civil War slaveholders. And there wasn't a single Quayle joke.
Day Three was walk, walk, walk -- to a turn-of-the-century office building in the Loop that Jane wanted to see, past Marshall Field's and Carson Pirie Scott, along the Little Wall Street canyons of La Salle Street. We discovered Berghoff's, a German restaurant in the Loop whose bratwursts and creamed spinach were superb. We rode the Ravenswood El way out to the Far Northwest Side, to the end of the line. We oohed over old brick clock towers in still-running factories. We aahed over unexpected urban creeks complete with boat docks and pocket parks.
I had been saving a question throughout the day. On the way back downtown, I popped it. "The White Sox are playing Toronto tonight. Right here. In River City. Can we?"
After a decade, Jane knows how to handle this kind of pitch. "Fine," she said.
Pause for three seconds.
"Can I bring a book?"
Comiskey Park, now defunct, was no modern pastel pleasure palace. For $9.50 apiece, our tickets plopped us squarely in front of an ugly, dark green girder. We had to move 10 rows up and 15 seats over just to see the whole field.
But the place had charm. A White Sox home run caused the scoreboard to erupt in molar-rattling conniptions. And they threw a fireworks display after the game, for no extra charge. I've been around lots of ballparks in my time, but the spirit outside Comiskey seemed better than most (perhaps it's because the Sox won that night, which doesn't always happen, to put it mildly).
We tied off the trip the next morning with a 6:30 a.m. visit to Maxwell Street, Chicago's famous Sunday open-air flea market. Twenty-five years ago, the merchants were mostly old-world Jews who set up stalls in front of their seedy-clothing and dry-goods stores. Today, the merchants are mostly Hispanic, the stores have been razed, and most of the commerce is conducted from tables and tailgates in vacant lots.
The array of goods is amazing. Rusty pipe fittings. Celery. Grass cutters. Used sneakers. 1930s clothes washers. Clearly this is a working man's flea market. And the price is almost always negotiable.
Unsurprisingly, some of the goods are of suspect parentage. For example, one merchant was shamelessly peddling a stack of styrofoam soup bowls that bore the Colonel Sanders logo. The bowls were still wrapped in plastic. Three guesses how he happened to acquire them.
Still, the rhythm and the background urgings along Maxwell Street are as intoxicating as ever. "Just for you!" shouts a tomato merchant. "Dos for dos dollars," says a guy selling socks, to a bewildered-looking woman who obviously doesn't speak English. We spent $65 for two pairs of brand-new jeans, four blues tapes, two packs of gum and a book about President Kennedy. Did we spend too much? On the contrary. We probably would have spent $100 for the same stuff in a respectable store back home.
There were only two dark moments during the trip. The worst of the two was actually light green.
While we waited on an El platform at Fullerton to change trains, an express roared past and someone threw a half-eaten pear out a window. It smacked me in the forehead. Luckily, there was no blood or serious damage, although I had a good case of the woozies for several hours.
Then, later that same day, our cabdriver had no idea how to find Comiskey Park. But he was too proud to admit it or ask for help (the guy must have trained in Washington). Fortunately, once Chicago-wise, always Chicago-wise. I directed him to the front gate.
Final reckoning: two round-trip super-saver plane tickets ($420), three nights in the hotel ($297), meals ($200), cabs and subways ($50), gifts for the kids and incidentals ($175). It totaled slightly more than $1,000, not counting the pear. In this day and age, in a major American city, without having made any particular attempt to pinch pennies, I'd call that excellent.
There will be no disagreement about where we go for our 20th anniversary. There won't even be a discussion. There doesn't need to be.
For more information about Chicago, contact the Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau, McCormick Place on the Lake, Chicago, Ill. 60616, 312-567-8500.