2013 Weekend In Chicago
A brief but memorable April weekend in Chicago
As detailed in my 2012 Africa blog, I woke up on my first morning in Cape Town to the news that my friend Stephen had shattered his femur falling off his roof when getting his house ready for Superstorm Sandy. During the months that followed, I followed his progress on Facebook and continued sending good thoughts in his direction.

I promised myself that when he was back on stage (“when” not “if”), I would be in the audience cheering him on… whether he wanted me to or not! As optimistic as I was about his recovery, I was shocked in March to read that he’d already been cast in his next role: Emile de Becque in the Marriot Lincolnshire’s production of South Pacific. Although I had some hesitation about finalizing concrete plans, there was really no way I’d miss it.

12 years earlier, I’d taken several trips to the Marriott Lincolnshire to see Stephen in Miss Saigon. I was taking some courses in computer programming at the time, and Stephen kept telling me that I’d have no problem getting a job; I was skeptical. But a couple days after one of those trips, I had my first job interview… and I’m still at that company now! So it would be nostalgic to return.

After making air and hotel plans, I stalked Ticketmaster waiting for a good seat to the musical Book of Mormon to open up. Even the mediocre orchestra seats were hugely expensive and as much as I wanted to see the show again, there’s no way I’d spend that much money unless I got an awesome seat. Fortunately, one eventually opened up and I snagged it.

Less than a week before my departure, the Marriott called to tell me that they’d be doing something with the electricity and the power might go out overnight. I figured I’d bring a flashlight, and at worst it would make a good story; it’s super convenient to stay at the same hotel as the theatre.

The day before my departure, the Marriott interrupted my busy day at work to tell me I couldn’t stay there on Saturday night because the hotel would be closed. They eventually booked me at the nearby Courtyard, but I still had to make time to call myself to get the rate adjusted to the AAA discount. I made a big stink because I thought Marriott had the “Ultimate Reservation Guarantee” for Silver Elite member, and ultimately they agreed to pay for 1 night at the Courtyard. I understood that the situation was beyond their control, but I was not happy at how they handled it.
I woke up hugely early (around 4:30am) to make my 9:30am flight; better to have too much time than too little, especially since I rather enjoy hanging out at airports. Plus, leaving early allowed me to beat the rush hour traffic. I had a bit of a scare when the “tire pressure” light came on in my car, but I was bound and determined that I would NOT miss the plane! (postscript: the light eventually went off and as of this writing- a month later- has not turned on again)

Once at the airport, the security line at the USAirways Terminal B was so long that as I arrived, those at the back of the line were being redirected to Terminal A. So I joined them on a march down stairs, across a train platform, and back up another stairwell. The line there didn’t seem much shorter, but I wasn’t in a rush and it actually didn’t take too long to get through.

I felt victorious after I finally found a place to eat that offered a bagel with lox and cream cheese; take that, inferior NY airports! Unfortunately, it came with onions which tend to bother my stomach. But it was still nice to sit and eat some breakfast while looking out at the airplanes. Even if it meant picking around the onions a bit.

Although I was dead tired by the time I reached the gate, I managed to read a little of my book. They were looking for volunteers to be bumped onto a later flight, but I had plans and a very short trip to begin with. In theory, I like the idea of getting compensation for taking a later flight… but in practice, it never seems to work out to be advantageous for me.

Somehow I was boarding with Zone #2, which made me one of the first on the airplane; I’m guessing it had something to do with having a seat by the exit rows; perhaps a bit of compensation for the fact that my seat didn’t recline. I knew I’d be tired enough to sleep most of the flight even with the lack of recline.

Before I knew it, we were over Lake Michigan making our descent into O’Hare airport. It was a clear sunny day which meant that I was treated to an excellent view of Chicago. There was a foreigner sitting next to me, and I made sure to give him a chance to take some window photos as well.

I only brought carry on bags, so once I landed at about 10:45am, I could head directly to pick up my rental car. After recently having some awful rental car experiences, that could only mean one thing: Time to procrastinate! My last visit to O’Hare had been a blur of a mad dash to make a connecting flight in January, but I surely made up for that by leisurely wandering all the way to the next terminal.

Eventually, I found myself on a shuttle bus to the rental car agency. I chose to rent from National because at least I’d be able to pick out my own car instead of having one assigned to me. As I tried to avoid breaking out in a sweat, I smiled when a man in the shuttle joked about having to fight me to pick the best vehicle. I just wanted something modest… and was quite dismayed to see row after row of Impalas at the lot. That was the car I’d been stuck with in California in 2011; I was NOT going to drive one again. Fortunately, I found a white Camry way at the end of the lot. I’d driven one before without incident. I would have preferred a more colorful car, but it would do.

Despite my nerves, the drive to Lincolnshire was quite pleasant, although it was annoying to have to go off to the right for the cash only booths to pay tolls. Also, my GPS directed me to a road that was temporarily closed. But I made it to the hotel safely and without any mental trauma, which is the best scenario I could have hoped for.

The Courtyard front desk staff welcomed me in totally perfunctory manner, without any apologies for being kicked out of my original hotel nor any mention that one of my nights would be paid for. Once I got into my room after noon, I texted my friend Judy and took a bit of a rest/nap.

When I’d mentioned online that I was planning a trip to Chicago, Judy suggested meeting up. I had not previously met her in person, but I’ve had good luck hanging out with online friends. Plus, we both had the same idea for where we could go, so it seemed like fate.

Judy arrived at my hotel and texted me that I’d recognize her by her orange sneakers; I think she was actually the only one in the lobby- Courtyard lobbies are not big hang out places. After exchanging greetings, we headed for the nearby Cuneo Mansion and Gardens, which turned out to be a gem of a little place not far from my hotel.

Since we were early for the next scheduled tour, we wandered around the grounds on our own for awhile. Unfortunately, it was too early in the season for most of the flowers to be in bloom; I can only imagine (or view photos online) how lovely it is there during the height of summer. Still, it was pleasant to meander around, especially since it was such a lovely day outside.

After we headed inside for the tour, I received a phone call from Marriott that essentially accomplished nothing other than distracting me. When I worked at a Courtyard, we tossed around free night vouchers like candy for people who were inconvenienced less than I was. Not that I suffered a horrible tragedy or anything, but I expect more from Marriott.

The tour itself was quite fascinating. The mansion, originally built for Samuel Insull, was quite high tech for the era in which it was built, and featured such interesting details as an elevator and many gold plated bathrooms. I even spotted a pair of ice skates in the shoe closet of one such bathroom.

If anyone is going to meet up with me, it is de rigueur to make a stop for cupcakes. With that in mind, Judy and I headed to Deerfields Bakery which had been recommended by several sources. Success! I had a cookie dough cupcake and bought a couple snacks for later. I’m glad I got to spend the afternoon with Judy; it was a nice time and she was excellent company.

Back at the hotel, I had to figure out what to do for dinner. Originally I’d planned to order room service but that wasn’t an option at the Courtyard and I really didn’t want to drive. I asked what time the Courtyard Bistro would open, and the front desk person really put me off by responding negatively about how it would only have a limited menu. After going through a panicked flurry of other options, I finally asked for more specifics on the Bistro menu. It turned out not to be nearly as limiting as their initial tone led me to believe, and I was able to order the Chicken Caesar wrap that I wanted. That was a really awkward example of poor service- you should always accentuate the positive (“There are some things that won’t be available, but we will still have a bunch of options”) rather than putting out a negative spin.

After eating, I tried to take another nap. But I was way too excited so I settled for just lying down. Finally, I drove my car the half mile or so over to the Marriott with a huge grin on my face. I was really going to see Stephen in South Pacific! Walking inside, it seemed just a blink ago that I’d been there to see him in Miss Saigon; I felt especially nostalgic to see a poster from that show.

The theatre is laid out in a square with the stage in the center. I seemed to vaguely recall that section 3 had been a good side for Miss Saigon so that’s what I booked for my first night at South Pacific (reserving a seat in the opposite section for my 2nd night in order to keep all my bases covered) I could tell just from seeing the set design that it was a good choice. I’d been torn about how far back to sit; it’s a small theatre, so all the seats are fine. Eventually, I’d said to myself, “Screw this! I am coming all this way to see Stephen onstage even though I have no idea if he’ll be glad or not. And I am out of my mind thrilled that he’s recovered from his accident. So, dammit, I am going to sit in the very first row and no one can stop me!”

It seemed to take forever, but the lights dimmed and the lush strains of the overture transported me from my mundane life into the world of South Pacific. Fortunately, the character of Emile is in the very first scene so I could almost immediately calm my nerves with the knowledge that Stephen was really and truly back to being able to carry a show; not that I doubted it, but there is something to be said for seeing things for yourself. My emotions are always heightened when watching a good musical, and I could feel a tear falling down my face as Stephen sang “Some Enchanted Evening”. I was deeply grateful for that moment, on levels too numerous to enumerate.

I’m not particularly good at insightful theatre commentary, so I’ll just say that the cast and production were wonderful. Stephen’s Emile was powerful and full of heart. If you hadn’t known he’d shattered his femur 6 months earlier, you’d never have guessed it.

One of my most vivid memories of seeing Miss Saigon 12 years ago was the time after the show that Stephen walked with me to the hotel bar and bought himself a bottle of wine. It’s haunted me a bit because I would really have liked a glass of that wine. But of course that would never, could never happen. In a moment of loopiness at work a few days earlier, I messaged Stephen to warn him that if he bought another bottle of wine after South Pacific, I would want some; my mantra at work over the previous 2 weeks had been “I need wine!”

Once I gave Stephen a hug after the show, I felt my mission had been complete. No regrets. You might have been able to knock me over with a feather when he rather matter-of-factly said something about heading to the bar... except for the fact that I didn’t want to let on how much my head was exploding. It's silly but for years, what I’d wanted most in the world (out of things that I can't fully control) was to just once have a sit down conversation with Stephen. Partly so that when I told people I was flying across the country to see a friend in a show, I wouldn’t feel like I had to add all sorts of disclaimers about how he wasn’t “really” a friend. Mostly because that’s what you’re supposed to do with friends- and when Stephen isn’t actually on a stage in front of me, that’s pretty much how I think of him. He’s a kind, interesting guy with a wide range of knowledge on all sorts of topics. But I figured that if it hadn't happened after knowing him for over a decade, our in person interaction was meant to be limited to conversations standing or walking from stage doors.

Deciding that reality did not compute, my brain shut itself down for the rest of the night which I’m sure made me the least thrilling company ever, especially since I’d been up for some 20 hours already. But I enjoyed myself- even though Stephen gave me a little hell for sitting in the front row in such a small theatre. ;) And I had wine- yay! 2 glasses! I felt like such a hog because I downed almost an entire margherita flatbread; it seems like I am always hungry after shows. Fortunately, I got someone to take a photo so I can prove it really happened- ha ha. (I may have had them take it 3 times in order to get one that came out ok; damn flash kept staying off!) After a crazy couple of weeks, it was like the cherry on top of the most amazing cupcake of a day.

I wasn’t too happy about having to drive even 1/2 mile through parking lots back to my hotel, but I doubted that there would be any traffic or police and I made it just fine. With the evening's highlights still dancing in my mind, I joyfully posted online a bit before collapsing into some well needed sleep.
Approaching Chicago Wandering around O'Hare airport Cuneo Gardens Cuneo Gardens Cuneo Gardens Cuneo Gardens Cuneo Mansion Cuneo Mansion Cuneo Mansion Deerfields Bakery Judy and her Red Velvet Donut About to eat my Cookie Dough Cupcake Marriott Theatre entrance Hanging out with Stephen after the show
I’d wanted to get an early start to be able to walk around downtown Chicago a bit, but instead I clung to my bed and indulged in the luxury of sleeping in a bit. When I finally dragged myself awake, I had a leftover cupcake for breakfast. Any day that starts with a cupcake has to be a good one!

I tried to relax as much as possible while driving downtown, in spite of my rental car anxiety. My GPS threw me off once by randomly and erroneously telling me to turn right while I was in the middle of an expressway, but it got me where I needed to be. As soon as I got downtown, I ditched the car at a $6 a day lot; the theatre was only a 2/4 mile walk away and once again, the weather was delightful.

Judy had recommended a Chicago restaurant chain, Noodles and Company, so I was happy to see one a block from the theatre. It’s a great place to eat solo because you order at a counter and then wait for your meal at the table- quick, but a huge step up from fast food. My spaghetti and meatballs was yummy, and I was thrilled to be able to select Diet Cherry Vanilla Dr Pepper from their magical soda machine.

While I was excited to see Book of Mormon again, I wondered if I’d enjoy it any less than the first time now that I knew the CD by heart. I needn’t have worried; while the humor may have lacked the surprise value, I often found myself eagerly anticipatingmy favorite parts. Plus, it had been nearly 2 years since I’d seen it, so some of my memories were foggy. It was also nice to see a completely different cast; the Chicago performers were as wonderful and energetic as the original cast, in their own way.

When Book of Mormon opened, there was a lot of buzz about how offensive it was and how it contained a lot of bad language. I’d wondered if I’d feel uncomfortable, since that’s not how I’d describe my ideal show. But once I saw it, I loved it. In a lot of ways, it’s actually a very traditional show with a lot of heart. And it’s flat out one of the most hysterical shows I’ve seen on a Broadway stage. Yes, there is bad language- but it made sense to me in the context of the characters and the story. I’d highly recommend it to just about anyone.

I wanted to stop at Pret A Manger to grab something to take back to the hotel with me after the show, but it was already closed. So I stopped at the strip mall closest to my hotel on my drive home; after some hesitation, I decided to eat dinner at another Noodles and Company. Why mess with success? This time, I had the macaroni and cheese… as well as another Diet Cherry Vanilla Dr Pepper.

After returning safely to my hotel, I walked around several parking lots a bit in order to snap a photo of the South Pacific sign on the roadway. And pretty soon it was time to head back to the Marriott for another performance. (I didn’t want to drive anywhere at night, so it made sense to see the show both nights)

While South Pacific may have lacked the personal excitement of the previous night, it was nice to be able to relax a little more. Plus, I got to experience one of those moments that make live theatre so thrilling- Nellie’s mike apparently hadn’t been working at the start of the show, so after “Cockeyed Optimist”, Stephen’s Emile adlibbed something about showing her the other part of the house and led her up the aisle off stage. There was a brief delay (which allowed me to shift a few seats over to one less blocked by scenery) and then he brought her back saying something like he hoped she liked the carpets and telling her that she sang so nicely before so she should sing [“Cockeyed Optimist”] again; the audience cheered in anticipation of the encore performance.

After the show, I said a quick goodbye to Stephen, who had other friends to see. I joined the stream of cars heading out of the Marriott and went back to my hotel to sleep.
Portrait of a Chocolate Cupcake Chicago Lunch at Noodles and Company Book of Mormon Plush Frog souvenir from Book of Mormon Marriott Theatre South Pacific sign
I had to get up relatively early for my 9:45am flight. Since I didn’t get an express checkout bill under my door, I had to stop at the front desk to check out. It looked like they hadn’t delivered them yet, but I would probably have had to stop anyway since there was some weirdness with the Marriott paying for 1 night.

It was a breeze to drop off my rental car and O’Hare security was light early on a Sunday. I had to stop and let the TSA search my suitcase; it wasn’t my Book of Mormon frog that concerned them (though they found it amusing), but rather the fact that I had some charge cords in a bag that overlapped with my shoes. Apparently the X-Ray made it seem like they were in the same bag. So if you want to avoid having your bag searched, take care that all electronic equipment is suitably separated from all footwear.

After searching through the breakfast options, I decided to stop at a Quizno’s for a bacon, egg and cheese flatbread. As they were about to hand it to me, they dropped it on the floor and had to make another. Oops.

I’d told people that if my flight home was overbooked, I’d volunteer to be bumped- especially because the Phillies seemed to be having good luck while I was in Chicago. However, by the time that they announced that they needed volunteers, the gate was too crowded for me to have possibly gotten to the desk in time. Besides, I’d arrived at the airport very early again and wasn’t keen on spending more time there. It was slightly annoying because I’d have gladly booked a later flight to begin with if they hadn’t been so much more expensive at the time I’d made my reservations.

The flight was pleasantly uneventful and soon enough I was back in my car on my way home (by way of the pet food store). It was a short weekend getaway, but one that will remain in my heart for a very long time.