May 25, 2004

Day tripping on the sunny South Side

You've surely heard many a claim, on your average Saturday afternoon, that "there's nothing to do but see movies and buy things." But this, children, is patently false! The next time you're bored, grab a friend with a car and start driving. Enjoy the scenery, enjoy the music, and stop every time you see something interesting or weird—it's that simple, and it's fun. If you're not certain of where to go, perhaps our travelogue of an afternoon car ride around Chicago's South Side will inspire you.

We started out by driving north aimlessly on Cottage Grove Avenue. Around the 4300 block, we saw a sign perched on a sawhorse in the middle of an empty lot: "Thrift and candy?! We must stop!"

We entered a two-story garage-cum-warehouse, stuffed floor to ceiling with un-priced, unorganized junk. We carefully navigated the chaos, soon stumbling upon the proprietor, watching her friend lie blissfully in a black leather vibrating recliner.

"Ahhhhh." He was enjoying himself thoroughly, "Can I lie in this every day?"

The proprietor, a stern woman in a red apron and white gloves, sniffed, "If you pay me."

"Can I just come in here and lie in it for five minutes? Five minutes every day? Can you program it to do that, or something?"

"If you pay me."

It went on like that for some time. Meanwhile, we were exploring the catacombs of the Thrift & Candy. We found old pump organs, bronzed baby shoes, stacks of records, giant knots of tangled costume jewelry, devotional paintings of Dr Martin Luther King, Jr., an eight track player, etc. On the way out, we browsed the rather average candy section only to be shooed away by the ever-stern proprietor, who told us that she kept her "clothes and personal belongings back there." We left.

We traveled further north, towards the South Loop (around King Drive and 30th Street), which is a good area for fans of early Chicago architecture—there's a host of beautiful old mansions up there, some of which are abandoned and overgrown by ivy. We walked for quite some time around this area.

As we drove further west, abandoned houses turned to abandoned warehouses—or so it seemed. We decided to investigate a particularly silent building, wondering aloud why it had been deserted. But as we approached the back of the warehouse (which has a scenic view of the Dan Ryan expressway), we found that the building was in fact quietly inhabited by the KRONOS DOMA trucking company, which is clearly a front for a multinational crime syndicate. We've decided to re-name this area of Chicago MOBTOWN. Those of you who long for the glory days of cigars, bathtub gin, and easily decipherable code ("How many white shirts do you need, Eddie?" "Two and a half shirts, Georgio.") should visit a fine establishment on Wallace, south of 30th Street. What was obviously once a bar beneath an apartment complex is now painted in the colors of the Italian flag and bears a discreet sign reading "PRIVATE CLUB—MEMBERS ONLY."

We sped away in fear (through a cute neighborhood full of nice houses and playing children)—and hunger. We found food at the ultimate nameless diner, on the corner of Wallace Street and Pershing Street, where our matter-of-fact waitress was able to fill in all of the gaps in our eighties-girl-band knowledge:

"Wilson-Phillips—it was the children of Brian Wilson and Michelle Phillips from…from something."

"The Mommas and the Poppas," our waitress said nonchalantly.

This happened again and again in various forms. The waitress also introduced us to her adopted daughter, a tiny girl with braids and huge eyes, who went by Jezebel.

"That's not really her name," the woman assured us. "I just call her that." After eating our fill of the world's best bacon ("Wicked good," one reviewer decided), we continued our wandering.

Halsted Street, between 43rd Street and 55th Street, is home to another series of warehouses, one of which is the sinister Aramark compound. As for those of you who are fans of post-apocalyptic landscapes, we suggest the shopping concourse on Halsted Street and 64th Street (it is home to a Walgreens and all the normal life amenities, but something about its architecture screams post-apocalypse). On the drive southward, we enjoyed the (non-apocalyptic) architecture equally. We then drove west to Ashland Avenue and north to 58th Street, where we found an amazing art center run by a group of Englewood artists: there is a children's art sale and an outdoor gallery of the Boulevard Artisans.

Much farther west, on the 6000 block of Pulaski Road, we found some magic. Izzy Rizzy's Trick Shop specializes in "Magic, Gags, Disguises, Iron-on T-Shirts," and is home to a secret Chicago subculture of magic fiends. We saw flyers for homespun magic shows and overheard a man in a yellow vest and smiley-face printed shirt discussing "the magic club" with a store clerk. When we tried to catch Mr. Smiley's attention as he left (so as to discover the origin of this magical cabal), he hardly glanced at us. If you, however, would like to join the magic club, you may want to use Izzy Rizzy's magic library to hone your skills: we personally recommend the title 25 Rubber Penetration Tricks (and other simple magic that can be done with a rubber square).

If you continue south on Pulaski, you'll eventually reach Huck Finn's, one of our favorite diners. We were distracted along the way, though, by a giant sculpture of a bespectacled Native American perched on top of an optometrist's, bearing a sign reading "EYE CAN SEE NOW."

"He looks like he should be saying ‘Heil Hitler.'"

"No, he looks like he's ruling over the intersection of 63rd Street and Pulaski Road. Or the whole of southwest Chicago."

After marveling awhile longer, we drove east on 63rd Street until we noticed a storefront with a life-sized plastic pony roped securely to its door.

Inside Tony's Western Wear, we found a vast and beautiful selection of real cowboy boots, reasonably priced (but still, for us, unaffordable). We made a note of the address (3348 West 63rd Street), and decided to come back after getting our respective paychecks.

From Tony's, we walked west on 63rd Street toward Kedzie Avenue. We passed the world's prettiest Kodak camera store (which was, regrettably, closed) before pausing to note a blank, windowless storefront that read "SOCIAL CLUB" in faded lettering. The building displayed no address (it was next door to 3304 West 63rd Street), but the door was open. We poked our heads in and saw sullen waiters dispensing flavored tobacco to old men sitting on fold-out chairs in front of hookahs. We had discovered a secret hookah bar! And, right around the corner (on a Saturday, at 4:45 p.m., on Kedzie Avenue), we saw a University of Chicago Route E bus zooming by!

Satisfied with our findings (not really knowing how to explain them, but nonetheless satisfied), we decided to congratulate ourselves with a snack. We drove north on Kedzie to a Mexican bakery with a seizure-inducing neon storefront (constantly flashing "CAKES! PASTELES! OPEN! OPEN! CAKES!"), where we bought the most beautiful pastries in the world.

As we approached 55th Street on Kedzie, prepared to sail smoothly home, we realized that we already were so close to a bit of University of Chicago culture: and so we headed, instead, straight north to the always-familiar Unique Thrift Store. We tore through racks of clothing, gave one another fashion advice, debated aloud whether two dollars was too much to spend on a pair of shoes, and, as predicted, ran into U of C students. Though we were not home yet, our day already felt complete.