Wednesday, May 06, 2009

An essay on the Bluffs

So I’ve gone on a handful of walks in the Bluffs the month I’ve been back. One of the things I learned to love in Chicago was taking walks. Epic walks. The types of walks that induce strange looks from people when you tell them exactly where you went.

“You walked all the way from your dad’s place to the library? Jeysus,” people say in bemusement, even though the walk took all of about 25 minutes.

One of the most frustrating things about going for walks back here is that whenever I’m out on a busy street I’m bound to have a friend pass me in their car, pull up to the curb, roll down their windows and scream at me.

“Hey Schnick! Your car break down, man!? You need a ride!?” They’d yell, each showing genuine concern about my well being.

“Nah, man. Just out being pipedal,” I’d reply sarcastically.

All the while stacks of backed up cars are honking in annoyance behind them. The hilarious thing is that most times I’m out on these walks I’m listening to my ipod looking to the ground and can’t hear/see people when they do this. I can only imagine how confusing it is for the poor people in the cars behind them.

“Hey, honey. Look! The guy ahead of us is screaming at that poor fella out walking around for no reason!” The husband would say.

“Oh, dear. I hope they don’t get in a fight,” the wife would reply with fright.

The first of these aforementioned walks, I have to say, was pretty depressing. I started at my dad’s place on 26th and I, made my way past Thomas Jefferson High School, then on to 5th Ave. and took it all the way up to the library. Native Council Bluffians know this isn’t necessarily the nicest stretch of real estate in town.

It’s actually downright miserable.

A vast majority of the homes on this route were as dilapidated, if not much more so, than they were when I was growing up. And I remember them being pretty shitty back then.

Some looked unlivable, yet judging by all the porch dwellers, obviously had inhabitants. Sadly, many even had toys and children’s bikes strewn about the yard, leading me to believe there were packs of kids in many of these shanties as well.

Fifth Avenue may be one of the nastiest streets in all of Southwest Iowa. It’s cracked concrete sidewalks reek of hopelessness. Beat up cars that haven’t ran in years rest in backyards and tattered driveways. Front porches are used as closets for throwaway furniture. A boarded up Kum & Go has been tagged liberally with graffiti. If the city’s leaders had any balls amongst them, they’d raze block-long stretches of it.

Once I got to the library things got a little better. The new fountain the city put in at Bayliss Park was truly a great addition, no matter the fact that they spent probably more than was necessary. Same goes with the library. I remember all the groans that thing induced from people in the community when it was proposed, but in my opinion, it’s the best thing the city’s built since I’ve been born (even counting the casinos). It’s much cleaner and more relaxing than any of the ones I’ve been to in Omaha. Kudos to the city for getting that thing made (while thankfully preserving the old one as well).

On the walk back to my dad’s I became more contemplative. Why was my hometown such a dump? And why is it that so few people cared? It seemed to me the main thing that was lacking (other than higher education and household incomes, obviously) was simply taking pride in what you owned. It was obvious that few people seemed to care about maintaining the quality of their properties — and in a larger sense their community.

You don’t have to have to be rich to keep a decently manicured lawn. Or a porch that isn’t cluttered with trash. Or to get rid of the beat up old Chevy in your driveway. (This goes for landlords as well, because I know many of these properties are rentals.)

Many of the things that make Council Bluffs dirty in so many places could be fairly easily remedied. A fresh coat of paint on a house here. Some new grass in a yard there. Building quality affordable homes on the properties where previous ones have been condemned or torn down. Not exactly a massive undertaking.

What really kills Council Bluffs from a perception standpoint is that the west end is usually the only part of town people from Omaha — and casino going tourists — see. Especially now with the pedestrian bridge. This is certainly where all the Counciltucky jokes came from. Of course CB looks like a shithole to them. All they see are the gas stations, laundromats and used car dealerships that litter West Broadway.

Omahans are universally baffled when I take them down streets like Oakland and Glen Avenue, or past the Dodge House.

“This is so nice,” they’d all say in amazement as we’d drive past some of the stately Victorian homes on the East End. “I never knew parts of Council Bluffs looked like this!”

“Did you really think we all grew up in fucking trailer parks, asshole?!” I’d always want to reply.

Instead I’d say I told them so. That Council Bluffs has spots that are as nice as anything you’ll find in the Dundee, Field Club and Country Club neighborhoods of Omaha.

The second walk I went on was in my old neighborhood where my mom and step dad live off Oakland Avenue. In my humble opinion, Oakland is the nicest street in all of the Bluffs. Just about every home on it is nearly a century old and has been well maintained in that hundred years. Walking down Oakland and up Sherman (the street I grew up on) was like taking a walk back in time. So little of the place has changed over the years, and so much of it is still as tranquil, cozy and tight-knitted as it was when I was a child. My mom and step dad know seemingly everybody in the neighborhood. Most of the families that were there when I was a kid still own the same homes. It’s the type of place that would have made Reagan proud.

It was on this walk that I’d realized just how classic my childhood was. I walked four blocks to school every day in elementary. The neighborhood kids made a football field and baseball diamond out of an empty lot next to the cemetery on the top of the hill. Even back then, pretty much all the families knew each other, and had at least one child near my age. And there were numerous winding old alleys to discover and patches of woods to explore.

So many of my aunts and uncles live in the outlying suburban areas of CB these days and I can’t help but feel their kids are going to miss out on some of the best things that I experienced as a kid. Council Bluff’s hilly landscape provided us with seemingly endless acres of raw forest to explore. But pretty much all of the woods in the outlying areas of town have been ripped up for new planned communities.

Even many of the patches of woods in the city itself have been ripped bare for new housing developments as well. Two prime examples being the new homes behind Park Wild Apartments on Oak Park Road — which used to be rife with awesome mountain biking paths — and the new homes off Timbercrest.

Council Bluffs, when my generation was growing up, used to be a playground for your imagination. I remember all the quests my friends and I would have in the woods behind the Black Angel and the cliffs off Oakland Ave. The ridge on the east side of Madison Ave. could have been the Appalachians for all I knew. I’d spend entire days up there when I was staying at my grandma Yochem’s.

Before people started moving out to places like Forest Glen, we could pretty much ride our bikes to any of our friends’ house, or any local ball diamond for a sandlot game. These days I’m not sure that’s possible (even if they’re overprotective parents would let them). Do kids even play sandlot games anymore, or are they so involved with multiple organized teams they don’t have the time? (That’s another blog entry).

ANYWAY, the old neighborhood is still very much unique. Having truly soaked it up for the first time in years, it makes sense that I was so enchanted with the vintage neighborhoods of Chicago. I grew up in one that was pretty vintage itself.

The last, most recent walk, was from the library up Fifth Ave. (which actually gets nice when you head uphill, sort of a universal truth in CB; everything gets nicer when you head up a hill). And then to old Kirn Field.

That park is such a hidden gem. I remember when I was really young living nearby on Glen Ave. and being mystified by the cheering of crowds that seemed to emanate from the hill across the street from our house.

“Where is that sound coming from? Where are all those people at?” I’d wonder while playing in the front yard. Come fourth or fifth grade, when we’d have our annual city-wide track and field day up there, I realized there was actually a football field and track on top of that hill. (I may have been imaginative when I was young, but not necessarily bright).

Also, I’d somehow never realized, despite being somebody who is full of useless Council Bluffs historical knowledge, that there used to be a stately brick high school perched atop that hill until the mid 1930s. You’d think the fact that the street that led up to it was called High School Avenue would have been a giveaway, but again, I wasn’t the brightest.

The views from that old field, which is now a city park open to the public, are fantastic. You can see the old homes that roll up Park Ave. to Fairmount Park, the old brick water pump station at the end of Glen Ave. and the distant Omaha skyline. Being on it feels like you’ve discovered some lost hilltop relic that’s gone unnoticed by humans for decades. It’s hands-down the most scenic overlook in all of the metro area, and I suggest anybody that’s never been there to check it out this summer.

It’d be pretty sweet if that old school were still there, too. Of course, Council Bluff fittingly tore it down like they’ve done just about every one of it’s architecturally significant structures. (See Beno’s, the Strand theater, the Ogden Hotel and just about everything they ripped up to build the Midlands Mall).

After that, the property served as the athletic field for Kirn Junior High, which was right down the street. That school isn’t there anymore, either, as it burned down in the 70s. However, the old gym across that was across the street from it is still there, and it’s one of my favorite buildings in all of CB. I remember how much I loved practicing there with my YMCA league team back in junior high. It felt like we were in Hoosiers, except instead of Gene Hackman, we had Mr. Kenny, our paunchy, bespectacled junior high math teacher as a coach.

I hope that if anybody ever attempts to tear that building down, thousands march on City Hall with torches and pitchforks. I’ll lead the damn way, even if I don’t live here anymore.

Basically, the conclusion I’d come to on all these walks, was that while parts of my hometown were surely hideous, there are equally as many that are unique, historical, and worthy of taking a leisurely stroll through as anything you’ll find in Southwest Iowa or Southeastern Nebraska.

The place has potential. Especially on the west end along Broadway and by the pedestrian bridge. I mean, how the hell is it that the first businesses you see when you come over to Council Bluffs from Omaha is a gaudily painted cash loan for car titles shop and a laundromat? Nothing says “Welcome To Historical Council Bluffs” like those two eye sores.

Is it too hard to get a decent sit-down restaurant there instead of another Bucky’s gas station or Sonic? Even if it’s just a Bennigan’s or a Chili’s. As it is now, all that Omahans come to Council Bluffs for are the casinos, but do we really want those corporate monoliths as our primary destination?

Also, why the hell hasn’t somebody opened up a bar right on the far west end of Broadway to capitalize on the last call rush yet? Hell, all you got to do is name the place Last Call. You’d make a killing.

And don’t even get me started on Playland Park area by the new pedestrian bridge. Why the city hasn’t done a single thing with that property since the bridge’s inception makes no sense to me, or really anybody else I talk to. As it is now, all that thing does is give Council Bluffians easier access to downtown Omaha. Definitely not the other way around. I doubt many Omahans are setting aside evenings to walk over that bridge and do some shopping and sightseeing in Bluffs. They couldn’t even if they wanted to. The only thing down there is a run-down park that hardly anybody’s used in years.

However, just across the river in Omaha there’s high-rise condos, the headquarters of a nationally-recognized corporation, restaurants, shopping and, shortly, a baseball diamond.

I’ve heard Council Bluffs is simply waiting for the right offer, but what’s taken them so long? The project got the green light back in 2006.

I will give Council Bluffs credit for getting some rehab work in the Haymarket Square district along Main Street and the stretch of Broadway past North 1st St.

They’ve done a nice job putting some artwork along Main Street and fixing up many of those old storefront buildings, some of which are the oldest in town. Namely the Primmer Law building. I worked in the bike shop that was there for two years and today that building is practically unrecognizable.

The bar district on Broadway has grown exponentially since I was in college. There’s now seven bars in a two block stretch, making it where one can actually take a cab there, hit four or five decent bars, then catch a cab back home instead of having to drive all over town to find some action. Ten years ago, that strip had I think three bars, only two of which I ever really hung out at (Barley’s and Bada Bing).

If they were to put a little more back into the area surrounding the library and Bayliss Park — perhaps get a couple nice locally-run restaurant in there and get rid of and/or clean up Charlie’s Boston Boozers and the Quarthouse — the place could be a bonafide tourist attraction. You could start the day off with a trip to the Dodge House or the Union Pacific Museum, then grab a bite to eat and maybe a cocktail, and finish the night off with a walk around Bayliss Park. Sounds to me like a nice alternative to the Old Market.

Sadly, the city seems primarily concerned with developing the outskirts of town with big box stores and restaurant chains. (C.B. may not be getting the cue from downtown Omaha’s development, but it sure as hell is with the urban sprawl of West Omaha).

As much as I think it’s great that we’ve got a Hooters, a Ruby Tuesday’s, and a Buffalo Wild Wing’s (sarcasm), how great would it be if we could get something like another Pizza King or an Upstream on Main street, or a classy cocktail lounge or coffee shop on West Broadway to go with all the sports bars?

If the city keeps building more and more business farther and farther out of town (see JC Penney, Target, etc.) then we’ll wake up one day and realize that we’ve got nothing left of substance actually in town. A sad prognosis for a town with a historic city center that has a lot of potential.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Farewell, Chicago

What had always drawn me to you — dating back to my first visit at 21 when I was covering the Big 10 football media day for my college newspaper — was that you were the perfect amalgam of toughness and sophistication. A city that had just the right dose of Midwestern practicality and East Coast panache; not too simple, not too snobby. For a boy with small town roots who wanted to experience the high culture of big city life, you were the perfect place to go.

And you didn’t disappoint. The magnificent skyscrapers, neighborhoods lined with vintage brick three-flats, hip dive bars that have been around since Algren’s days. All the restaurants — from the grimy family-run hotdog shops to the high-end steak houses — the museums, the art, the lake. I gobbled up every ounce of it.

You're truly a special city in a country that is sadly running out of them. One of the few classic American metropolises left. A place that still remains as unique as it was before the tentacles of corporate chains got their character-sucking grip on America (and like every city in this country, you're fighting a losing battle on a daily basis). There were probably 50 bars and restaurants within a four block radius of my apartment, and I can only count four of them that were chains.

Best of all, you're one of the few cities left in which it’s easier to not own a car. That alone was worth the price of admission.

I remember when I first moved in, my friends that had lived with you for years all told me that, over time, I’d take the all the architecture for granted. Instead of gawking at the high-rises in awe like a tourist, I’d motor around with my chin in my chest like a true take-no-shit city dweller. But I never did. Three years into it, I caught myself stopping on the sidewalk and glaring up at the Wrigley Building, the Sears Tower and the old print houses in the South Loop. After getting out of the Shedd Aquarium last Wednesday I stood staring at the lake and skyline for a good 20 minutes soaking all the beauty in one last time.

Things I’m going to miss most; day games at Wrigley, ambling through the Art Institute, afternoon cocktails atop the Hancock Center, schawerma sandwiches from Sultan’s, leisurely strolls through Hyde Park, the first 75 degree day of the spring when seemingly everybody in the city is at a beer garden by 6.

I spent much of my time wandering your streets by myself, yet somehow I never felt alone. And those times in which I did feel short of friends, I could stop off at the Old Town Ale House or the Charleston and feel like I had company, even if it was merely the character of the structure itself.

While the gravity of my decision to leave hasn’t quite set in yet, I’m sure it’ll all hit me on my on my first trip back. I’ll get that hollow feeling in my stomach you get the first time you see an ex with their new lover. When you realize that they’ve officially moved on, and they’re doing just fine without you.

There will surely be moments — a dull afternoon in Omaha or a confusing train station in Europe — where a pang of regret will shoot through my heart and I’ll miss how effortless and entertaining you were on a summer day, and I’ll wish I could go right back.

Until then, farewell, Chicago. Thanks for three of the best years of my life.

Monday, January 19, 2009

It was as close to Planes, Trains and Automobiles as my travel life has ever come.

It was the first big Schnitker family trip we’d ever flown on (ahem - just in time for me to turn 30!). Sure, dad and I had flown some places, and Joni and the girls have flown some places, but the five of us had never flown somewhere together. Our yearly summer vacation consisted almost exclusively of boating trips to Table Rock Lake in southern Missouri.

That was it. Every single year.

But this year would be different. I’d been in Chicago for three years. Lindsey’s a senior at Iowa and preparing to graduate this summer. Kylie’s likely going to attend college in Arizona next year. The nest is emptying, so my step mom felt the time was running out for us to have a trip as a big ‘ol happy family.

(And of course, the Hawkeye football team decided to turn the ship around and win five of their last six games to clinch a berth in the Outback Bowl.)

And bless my step mother’s heart, she worked her tail off to round the thing up; booking the flights and the hotel, getting us five seats to the game together. Not an easy thing to do on short notice and with the few local (and all tiny) airways clogged with throngs of Husker and Hawkeye fans heading south for their respective bowl games.

With such short notice, there was going to be some kinks in the travel plans, first of which was driving to Kansas City — usually an easy way for Omahans to save a couple bucks — for our departure.

The drive was effortless, and we arrived with plenty of time to spare, much more we’d realize when we got to the US Airways terminal.

Which was where the less-than chipper counter employee informed us that our flight to Charlotte was delayed two hours because of mechanical problems (their fault), and that we were going to miss our connecting flight to Tampa. Which, in turn, meant we would have to wait and catch the first flight out of Charlotte to Tampa the following morning. Which would put is in Tampa at 10:30 a.m. ... just 30 minutes before the Outback Bowl kicks off.

Meaning we were going to likely miss the first half of the game.

This. Did not. Go over well.

My step mother’s neck began turning red. My dad turned from the counter, looked up and mouthed the words “mother fuck!” My sisters stood there semi-shocked. Sensing the tension, I stepped towards the back of the line.

Now I understand that flights get canceled and delayed all the time (perhaps more than the rest of my family, which does not fly nearly as much as I do). I get it. And I get that it does zero good to bitch and moan to the airline people about this. It is something they, like most unfortunate souls in the customer service industry, have practically zero control over.

BUT, this asshole was not working with us one god damn bit, despite the fact we’d pleaded to him that we needed to get to Tampa on time for this game. It was the whole reason we had even planned this trip. To miss the game, or any part of it, would defeat the vacation’s entire purpose.

And it would crush my step mother if this were to happen. Here was this trip she’d worked so hard to plan and spent so much money on; a little getaway with all the kids before the three of us were out of the house and possibly scattered across the country.

And now some shitty airline was going to ruin it all.

According to this prick, we absolutely did not have another choice in the matter, and as he booked us two hotel rooms near the Charlotte airport for that night, he assured us that our flight tomorrow would be on time.

Once things were sorted out I bellied up to the bar and ordered a drink. It was New Years Eve, after all.

The rest of the fam filed over looking glum and somewhat hopeless.

“I’m so sorry guys,” my step mom said, visibly upset.

We assured her that this was obviously not her fault.

While I was sipping on my beer, potential Plan Bs were running through my head. I whipped out my laptop and started checking for other US Airways flights from Charlotte to Florida. My logic being that if we could get somewhere close to Tampa tonight — Atlanta, Orlando, Jacksonville — we could rent a car and drive through the morning and at least know we were going to make the game. I didn’t have much faith in the airline at this point. What if the flight tomorrow morning was delayed? What if was canceled? We’d miss the game completely.

However, nothing looked too promising. Flights across the board were behind schedule.

(Also, as a Plan C, I started checking for spots to drink in Charlotte that night; damned if I was going to spend this Near Years Eve stuck in some Comfort Inn.)

However, our luck was appearing to improve as the expected departure time of our flight to Charlotte continued to bump up. Before we knew it, we were boarding the plane just a little less than an hour after it’s originally take off time, which would mean, if they made up some time in the air, that we could possibly still catch our connecting flight to Tampa.

We get on board and my dissatisfaction with US Airways continues as I realize they’re charging $2 for a bottle of water on the flight — and $7 for cocktails. Also, the flight attendants were total bitches. One of the older ones spent the last 20 minutes of the flight bitching and moaning about her day’s work to another attendant, which is fairly annoying when you can’t put your headphones on or get up from your seat.

I never realized how much I’d miss flying Southwest.

I must also add that this is where our lives connected with Bill, the large, somewhat dopey-looking Hawkeye fan who was sitting two rows ahead of us on the flight and whom my father had conversed with while waiting to board the plane. Little did I know then how much of an influence on this trip he’d make.

Well, the pilot had made up quite a bit of time in the air and it was looking like we were going to get to Charlotte about 10 minutes before our flight to Tampa was set to depart. Once we landed I had my dad and Joni hurry inside to see what gate that flight would be departing from, but since US Airways sucks so much, they didn’t even have the flight’s info listed on any of their monitors.

Bill and I, who’d had to wait for our carry on luggage, were trying to catch up with the rest of my family when he stopped and asked a US Airways employee if she could contact the gate our plane was at and have them hold the flight a couple minutes.

After a brief exchange, the lady said “Nope. Since it’s New Year’s they can’t hold it at all. Sorry.”

“What?” I said out loud. “What the hell difference does it make if it’s Near Years!?”

The lady turned away from me.

“What kind of idiot airline is willing to spend god knows how much putting us up in two hotel rooms for a night instead of holding a plane for five fucking minutes?” I ask, though the lady was clearly done listening to me.

Pissed, we storm off to the gate anyway just to see if by chance that lady was full of it.

She wasn’t. Our flight was long gone.

BUT, there was a flight to Jacksonville that had been delayed a couple of hours and wasn’t taking off for another hour or so.

The gears in my brain began moving.

“Hang on,” I said to my step mother. “Before we leave, lets ask this guy at the desk for the Jacksonville flight if we can possibly get on it. I’ll get on my Blackberry and look for some car rental places there and see if we can get a car tonight.”

She goes and talks to guy at the counter (who resembled Kenneth from 30 Rock in both visage and accent).

Turns out they did have room for us on the flight to Jacksonville, and the kind lady with Avis there would wait for us until our flight landed.

YES! We had pulled it off! We were going to get to Tampa for this damn game!

Drawbacks? For starters; the flight was filled with idiot Nebraska Cornhusker fans heading to the next day’s Gator Bowl.

Secondly, and more importantly, we were going to have to drive three hours across Florida and would not arrive in Tampa until 5 a.m. at the earliest. And the three bags we’d claimed would not make the Jacksonville flight (more great service from US Airways).

Being good wholesome Midwesterners that they are, my parents, feeling for poor Bill the Hawkeye, who’s stuck in Charlotte all alone, asked him if he’d like to come with us to ensure that he’d make the game.

He obliged, considering he’d never been to a bowl game before and was planning on turning back around and flying back home right after the game the following day. It would have totally sucked for him to get to the game at halftime, around noon, completely missing any tailgating, then hop right back on a flight home at 6 p.m.

At least we were staying down there for four days.

So Big ol Bill hops in the front passenger seat of the rented Chevy Trailblazer with the Schnitker clan and away we go.

Now, by all accounts, Bill seemed like a pretty reasonable guy. A bit goofy looking, but nice.

It hadn’t occurred to me until we got on the highway just how potentially awkward this could be. Yeah, he was a Hawkeye fan, and they’re pretty much all awesome in my book. But we didn’t know this guy from shit. What if he was crazy? What if he would say something wildly inappropriate to my sisters? The only comforting thing, I guess, was the fact that we’d just gotten off an airplane with him. At least we knew he didn’t have so much as a screwdriver on him.

It would turn out the only danger Bill posed was that he talked. And talked. And talked some more. He was like a Kenyan marathon runner of talking. Or better yet, he was like John Candy’s character in Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Except instead of sell shower curtains as ear rings, he ran a business that removed unwanted animals from houses (which is actually just as bizarre).

As my dad was driving, he was so tired he could barely muster replies as Bill regaled him with stories about removing possums from attics and setting traps for coyotes.

But I suppose his stories did prevent my dad from falling asleep at the wheel.

Thankfully, Tampa is an easy town to navigate in at five in the morning and we found our hotel with ease.

We bid adieu to Bill, who had gotten a room at the same hotel as we had, and made our way to our room and crashed.

Eight a.m. came early, but it’s not everyday you get to tailgate for the Hawks in 80 degree weather in January, so it was no problem getting up after just a couple hours of sleep.

I had a beer in my hand by nine.

The high school buddies I’d met to tailgate who live in Tampa were still shitfaced from the night before, and all but one of them were kicked out of the game within five minutes of the kick off.

Which, coincidentally, was about how long it took for the Hawks to subdue the South Caroline Gamecocks; they had a two-touchdown lead with just under five minutes left in the first quarter.

The Hawks rolled and the game was a hell of a time, especially considering we’d found out just before kick off that the flight carrying our luggage from Charlotte to Tampa that morning — the flight we were supposed to be on — was...


Friday, April 04, 2008

Having finally seen it first-hand, it makes complete sense why real estate is so expensive in San Francisco; it's quite possibly the most beautiful American city I've ever seen and it's pretty damn small. You've got a lot of people that want to live in a finite landmass, which basically represents the two central forces that drive real estate values; space and demand. (I guess it takes being in a place like San Francisco to really see it tangibly.)

You can go on and on about how you'd never, ever live in a town where $1,000 rents were the norm. But until you've spent a weekend there, until you see the views from the Golden Gate Bridge, until you get lost in the immense gorgeousness of Golden Gate Park, until you spend a Saturday afternoon in Wine Country when the weather is so perfect don't even notice it, you can't honestly say that. I would literally need to double my salary to live as comfortably there as I do in Chicago, but I'll be damned if, as I was walking around Fisherman's Wharf and North Beach districts before I had to catch my flight back home, all I could think about was how I wanted to live there. No matter the cost.

Chicago's great. I've loved this town since the minute I got here over two years ago. But San Fran is a whole different level of urban delight. The culture, the views, the history, the vibrancy, the Victorian charm and the laid-back vibe of its people are all one thing. To top it off with the fact that it NEVER SNOWS (considering the winter we just got through and apparently aren't even really done with yet), I couldn't help but wonder what the hell I was still doing in Chicago while others were out here living this kind of life.

Sure, maybe this is merely a response to having just undergone the most grueling and unpleasant Midwestern winter in my memory. But I honestly doubt it. I guarantee I could go there in June or September — the two best Chicago months weather-wise — and still feel the same way.

With that in mind, here are some random observations on the city:

For starters, one of the first things I noticed was they have public bathrooms in the downtown areas, which is something I've always been annoyed they didn't have here. I mean, what a novel concept, to have public restrooms in a city of four million people. Sure, it costs quite a bit of money to keep them clean and functioning. But considering the number of times I've seen and heard about vagrants doing the deed in public here, AND, the number of times I myself have been stuck in the middle of the city without a place to go, I think it's something worth looking into. Besides, this city has wasted much more money on far less competent endeavors in its past.

Dig this: The BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) cars are carpeted! And they're not actually soaked in urine (or at least they don't smell like it).

There are quite a few homeless people, especially in the Civic Center and Tenderloin districts (btw, isn't the Tenderloin one of the most hilarious names for a inner city skid row there could be?). But they're a different breed of homeless people than what you find in Chicago. During my time in San Fran I was never once accosted by one of them. Nobody asked me for so much as a penny. In downtown Chicago, you can't go 30 feet without somebody hitting you up for some spare change.

They seemed a little more dignified than Chicago bums, and they certainly weren't as needy. They weren't hustling, they weren't begging. It's like they have either chosen not to participate in society the way the rest of us do, or our society turned our backs on them and, instead of pleading for our help to get back in the game, they're just like "well, fuck you then," and they go on scratching out their subterranean existences without our assistant.

There's also the fact that it's such a liberal city that it rarely cracks down on its open-air drug market (which is, oddly enough, smack dab in the middle of the city's civic district). So I bet many were so sufficiently stoned that they were too dazed to bother anybody.

Then there's the Haight Ashbury, which is a far cry from what it used to be in the late 1960s. Sure, you're still got some modern day hippies floating around, but things aren't nearly as grimy as they used to be. Haight itself is mostly lined with trendy clothing boutiques, bars and cafes. Hell, at the actual intersection of Haight and Ashbury there's a Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream shop. Really revolutionary stuff.

I guess that's how commercialism goes. It takes an area that used to be the epitome of the counter culture, and over the years it homogenizes it to look like every other "hip" intersection in an American city. Before long it'll have a Chipotle and a Starbucks across from each other.

Still, though, it's a unique place, if more for the interesting characters that frequent it than the actual buildings and stores.

Golden Gate Park is amazing. And it's massive. I thought I was going to walk all the way through it until I realized the damn thing was four miles long. I spent two hours there and only saw maybe an eighth of it. It's one of the few parks left in a major urban area where you can get truly lost. It also may be the best park to take a nap in I've ever been to.

Also, just upon entering it, I saw what was the most obvious weed deal made in public I've ever seen before. Some middle aged Asian guy wearing regular street clothes walked up to a young hippie looking guy with raggedy clothes, dread locks, etc. and just straight up asked him if he had anything. The hippie said "sure," grabbed something from his pocket, reached out and made the exchange in mid day light in a city park in front of about 50 people and with a cluster of cops no less than 100 yards away. Nobody acted as if anything out of the ordinary had just occurred. As I walked past I almost turned back and asked, “dude, did you really just do what I think you did right in the middle of all these fucking people?" You pull a stunt like that in front of 50 people in Grant or Millennium Park and you'll wind up in cuffs.

Wine Country was pure paradise. It’s not nearly as windy up there, so the temperatures are usually about 8 to 12 degrees warmer than they are in San Fran, which means it’s absolutely perfect. It’s funny how the best weather is weather you don’t even notice. There’s no breeze, no humidity, no clouds, it’s not hot, it’s not cold, it’s just … perfect.

The one thing that did surprise me though, as we were heading back down Highway 29 towards the city, was that there weren’t any highway patrolmen lined up along the road to pull over all the drunk drivers.

And so I suppose if I could make one general statement about what I found so endearing about the city — or maybe just the West Coast in general — was the people just seemed to operate with much more ease. People weren’t honking their horns in traffic. Bums weren’t on the hustle. Cops weren’t busting your balls. It was awesome.

But, just like everything else, it comes at a cost. If it didn’t, we’d all live there.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

So I get my haircut at this little place at Augusta and Ashland. I'm not even sure it has a name, all I know is that it's got a big red sign out front that reads "$6 Haircuts," which is about as cheap as you can find in my parts. It was the first place I went to when I moved to the city roughly two years ago. One of my co-workers at the Starbucks I worked at when I first moved here said he rode by it on the bus every day, so I figured I'd check it out. (He didn't actually go there, of course: he just told me about it. He was a gay, and gay men don't get $6 hair cuts.

Well, I've gone there about a half dozen times since, and every time I've gotten a fine haircut: certainly one worth six bucks. But the folks that work there speak VERY LITTLE English, and that always makes me a bit nervous for about the first five minutes or so, cause I'm never quite sure if they understand my instructions. If there's one person out there you don't want to misunderstand your instructions, it's the person working on your scalp with a a razor and a pair of scissors. It's not like ordering a burrito or telling a cab driver where to go. A mistake during a haircut is a mistake you'll have to live with for at least a couple weeks.

So, like I've said, it's all worked out fine so far. But if any of you see me one day with a bowl cut or a completely shaved head, you'll know it wasn't actually my idea.