Friday, September 9, 2011

The End!

RAFFI: SO… after twenty-nine days on the road, we made it back home. The drive from Chicago to Los Angeles—a four day trip—was mostly uneventful; there is literally nothing to do or see in Iowa and Nebraska, and, to be honest, Denver felt lacking in the depth that the other cities we saw possess. I wish I could have seen more of Utah—which is beautiful—but our car’s cooling system just needed to get home and be repaired as soon as possible; as a result, we were driving through most of Utah at night. And, on Las Vegas: the place just seems way too artificial and disgusting on so many levels to be of any interest to me. When we finally entered California, I felt one of the greatest senses of relief I’ve ever felt. Driving into Pasadena—Pasadena for God’s sake!—felt incredible, as did finally getting back to the garbage freeways and maniacal drivers of L.A. Who would’ve thought I’d miss these elements of L.A.? Then again, they are just part of what make the city what it is, and the city is my home. Of all the cities we saw, this one is, and always will be, my favorite. And when we reached home: I don’t think I’ll ever forget driving down the 110 into San Pedro, seeing the harbor, and blasting “Under the Bridge” with my good friends to end the craziest trip of my life—a trip that we will definitely never forget.

Can You Say Chi-city?

RAFFI: After a fantastic three-day stay in the welcoming and generous hands of the extended Conley family in Milwaukee, we set out toward one of the most iconic cities in the world, Chicago, known for such legends as Barack Obama, Muddy Waters, Richard Wright, Michael Jordan, Al Capone, Bill Murray, Kanye West, Ferris Bueller… And, of course, Mark Greenberg.
The initial reaction to Chicago that we—or at least I—had was, “This place is [expletive] huge.” No kidding. The Windy City was unlike anything we had thus far seen, with a cityscape that spans what-seemed-like five Seattles. To begin our first night, and, thus, the Chicago experience, we classicly went to a deep-dish pizza restaurant suggested by Greenberg himself, only to discover we didn’t particularly love deep-dish pizza. Afterwards, we walked around the city at night, an activity that, at this point in our trip, had essentially become an icebreaker for getting to know a new city. Chicago is so full of lights and huge buildings and more lights and huge buildings… it’s just so overwhelming, but in a fantastic sort of way. After the walk through the city and through crazy Millennium Park, we drove 20-some miles to Wheaton College to stay in the apartment of a handful of generous girls, of whom we knew only one—a friend of Horea’s sister. Their extreme hospitality seems to be, in retrospect, a recurring theme in our trip in which nearly every stranger we encountered was extraordinarily friendly and helpful, a stark contrast to the seedy bastards that make Los Angeles classic.
Our next day was pretty uneventful because we got a really late start on the city; however, we were able see a few landmarks: Navy Pier, Belmont Harbor, and the Willis/Sears Tower, the latter being the highlight. Basically a speedy elevator shot us 104 floors up the tallest building in the western hemisphere, where, upon arrival, we were able to look over the magnificent Chicago skyline at night. But the fun didn’t end there; this floor has these clear “skyboxes” that jut horizontally out from the building, which allowed us to look straight down at the streets below—a truly one-of-a-kind experience.
The following day, our final day in Chicags, was, by contrast, extremely eventful. We began the day by attending what Greenberg deemed the best museum in the country, the Art Institute of Chicago. Indeed, we found out that he might be right, because the museum was spectacular—everything we could’ve hoped for and more. Its majestic buildings housed—in addition to a myriad of art from every world region, art movement, and art medium—some of the most iconic works in the history of history; to name just a few: Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, Grant Wood’s American Gothic, George Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon…, and Gustave Caillebotte’s Paris Street; Rainy Day. After spending four hours, which hardly seemed enough, in the museum, we felt in awe of and fascinated with art and its infinite spectrum. Certainly an incredible experience, and one of the more memorable ones of our trip. But we could never have known what the night had in store for us…
            A few days prior, Greenberg had messaged us on Facebook with the offer of three free tickets to a Chicago Cubs game (apparently, his cousin has season tickets and was willing to let us sit with him), so we gladly accepted. After the museum, it was time to go to the game at Wrigley Field. Overall, we had a great time hangin’ with Cousin Jerry, eating hot dogs, and watching the Cubs win (which is apparently unusual). But the real fun started when we left the stadium and took a stroll down to a place known as The Weiner Circle. An unnamed party had previously told us to go there, explicitly instructing that we order a chocolate shake.
We assumed we were in for a really great milkshake.
After walking two miles from Wrigley Field, we were there, only a problem arose: this small burger joint’s menu didn’t list a “Chocolate Shake.” Duncan peeped up to the counter.
“Um, do you guys have a… chocolate shake?” Before answering, the tall black guy behind the counter looked to his left, then his right.
“Chocolate shake? Uh, yeah.” He slowly turned a tip can around to reveal the words “chocolate shake $20” crudely scribbled on top.
“Um, okay,” said Duncan, as he hesitantly handed the man a twenty-dollar bill. “Is this gonna be enough?”
“Oh, it’ll be enough,” the man shot back.
What the heck is going on? seemed to be the general thought going through each of our heads at the time. With puzzled looks on our faces, we waited in silence for this shake. About ten minutes passed, and, all at once, the lights were flickering on and off in a rave-like manner and repeated shouts of “chocolate shake!” began emanating from the direction of the counter. Simultaneously, we turned our heads in the direction of the noise, and, to our complete and total shock, an overweight black woman was jumping up and down with her top pulled off. She and the other workers—male and female—were hysterically screaming “chocolate shake!” After about ten seconds, the lights and the chants ceased, just as soon as they had begun, and the restaurant was returned to its normal state, but not before our original server popped his head over the counter and asked—sarcastically, might I add—“Was that enough for the three of you?”
I think our mouths probably stayed open for damn-near twenty seconds, as we tried desperately to process the sequence that had just unfolded before our previously-unscarred eyes. But life goes on, and so did we. As we left the restaurant and walked back to our car, I could not help but think about the person who told us to get the chocolate shake, and how, in his own devious and evil way, was smiling.
Thus, our Chicago experience was concluded on a truly bizarre and hilarious note.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Minneapolis, Finally

RAFFI: After too many days of being stranded in small towns and being caught in the wilderness, beautiful as it may be, we arrived in Minneapolis, Minnesota, just another city of which we knew relatively nothing about. But we got to know the place soon enough, beginning our first night by walking through the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden up into the prominent downtown section, a real lively area that is very pretty at night, due in part to Minneapolis’s skyway system, a widespread system by which what-seems-like every building is connected by suspended, climate-controlled tunnels. Many of the skyways are artsy and/or lit up, and, as a result, give the city more architectural flavor. The next day, on Mr. Hoeger’s advice, we ventured to Lake Calhoun, one of many sort-of large bodies of water that lies in and around the area—interesting because you don’t usually see such natural things in such an urban landscape. We walked around nearby as well in what can best be described as a hip collection of shops and restaurants, eventually walking two miles from our car to a record shop and, on our return, getting caught in a torrential thunderstorm. But everything turned out okay when a very friendly bus driver gave us a free ride and free passes to transfer onto other buses that would lead us to our car. On the drive home, I had a monumental realization that we were caught in the most opportune moment, with the rain and the Minneapolis, to play Minneapolis-native Prince’s iconic eight-minute-long ‘80s song “Purple Rain.” But one play wasn’t enough, so I played it again, then again, and again, and for the rest of the night we listened to “Purple Rain” on repeat. This didn’t sit too well with Hor and Dunc, but I had to milk this once-in-a-lifetime chance for all it was worth, and, in all seriousness, the song seemed to really translate the scene outside—that I suppose Prince had in mind—to the music in our car. We ate dinner that night after the rains had ceased in a very small, but highly-rated restaurant, where we were treated to two free desserts by the bartender and nearly seduced by a thirty-something-year-old drunken woman. Afterward, we trudged through the street puddles of the old Warehouse District and riverfront, whereupon we decided to cross the river, which happens to be the Mississippi, and then walk down to the University of Minnesota. This walk took longer than expected, but it was well worth it. The reflection of the rain-drenched cityscape on the river was magnificent; as were the various trains and colorfully-lit bridges we passed. By the time we got to the university, it was two in the morning, so we made the long trek back to our car, and drove home (Motel 6), blasting “Purple Rain” the entire time. The next day we went to the largest mall in the country, and, well, I’m not sure what else to say except that it was a really big mall. The day after that, our final day in Minneapolis, we spent our night at the city’s famed music venue First Avenue/7th Street, a venue that served as an important platform to success for Minneapolis-based acts like Prince and The Replacements. The show we attended was comprised of three bands, each of which had its own unique and, at times, quirky energy. The headlining band was Linkin Park/Limp Bizkit-esque, and the singer took himself a little too seriously; nevertheless, we had a great time to see these guys, virtually unknown, giving it all they had to appease a small crowd of maybe thirty people. In terms of quality, nothing beats live music in small venues; stadiums just don’t possess the same atmosphere as places like First Avenue, where the relationship between performer and attendee is so much closer. After the show, we walked around downtown again just to take in the awesomeness of Minneapolis at night one last time before we left. Upon our drive back to the motel, which was about five miles from the city, I put on some Replacements, which created a beautifully perfect vibe as we drove over the deserted streets from which the music drew its inspiration. But I couldn’t help but feel sad to leave this place that we had possibly grown, over the course of our four night stay, to really love; then again, I was comforted by the idea that I will one day return… And I don’t mean on vacation.