My own introduction to the city was rather slower. Having checked in to my hotel in early evening, I was pleased to find the hotel had acquired the good sense to have a pub connected to the lobby. It was a very good pub, and I took the opportunity to have a swift one before hitting the town. The effects of dehydration from the 8 hour flight made the first Guinness rather swifter than I’d imagined, to the extent that I’d finished it before I’d received my change. Well perhaps I’ll have a couple then. If fact so welcoming was the pub that I found myself still there, 8 1/2 pints and two meals later, circa midnight trying to add my tip to the bar bill. The tipping concept I was fine with, but mathematics were becoming a problem.
It was an English themed pub with the obligatory red phone box. Unlike the few that remain in England (presumably they’ve all been sold off to English theme pubs worldwide), they hadn’t added the genuine authentic London touch of having every one of the windows filled with adverts for women offering a variety of personal services across town. It didn’t attract just local and British tourists either. One group of Germans trouped in, single file, in a very Teutonic and orderly manner. I even bet the barman that they were German and they’d all order the same thing, and they were and did, with a round of nine Budweisers. I have my suspicions, coming from the home of excellent beer as they did, that they actually said “Nein Budweiser!” and the waitress misunderstood, but you never know. It was overall a fine a convivial evening, what I can remember of it anyway, never more so than when someone on the table behind announced “…and suddenly there were lesbians everywhere”, and invited me to join them (the group at the table, not the lesbians) after witnessing my head swivel round in surprise in a fashion Linda Blair would have been proud of.
When I got my first sight of Soldier Field from the top of Sears Tower the following day, there were Germans about there too. Again they were embracing the local culture, talking in English and discussing the unparalleled attractions of Navy Pier – “we must go there. It has McDonalds…..everything!”
They didn’t show much interest in Soldier Field, it has to be said. An all-American dad with his son were far more animated though. “Look Son” he said, “there’s Wrigley Field, home of the Cubs!” as his kid looked on in awe. Perhaps it would have been kinder to keep quiet, but I felt obliged to point what the stadium was, and that Wrigley was but a hazy speck on the horizon to the left. Clearly pleased that some foreign upstart had made him look dumb in front of his child, he thanked me with the same warmth and sincerity as a group of American tourists on a train in Italy did the previous year when I ended their curious excitement about the train stopping in Geneva, by letting them know that Genova is the Italian name for Genoa. I should have just let them be amazed about how wide the lake was instead.
I would actually pay my own visit to Wrigley Field the following day, when I’d take part in a time-honoured traditional slice of American life by watching the Cubs lose at baseball. I don’t even like baseball, but it was still a very pleasant leisurely afternoon in front of a full house who seemed happy to be there, and if the Cubs won then that was a bonus. Which was just as well really.
First up was Soldier Field though, later that evening. I made my way there on the ‘El’, the rickety elevated railway that served Chicago. While to some, more obvious Chicago landmarks, such as the Sears Tower, or even the Lake Michagan waterfront mind spring to mind faster, the ‘L’ is perhaps the one that lets you feel you are in Chicago, rather than any other American city full of tall buildings. It’s distinctively Chicago. Whereas other cities opt for an underground metro system, offering you the chance to stare at the insides of dark tunnels for most of your trip, Chicago built an oversized toy train set over the roads, giving you the hope that you can peer into a first floor window and watch somebody doing something that should have necessitated them shutting the curtains first. Although saying that, taking a photograph to capture the character it gives the city is difficult as you have to step out into the road to do so. Not only does this present the not always appreciated opportunity of being knocked down by two tons of speeding metal, but it can expose you to a lingering vestige of the USA’s German heritage – the insistence that pedestrians only cross the road at specifically designated points, lest your jaywalking result in untimely death and a slightly scuffed fender on somebody’s 4×4. I actually got warned by a member of the public. I’m sorry, but I’ve been crossing the road unaided for years now. We had public service adverts on TV in the 1970s telling us kids how to do it, and it really was OK to cross anywhere if nothing’s coming. OK, the guy doing the adverts was a man in green tights who encouraged children he didn’t know to come with him across the road, but the same actor went on to play Darth Vader in Star Wars, and you don’t become leader of a galactic empire without knowing how to cross a road or two.
The ‘El’ stopped a short walk from the stadium, but the approach was a fine one. From the outside the (now rebuilt) stadium was something of a neo-classical masterpiece, looking more like a historical monument than a sports stadium. You expected to see a plaque slating at least one prominent president was buried there, and perhaps a group of schoolchildren on a tour – visiting the site, not buried there I hasten to add, regardless of how annoying they may be.
Inside it wasn’t quite the same. Rather like Wembley Stadium, the place did show its age somewhat up close, and the seats had been arranged in a colour scheme that made you glad that the person who designed it didn’t decorate your house, but the worst was at the sides. Only a man with his heart replaced by a lump of lead could have thought building a double tier of executive boxes obliterating the stadium’s Doric columns was a good idea, like fitting a logo-covered sports bodykit to an Aston Martin, it was like having you eyes jabbed with pencils.
But then again you could almost forget it all when you took your seat, and saw the Chicago skyline peering over the stadium’s north end.
Around 20,000 would eventually turn up, some well into the first half, but most went to the sides. The end I was in – the other was closed – was rather more sparse. The exception being one section of fans to my right, in the corner, who probably had as many fans in their section as the rest of the end combined. A guy at the front of this section deserved huge credit, for he spent virtually the entire game trying to get chants going. He deserves to be sponsored, possibly by a throat lozenge company, for his sterling efforts. It was just a shame that the completely open stadium resulted in his best efforts getting lost in the breeze. In a more intimate ground, perhaps with cover, the atmosphere would have been so much better.
The lazy summer’s evening, with the sun shuffling slowly over the horizon, seemed to take effect on the game itself. Maybe it was that with the stadium being 2/3rds empty it kicked off with it feeling like kick-off was still about an hour away, but it just had the feel of a pre-season friendly. Not that the play was bad in any way, just that there was no sense of urgency. It felt like while the players no doubt agreed that scoring would be a good thing to do, there wasn’t any particular need to do it just yet. Other than the guys in the singing section, it felt very much like the baseball I saw the following day, just emptier. A pleasant enough evening, but the sort of game that doesn’t just give the natives who hate the game ammunition, but takes aim and fires the gun for them as well. Eventually it did pick up. With about 20 minutes to go New England were awarded a penalty, which they duly converted. Many teams these days play a burst of music after a goal, but Simon & Garfunkel’s Sound of Silence would have been apt for what was for me a unique experience of seeing a goal scored where there’d been no away fans at all. Even in the old days at Reading, when Hartlepool might bring 30 down on a Tuesday night, a goal provoked some kind of reaction.
On the other hand it did provoke a reaction in the previously soporific Chicago team, and the remaining spell of the game was much better as both teams remembered why they had gathered here for the evening. This spell also included an equaliser for Chicago, which was the least their fans deserved, if perhaps more than the team did. A 10 minute overtime spell, surprising used by many as the perfect opportunity to head for the exits, failed to produce a winner. For much of the game a 10 hour overtime spell looked insufficient to do so, but I’d been hoping for a Chicago winner, and wasn’t sure if I was pleased for the extra 10 minutes, or disappointed that I’d seen my hopes dashed twice.
Overall an interesting if not totally exciting evening, although I was pleased that the game picked up and gave me something to warm my soul, for when the sun went down the air cooled from a balmy day to a degree that made every exposed hair stand on end as if I’d been statically charged. Time to get indoors I felt, and the doors of the Elephant & Castle would no doubt be open and waiting.