Chicago

Tara and I left Nashville for Chicago on a Thursday morning. At the last minute I decided to let my cat Myca out. I figured he would return shortly after doing his "business" in the neighbor’s bushes, as usual, and I could then lock him in the house for the duration of our trip. When he didn’t return as expected, I put the cat door in the front window and we left. The cat door, on orders from the homeowners’ association, had been out of service for almost a year, but I was confident that Myca was intelligent and resourceful enough to either remember how to use it or figure it out all over again. He didn’t, but we didn’t find that out until we got back.

We drove north on Interstate 65. About thirty miles outside of Nashville, just past Tara’s hometown of White House, we hit a traffic jam. We learned later that it was caused by a tanker truck overturning. Anyway, we sat in virtually unmoving traffic a full excruciating hour before I finally did what several other drivers before me had done and crossed over the grass median and headed back south.

Tara suggested a minor state highway we could use to bypass the Interstate. Unfortunately, it was just as backed up. So we backtracked all the way to Nashville and picked up Interstate 24 "West" (though it runs more north than west through Nashville), then up I-57 through the heart of Illinois.

Some eight hours later, we were pulling into downtown Chicago in search of our hotel, Best Western’s Inn of Chicago. Don’t ever stay at this hotel. It’s way overpriced: $129 for Thursday night, then $169 each night for Friday and Saturday. The 1-800 reservations girl said it had an in-room Jacuzzi and hair dryer, but it didn’t. And they don’t provide parking (though she implied that they did) or even a free continental breakfast. We didn’t learn of these last two omissions until the next morning. Upon checking in and parking the car, our first order of business was dinner. We found some good Chicago-style pizza at Gino’s East a couple blocks away.

The next morning, I had to pay $16 to get the car out of the garage! Upon reflection, I guess that’s not completely outrageous. But when you’re expecting free parking courtesy of the hotel, it hurts.

We drove south along Lake Shore Drive to the Museum of Science & Industry. That’s a great museum. If you ever get the chance, go see it. In the Navy section (or whatever it’s called), we rode an F-14 flight simulator, which was lots of fun. In the Human Anatomy section, there’s a display of real human embryos ranging from the age of 1 day old to full-term. I found this to be fairly disturbing. Did you know that at some point (can’t remember what point, exactly), the human embryo looks just like an alien? Not that I’ve actually seen an alien, of course, but I’ve seen movies.

Next in the museum was the plumbing exhibit, which seemed appropriate after human anatomy. Then came the electromagnetic and nuclear exhibit. At some point after that, there’s the coal mine exhibit where they take you down a simulated mine shaft elevator and then put you on a little train and show you what you might expect on your next coal mining temp job. The girl giving the tour was funny. She’s probably an aspiring stand-up comic.

Once finished with the museum, we returned to the hotel to cancel our Saturday night stay at the Inn of Chicago and reserve a room at a hotel on the north side of Indianapolis. I didn’t want to pay another $169 when we could just as easily find something cheaper out of town. We had to park somewhere while in the hotel, of course, so we pulled into the hotel’s parking garage. We were parked there a little over an hour, and the parking bill was $11!

"Eleven dollars for one hour!?" I said to the cashier.

"Well, it was an hour and 15 minutes," said the cashier.

"Good thing we took out that small loan," Tara added in disgust. The cashier had no response.

We then drove west to Oak Park and Ernest Hemingway’s birthplace. We didn’t enter because it looked like it was under construction. Besides, who cares? It was just the house his parents were living in when he was born. It’s not like he accomplished anything there. We did spend some time in the Hemingway Museum, though, just down the street. A couple blocks away was Frank Lloyd Wright’s old house/museum. It was closed for the evening, though, so we just saw it from the outside. It and most of the houses along that street had very creative designs.

Getting lost, we drove through the ghetto, which is always fun. The Hemingway Museum is in the very nice, upscale neighborhood of Oak Park, but while looking for an on-ramp onto the Interstate — not easy to find in — we ended up in a decidedly bad neighborhood. I held my breath as we drove until we got to a neighborhood with White people walking around. Images of Reginald Denny getting beaten half to death during the Los Angeles riots came to mind. Yes, I know, I’m a racist.

Quick note about drivers: They love to honk their horns. As soon as the light turns green, invariably, there will be someone in line who honks their horn. Even if you’re Jeff Gordon (top NASCAR driver), you won’t be quick enough off the line to satisfy the driver behind you!

I pulled into a gas station for a fill-up. My visit to the young black male cashier went without incident. After I had returned to the car to pump gas, however, Tara went in to get a couple of Cokes. After she paid, she was flat-out told by the cashier: "Now, get outta here." Upon returning to the car, her words to me were, "We’re still in a bad neighborhood." So, we got out of there as requested.

That night after returning to the hotel, Tara hailed a cab (something she specifically wanted to do) and we went to Navy Pier and had dinner at Bubba Gump’s Shrimp Company (based on the movie Forrest Gump). The waitress messed up my order, but I forgave her. She was fun and friendly. She quizzed Tara on Forrest Gump trivia. Tara was up to the task, scoring nine out of ten. But, even if the waitress had been a boring idiot, it was still cool just to sit there eating, talking and enjoying the evening air with the skyline as a backdrop. After touring the pier, with Tara buying a few souvenirs and both of us buying Bubba Gump t-shirts, we caught the free shuttle back to our hotel.

The next morning, we checked out of the hotel, put our bags in the trunk of the car, and walked around downtown Chicago. Actually, it wasn’t as simple as all that. Before we were allowed to leave our car overnight the previous evening, the Arabic-looking car park attendants insisted that I leave them the key to the car. We asked why they needed it, and they said, "To make sure you pay."

Anyway, in the morning when we went to offload our baggage, I simply assumed I would have to pay the parking bill in order to get the key back, if only for the purpose of opening the car trunk. As we were on our way back out of the garage, on foot with the car still parked upstairs, the attendant whistled at us and waved us over to his cage.

"Where are you going?" the man asked from behind the counter.

"We’re gonna walk around a little," I replied, wondering "Why do you care?"

"So you’re keeping the car parked here?"

"Yeah, just for a little while longer."

"Then, why did you pay already?"

"I figured I had to pay to get the key so we could put our bags away."

"You could’ve just asked for the key," he said.

"I didn’t know," I replied.

Then Tara jumped in, "We are not paying one more dime for parking!" And she tugged me away from the counter.

"Hey," I said to Tara, "it’s their garage . . ." And they had my car upstairs. I wasn’t about to leave in a huff with my car still upstairs vulnerable to towing.

"We are not paying another sixteen dollars!" Tara said again, madder than I had ever seen her.

"Hey," I shouted at her, "it’s my car," meaning that it was my problem, not hers.

"Calm down," the attendant said to her. "I’m not going to charge you again."

"So, how do you want to handle this?" I asked him.

He conferred with the man standing next to him. They nodded at each other, took our stamped parking ticket, scratched out the timestamp with a pencil, took my key back, and said, "Here’s your $16 back. You pay when you come back."

And so we left, with Tara still mad as hell: at the parking attendant and me. We then went looking for breakfast. Finding a coffee shop in a downtown high-rise mall, I had breakfast. Tara said she was still too mad to eat.

After breakfast, we walked up Michigan Avenue where all the stores are. FAO Schwarz was the first place we came to. After a few minutes in there, Tara forgave me (whatever my transgression) and distracted herself back into a better mood with a bit of shopping. Bloomingdale’s was the next stop, and finally, The Viacom Store (where they have all sorts of television and Paramount movie stuff). Tara bought things for her niece.

As we pulled out of the parking garage, for good this time, Tara made the comment: "They’re probably as glad to see us go as we are." Then, as if on cue, we heard clapping coming from the parking garage attendants. We both had to laugh at that.

Next stop: Milwaukee. Why? Because Tara wanted to be able to check Wisconsin off her list of states she’s visited. We had lunch at an A&W on the way up. There wasn’t much in Milwaukee. Not that we saw, anyway. But at least now Tara can put a checkmark next to it on her list.

We returned through en route to our hotel in Indianapolis. The next morning we drove through and around downtown Indianapolis. Like Milwaukee, there wasn’t much of anything open, but we did see some landmarks. I guess most downtowns are pretty dead on the weekends, unlike .

After Indianapolis comes Louisville (pronounced lou-a-vul by the locals). Once again, we looked for someplace to eat, but couldn’t find anything downtown on a Sunday morning. I did, of course, make a point of circling Churchill Downs. If you didn’t know, this is the track where the Kentucky Derby is run. I was pleasantly surprised to see a sign at one of the entrances proclaiming Churchill Downs as this year’s host of the Breeder’s Cup (seven championship races on the same day, all worth a minimum of $1 million) on November 7. When I commented on this, Tara said, "Something tells me we’ll be coming back here."

Up to this point, I had been doing all of the driving, but Tara took the wheel from Louisville to Nashville. When we got back home, we found that the cat door was no longer in the window. "Let’s hope Don and Diane [my brother and his wife] did that," we agreed. As I opened the front door, Myca was there waiting to get out. It wasn’t until I called Don a couple hours later that I was told that when he and Diane came to check up on him on Saturday they found poor Myca "looking despondent" on the front step. They said it was fairly apparent that Myca never did figure out the cat door and had spent two entire days locked outside! Poor Myca. I think he’d been complaining about it to the neighbors, too, for my two closest neighbors, both pet owners, had put food and/or water dishes out for him. They probably reported me to the SPCA. Judging by the look on Diane’s face later that evening as I retrieved my house keys, she had considered reporting me as well.

Anyway, Myca was fine, and Tara and I were both glad to be home. For the next several hours, Myca couldn’t decide if he wanted to be inside or out, taking his revenge on me by scratching at the door every ten minutes either wanting in or wanting out.

Atlanta trip

Tara and I just got back from a long weekend in Atlanta.  It
was nice to see the town.  I’d passed through before, but had never stopped to
look.  The first touristy thing we did after eventually finding our hotel — the
downtown Courtyard-by-Marriott, picked out by Tara, which was much better than the Motel 6
I would’ve gotten us! — was to ride the MARTA subway down to Turner Field for the
Braves game against the Arizona Diamondbacks.

It was the highlight of the trip for me. It’s a nice new ballpark made
to look old-fashioned, like Baltimore’s Camden Yard, I guess, though I’ve never actually
been to that one.  Best of all, the Braves lost the game!  It should have been a
real pitcher’s duel, given that it was Cy Young Award winner Tom Glavine versus perennial
all-star Randy Johnson, but the final score was a relatively high 8-3. 

Matt Williams, formerly of the San Francisco Giants and one of my
favorite players, is now on the Diamondbacks.  For some reason, the guy in the row
behind us kept mentioning to his friends that Matt Williams is bald.  Yes, he is
bald, but it seemed an odd thing to keep bringing up.

We saw the Coca-Cola Museum, which was a waste of time and money.
  It’s basically just one long 3-D Coke commercial, including a 15-minute Coke
commercial that is billed as a movie. As we were leaving the little theater, the guy in
front of us felt the same way and joked, "I’m a better person now."  I
guess I was hoping for a real live bottling plant tour, which this isn’t.  The free
Coke-made drinks at the end was nice, though.

They had this thing where you put your cup in the right spot and push
the button and your drink comes shooting out in a giant arc and into the dispenser that
then pours it into your cup.  A little later on, they have a tasting booth with
various Coke products from around the world.  Rex, a friend from work, had warned me
in advance about this one called "Beverly" (yes, that’s the name of the drink).
It’s sold in Italy.  Everyone in line in front of me was making faces
tasting it ("Tasting Beverly", how’s that for a movie title?!), but when I
tasted it I realized it’s just carbonated water with no real "taste" at all.
  Still, I can’t imagine anyone actually paying for such a drink.

Next stop, this thing they call "The Underground." 
It’s just a below-ground-level shopping mall!  Nothing special at all.  I hate
to be so negative, it’s just that people had built these sights up as something worth
seeing, which they really weren’t.

I liked the Margaret Mitchell ("Gone With The Wind")
House.  I normally wouldn’t have included it on my itinerary, but Tara wanted to see
it, and I’m glad we went.  It’s been completely rebuilt twice due to arson, though,
so it’s not the "real thing."  Oops, my Coke brainwashing is showing!
  We took the tour through the house in which she wrote her famous book.  The
tour guide was good.

The Jimmy Carter Library was interesting, too, for a while.  
But, like politicians in general, it didn’t hold my interest long.

In the Mid-Town area that we drove circles through several times as
we went looking for things, we couldn’t help but notice the large gay population.  I
decided that Atlanta’s city motto should be: "Atlanta: A great place to be
gay!"  But, as Jerry Seinfeld would say, "Not that there’s anything wrong
with that!"

We visited the CNN building, but after walking around a bit gawking
through the glass at the CNN/SI and CNN-Interactive staffers who, in turn, were generally
gawking at computer monitors, we decided that a full-fledged tour wasn’t really necessary.

In the end, we both enjoyed the trip.  We left town Monday
morning, apparently right before that construction worker on the crane had to be rescued
by a helicopter from above the warehouse fire that’s been on the news.

California here we come!

For our "summer vacation," Tara and I went to California. Where in California? Just about everywhere in 4½ days. We took a Southwest Airlines "direct" flight from Nashville to Oakland. Stupidly, we thought "direct" meant direct. But, as the pilot explained as he came back and chatted with us while we sat in Kansas City, "people often confuse ‘direct’ with ‘nonstop.’" Taking advantage of the pilot’s availability and friendliness, I casually mentioned that Tara would like to fly the plane. Surprisingly, he said no. And, thanks to his better judgment, we made it to Oakland, after first stopping in Phoenix then Ontario (CA). Total flight time was almost 8 hours, compared to 4½ hours on the return flight which was truly direct.

The flight crew from Nashville to Phoenix were fun. It must’ve been the same crew that inspired some of the jokes on this site’s Jokes page, Non-Fiction, Page 2. As she made the speech they always make prior to take-off, the "lead" flight attendant explained that if there was a sudden drop in cabin pressure, the oxygen masks would drop down in front of us. "If you’re travelling with more than one child," she said, "first put the mask on yourself, and decide now which child you like the best and put the remaining mask on that one. In the event of a water-landing, your seat cushion can be used as a flotation device, which you can keep courtesy of Southwest." She went on to say, "For those travelling with small children, you’ll be glad to know that beer, wine and mixed drinks are available."

Upon landing in Oakland, we went directly to the Avis counter to pick up our rental car. When we got there, the clerk informed us that they had no car for us. We would have to wait 30-45 minutes. I was properly disgusted, but it was really not that big of a deal since we were both hungry for something besides the Southwest-provided peanuts and cold Pop-Tarts anyway. We killed the time by grabbing some lunch. The car we finally got was pretty cool, actually: a new "arrest me" red Pontiac Grand Prix.

We wandered around San Francisco a bit as I tried to remember where things were. I once worked in "The City" for about a year in ’88-’89, just missing the ’89 earthquake. But I digress. Following the signs to Chinatown and Fisherman’s Wharf, we ended up at neither one. We parked on the street in the very trendy North Beach area and walked around.

Completely by accident, we stumbled upon Chinatown. Knowing Tara’s love of fireworks — and all things fire-related, but that’s another story — I said I knew what she wanted. Firecrackers. As usual, I was wrong. We neither looked for nor found any firecrackers. We wandered up and down Grant (Ave.? St.? Blvd?) and checked out the shops.

Tara and I each bought small polished-wood statues of Buddha, our savior. As the owner took our money, I watched as his wife (co-owner, whatever) dealt with an Asian woman customer bent on bargaining. The customer wanted a live turtle in a cage, only without the cage, and at half price. After some prolonged bargaining, both vendor and customer seemed to agree on a compromised price, only to have the customer counter with an even lower price. The co-owner angrily waved off the would-be customer, saying: "You go! You not a customer!" By this time, Tara and I were on our way out the door, so we’ll never know if the customer ever got her turtle.

Tara and I bought a few more trinkets before breaking for lunch, where we had authentic Chinese food that was much better than anything we’ve ever found in Nashville. Big surprise. And finally, too quickly, our time was up and we had to drive two hours inland to Stockton and meet Michael and Evelyn (my nephew and his wife) at their house for dinner.

At Michael and Evelyn’s soon-to-be-former-home, we met up with Lucy, Jeannie, Tiffany, her fiancée David, and Thomas. It was great to see everyone again. We spent the next hour or so getting reacquainted before Jeannie and crew left and Michael, Evelyn, Lucy, Tara and I went out to dinner.

Around ten o’clock local time, midnight our time, Tara and I finally had to say that we needed to go home and sleep. We’d been up since 4 AM our time, and we were "plum tuckered out" (not that anyone in the South actually talks like that; no one I know, anyway).

The next morning, we returned to San Francisco. Along the way, a light saying "Service Engine Soon" came on in the rental car’s dashboard. Knowing that we would be driving to L.A. and back before we were done, I didn’t want to worry about the car breaking down. So, we passed through Oakland Airport again and got a different car: a Buick LeSabre. A real "grandparents’" car. But hey, it was a car. We didn’t much care.

We drove the LeSabre straight to Pier 39 at Fisherman’s Wharf for lunch at Bubba Gump’s Shrimp Company. Tara’s starting a collection of their T-shirts from each location. Two down (Chicago and San Francisco), six or seven to go! Served by a Scottish lesbian who gave the impression that she could arm-wrestle me and win, the lunch was good.

Next, we checked out the seals and sea lions that have laid claim to several boat docks at Pier 39. It was neat seeing them so close up. We then walked over to the cable car roundabout for a ride from the Wharf to Market Street. We waited in line for at least half an hour while a couple of homeless people entertained the crowd. One did an escape act, wrapping himself up in chains, only to miraculously escape! The other played a few chords, over and over again, on his electric guitar from various "classic rock" tunes, almost constantly talking, occasionally singing; if you could call it that.

Once we finally boarded the cable car, it was fun just being on one.  I probably rode one as a kid, but had no recollection of it. Tara and I both enjoyed ourselves tremendously. When we got to the end of the line, though, we found that we would have to get off and stand in an even longer line for the return trip. We weren’t up for that, so we wandered around Market Street where Tara spotted the downtown Nordstrom department store across the street.

Waiting at the light to cross the street, an old black man with Christian quotations on one of those over-the-shoulder sandwich boards stared right at me and made a speech. He said something like: "Sex out of wedlock makes the woman a whore, and the man a whore-monger. Abstinence for the rest of one’s life is the only way to get right with God." Or something like that. When the light turned green, Tara grabbed me by the arm and said loudly, "Come on, whore-monger!"

This Nordstrom’s has a spiral escalator; the first one either of us had ever seen. We rode it up and down several floors, noticing how most everyone around us wore black or gray or a combination of the two. We stood out like the unstylish tourists that we were.

By that time, we had to get going to make it to my parents’ house in Sacramento in time for dinner. We didn’t make it in time. We took a short, two-street ride on the subway, BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit), followed by a long (couple of dozen blocks) walk along Embarcadero back to the car.

Finally reaching the car, Tara said, "I’ve never been so happy to see a Buick in all my life." Pulling out of the garage, we were hit with a $25 parking fee! Beware this parking scam. The sign in front of the garage said in big bold letters "$10, 24 hours max." In little print, which we unfortunately missed, it added: "With validation from [such-and-such] shops/restaurants."

Leaving San Francisco, we got caught in Friday evening rush-hour traffic. It took 2 and a half hours to get to Sacramento. Normally, it’s an hour and a half ride. By the time we got to my parents’ house, my brother Doug, his wife Jana, and their baby boy, Milanko, had left. Doug later explained that Milanko does not like to be made to wait.

As we had so rudely done at Michael and Evelyn’s, again we basically just ate dinner then went to bed. The next morning, Eleanor made us a huge breakfast and sent us on our way to visit Doug, Jana and Milanko on the other side of town.

Have you met Milanko yet? He’s a huge baby. Cute and sweet as can be, too. Must take after his mother there! 🙂 Jana offered refreshments, which we respectfully turned down, citing the fact that we had just had a large breakfast. Regardless, Jana served refreshments. It’s a European (and Southern) custom to provide guests with food and drink even if they decline, respectfully. We didn’t touch a bit of the cake she laid out in front of us until, as we were leaving, she said, "Are you sure you don’t want any cake? I made it just for you?" Of course, we took it with us and ate it on our way down to southern California. The cake was truly delicious, Jana. Thanks!

At Edwards Air Force Base, Tara’s friend Rob met us at the gate on his motorcycle and escorted us back to his and his wife Emily’s house on base. At the gate he asked us, "Do you want to take the scenic route, or just go straight to our house?" Of course, we opted for the scenic route!

He took us past NASA’s installation where we saw a parked Stealth Fighter! It was just so cool to see one so close up. Also, there was the Boeing 747 that carries the Space Shuttle piggy-back from Edwards to Cape Kennedy. He was hoping there would be some F-15’s and -16’s for us to see as well, but they were all in their hangars. Still, that was a thrill for me. I’ve always liked aircraft.

We had dinner and spent that night with Rob, Emily, their two cats Hera and Apollo, and their German Shepherd dog Xena. The following day, Emily, Tara and I drove down to L.A.

Our first stop in L.A., since we were coming in on the 405, was Mulholland Drive, where we stopped at a scenic overlook. We then got back on the 405, saw the new Getty Center from the freeway (I once worked in their mailroom at the old Santa Monica location), and took the Sunset Boulevard exit into Bel Air, then Beverly Hills. In Beverly Hills we drove up and down Rodeo Drive and its surrounding streets until stopping for lunch at the outdoor mall in Century City. At one point in the mall as we waited on Tara at the ATM, Emily said, "I could just sit here all day and people-watch." We all laughed at the silly Californians.

Leaving Century City, we saw a "film shoot" in progress. Since then, Tara and I have seen the "E-Trade" commercial that they were apparently shooting.

Anyway, we cruised back through Beverly Hills and into West Hollywood. I pointed out Don and Diane’s former apartment; the Rainbow club where Doug and I used to hang out in our rock-n-roller days; Tower Records; the LeDome restaurant; etc. Tara and Emily both spotted the Viper Room, outside of which the actor River Phoenix died a few years ago.

We continued east on Sunset to Poinsettia Place, turned left, and drove past the apartment house where Doug and I lived in the mid-80’s. Next stop, Hollywood Boulevard.

We found a place to park and strolled up and down the famous/infamous boulevard. While Tara and Emily checked out Mann’s Chinese Theatre, I went across the street in search of sunglasses, sunblock and a hat. I only found the latter two. The stores had sunglasses, of course, but wanted $75-$150 for them! I’m more of the "cheap sunglasses" kind of guy.

From Hollywood, we drove west to Santa Monica, then Venice Beach. In Venice, we joined the thousands of tourists strolling, cycling and rollerblading the sidewalks. Tara wanted desperately to see Muscle Beach. I said, "Why? You can look at me!" Somehow, that wasn’t good enough. (I know, I’m sounding just like my Dad!) Unfortunately for Tara, fortunately for me, we never found Muscle Beach even though we walked at least a mile along the beach sidewalk.

We all bought a few things in Venice before finally returning to Edwards and Emily’s family. Speaking of Emily’s family, I forgot to mention that she and Rob are the proud parents of a beautiful four or five month old baby girl, Kaitlyn. She was the highlight of the trip for Tara, I know. We got some video footage of her.

From Edwards the next morning, we drove north back into Bakersfield and "The Big Valley" of California. From there we took Highway 58 west over the Coast Range (very winding road) into Santa Margarita ("Margaritaville," according to Tara) just north of San Luis Obispo, then Highway 101, then I-880 back into Oakland.

One more early wake-up call later (4:45, not that I needed the alarm, actually), we were boarding our return flight to Nashville!

It was good to be home. We had a great time, but it’s always good to be home, too. Everything was so rushed, though. "Next time" we’ll give ourselves more than 4½ days to see the entire state of California!