I moved to Chicago in the fall of 2002. In the weeks leading up to the actual, physical relocation, I was driving into the city from Northwest Indiana a lot. Mostly to look for an apartment but also to hang out with a dear friend who lived in Rogers Park, who kindly let me crash on his couch while I was getting all my ducks in a row.
As I’ve talked about before, I’d gotten my driver’s license as soon as I could after I turned sixteen. I needed a measure of independence so that I could help my dad take care of shopping and other chores but also so that I wouldn’t have to inconvenience anyone else’s parents when I needed a ride home from theater rehearsal or other after-school activities and performances. So, a couple months before I officially got my license, my dad bought a car for me to use, a 1994 white Chevy Lumina. I loooved that car, in the way that you really can only ever love your first car, the car that lets you finally feel truly independent. I drove it throughout the remaining years of high school, during summers when I was home from college, in Bloomington while I attended Indiana University (after I was finally able to wrangle an on-campus parking pass), and after graduating college, to and from the job I had at the mall while I lived with my grandmother.
The route that I would take to Chicago from my hometown in Dyer was 394 to 94 to 55, then on to Lake Shore Drive, all the way up the length of the city until the road curved into Sheridan and delivered me into Rogers Park proper. In those days, depending on traffic, it usually only took me about an hour and twenty minutes, and I could practically drive it in my sleep.
One Friday in August of that year, I was taking this very familiar drive in the late afternoon, planning to spend the weekend doing some more apartment hunting and maybe seeing a movie with my friend. It was a beautiful summer day, not too hot or humid, the sky blazing blue. I was cruising north on the Drive, when suddenly I felt a mild jolt. The car immediately lost momentum and rolled to a complete stop. In the far left hand lane. Of Lake Shore Drive. On a Friday afternoon. Just before the official start of rush hour.
With that eerie calm that can sometime accompany deep panic, I reached for my first-ever cell phone and dialed 911. I explained the situation to the operator, and they said they’d send one of the city’s tow trucks out to get me off the road, but that I’d be on my own once I was somewhere safe.
I waited with my flashers on, keeping an eagle eye on my rear view mirror, both watching for the tow truck and wincing with nervousness anytime I saw a driver speed up a little too close behind me, certain that someone would inevitably rear-end me there. Still, I cannot emphasize enough what an idyllically, perfectly beautiful day it was. It was long enough past the solstice that the sun was starting to go down noticeably earlier each day, and though it was still nowhere near dusk, there was a certain autumnal quality to the slant of the light as it bounced off the lake and streamed through my smudgy, fingerprinted windows. The whoosh of the cars whizzing by me was discernibly louder without the sound of my own engine or the car stereo overpowering them, like the sound of blood pumping through one’s own body that suddenly becomes apparent in a still, dark room.
The city tow truck showed up fairly quickly, dragged my car across an off ramp and into one of those beach parking lots that span that stretch of the lake, and then rumbled off again with little fanfare. Safe now, but emphatically stuck, I called my friend to let him know what had happened and to say I would need to be picked up whenever I got my car to a proper garage. I then also called for AAA roadside assistance.
In those weird days when we had cell phone service but not GPS, just because I knew where I was didn’t mean I knew where I was. The AAA operator on the other end of the line asked me, in order to figure out how to help me, for my zip code. “I’m at about 4800 north on the grid in Chicago, in a parking lot off the beach along Lake Shore Drive, that’s all I know.” The person kept pressing me for a zip code, saying they couldn’t do anything for me otherwise. Inwardly, I was freaking out at the absurdity of the situation. What if I’d broken down on a dark country road late at night? How would they have found me then? In desperation, I finally ran over to a snack bar that happened to still be open near the beach. “Do you know what the zip code is here?!” I wailed to the person behind the counter, and they immediately, kindly told me what it was.
With that information, the AAA operator was able to connect me with a local tow truck company, who understood how and where to find me. When he showed up, the tow truck driver, full of smiles and helpfulness, asked if I had a garage I preferred. I said I didn’t know, that I didn’t even live in Chicago. He nodded, then pulled a fat stack of business cards out of the front pocket of his overalls, rifling through until he found one that made him say, “ok, then I’ll take you here.” He got my poor busted car up onto the bed of his truck; I climbed in the cab with him, and we drove off into the streets of Chicago.
It was early evening by that point, the light even more golden, the shadows being thrown off by the taller buildings deep and blue. In my Indiana provincialism, my knowledge of Chicago was still relegated to extremely small snapshots of the city. I knew corners, I knew blocks, but I didn’t yet understand how they all fit together, how neighborhoods merged and bled into each other. I didn’t know where we were, didn’t have a clue where I was being driven. But the driver and I chatted amiably the whole way; he informed me that he usually asked people if they had a preferred garage out of courtesy but that he thought the place he was taking me would be a good match for what I needed (with the implication that it would be relatively affordable, and honest).
We eventually pulled up in front of Marvin’s Auto Service, a garage that was slightly tucked back from the street. And like a scene from a movie, suddenly at least half a dozen garage employee came dashing out in a frenzy of activity. I stood next to the tow truck driver on the sidewalk, both of us watching with no small bit of amusement as one or two of them jumped onto the bed of the truck, popped the hood of my car, and poked something that squirted a stream of fluid into the air.
Somewhere in the midst of all this, a man I’m assuming was Marvin himself evaluated the situation and informed me that he knew what was wrong. “How bad is it?” I theatrically grimaced, bracing myself for an expense that I, currently still jobless, didn’t exactly know how I’d pay for. He shrugged and said, “About $300.” Not only that, but he’d have it taken care of for me by noon the next day. I followed him inside and filled out some paperwork, happy to be in the care of these professionals. I hope I said good-bye to the tow truck driver.
My friend I was staying with had pulled up and parked outside by then, and on our drive back to his apartment, I delightedly related to him everything that had happened, my stress almost completely gone by this point, giddy that what had begun as a scary roadside incident had now turned into something like an adventure full of colorful characters.
Late the next morning, shortly before we were planning to head out to pick my car up again, I called the garage just to confirm everything would indeed be ready by noon. “More like 12:30,” they said, so we pushed back our departure by a half hour.
When we arrived, I settled up with Marvin at the desk in the front office, and I thanked him profusely for his kindness and speed. His English was halting, so I thought something was wrong when he held up his index finger to indicate that there was one more thing before our transaction was complete. But then he reached under the desk and handed me a burned CD that he declared contained “American romantic music.”
My jaw nearly hit the floor and my eyes lit up with delight. The disk was labeled with a sticker that they’d had custom printed with promotional information for the garage, their name and address and phone number as well as an image of a red sports car. There was no jewel case, no track listing, so I had no idea what it was going to contain. I couldn’t wait to pop it into my car stereo.
The problem had apparently been with my car’s alternator, so it wasn’t a huge problem to fix, and everything worked fine once I slid into the driver’s seat and turned the key. I pulled out of the garage into the now much warmer and muggier August air, and began to follow my friend back up to Rogers Park. I pressed play on the stereo, and Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Who’ll Stop the Rain” blasted through the speakers. I scanned through the other eight tracks, fully a third of them by the Bee Gees: “More than a Woman,” “I Started a Joke,” Tommy James and the Shondells’ “Crimson and Clover,” “How Deep Is Your Love,” America’s “A Horse with No Name,” Ritchie Valens’s “We Belong Together,” Chicago’s “Hard to Say I’m Sorry,” and “Night Fever.” I was nearly levitating with delight.
When I told my friend about the CD, he was tickled as well and joked that perhaps the garage needed those extra thirty minutes to burn the CD just for me.
Of course they didn’t, but on a deeper level, it really was just for me. As much as I’d been fighting the inevitability that I would move to Chicago, I couldn’t deny that the stars were aligning for me to be there. A friend’s boyfriend had an empty room in his three-bedroom apartment, ready for immediate occupancy with a month-to-month lease. That same friend also knew of a job opening that I applied for, got, and started within ten days of officially moving into my new apartment. In the midst of breakdown, I was constantly being rescued, fixed, and sent merrily on my way, to the accompaniment of American romantic music.
Marvin’s Auto Service has since moved to a new address; they’re now located at 3020 W. Irving Park Road. I hope they’re still sending their customers home with music.
Back in 2015, when my boyfriend and I were planning on moving out of our apartment in Lakeview and we were going to be looking at a new place we hoped to sign a lease on in Rogers Park, I took the the red line up to Loyola to find that Rogers Park was just really Rogers Parkin’ it up for me.
It was a beautiful spring day, one of those first utterly perfect days of the year when Chicago absolutely comes alive. Blue sky and sunshine blazing overhead, the first thing I saw was an adorable cupcake truck selling treats on the corner nearest the El! Walking a few feet down the sidewalk, I brushed past a woman wearing the most gorgeous emerald green sari! A few feet beyond that, two happy-looking pups were tied up outside the Chipotle on Sheridan, greedily eyeballing everybody’s tacos! It was such a Who Are the People in Your Neighborhood moment. It was all just heart-meltingly perfect.
And yes, a few weeks later, we signed the lease on the place we’d been there to look at, and we’ve been happily ensconced there ever since.
I’ve always had an affinity for Rogers Park. As an eighteen year old, fresh out of high school, it was one of the first neighborhoods I spent any time in, before I knew much of anything at all about the different sections of Chicago. I vividly remember being taken for the first time to what I now know was the Heartland Café. I was there with one of the writers whom I was working with on an ambitious but ultimately doomed “sitcom on stage” project called Higher Grounds. (Long story for another time.) I felt cooler than cool, lunching with this professional comedian, talking about the craft of writing, dining on some sort of vaguely healthy sandwich-with-fries situation, being waited on by a gorgeous hippie-punk goddess with armfuls of tattoos. This, as far as I was concerned, was it.
And then again after college, in the no-man’s-land year I spent living in my hometown after graduating but before getting my first big-girl job, I spent endless hours driving into the city in order to hang out at a dear friend’s grad school apartment, which was, yes, just a couple buildings down from the Heartland. Rogers Park consequently became one of the main places that convinced me I didn’t know as much about Chicago as I thought I did.
Having grown up just an hour outside the city in Northwest Indiana, I was super jaded about it. When I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, I immediately wrote the city off. “Eh,” I thought to myself. “I know Chicago. I belong in New York or London or someplace glamorous like that.” My dad had worked downtown for most of my childhood and often brought me into the city for the Taste of Chicago or to see touring productions of Broadway musicals. Of course my elementary school had frequently taken us on field trips to the museums, and in high school, my choir even performed at Soldier Field as part of the 1994 World Cup opening ceremony. I, naively, figured these experiences had shown me all there was to see in the city. But once I finally spent an appreciable amount of time in Rogers Park, I realized there was so much more to Chicago than downtown and Grant Park. My “eh” turned to an “ohhhhh….” As in “ohhhhh, there are all these neighborhoods!” I fell in love with the city, and its magic, for real at that point.
After I officially moved into my first apartment in the city, although it’s almost inconceivable to me now, I would make the long trek between the Ukrainian Village and Rogers Park on public transportation at least once a week…Chicago Avenue bus to the red line, red line up to Morse, and then back again at the end of the night…just to hang out at my friend’s apartment on Lunt watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer on DVD, eating greasy Chinese food from the takeout place on Glenwood, and reveling in the freedom of being, blessedly, young and independent.
Or, as the narrator puts it in chapter 25 of Great Expectations:
“Herbert was my intimate companion and friend. I presented him with a half-share in my boat, which was the occasion of his often coming down to Hammersmith; and my possession of a half-share in his chambers often took me up to London. We used to walk between the two places at all hours. I have an affection for the road yet (though it is not so pleasant a road as it was then), formed in the impressibility of untried youth and hope.”
After over a decade spent living in various other (very charming!) parts of the city, even though I’d never actually lived in Rogers Park before myself, when my boyfriend and I signed the lease on our new place off the Loyola stop, it felt like a homecoming of sorts to me.
In that spirit, then, I’d like to present my highly biased, nostalgically informed, and personally skewed Guide to Rogers Park.
Holy shit, the lake!!! My boyfriend’s dad, who’s lived his whole life in Waterbury, Connecticut, and thus harbors a passionate, lifelong animosity for New York City, always marvels at the accessibility of the lake here in Chicago. And nowhere is it more accessible than in Rogers Park, thanks to the fact that you don’t have to cross Lake Shore Drive to get to it.
Sitting on a bench near the shore at dusk on a beautiful warm summer evening (or even a chilly autumnal one) is one of the great rewards for making it through a dreary and confining Chicago winter, and the fact that it only takes me about six minutes to walk there from my front door continually blows my mind.
Energetically, I always feel the lake as the feminine counterpart to the masculine energy of the Chicago River. Whereas the river, in all its reversed-flowing glory, divides the city and contributes, I feel, to all the many ways that Chicago is deeply, often disturbingly bifurcated, the lake holds us with a more catholic embrace.
And though yes, of course, everyone in the city flocks to the lakefront at all different times of year, the denizens of Rogers Park seem to take to it a little more avidly, thanks to their easier access to it. Between the Artists of the Wall event that paints the seawall with beautifully colored murals every year over Father’s Day weekend, the crowds that gather to watch the fireworks exploding over downtown on the Fourth of July, the families that prepare elaborate picnics and tie up hammocks between trees, and the Loyola students that get stoned and toss frisbees to each other, the beaches in Rogers Park come alive as very obvious representations of the way that so many different communities inhabit the neighborhood, so successfully.
THE ARMADILLO’S PILLOW
6753 N. Sheridan
Although there are many other bookstores in Chicago that I absolutely adore, the Armadillo’s Pillow has become my favorite for a certain kind of bibliomancy.
Mostly I mean it’s the kind of place where I always find something, usually on the jumbled front table in the main entryway, that I had no hope of ever finding or that I had no idea that I needed.
My boyfriend and I will often stop in there on a Friday or Saturday night, after dinner or before a movie, or just if we need a destination to get us out of the house for a bit. Like any self-respecting used bookstore should be, it’s soaked in the scent of incense, and they often curate a completely bonkers selection of music on the soundsystem. It’s right next door to a place that teaches kung fu, so you’ll often hear a muffled thump-thump-punch through the wall.
I eavesdropped on the most amazing conversation in there recently. A high school-aged kid, completely in earnest, came up to the clerk at the front counter and said, “I’ve never been a big reader, but I recently read one of Elie Wiesel’s books in school, and now I want to start reading a lot. Can you recommend any other stuff like that to me?” What a bookseller’s dream! I didn’t see what the kid left with, but the clerk engaged with him enthusiastically, showing him a good handful of places to start, with both fiction and nonfiction. I couldn’t stop grinning about it for hours.
NEW 400 MOVIE THEATER
6746 N. Sheridan
Apparently this four-screen movie theater dates back to 1912, and for a while in the early 2000s, its age really showed. I remember going to see Minority Report there in the summer of 2002 and literally sitting next to a bucket that was catching drips from the ceiling (let’s hope from the air conditioning). And although it’s been remodeled in recent years with a slightly nicer lobby and some slightly less rickety seating, it’s still pretty rough around the edges, which makes me love it all the more. Gorgeous temples of cinema with reclining leather seats and fancy snacks have their place, of course, but more often than not, I’d prefer to give my money to a neighborhood joint like this, where garbagey mainstream Hollywood blockbusters feel a little more appropriate, where the ambiance of the theater itself is not somehow trying to fool me into mistaking the latest superhero franchise installment for anything resembling high art. Which, in turn, actually makes whatever garbagey mainstream Hollywood blockbuster I’m there to see just that much more viscerally satisfying.
I’ve had some of my favorite recent moviegoing experiences at the New 400. It’s where I saw the Denzel Washington version of The Magnificent Seven, the John Wick sequel, the unexpectedly devastating final Wolverine movie Logan, and, of course, Get Out. We don’t currently have a TV in our home, so if I find myself in the mood to watch something, the choice is to squint at a download on my laptop or walk a few minutes over to the New 400. I just inherently love going to see movies on a big screen and am delighted to have this squalid little gem right around the corner.
6764 N. Sheridan
Don’t let the name fool you–this is more than just a cozy little coffee shop. Royal Coffee also has a pretty amazing food menu, most notably its selection of Ethiopian dishes. If you’re in the mood for tasty injera and perfectly spiced lentils, but don’t want to commit to one of those insanely huge platters that you’ll get at some of the other well-known restaurants nearby in Edgewater, Royal Coffee is the perfect, lighter compromise.
Memorably, my boyfriend and I ended up here the night of the anti-Trump protests in Chicago this past January. I’m pretty sure we were the only people in the restaurant other than the proprietor, and we all quietly watched the footage together on the television on the back wall. It felt somehow right, to be engaging with this very Chicago moment in a public yet intimate space, sustained by the goodness of local community and true diversity.
7000 N. Glenwood
The one, the only, the legendary Heartland Cafe. If you’ve lived in Chicago for any length of time, chances are you’ve been to the Heartland at some point. If you’re visiting or new to Chicago, chances are someone will suggest the Heartland to you if you’re asking for good local places to eat. It’s been a mainstay in the city for the past 35 years, and though a financial crunch almost shuttered them for good back in 2010, they eventually pulled through and kept their doors open. The next step was to hire a new executive chef in 2013 to revamp the hippie-style menu a bit, and then they further updated the physical space by bringing True Nature Foods under their roof to replace their own in-house general store.
Look, I’m not going to sugarcoat it–the Heartland can be a disaster. They will inexplicably be out of menu items that they should never be out of. (No tofu, at all? Huh??) The wait time for food will often be way out of proportion to the number of people in the dining room. The service can be surly, and/or non-existent. (We once went there with friends for brunch on New Year’s Day, and some of their scheduled servers flaked on coming in, so there was only one poor person, just sweating and apologizing for their entire shift, waiting on an entire roomful of famished and/or hungover customers.) They will often forget a portion of your order, especially if you want a smoothie, which is apparently made in an entirely different part of their kitchen from where the entrees are prepared. And on and on.
But, like, that’s part of the charm?
Because, make no mistake, this is a neighborhood joint. I feel like it’s supposed to give you the same kind of vibe you get with family or good friends whom you love with all your heart, who will also drive you up a wall with all their peculiar little tics.
Besides, when the Heartland is on point, their food is also some of the tastiest vegetarian fare you’re going to find anywhere (even if there are actually fewer vegetarian options on the menu than there used to be). The servers can be the fucking coolest, funniest, most helpful and attentive, endearingly weirdest folks you’ll run across. And overall, the place just feels like a true hub for the neighborhood. It’s been there long enough that it feels like an institution while implementing just enough changes to keep things fresh and forward-moving.
I’ve been pooped on by a bird on their outside patio. I’ve eaten a bison burger there as a prelude to a road trip across the country to Chelan, Washington. I’ve played music there with my band. I’ve celebrated my birthday there with my best friend and her three-month-old firstborn child. I’ve sat there, rapt, while a friend narrated the story of his incredible secret elopement in New Orleans. Now that I live within walking distance, I can never go too long without sliding in for a bite of whatever my current menu obsession happens to be. I repeatedly fall all over myself suggesting to friends who are in from out of town that I take them there for a meal. The Heartland, in the best possible way, will always be synonymous with Rogers Park to me.
For almost as long as I can remember, I’ve Done Stuff to my hair.
I got my first perm in something like first or second grade (which seems insane to me now—all those chemicals!); I got my last perm in the summer of ’93 right before I took my first international trip to France with a group of students and teachers from the high school that I’d be entering that fall. Thinking that I wouldn’t have to futz with my hair too much while traveling, that the curls would render it already “done,” I didn’t anticipate that all the walking around in the sunshine in early August would work its own magic on my chemically treated hair and so I returned home with an incredible mop of orange frizz.
After those curls finally grew out and/or got cut away, I went through a few years with my natural brown hair either in a simple bob with bangs or in a short pixie-esque crop.
And then I went blonde for the first time.
I was a junior in high school in Northwest Indiana and the choir director had taken two of the upper level groups on a trip to sing at some sort of event in Atlanta. One of the first nights there in the hotel, my gorgeous friend Rhonda convinced me to buy a highlighting kit at a nearby drugstore. Thinking I’d just end up with a few tastefully sun-kissed light brown streaks in my hair, we spent the next few hours pulling strands through the plastic cap and baking my head with the bleach mixture we’d mixed up in the hotel bathroom. Well, surprise surprise, I of course came out of the experience a genuine bottle blonde. And I fucking loved it.
Throughout my remaining teen years and early 20s, I would play with various drugstore hair colors, never settling on a cut or color for longer than a few months. I’ve always been extremely bad at predicting my own body’s needs–hunger usually takes me by surprise, resulting in an immediate decree that I have to eat NOW, and it’s pretty much the same with my hair. Especially at that point in my life, I never had the good sense to predict that, yes, after about six to eight weeks, I would need to get some sort of trim or reshaping, so I never settled down with one hair dresser. All my haircuts happened in desperate trips to “walk-ins welcome” chain salons or in poorly lit bathrooms at the mercy of girlfriends with shaky hands and dull scissors.
A couple years after I moved to Chicago, though, I knew it was finally time to find a big-girl salon, to graduate to a real, skilled hair stylist that I could come to rely on, one who would really get to know my hair, help guide me to flattering cuts, and safely apply good-quality color.
He was initially recommended to me by a friend at work who’d gotten an amazing asymmetrical cut from him that was somehow incredibly punk yet still chic enough to be workplace appropriate.
I don’t remember the first few haircuts that I got from Bobby, but I do remember the first (and last) time that I showed up for an appointment after having unsuccessfully bleached my own hair at home to an unflattering brassy yellow rather than the sunny, shiny blonde I’d been hoping for. It had been several months since I’d had my last cut, and my hair was grown out and shapeless, but I was too embarrassed to show up at the salon with my self-administered terrible dye job. When I couldn’t take it any longer and finally came in for a long overdue trim, I sheepishly admitted that I’d been hesitant to come in because I didn’t want him to yell at me for messing up my hair. He looked me up and down and drawled, in his inimitable Texan way, “girl, I’m not going to yell at you, but . . . do you want me to tone that?!” I think that was really the moment that solidified both our friendship and our working relationship.
The salon where Bobby slings beauty is on Clark Street, just a couple blocks south of Wrigley Field. As the neighborhood and the salon’s clientele grew ever more conservative, I grew more and more bold. As the type of women who wanted crazy cuts and extreme colors moved to other neighborhoods, I became something of a unicorn, the weird one who was more than open to experimenting and having fun.
The first really incredible dye job that I got from him was just before the ombre trend became ubiquitous, so the fact that he deliberately dyed my roots a dark, deep purple while the length was streaked to look like a glowing autumnal forest fire full of reds and glimmering soft browns was like this insane magic trick that left me feeling like I’d literally been transformed into a work of art.
In subsequent years he’s given me varying shades of pink, purple, blonde, blue, and green, many of which elicit gasps of delight from strangers on the street or in the grocery store, who beg to know where I get my hair done.
Currently, I’m rocking a dark purple streaked with one bold orange chunk.
And even though he teases me and calls me Lola Granola when, every once in a while, I feel the need to chop everything off and go completely natural just to give my head a break from all the chemical punishment (and check out how much of my grey has grown in), he always makes me look my best even when I know he’s disappointed that he won’t have the chance to do something fun.
Bobby is nothing short of a hair wizard. And game recognizes game—a dear friend was dating a fancy hair stylist several years ago, and I’ll never forget the time the boyfriend calmly and coldly assessed my hair for a few moments before declaring, “that’s a good hair cut.”
I’ve recommended Bobby’s services to dozens of friends and acquaintances over the years, many of whom he still remembers and asks me about years after they’ve moved to other parts of the country. He’s the consummate professional who makes what he does look easy, who never takes more time than he needs, and who never forces his tastes onto clients and always gives them the best possible version of what they’ve asked for.
My maternal grandmother was a hair stylist long before I was born, long before she went to work as a radio dispatcher at our small town’s police station, though she still kept a hair washing sink and an old-fashioned chair hair dryer in her basement. It was one of the great, glorious pleasures of my young life to have her wash my hair or give my bangs a trim when they needed it, especially when she would also tell me stories of how scandalous it was that she bleached a big strawberry blonde streak into her nearly black hair in the 1940s, when she was a glamorous habituée at all the local dance halls. Maybe an instinctive knowledge of and respect for the transformative power of a good hair cut is in my blood; maybe it’s simply nostalgia for the familial comforts of my early childhood. What I do know is that Bobby Paul gives the best hair cuts in the city of Chicago, and it’s nothing but a complete delight to be remade by his artistry on a regular basis.
Orbit Salon is located at 3481 North Clark Street; call 773-883-1166 to make an appointment.
One of the things I’ve always found most romantic about truly knowing a city is one’s ease with the mundane.
Where you go grocery shopping. Where you get your hair cut. What deli has the shortest lines and the most entertaining customer service at lunchtime.
During the summer that I studied abroad in London during college, I opted not to take as many weekend trips to out-of-town destinations as the majority of my American classmates. It was for a number of reasons, not least of which was that I didn’t care as much about the quantity of sites I could lay my eyes upon as the quality of my relative intimacy with a handful of very specific places.
That summer, I privileged wanting to know every nuance of the precise route I would walk to my local tube station and the precise shadings of light on the Thames as the sun went down well after 9:30 pm throughout the month of July. Sure, I visited Stonehenge once, and it was awesome and super-cool and of course I’m glad that I went.
But I cherish every bit as much my memory of the three-digit code I had to punch to gain access to the main hallway of the office where I unexpectedly landed an unpaid internship, and the way that hallway smelled faintly of cleaning supplies and mildew and pencil shavings, and the fact that every day I carried with me this great little satchel from Eddie Bauer, which was just big enough to fit my portable CD player and a couple CDs (primarily all the Divine Comedy albums that I’d just purchased at the HMV in Piccadilly Circus).
So, in that spirit, I would like to offer you my extremely unscientific, terribly biased, and completely un-comprehensive guide to the Best Places to Pee in the City of Chicago.
I drink a lot, constantly, all the time—water, coffee, green juice, kombucha, bubble tea, occasional beer and wine and whisky. Consequently, I have to pee a lot, often when I’m running errands or when I don’t otherwise have easy access to a bathroom. Over the years, I’ve figured out a few reliable places where I can dash in, dash out, and get on with my life. Some of them require a tiny bit of psychic armor, to make yourself blend in to places you might not 100% belong, but most of them are well and truly public.
FIRST AND FOREMOST, though—a giant RIP to the bathrooms at Native Foods in Wicker Park. I always thought of them as my clever little secret, but apparently they weren’t so secret after all. One of the last times my boyfriend and I were in that neighborhood, I was utterly distraught to find a lock on the bathroom door, with a sign indicating that they were only available for paying customers. Like, of course a restaurant’s bathrooms should be primarily for paying customers. But what an incredible bummer that these animal welfare-obsessed vegans would feel the need to so suddenly, so flagrantly enforce it after several years of being groovy about leaving them open.
Is this obvious? It seems pretty obvious. Nevertheless, your local Whole Foods is a pretty great place to pee when you’re out and about. Who could possibly prove that you weren’t there to shop, stopped in to pee real quick, then couldn’t find the thing you were looking for and unfortunately had to leave the store empty handed? Anyway, that’s at least the story I tell myself if I’m feeling conspicuous. Depending on the day of the week, I’m most frequently near the one on Huron in River North (I love being able to skirt back out onto the street through the door that’s supposed to be reserved for residents of One Superior Place), the one on Ashland in Lakeview (this one’s a little dodgy to get in and out of since you have to walk a gauntlet of cashiers, but the ones who work there luckily tend to be too stoned to notice), and the new one on Broadway in Edgewater (pretty sure the bathrooms and coffee shop area in this new store have their own zip code—the building is SO BIG). The dangerous part, of course, is the high likelihood of being seduced on the way in or out by gourmet chocolate bars and fancy jars of stone-ground pumpkin seed butter, thereby potentially making it an extremely expensive trip per flush.
The Food Court at the Merchandise Mart
This location is actually temporarily closed right now while they’re remodeling the main seating area of the food court. But, they’ve helpfully redirected folks to a second bathroom location just down the hall on the other side of the McDonald’s. I’d never been in these bathrooms until very recently, so I’m not sure if they’re brand-new brand-new, or just newly remodeled. At any rate, they’re top notch—very clean and spacious. I’m so rarely in that area on weekends that I can’t really vouch for their status on Saturdays and Sundays, but during the work week, this one is a no-nonsense godsend for efficiency and anonymity.
The Ground Level Shops at the Palmer House Hilton
A couple summers ago, I was in the throes of a self-diagnosed UTI that was just bad enough to be inconvenient and annoying without quite being bad enough to schedule a doctor’s appointment about, so I was self-medicating with copious quantities of cranberry juice and cranberry supplements. I’d just picked up a new bottle of capsules at Kramer’s Health Foods on Wabash and figured there would be a Starbucks in the nearby Palmer House shopping area where I could buy a bottle of water as an outwardly “official” excuse to use their bathroom. Well, as luck would have it, there’s actually a three-stall public bathroom right across the hall from the Starbucks. I love staying in hotels so much that I secretly get a big thrill out of walking through here when I need to use this bathroom. I always pretend that I’m a spy or some kind of glamorous high-profile corporate ballbuster when I go clacking down the echoing corridors.
Second Floor of the Center on Halsted
This one could technically be filed as a subheading under the Whole Foods options, but since the Center is its own entity, I’ll count it separately. Especially if you eschew the often crowded and less than well-maintained bathroom on the ground level immediately adjacent to the bakery-side entrance to the Whole Foods and head upstairs to the spacious, industrial bathrooms instead. The signage designates them for male- and female-identified people, and there are gender-neutral facilities nearby as well, which is an obvious, awesome bonus.
2828 North Clark
Don’t get on the elevators or escalators! Jog up the first set of stairs immediately in front of you, go up the ramp, and turn to the left. It’s a tiny three-stall bathroom at an awkward angle because of the weird layout of the building, and sometimes it can be less than immaculately clean, but this is a great option in this part of the city where, as things get fancier and fancier, it becomes more difficult to find a place where you can pee for free. Just be careful not to count on using it if you’re leaving a movie late at night; they lock ’em down once most of the shops have closed.
OK, Chicago—what have I missed? Let me know if you have a favorite place to pee on the sly.
You can join my monthly mailing list by clicking here. If you are a writer, musician, or other artistic type and are looking for some more mystical-leaning insight on your work, click here to find out more about my psychic services for creatives.
I’ve written here before about my love/hate relationship with coffee.
I find myself firmly on the “love” side of the divide these days and, as ever, am trying to figure out what that means to me and why.
I’m constantly torn between a desire for solitude and a desire to feel a sense of connection and belonging to other people. In years past, I felt lonely and bereft of companionship, so I’d have to invent reasons and occasions to gather with others–whether it was internet dating, regular outings with girlfriends to visit weird places around the city, serving on the advisory council of my Buddhist temple, or joining a rock band.
These days I’m firmly ensconced in groups of all sorts that demand my attention in a number of ways–working 40 hours a week in an office with an open floor plan and the corresponding expectation for collaboration and conversation at the drop of a hat, weekly rehearsals with my band Pet Theories, caring for my younger autistic sister, living in a tiny one-bedroom apartment with my boyfriend and our two cats, not to mention being tethered to the Internet through this blog, my Twitter and Tumblr accounts, and the various other tendrils of digital life.
Though these relationships fulfill and sustain me in marvelous way, I do find that I still need to counterbalance all that togetherness with moments of solitude wherever I can carve them out. Reliably, those moments happen during meditation in the morning and zone-out time with my headphones on while commuting to work on the CTA. Increasingly, though, I find that making and/or drinking coffee is actually an important ritual that I perform just for me.
At the risk of sounding like some cheesy commercial from the ’80s extolling the virtues of a coffee break for a busy professional woman such as myself, I do find that having a cup of coffee is a reliable indication of “me time.” My boyfriend can’t drink caffeine, so when I make it at home, the whole elaborate ritual of putting together a pour-over cup for myself marks the kitchen as my space for a precious few minutes (despite our cat Rosie’s very loud insistence that she be given her fair share of coconut cream as an even exchange for her not murdering us while we sleep).
I’ve never been a smoker but have always been envious of the socially sanctioned smoke break, where a person just has permission to quietly hang out, doing nothing but letting the world go by for a few minutes. I know the habit is expensive and that there’s an increasing crackdown on places where people are allowed to smoke peacefully and comfortably in the city, but my romantic vision of this ritual remains. Happily, I find that I get some of the same no-questions-asked latitude for time away from my desk when I declare that I need to get a cup of coffee. Office lunchroom coffee is, of course, terrible–but the stolen moments that belong to me are delicious. And increasingly necessary.
I am completely in love with this place and its no-bullshit approach to what it does. You can read plenty about owner Jonathan Ory’s bona fides and background on various culinary sites around the internet. I’m certainly no foodie so I can’t really chime in on all that, but I so appreciate the vibe that he’s created at the shop.
In eliminating the expected trappings of a “normal” coffee shop–like, y’know, chairs–he’s beautifully put the emphasis on his limited but exquisite menu of drinks and pastries. I very rarely drink coffee without generous quantities of cream and sugar, but here I do–it’s so rich and flavorful and smooth that it really only needs a small sprinkling of sugar granules to make it palatable to me. If it’s unexpectedly busy in the shop, or when the weather’s nice and I want to walk, I’ll get it to go, but these days I’ve been staying to drink it, extending my blissful alone time standing up at the edge of the one long table in the center of the room, maybe halfheartedly scrolling through Twitter or Instagram, but mostly just zoning out, bringing myself back to the rhythms of the regular world after an hour or so at the temple.
And though I do crave my alone time, I also never want to take for granted my connection to my loved ones, so I’ve developed the habit of checking in with my boyfriend by text message, sending him a photo of what I’ve taken to calling “the weekly coffee report.” Which is exactly what it sounds like–photos snapped staring down the barrel of my coffee cup, all completely interchangeable at some level but precious to me just the same for the way they represent a certain satisfying groove of habit that’s been worn into my life of late.
Is that maybe the root of my current love affair with coffee? Its perfect balance between sameness and variation? A cup of coffee brewed at home is not a cup of coffee from Dunkin’ Donuts is not a cup of coffee from Asado, nevertheless . . .
As Adam Gopnik writes in Paris to the Moon,
Can’t repeat the past? We do it every day. We build a life, or try to, of pleasures and duties that will become routine, so that every day will be the same day, or nearly so, “the day of our life,” Randall Jarrell called it.
Of course the snob in me is torn between raving about Bad Wolf Coffee so that more people will check it out (and help it stay in business) and wanting to keep it my own little secret, a place where I can reliably go to disappear in plain sight for a short while. But I honestly love it too much to keep it to myself; I suppose there’s plenty of time for visitors in the day of my life. So if you happen to see me at the corner of the big wooden table on a Sunday morning, let us give thanks together for the bridge between the transcendent and the mundane, the solitary and the communal, offered by sharing the ritual of a really good cup of coffee.
UPDATE: Bad Wolf Coffee (sadly) officially closed its doors on September 21, 2015. Best wishes to Jonathan Ory on his new endeavors in Charleston, SC!
For ages now I’ve been toying with the idea of writing about some of my favorite restaurants, shops, service providers, and other “Allison’s Guide to Chicago”-type raves and recommendations here on Queen of Peaches. And when I recently found out one of my standby spots for lunch will soon be closing, I knew I needed to take the opportunity to memorialize it — and figured I might as well kick off this new semi-regular feature while I’m at it.
So, welcome to Peach Buzz!
And farewell to Panang Noodle and Rice on Chicago Avenue.
I mistakenly thought I didn’t like it the first few times I had it while studying abroad as an undergraduate in London in the summer of 2000. I was overwhelmed by my first glimpse at a menu full of Thai items, so my suave and sophisticated American co-intern at the Institute of Ideas advised me to try the pad thai. Something about the combination of the bland noodles and weird sweetness added by the grated peanuts just didn’t appeal to me (and honestly it still doesn’t). Summarily writing off the whole of Thai cuisine based on one dish, I devoted myself for the rest of my stay in London to eating at every hole-in-the-wall Indian place I could find instead.
It wasn’t for another year and a half, during my brief sojourn in Seattle, where there were seemingly three amazing Thai places on every block, that I learned I actually love Thai food, after becoming obsessed with lad nar. Fat, slurpy rice noodles drowned in salty, garlicy sauce, studded with bitter, crunchy broccoli — it was ideal comfort food, hangover food, “I misjudged my hunger threshold and my blood sugar is plummeting so I need to eat NOW” food. The palate of my early 20s was suddenly transformed.
One year after that revelatory experience, when I moved to Chicago and finally started working my first big-girl job, I was delighted to discover a fantastic Thai place just a short walk down the street from my office.
Since that autumn of 2002, I’ve probably eaten at Panang an average of once a week. We’re talking several hundreds of meals there, people. Many of these have been solo lunches, of course, spent shoveling noodles into my mouth distractedly while reading a book, writing in my journal, scrolling through Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, and an assortment of bookmarked essays and blog posts on my iPhone, and otherwise decompressing from my job for an hour in the middle of the day.
But there have also been a fair number of birthday lunches with coworkers, awkward on-the-clock meals with vendors courting my business, “let’s do lunch!” lunches with friends who unexpectedly happened to be in the neighborhood during the work week, and even the odd dinner after work squeezed in before a film screening or theatrical performance or concert. It became a standby, an old reliable, quite simply part of the fabric of what I think of as my regular life here in Chicago.
And that’s the crux of it. Though their lad nar still lives up to all my highly romanticized memories of my first bite of the dish in Seattle, and every other item on the menu that I’ve ever eaten there has been fresh and tasty (and never overly greasy), it remains the sweet simplicity of the restaurant’s status as meeting place, extension lunchroom, neutral territory, and common ground that elevates it above just about any other Thai place I can think of.
So much of this vibe is due to the unfailingly swift and pleasant service, which has always succeeded in hitting that elusive sweet spot between friendly recognition and letting you go on about your business. Dozens of different servers who have come and gone over the years learned my standby order(s) (“rama tofu? Panang noodle? Garlic tofu noodle? Pad see eiw? Lad nar tofu?”) and I very often had hot lunch sitting in front of me within five minutes of my arrival. And this is assuredly not just my experience — virtually everyone I currently work with or indeed have ever worked with would likely report much the same. And it’s not just us — the restaurant is always packed with other neighborhood employees and students from nearby Moody Bible Institute. They do brisk takeout business as well.
There are other Thai restaurants in Chicago of which I’m exceedingly fond, and hopefully I’ll get around to writing about some of them too. But, not to be overdramatic, Panang will truly leave a hole in my heart and in my personal, internal map of Chicago if it does close as promised in the next few weeks. A large part of the absence will of course be the affordable, reliably tasty food and kind employees. But it will also be swallowing up over a decade’s worth of the kind of mundane memories that never seem noteworthy until they’re threatened with extinction.
When I say goodbye to Panang, I also say goodbye to early-20s Allison just learning to navigate the city, mid-20s Allison thrilled with her independence, late-20s Allison feeling her way to greater and greater responsibility at her job, early-30s Allison pushing the boundaries of what she expects out of her own life, and now mid-30s Allison making refinements to the old and starting to dream about what she can possibly make happen for herself next. When Panang closes its doors, in many ways it also closes them on personal growth, professional growth, trauma, triumph, and indeed even the kind of productive boredom that resets one’s internal compass in seldom appreciated ways.
So, from the bottom of my heart, thank you, Panang, for providing a space for me and countless other River North denizens to nourish ourselves ourselves on a regular basis, in both body and soul.
UPDATE: October 15, 2014 was their last day of operation. This is the sign that was posted in the window.