America II

Michigan seems like a dream to me now
I’ve gone to look for America

Paul Simon, America

Assume for a minute that the Michigan in question is the lake rather than the state and these words seem almost prophetic, or at the very least like a paraphrasing of the sort of statement I’ve uttered countless times.

This probably doesn’t make a huge amount of sense to most of you.  Before I progress any further then, I should at least begin some sort of account of my last (and first, if you’ll excuse the jarring nature of putting those two in close proximity; the English language is a strange and wonderful beast!) trip to the United States.

There is, I’m reasonably convinced, nothing in the experience of the average British 18-year-old that prepares you for your first sight of one of the truly great American cities.  No amount of photos or guidebook accounts can prepare you for the first time you approach, at ground level, the sheer cliff face of the metropolis, rising out of a morass of suburbia.  Disregarding the occasional glimpse from the back of a car on the way from O’Hare, my first real look at Chicago was from the north, out of a train window.  Considering I’d been told that America didn’t really do trains nowadays, the Metra was something of a revelation with its aluminum[1] double-decker carriages that seemed to, well, go places.  At least from the safety of the affluent northern suburbs, they appeared to turn up, glinting in the August sunlight, and shuttle people quickly into the city.  Admittedly, the ticketing system was completely incomprehensible to an outsider, but which city’s mass transit isn’t?  Still reeling from the revelation that it was quick, easy and cheap to get into the metropolis that lay glinting on the horizon, soon enough I was doing just that.  After the aforementioned city-rising-out-of-suburbs-like-a-gargantuan-glass-and-steel-cliff-face feeling, you are plunged into it and emerge, blinking, into its very centre and onto the banks of the Chicago river.  I’m tempted to go and look up “interesting” things about the engineering marvel that it represents (it would naturally flow the other way, apparently), but for now I shall suppress that urge in the name of what little is left of my narrative focus.

If you’ll excuse a momentary diversion (so much for that idea then), I’m going to dive off my chosen topic and talk about music.  I do this a lot, but fear not, we’ll make our way back eventually.  “Pick a Part That’s New”, lead single from Stereophonics’ breakthrough second album Performance and Cocktails, was one of the first singles I bought, aged 11 in the autumn of 1999.  It dealt with the familiarity of the New York skyline, and indeed the experience of the city as a whole, to people who had never been there before; stepping off a plane and realising you’ve seen it all before in countless films, sitcoms, adverts.  The wholesale import of American popular culture is hardly news, but the degree to which it has become the background noise to our lives is perhaps not acknowledged.  The point to this diversion, if there is one, is to arrive at my familiarity with Chicago from some sort of oblique angle, thereby perhaps placing it in context.  If Kelly Jones had Hollywood to thank for bringing New York to the Welsh valleys, a peculiar notion geographically speaking, I have Bill Gates to thank for my familiarity with Chicago, (equally geographically troublesome, but bear with me!).

A relatively obscure Microsoft-developed computer game entitled Midtown Madness made its way onto my family’s computer sometime in the early part of this decade.  The option I most enjoyed was to simply drive free through the model of Chicago, exploring.  Under the ‘L’, down the lakeshore, through labyrinthine grids of roads between skyscrapers.  And, out along the articificial peninsula that plays host to the Field Museum.  Pass that Greek-columned edifice and the Shedd Aquarium and you arrive at the Adler Planetarium, a circular, domed affair that became a place to race out to and back in one of a series of peculiar vehicles including a new Beetle, a Mustang and one of those ridiculous front-engined V8 Panoz GT cars.

Like I said, ridiculous.

Strictly speaking, this wasn’t my first encounter with a virtual model of the Adler Planetarium.  No, good old Microsoft had seen to that years before.  Flight Simulator.  Back in the days when a teenager could fly a virtual plane into a virtual building without arousing a jarring memory of a dark day in New York (not to mention the suspicions of everyone within sight/earshot), the default setting on MS Flight Simulator 5 was a Cessna ready to take off from Meig’s Field (long before the all-too-real Mayor Daley paid it a visit with bulldozers at midnight), jutting out into Lake Michigan.  Time and time again I drove that plane into the water before mastering the takeoff, and shortly after that the greatest hazards to my little kite became the twin peaks of the Sears Tower and the Hancock Centre.

Meig's Field

Adler Planetarium from the air

See that little domed structure just past the end of the runway?  That’s the Adler.  And, thanks to the magic of the internet, here’s somebody’s shot of it from their plane.

So, if I hesitated remarkably little before agreeing to fly halfway across the world to meet a girl I’d known for approximately 4 hours, it is perhaps not as surprising as that might seem.  I’d seen this city through the strange prism of a couple of turn-of-the-millennium computer games and a TV medical drama (who doesn’t want to stand on the frozen edge of the lake like Abby and Kovac in ER?  Or is that just me?).  The chance to see it in the real world arrived by chance; I didn’t pass it up.

[1] “And the word that you wanted was AL-U-MIN-I-UM!”, in the words of the great Adam Duritz


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