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Wednesday, January 29, 2014

B Fest 2014: Thursday, or, Let's Go Get Some Culture

One of the best things about the B Fest vacation is the prospect of having Chicago diner food for five days. It's a town that doesn't mess around when it comes to portions or ingredients. Thanks to a treadmill and diet regimen I started just after the previous B Fest, I was down 55 pounds from my maximum weight and looking forward to a few days of restaurant meals. Unfortunately, last month I got the news that I'd developed type II diabetes, so I knew that I wouldn't be able to indulge myself as much as I had in previous years. (I wound up drinking one bottled 12 ounce Coke during the entire marathon, and not all during the same film, which would probably make anyone who knew be pre-diagnosis wonder if I'd been replaced with a pod person.) But even with my self-imposed dietary restrictions, it was important to go a little bit off the leash. Otherwise, why go on vacation?
Thursday's indulgence was a breakfast at the Omega Pancake House in Niles; since I knew another day of walking around Chicago was in the offing I had my traditional "power breakfast" of chopped steak, scrambled eggs, hash browns, sourdough toast and hot chocolate. Not something that would be smart to eat every week but I was on vacation. As usual, the Omega gave my group blazingly fast service for a tiny price. Bryan, in a welcome attempt to help with my finances, kicked down for this meal as he had at Seven Brothers and Circa 57. The only thing better than a massive indulgent diner breakfast is a FREE one. Post breakfast I drove my group (Bryan, Mal, Jacob and the nut behind the wheel) to the Skokie Swift L station and Bryan and I demonstrated with total efficiency how to mispunch the keys on the train ticket vending machines and not realize that they didn't give change. These minor logistical hurdles cleared we stood in the pointlessly awful wind and cold to await the train and set off for Chicago. Our stalwart friend Gavin promised to meet us at the museum and in fact got there something like forty minutes before we did, having used his own car rather than the CTA system.
The Art Institute, our first stop, was selected because we wanted to go look at paintings and because it was a block away from a Brown Line station. The prospect of not walking very far in the second Polar Vortex week was prominent in everyone's mind. After a brief stop to get tickets, warm up, and get mildly lost in the first gallery we took a look at the Asian art exhibits. Malorie turned out to want to see the Impressionist collection more than anything so we diverted to that gallery and viewed canvasses with bright color and vibrant brush strokes as an antidote for our normal lives and the blood-freezing winter outside the building. I arrived at the not-particularly-original perception that the still lives of fruits let the viewer see what the artist was like--some posed lots of pears in a bowl in a carefully stacked pyramid and worked to capture the interplay of light on the fruits' skins and others saw art in a jumbled pile of produce on a tablecloth. I can't remember having this particular flash of insight before and cruised through the galleries feeling connected to my fellow human beings in a way that I honestly don't experience all that much.
After the Impressionists it was time to look for Cornelis Saftleven's "The Witches' Sabbath" so Bryan could feel metal looking at it and I wanted to see the cobalt-blue stained glass windows that Marc Chagall had created as part of a 1970s-era plan for Chicago to install art in all its public buildings and spaces; sadly, I neglected to bring a copy of Edgar Allan Poe's short stories with me so I could read "The Masque of the Red Death" in the blue light pouring through the windows (as I have done on four previous visits to the museum). Time running out by this point, we cruised past the Greek and Roman exhibits on our way to the egress ("We'll at least walk past some stuff we haven't seen yet" was my reasoning behind taking a different route to the exit).
The next stop was further down the Brown Line in the Loop; Bryan had seen a Food Network segment on Glenn's Diner, a tiny eatery near the fish market that specialized in fresh-catch seafood. I've never been a big fan of proteins from the sea but those guys make a chicken sandwich that frankly I'm not sure I deserved to enjoy as much as I did. And everyone else got something with lobster or scallops in it, with Bryan stunned by how much he enjoyed the crab / scallops / mushrooms / cream sauce pot pie that looked like something out of "Game of Thrones", raving openly to everyone in the group and our waiter. Gavin joined us here, having driven himself again (having offered to drive us; we took the L because I didn't know how to find the place other than "go to this station and cross the street" and the GPS on my tablet had been upgraded to the point where it didn't work any more).
From there it was time for a trip back up the Brown Line to the Yellow, and a drive back to the hotel prior to a trip to the Hala Kahiki tiki bar in River Grove. The ride on the L also gave me a chance to tick "get sucked into a conversation with a random person who wants to talk to people on the commuter train" off my checklist of urban experiences as a friendly person attempted to talk to me about fascism and politics while everyone else but me ignored him. It turns out that wearing a bright green bomber jacket with Telstar I and THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISTS painted on it is a conversation starter, and that mentioning Howard Zinn as a source will get a teenager in advanced placement history to join in the conversation as well. The jacket's also extremely comfortable in the cold of a Chicago winter, so it has two things going for it. After that guy left the train everyone in my group dozed off on the trip back, which made me feel doubly glad that we were letting the CTA drive; fatigue and winter driving conditions don't mix at all. Once back at the hotel I introduced David Braley, a former JSTOR coworker, to the people he hadn't met at Monster-Rama in Pennsylvania and set off for the tiki bar.
Since I don't drink alcohol this gave everyone who was going to be in the Puce Moose permission to get as hammered as they wanted (not that I recall anyone particularly going for it). The bar was decorated in 1962 and never particularly updated--though their jukebox appears to have been frozen in 1978 and 1993 simultaneously. Their menu is full of things named the Suffering Bastard and Tiger Shark, although in recent years they've added a selection of flavored martinis and wine coolers in deference to people who want to go to a fifty-year-old relic of faux Polynesian culture but not drink anything from that time period.
They also feature a gift shop that I couldn't find the entrance door from inside the bar (lights were off in the room that it was in and I didn't feel like stumbling like Frankenstein through the pitch-black section when I could walk outside the bar and go through the front door). David and I examined a fine selection of tiki kitsch that was explained to us at length by the woman at the cash register--down to listing the color of every shirt on the rack as she went through them, or telling David what each individual glass on their wall of barware looked like while he was only two feet away from them. I selected a sharp-looking dark blue shirt with erupting volcanoes on it while fending off the suggestions from the cashier that I could start a varnished puffer fish collection, pick up a ukulele as a souvenir, buy a bunch of shot glasses, get a shirt three sizes too small for me, or purchase a decorative canoe paddle or pool float for the amusement of any visitors who would admire it when they saw it. I don't think David got anything but confused. Happily everyone else in the group who realized he'd never been to the bar before asked him at length if he'd met the enthusiastic but low-key person running the store and a certain amount of rueful laughter was enjoyed by everyone.
I got to catch up with the Nebraska contingent (Chad Plambeck and his amigos; Chad runs the Micro-Brewed Reviews site and has been part of the online B movie review community since webrings were a going concern) as well as the New Jersey brothers (KO Rob, who runs the boxing-movie review site KO Picture Show and his identical-twin-looking brother Mike, who does not do that). We talked about life and random subjects while Bob Seger's "Turn the Page" wafted out of the jukebox more than once. Scott Ashlin and Jessica Ritchey joined us as well, having made their way through the pointlessly awful winter weather to get to the bar from Maryland. Drinks and conversation were had all around, with everyone hopping from table to table to be able to hang out with different groups of attendees. We're hardly social butterflies under normal conditions but things went pretty well on that front with the d├ęcor and free-flowing booze helping keep things loosened up.
Then it was time for a drive back to the hotel, a way-too-late pizza dinner that played a little havoc with my blood sugar the next morning, and hotel-lobby viewings of Ultra Q and Super Robot Red Baron episodes notable for their sheer insanity. If you ever have a chance to catch "Grow Up! Little Turtle" off of the newly released Ultra Q box set, let me know if you can figure out which parts of it are supposed to be a dream and which parts are supposed to have actually happened. And why does the giant flying turtle have turn signals and a gas gauge?
Some unfortunate and prolonged drama of the "I'm fine to drive" / "You are patently obviously not fine to drive" flavor put a sour cap on the previously delightful evening but everything turned out okay on Friday morning, and the Minnesota, Jersey, Nebraska and Baltimore factions were ready for the festival itself.

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