Friday, December 3, 2010

Not pedestrian: looking back at some epic walks

By John Greenfield

[A version of this essay also runs in Time Out Chicago,]

A spider web of orange highlighter on a beat-up old map illustrates my obsessive project to hike all the major streets within the city limits. Since 1999 I’ve walked Milwaukee, Halsted, Archer, Grand, 63rd, Kedzie, Belmont, 79th and Western, the granddaddy of them all at 24.5 miles. These treks always lead me to goofy landmarks, tasty grub, cozy dive bars and friendly folks, and I notice details I’d have missed using faster modes, so traveling slow has taken me far.

Strolling the streets appeals to me more than an afternoon at the Art Institute, where I’d never find a masterpiece like the mural of Jesus as Snoop Dogg outside Gresham’s Liberty Temple Full Gospel Church, 2233 W. 79th.

The giant wieners at Superdawg are well-documented, but few Northsiders know about their fiberglass cousin at Don's Hot Dogs, 7748 S. Kedzie in Ashburn. He’s draped in Old Glory and applying (gasp!) ketchup to his own head. And the neon sign at Rainbow Motel, 7050 W. Archer, beckons me to spend a night of romance in one of their Pink Palace whirlpool suites.

Most of the excellent mom-and-pop eateries I’ve stumbled upon don’t appear in guidebooks. The Terminal Snack Shop, next to the bus turnaround at 7030 W. Grand in Mont Clare, makes a mean bacon, egg and cheese sandwich. At Aguascalientes Carniceria, 3132 W. 26th in Little Village, I got the best gordita ever – a thick disk of grilled masa stuffed with pork loin in red adobo, beans and cheese. I fueled up at Stan and Helene's, 5960 W. Archer near Midway Airport, with a delicious lunch of grilled Kielbasa, a potato pancake and applesauce on Polish Constitution Day.

Ducking into random taverns often makes for an interesting fish-out-of-water experience. Inside Foremost Liquors, 3210 N. Cicero in Craigin, I tipped back an MGD with a room full of men from a nearby SRO. At Woodlawn’s Kozy Korner, 461 E. 63rd, ex-Defender gossip columnist Cliff Pierce bought me a High Life and shared his theory that Obama’s election would turn this depressed neighborhood into a hotspot. And at Ruta 66, a salsa club at 6600 S. Kedzie in Marquette Park, the Nicaraguan barmaid fixed me a refreshing michelada and listened patiently while I hacked through the conversation en espaƱol.

I’ve crossed paths with many characters I’d never have met otherwise. A few were jerks, like the teen who spat near my feet as I walked past the crowd outside an Englewood hoagie shop, or the old man behind the counter at Mr. Shrimp, 7157 W. 63rd in Clearing, who yelled at me when I asked him twice for hot sauce. But I’ll never forget Frank White, a blue-collar guy riding a beach cruiser in Back of the Yards on a frigid day who asked for computer tips and told me about training his pet Rottweiler. And I’ll always remember the raven-haired beauty who mesmerized my pal Jonathan when we crossed paths with her on Belmont in Avondale. "You can always tell the Polish women," he sighed. “They have such fine features.”

Frank White

Leaving the neighborhoods I usually frequent to explore these communities on foot has helped keep life in Chicago fresh for me after living here more than two decades. When it’s time to shake things up I look at the spaces between the orange lines on my map and think about which street I’ll walk next. Hmm… Pulaski?


Frances Archer said...

Great blog. Your walks through the neighborhood are almost like being there. Thanks for bringing attention to these corners of Chicago.

John Greenfield said...

Thanks Frances. I really enjoyed hiking your namesake avenue!

John Greenfield