Friday 23 September 2016

Chicago day one

Being a cheapskate, I take the 197 bus to the airport. A bargain at just over 2 euros. Unlike the extortionate taxi fare.

I'm in plenty of time at Schiphol. About two hours before my flight is due to depart. Just as well. After checking in my bag, I'm surprised by an enormous queue at security. Surprising and disappointing. Since they introduced centralised security checking for non-Schengen flights, I've always breezed through.

It takes 40 minutes before I'm safely airside. Seriously cutting into my drinking at the bar time. After nipping into duty free to nab a bottle of Laphroaig, I finally park my sorry arse at the bar closest to the gate. Time is pressing, leaving me only enough time for a small Heineken and a large Jamesons. Bit of a bummer that. My rusty bits are in need of a good oiling before jumping on a transatlantic flight.

Boarding is at an advanced stage by the time I troll up at the gate. I'm flying with KLM. For the very good reason that I want to keep my silver status. And the free checked-in bags that come with it. As I'm in economy comfort, there's no rush to board. One of the reasons I'm prepared to divvy up extra dosh for the privilege.

Having booked relatively late, I've a window rather than my usual aisle seat. Which does at least have the advantage of occasionally something outside to distract me. I pick up my usual routine of bolting on noise-cancelling headphones and watching crap films. The choice isn't great on KLM. But there's enough to occupy me for eight hours or so.

I always dread US immigration. Not because I'm worried they won't let me in, but because of the queues. This time, because I've already entered once on my ESTA and my fingerprints are on file, I can use a machine instead of queuing up to be processed by an official. Result. I'm through so quickly, I have to wait for my bag. Before I know it I'm bouncing along the motorway in a cab.

O'Hare is quite a way out and I'm staying pretty centrally, just off Michigan Avenue. The journey takes a while. Yet still costs around the same as the 10-minute journey from Schiphol to my home. As we get closer to the centre I start getting the big city feeling. That rush of energy that oozes from the pavement. I'm having fun already.

Mike Siegel, my co-conspirator from Goose Island is at the hotel bar and spots me as I enter. We've arranged to meet at 4 pm and I'm a little late. But I see he's been keeping himself amused. I rush upstairs to dump my bags and freshen up. Knocking off a quick email to Dolores to let her know I've arrived alive and conscious. Pretty much. I don't take too long about everything. There are several beers with my name on them around the city.

Tyler Jackson and Thomas Thorpe of Present Tense Fine Ales are there when I come down from my room.We don't linger at the hotel bar, instead heading straight off to my next rendezvous, at Rock Bottom. Mike tells me that it used to be one of the few decent spots for beer downtown, back in the days he worked around here.

The person I've arranged to meet are already here. English expat Les Howarth plus  Introductions over, we pull the bar up to ourselves and I wrap my lips around the first beer of the trip. Something IPA-ey. That's usually where I start.

We don't eat at Rock Bottom, as our next stop is the Billy Goat Tavern, famous for its double cheeseburger. And featuring in a Saturday Night Live sketch. It dates from the 1930's and used to be the haunt of journalists, back in the glory days of Chicago newspapers. Its location is pretty weird. At some point the street level was raised one storey, leaving the Billy Goat looking like it's in the basement of a multi-storey car park.

The furnishings are simple to the point of Spartan: plastic-topped tables and metal-framed chairs. A bar counter runs the full length of two walls, with a food counter opposite. There are a few OK beer options and as soon as we've ordered food - cheeseburgers, obviously - we load up with mugs of something dark.

The lads from Present Tense have a cask of ESB that "needs finishing". Sounds like a challenge to me. We head for their brewery, which rather exotically is located in a garage in a friend's back yard.

It's not huge. The brewing kit is made from converted kegs and can't be more than a half barrel. But the beer is spot on and soon thumping several spots very hard. The night is warm and the garage door is left open. I'm in a cosy and comfortable place. Enjoying the crackle of the night outside and the cackle of conversation inside. A few more people arrive and soon killing the cask is no longer much of a challenge.

I hold up well, but hit a wall a little after midnight. Saying "It's a night", I jump in a cab and return to my hotel.

As we weave our way back through the darkened streets, lights leap and buildings blur. As if the wall I hit has fallen on top of me. No need to bid the day farewell in the company of friend Laphroaig. I'm totally knacked.

Present Tense Fine Ales

Rock Bottom Restaurant & Brewery
1 W Grand Ave,
Chicago, IL 60610.

Billy Goat Tavern
430 N Michigan Ave,
Chicago, IL 60611.

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