Tuesday, May 3, 2016

[D.C. Untied 9] Chicago Fire vs D.C. United, April 30, 2016

“Your Fire guide is there wearing a Cubs hat and glasses,” came the cryptic message on Twitter. I looked up at the sea of bros surrounding me in the sports bar. Backwards Chicago Fire hat, glasses. Nope. Cubs hat, no glasses. A table of EPL fans. Glasses and beard, glasses and beard, just beard. There! A couple wearing Chicago Fire gear sitting in the corner, the male half of which has glasses and a hat featuring an adorable logo that could be… was that a bear cub? I walked over.

“Is that a Cubs hat?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he replied.

“Are you in a supporter group?” I dug further.

“Just the Banter Buddies.” He paused, realization dawning. “You’re the DC fan.”

“That’s me!” I beamed. Mission accomplished.

“I wasn’t sure so I didn’t say anything. It’s so embarrassing when you’re wrong.”

Memories of my aborted attempt to locate a twitter penpal at All Tomorrow’s Parties last year flashed through my head. It really, really is embarrassing. Luckily I don’t mind being embarrassed in service of a good story. (I'll tell that one later if you ask.)

I’d found the Banter Buddies while researching for my trip. With a name like that, I figured we had similar interests in game day activities--i.e. drinking beer and bullshitting with buddies--and I needed advice on how to get out to Toyota Park, the Chicago Fire’s stadium, which is located way the hell out in the suburbs, a monument to Major League Soccer’s early days when suburban families and “soccer moms” rather than beer drinking adults who enjoy banter were the target audience.

With no public transit options, urban dwellers in Chicago who don’t want to drive are able to take shuttles from a handful of bars around the city. I wanted to know which would be the best. The Buddies pointed me towards Cleo’s, located on the edge of Wicker Park, Chicago’s hipster neighborhood. I bought a bus ticket off of the Chicago Fire website. My trip was coming together.

Chicago and the midwest had never been very high on my list of places to visit but that was partly because I never had a reason to go. What would I even do in Chicago? Eat deep dish pizza with a fork? But then came Dhoom 3, which wasn’t just set in Chicago but used the city as a backdrop for large portions of the film. I loved it. After Dhoom 3, the Chicago landscape held some meaning; there were sights I wanted I to see. So when I realized D.C. United’s April away game in Chicago would fit into my work schedule, I went ahead and booked a ticket. Dhoom machale!

Washington, D.C. was cold and grey when I left on Friday morning but Chicago was even colder and greyer. The chill was unbearable as I emerged from the subway into the gloomy Chicago morning. A thick fog hid the tops of the skyscrapers. The thin coat I was wearing did nothing to protect against the infamous Chicago wind. All I could think about was getting to my hotel and getting my wool "emergency" sweater out of my suitcase. This was an emergency! Wasn’t it almost May? What happened to springtime? At least it wasn’t raining. Yet.

My hotel was just north of the Chicago River in the “deep dish” tourist district. The front desk gave me a walking map of the area and I set off on my adventure. Downtown Chicago was rebuilt after the Great Chicago Fire in 1871 with an eye towards beautifying the public space. Bridges crisscross the Chicago River as delightfully as they do the Seine in the Paris. The city was unexpectedly well suited to my all time, number one favorite tourist activity: wandering around aimlessly looking at things.

There was the Chicago Tribune Building, which stood in for the Chicago Police Headquarters in Dhoom 3.

Then across the river to Millennium Park with a number of the locations from “Tu Hi Junoon”.

(For your reference.)

Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate!

I’d seen some of Kapoor’s work the last time I was in London and it really is fascinating--not just the mirrored art itself but the public’s reaction to it. The Cloud Gate is constantly surrounded by tourists taking photos of ourselves in the reflections. We may as well be a part of the installation. Reflections of Life Behind A Screen, 21st Century.

(My Katrina Kaif moment.)

The Pritzker Pavilion where the wedding sequence in the song was shot. Typical Gehry nonsense building.

Then down to Lake Michigan.

Shedd Aquarium, which stood in for the Great Indian Circus in Dhoom 3.

The hotdog stand outside had veggie dogs! I got one with everything and ate it in the cold. A handful of little birds hopped around waiting for me to drop something. Not a bad plan considering the hordes of tourists that must come through here every day.


Back up to “the loop” and the Honorable Richard J. Daley Plaza where they got that Picasso.

I ducked into the Chicago Cultural Center, housed in what used to be the main branch of the Chicago Public Library.

The building itself was fascinating, part arts center and part community hangout. I walked past the WBEZ public radio StoryCorps as well as a handful of painfully whimsical white people doing their best to generate material for StoryCorps. (Sample snippet of dialogue from a group of people in some sort of jester class: “Let’s talk about hooping in festival culture.”)

But the art itself was a nice break from the neutral color palate favored by Chicago residents, the gray, black, navy, and khaki broken only by the occasional NFL jersey.

On the top floor were the Strandbeests, kinetic sculptures from Theo Jansen. Even removed from the beaches of the Netherlands, their natural habitat, the Strandbeests were beautiful. Their plastic bones and gears laid out for us to examine.

I was even lucky enough to catch the tail end of a demonstration, the Strandbeest huffing and puffing through its air bladders as it walked back and forth across the exhibition room.

How wonderful it would be to come across a Strandbeest walking down the beach at Scheveningen. Pickled herring stand, shrieking kids, wind whipping off the ice cold water, and the quiet huffs of an otherworldly creature passing by.

Then down to Navy Pier for my final stop on the Dhoom 3 tour. I’d been hoping to ride the ferris wheel but it was undergoing repairs. I settled for the carousel.

Unlike some of the other places I’d been that day, Navy Pier was almost deserted. My only company on the ride were two moms and their toddlers, tourists from somewhere even colder than Chicago, judging by their comfort in the chilly seaside air.

(I rode a cat! Tu hi junoooo~ooon. Tu hi karaar.)

Last on my sightseeing agenda was an architecture cruise down the Chicago River, also nearly empty. I had an entire section to myself, nobody to buffer me against the wind. But the sun came out while we were cruising, which helped a bit.

Until I visited, I had no idea Chicago was such an architecturally minded city. It makes sense, in a way. Chicago was built from nothing, in the middle of the continent. A true American city in a way that places on the East Coast, like New York or Boston, with their European and British roots, really aren’t. And unlike the West Coast cities of Los Angeles or Seattle, Chicago was built in an era that believed in urban living. The robust public transportation system, the walkable downtown, the care and attention paid to the cityscape… this was a real American city.

After the tour, shivering from cold, I met my dear librarian friend J. for a hearty Chicago dinner at the original Pizzeria Uno, followed by a nice long chat.

Deep dish.

I love my Internet friends but I love meeting them in person even more. J. and I had a lot to catch each other up on.

And then it was Saturday. Game day. My plan was to wander around Wicker Park before heading over to Cleo’s around 1pm to get the bus to Toyota Park.

It started to rain.

I stopped at a drug store and bought a poncho for later.

Wicker Park was as advertised, a hipster neighborhood along the lines of H Street in DC. There were quirky storefronts, music venues, and some delicious looking places to get breakfast.

I stopped in at Kanela Breakfast Club to warm up and carb up with an Irish coffee and an order of Kanela's special french toast, made with challah bread and served with apricot jam and cream.

Reckless Records, where I purchased a compilation of Vietnamese rock songs from the 1960s. (Ah, so nostalgic, right?)

(I also found this.)

Quimby’s comic store where I bought a tiny mini-comic about ninjas for $2.

And then over to Cleo’s where I boarded the bus with my new Banter Buddies friends and we were off!

It was interesting talking to an old school MLS fan who supported another club. I know the DC United saga, the ups and downs, the players we still miss. The Chicago Fire have also had a rough time of it the last few years… really since about 2010, even coming in dead last in the Eastern Conference last year. Without the endorphin high of winning, what keeps fans coming back is fan culture. The banter, the buddies, the beers on the bus.

I got to hear some great stories from my new buddy J. about how shitty archrivals Columbus are, as well as how clueless the NYCFC fans are. There’s something about fans of the newest teams that’s particularly annoying. (In DC, we’ve experienced the shittiness of the Orlando fans.) They don’t have the seasoning fans of older teams have, the sense of humor that develops through bad times, the shared memories of mocking the Crewzers or that time the Crew’s scoreboard caught on fire. And old school fans remember when there was that feeling of uncertainty. Would there even be a next year for Major League Soccer? Even though we’re fans of different teams, there’s still a bit of camaraderie left, a feeling that we’re all in this thing together.

The rain and wind had picked up by the time we arrived at Toyota Park. I poncho’ed up and ran off to Will Call to pick up my ticket. Toyota Park is a soccer specific stadium with a capacity of about 20,000. Everything is on a much smaller than RFK in DC and it took me no time at all to pick up my ticket and head back to the tailgate.

A couple of friendly buddies indulged my desire to trade scarves and I received a sweet, vintage D.C. United away jersey from one and really nice Chicago Fire supporter scarf the other.

I can’t even tell you how happy I was to be greeted with such warmth by the Fire fans. I was beginning to get a bit worried about what would happen when United won and I would be forced to gloat on the bus all the way back to the city. You know, just to keep up my reputation as a top banterer.

Whatever rivalry DC and the Fire shared in the past, just as I can’t hate the DOOPers while Chris Pontius is playing for them, surely Fire fans have to have a little soft spot for the team that has Patrick Nyarko? Right? Well, maybe not after this game.

We stayed under the tents in the tailgate area as long as possible before dashing through security for a rainy, open air bag check and into the stadium. The away fans section is 134, down by one of the goals, immediately opposite what I think was the Sector Latino supporter group. There were about a dozen of us there, including a couple of young guys who had driven all the way from Omaha! Six and a half hours. “And you’re D.C. United fans?” I asked. “Travis is my brother,” replied the taller one. “OH!” I said. “We love Travis.” At least I do. It’s been incredible watching him develop confidence over the last couple of weeks. He’s our Worra now.

Kick off.

The rain keeps coming.

My fingers are stiff, clutching the corners of my soggy District Ultras flag.

My toes are wet in my boots. The rain has nowhere to drain in the stands and a small lake growing underneath my feet.

The first half we are on the attacking side. All the Chicago players are new and I don’t know their names to heckle them. One of the DC fans has a loud voice and he leads us in familiar chants.

I’m so cold but I still wave my flag around. Around the stands, people are quiet, bunkered down, huddled for warmth.

The game feels sluggish. A few DC attacks die in the box. Sabo whiffs a perfect ball right in front of our faces.

On the far end of the field, Chicago scores and a fire alarm rings out to muted cheering from the damp crowd.

Half time. I head up to the small covered area where they’re selling soggy snacks. I have a Facebook message: “Is that you with the flag?” I’m on TV? Better step it up for DC!

The second half has bite. DC comes out of the locker room determined to equalize. Worra will not let another goal in. His brother shouts advice. His friend yells at the Fire players throwing the ball in when they get close enough to read the names on the jerseys. I join in: “WHAT HAPPENED TO YOUR HAIRLINE, HARRINGTON? YOU LOSE THAT LIKE YOU’RE GONNA LOSE THIS GAME?”

And then commotion on the far side of the field. We scored! Nyarko scored! HE PLAYS FOR US NOW! We celebrate!

But time soon runs out. The chances dwindle. The game ends in a fizzle. A bitter draw. 1-1, like all the games on Wednesday. Maybe it was something in the air.

It’s still raining.

My hands are red and numb from the cold, frozen around the corners of my flag. A few of the United players run over to say hello. Birnbaum throws his jersey to a couple of pretty ladies in the next section over. Jeffrey throws his to the guys had who driven all the way from Omaha. Bobby Boswell makes his way over and gives a few of us a hearty handshake and a thank you. His eyes are really blue. I tell him he played a good game and I mean it. Last week, too. Keep it up, Bobby!

And then I run back to the bus waiting in the parking lot. I’m one of the last people on. The driver zings me, “They told me not to wait for ya.” Banter from the bus driver. I like Chicago.

The ride home is bit more subdued. Many people seemed to have kept warm with beer, not flag waving. I get into a long political discussion with a Ted Cruz voter that keeps us occupied all the way back into town.

And then it’s over. The game is over. My trip is almost over.

Walking back to my hotel, back across the Chicago River, the wind blows my umbrella inside out and shatters the frame. I throw it out and hunker down against the rain.

The next morning I’ll be blow-drying my boots, purse, and jacket in an attempt to get them dry enough to put on to fly home but for right now all I can focus on is how hungry I am. And how happy. Maybe I’ll get another slice of disgustingly rich deep dish pizza before I leave. I might as well, while I’m here in Chicago.

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