TO drive into Chicago on a sunny Friday afternoon is to experience the city the way God — or at least the holy trinity of Daniel Burnham, Louis H. Sullivan and Mies van der Rohe — intended it. Iconic skyscrapers rise from the strip-mall-strewn prairie to pierce the blue in a jumble of geometries, their glinting glass, steel, stone and concrete announcing the power and prestige of the capital of the Midwest.
It's a sight that stirs the souls of architecture buffs and cosmopolites alike, and as I stared ahead and upward amid the creeping traffic on a visit there this summer, I felt a mix of excitement and apprehension. Chicago looked glorious, but glory always has its cost.
Perhaps that price was the immobile rush-hour traffic? If so, it was one I'd gladly pay, as I had just $500 on which to live that weekend, experiencing both facets of Chicago, the chichi and the short-order.
An hour later, I reached my hotel — or rather, my hostel. Though in general I avoid hostels (often crowded, dirty, uncomfortable), the J. Ira and Nicki Harris Family Hostel looked promising. Situated right in the Loop, the heart of Chicago's business district, it was voted best large hostel (it has 500 beds) in the world by customers of HostelWorld.com in 2006. And two nights in a six-bed room would cost just $77, leaving me plenty of cash to blow on what I was sure would be an expensive city.
But to woo the Frugal Traveler, a hostel must be more than cheap, well situated and popular. In this case, it was the architectural history that sold me. Built in 1886, the hostel is seven stately stories of heavy timber lofts clad in lush red brick, with wide windows facing out onto an El track. Once, it had been a manufacturing center, and had even housed the Encyclopedia Britannica printing presses.
Now, as I could see as I walked through the lobby, past the comfy couches and pool and Ping-Pong tables, it housed the world: a Girl Scout troop, college students, business travelers, foreign tourists and older couples who enjoyed the hostel experience even when other options were within their means.
My fourth-floor room was big and bright — or it would have been, had it not been occupied by three hung over guys who'd lowered the blinds, apparently to sleep all weekend. I saw only one of them awake; he was German and when he wasn't in bed, he was walking around naked. Yup, I was in a hostel.
By the time I'd settled in, it was getting late, so I went down to the lobby to meet my old friend John, who lived in the Bridgeport neighborhood on the South Side. Back in high school, John and I had been frugal punks, sneaking out of study hall to a Mexican restaurant for 75-cent chips and salsa and free “ghetto lemonade” (ice water, lemon wedges, sugar), producing a photocopied zine about skateboarding and substituting a dictionary and pencils for a drum kit in our band, Joyful Stress.
In 15 years, little had changed. John's truck had broken down, and to fix it he'd had to delve deep into his savings. Now he had just $5 to his name, and my meager budget would have to cover us both.
The Loop shuts down early, but a $2 ride on the El brought us to Wicker Park's Division Street, a strip of hipster-stuffed fusion restaurants. We ignored them in favor of La Pasadita, a taqueria around the corner. Actually, La Pasadita occupied three different storefronts, each filled with both Latino families and young non-Hispanic groups. We settled on the one at 1132 North Ashland Avenue only after seeking advice from hungry-looking firefighters at the station across the street.
No ghetto lemonade this time. Over rice, beans and a passel of tacos (I loved the chunky-tender beef tongue), we discussed our favorite topics — conspiracy theories, Kurt Vonnegut Jr. and which of our classmates was now fat — and wound up paying only $14, less than any of the “platillos fuertes” at Rick Bayless's lauded Topolobampo in River North, another artsy area.
From there, John and I walked up Division Street to the Rainbo Club, a noisy hall packed with young people, their hair in careful disarray. Dimness dominated, except for spotlighted faux-naïve paintings of cowboy-hatted oilmen, and every song sounded like the White Stripes — all guitars and drums. We ordered Ebel's Weiss, a local brew ($4.50 a pint), snagged a booth and randomly chatted up Whitney and Olga, hip women who turned out to be on a road trip — from New York!
The next morning began predictably late. I got up, moved past my slumbering roommates and, having missed the hostel's free breakfast, attacked a platter of rib-eye and eggs at a nearby diner-slash-cocktail-lounge, the Beef 'n Brandy. Now this felt like true, old-school Chicago: beige vinyl seats, harried waitresses, a full bar in the basement and a gargantuan slab of rare meat so bloody and juicy it could've come straight from the slaughterhouse. With coffee and tip, brunch came to just $16.
Fortified, I set out to explore the Loop, and what I discovered was delightful — and virtually free. Pretty much across the street was Millennium Park, 24.5 marvelously landscaped acres of grass and trees interspersed with technological marvels clearly intended to represent the 21st century.
There's the massive, bulbous steel “Cloud Gate” by the British artist Anish Kapoor, whose mirrorlike convex surface reflects and distorts the skyscrapers. At the Crown Fountain, kids of all ages screamed and scampered about under jets of water squirting from two tall oblong towers covered in L.E.D. screens that displayed the faces of ordinary Chicagoans.
A calmer scene prevailed at the park's Lurie Garden, where visitors soaked their feet in a stream while purple stalks of prairie sage swayed vividly behind them. And watching over all this were the rippling, brushed-steel ribbons of the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, an outdoor concert site designed by — as if the brushed-steel ribbons didn't reveal it already — Frank Gehry.
Amid all this beautiful, bountiful urban artistry, I wandered around, trying to find the perfect spot to relax in the sun. But from off in the distance, I heard music begin to echo out over the park, and it drew me in like the sirens' song.
It was the Chicago Blues Festival, getting under way at neighboring Grant Park. While not a huge fan of the Chicago style (I prefer the plaintive blues of the Mississippi Delta), I had to explore — after all, it was completely free.
No band had yet taken the main stage, but thousands of people were already setting up camp on the vast field. A burly man with a white handkerchief around his head had raised a “Blues Patrol” flag featuring Jake and Elwood Blues (“We're here to ensure the safety of all blues fans,” he said), and others calmly sat on the grass, awaiting 5 p.m., when Nellie (Tiger) Travis would take over from the video-screen replay of Friday's shows and belt out some Southern-inflected R & B.
I wasn't quite willing to kill the day waiting for Nellie, so I plodded on through the crowd, glancing over the high-priced snacks and drinks and finally striking gold at an Army recruiting station. For filling out a form, I could have a free set of dog tags printed with any name I chose; I chose “Traveler, Frugal.” (When a recruiter inevitably phoned, I politely told him, “I'm not Army material.”)
As the clock neared 3, I hurried back through the parks to the Chicago Architecture Foundation, where my “Historic Skyscrapers” tour was about to begin. Normally $15, my ticket cost $12, thanks to a coupon from my hostel. In fact, the hostel had discounts for just about every major Chicago attraction, from the Sears Tower to the Field Museum.
My guide was Dan Persky, a fourth-generation Chicagoan who claimed to have “more ties to the city than almost anyone.” Over the next two hours, he led me and six other tourists on a 1.5-mile trek around the buildings that rose up after the Great Fire of 1871, explaining how architects and engineers moved from load-bearing walls with iron supports to the steel-and-terra-cotta structures of the Chicago School and the soaring verticality and extravagance of the Art Deco period.
Sure, it was educational, but it was also beautiful, especially the way the sunlight bounced off the glassy Citadel Center (2003) onto the Marquette Building (1895), casting wavy shadows that made the elegant older skyscraper appear to be underwater. Likewise, the Field Building's towering Deco ambitions were just as impressive as they must have been when it opened in 1934, in the depths of the Depression.
By the time the tour ended, I'd long since digested my steak-and-eggs; I was hungry. I hopped the El and in minutes arrived in Lakeview, the college-y neighborhood where Tiffany — another friend and a native Chicagoan — lives.
Now, despite her name, long hair and erect bearing, Tiffany is no princess, and in fact was known back in graduate school as the queen of thrift-store fashion. So I wasn't surprised when she led me on a tour of Belmont Avenue budget clothing boutiques like Fashion Tomato, where bright print dresses never cost more than $50. Not my style, alas, but I amused myself outside by watching drunken guys play beanbag-toss on the sidewalk — a popular Chicago pastime, Tiffany explained.
I wanted to treat Tiffany to a dinner worthy of her moniker, so we hopped a cab ($12) to May Street Market, a seasonal New American restaurant in the River West area with a new lower-priced bar menu. Getting to that broad wooden bar, however, was a little tough: every stool was taken, and when we finally bellied up, we learned there was no bar menu. Whoever had told me so over the phone was mistaken. No matter — by then I wanted fine food, no matter the cost!
And what arrived was very fine indeed: a spectacularly light but also intense carrot-lemongrass soup, an English pea soup with Parmesan flan and hunks of lobster, a delicate vegetarian spring roll and a duck burger so rich I couldn't finish it. (Perhaps I'd had too much of the lush 2003 Quinta da Alorna red, $28 a bottle.) Even the notoriously picky Tiffany seemed to like everything. In all, dinner cost $110 — a lot, perhaps, for one meal, but far less than a single tasting menu at Alinea, Chicago's mad-scientist gastro-lab.
Plus, I'd barely spent half my budget. As I took a $19 cab back to the hostel, I wondered how I could possibly blow all that remained. The next morning, I knew, there would be breakfast at the hostel (free), browsing weird tomes at the Printers Row Book Fair (free!), and yet more of the blues festival (free!). John and I would reunite for a trip to the Field Museum and a long wander through its deeply detailed exhibition on Native American prehistory, but that would come to only $12 for me and $8 for John, with a Chicago-resident discount.
What was this city, then, if such as myself, on a low budget, could essentially see, do and eat whatever I wanted without straining my wallet? Were the skyscrapers merely a prairie mirage, a veil for the cheap, accessible delights hidden at their feet? If I asked John, he'd surely cite Descartes's deceiving demon, while Tiffany would, I bet, simply shrug the question away.
Really, the answers didn't matter. By lunchtime Sunday, John had led me to Freddies Pizza and Sandwiches, which sells Chicago-style hot dogs ($3.16) from a hole in the wall in Bridgeport. As I bit into the mass of contrasting flavors and textures — relish, pickles, tomatoes, celery salt and the unctuous sausage, glory on a bun — I turned to look up again at the skyline. It seemed very far away.
Total (including parking): $370.16.