Chicago December 2008

I spent a number of days around Christmas visiting relatives in Chicago, partially for reasons which bear not repeating. (I was there from Monday, December 15, 2008, to Friday, December 26, 2008.) I'm not going to discuss relatives in this post.

This post begins boring and gradually gets more interesting.

Chicago was cold, but pretty. The highs most days were in the 20s. A few days had highs in the single digits, which, with wind chill, made it feel like -30. We heard predictions of heavy snowfall (6+ inches) at times, though most turned out to be somewhat less. We drove through slush, snow-gravel, flurrying (pretty, especially as it blew over the windshield), snow-mist (as my dad says, like you're in one of those snow globes that have been shaken), fine speckling, and puffy flurrying. We drove by one shopping mall's parking lot where the snow had been cleaned and moved into enormous mounds. I'd estimate the mounds were three or four car lengths long, two wide, and probably fifteen feet high! These mounds were much higher than any other piles left by snowplows, and dwarfed the cars around them. Also, I liked cleaning off the car, though it would've been more fun if I had waterproof shoes. Finally, one cousin showed me how to use an emergency brake to make cool turns on ice, and how to rock a car stuck in slush free without actually getting out of the car.

Also while in Chicago, I rediscovered the appeal of simple American food, ranging from Kentucky Fried Chicken to beef stroganoff to meatloaf to tuna salad sandwiches to American-Chinese. While I was familiar with Americanized Chinese (i.e., Chinese dishes altered to American tastes), I had forgotten there was another category with dishes such as egg foo young and chop suey that weren't directly derived from a particular Chinese dish.

For Christmas-day dinner, we cooked a large thanksgiving-like spread: turkey, home-made sage stuffing (actually cooked in the bird!), mashed (well, technically, whipped) potatoes, home-made gravy, cranberry sauce (canned), green beans with garlic, sweet potato-and-apple casserole (sweet, cinnamony, almost a dessert), dinner rolls, and an okay, weird ice-cream-like pie.

We had quite an adventure creating this dinner. At one point, we sent some peels (potato?) down the garbage disposal. They made it through the disposal fine. Yet, a short time later the sink backed up. The clog wasn't into the disposal. My handy aunt took the pipes under the sink apart, and, with the help of my ever-prepared grandmother's plumbers snake, we snaked the pipes. The clog wasn't in the U below the disposal. After much work, getting the snake around turns, we ended up feeding the whole snake--which was probably more than twenty feet long--into the pipes in the wall. I wonder where in the apartment building the other end was! We never really hit anything, but we wiggled it a lot, reassembled the pipes under the sink, played with water pressure in the sink itself, and eventually unclogged the pipes. What a relief to everyone, especially my mom (who was a nervous wreck). Lesson learned: even if you think the garbage disposal cuts things up well and you've never had a problem with it, those chopped bits can cause clogs elsewhere in the system.

Going home was horrible, and expensive. My Friday flight, and indeed all late afternoon and evening flights at Midway were canceled due to fog, and Southwest couldn't get me home Saturday, Sunday, or Monday! It took four hours to find/retrieve my bag from piles at Midway. Furthermore, I booked a replacement ticket and, misreading something during the process, paid much more than I thought I would.

Lessons for people on canceled flights:

  • Call the airline's phone number as soon as possible. You can get in the physical rebooking line if you want. I was on hold on the phone for 50 minutes before my call was answered, but during that time I only advanced through perhaps a third of the line. The line wound through all of Southwest's rope barriers, then down to literally the other end of the terminal.
  • Get on the internet as soon as possible. You can book things faster yourself than via the phone. Flights will fill up fast. If you see an acceptable flight, take it without hesitation. (This was the cause of my expensive mistake.)
  • Retrieve your bags as soon as possible. When many flights are canceled, baggage claim is a mess. The handlers apparently began unloading all the planes as fast as possible, throwing the bags in the baggage claim area in whatever order the luggage got to the ramp. When the conveyor belts filled up, they unloaded the bags onto the terminal's floor, leaving a ten-foot gap for walking between all the bags and the conveyor belts. It was a sea of luggage. They still didn't have enough space to unload the remaining bags, so they stopped unloading. When I finally made it to the baggage claim, they couldn't tell me where my bag was ("if it was unloaded, it's somewhere in the vicinity of baggage carousel eight", the area used for bags on flights to the west-coast) or whether it was unloaded or even whether any bags from my flight were unloaded before the ran out of space in baggage claim! Soon after I arrived in baggage claim, the handlers started carting the bags away to store in a secure area. Bags would be retrieved when a passenger put in a search request. I couldn't find my bag--perhaps it was unloaded and removed, or maybe it wasn't unloaded at all--and so I put in a search request. Eventually (and I mean eventually) the handlers brought it out.
I wish I took the following pictures to illustrate this horrible flight story:
  • screens of flights with every one marked canceled
  • the rebooking line stretching from one end of the terminal to the other
  • the sea of luggage in the baggage claim
I found a few pictures on flickr, but nothing that's very close to my image of the day / the pictures I would’ve taken. Here’s the best of the bad lot: canceled flights screens picture, terminal line picture one, terminal line picture two, luggage picture one, luggage picture two, luggage picture three, and the picture of luggage at top (also, there used to be a relevant video at the bottom, but it appears to be gone now).

New York City: Dec 5: Many Errands Before Returning To Boston

This day, my final one in the New York area, began with a leisurely breakfast with B at a Portuguese bakery, Riviera, in Newark.

Then came my crazily busy day of errands. There were a number of places I wanted to eat, and some that I wanted to buy food to bring to friends and family. Though I didn't manage to make it everywhere I wanted, I made it to many places.

First I went to Queens to pick up dumplings (sheng jian bao). Di Yin often brings me these dumplings when she travels to New York. I like them a lot. This day, I got to see where they are made and pick up some for myself. I also bought a little snack for lunch.

Then I went to the upper-west side of Manhattan for Magnolia Bakery, which received a ton of buzz a few years ago for its delectable cupcakes, to pick up a cupcake to try later. I was surprised the taste (when I tried it later) lived up to my high expectations. Magnolia, by the way, has more than just cupcakes; for instance, they have lots of mini cheesecakes.

Then, after a slight detour to Penn Station to pick up (what turned out to be way too many) rugelach for my parents, I made it to my (pre-booked) return bus on time.

More details about the day's adventures can be found in the this smattering of pictures.

New York City: Dec 4: Flushing and the Morgan Library

When I lived in New York and on past trips to the city, I never really left Manhattan. One of the goals for the day was to remedy that by eating my way through Flushing, a Chinese neighborhood in Queens. The other goal for the day was to visit the Morgan Library & Museum. Though in Manhattan, it'd been under renovation for something like the last six years. Supposedly one of the top museums in the city, it's perpetually been on my list of places to visit.

I took many pictures as I worked toward these goals.

After taking New Jersey rail once again to the city, the Long Island railroad brought me directly to Flushing. From the train, I spotted many satellite dishes. I imagine people want to receive channels from their homeland not offered by cable companies.

My main goal in the Flushing was to eat. With that in mind, I generally followed the guidance of a New York Times's article (Let the Meals Begin: Finding Beijing in Flushing) about casual, usually not-sit-down eateries in Flushing. I figured if I tried to see all the joints the article highlights, eating at a couple of them, then I'd end up exploring most of the major parts of Flushing. The article made this plan easy because it provides an interactive map of Flushing, as well as a corresponding printable version. Finally, the best feature of the article: the quality of the reporting. I did countless hours of research on chowhound about Flushing. Virtually all of the recommendations I read were mentioned in the article or the accompanying map. From my research, I added only a small number of places to my good-restaurants-in-Flushing list. (Many of the additions were fancier, sit-down, banquet-type affairs, outside the scope of the article. For the few within the scope of the article, all but one or two opened after the article was written.) In short, the article is a great summary of inexpensive eateries in Flushing that reflects the opinions of a group I trust.

Though I managed through the serendipitous spotting of a sign showing walking tours to see all of Flushing's historic buildings and to see many restaurants and supermarkets, there are many Flushing shops I didn't have time to see. (For details on what I saw and ate, refer to the pictures.) I did see most of the joints mentioned in the Times's article, except for a few in a tiny mall I couldn't find! (I later learned the tiny mall had closed and that I had looked at the correct entrance but there was no longer any sign that a mall had been there.) The fact that I found most of the places I planned to visit is no small feat: while many booths had menus with English translations and sometimes even pictures of the dishes, few booths had English names or even names transliterated into English. Thus, it was difficult to determine if one was in the right place and which booth was which. (This was harder than in India or Singapore.) I can imagine it would frustrate many visitors to Flushing.

The main feeling I got from this exploration of the Flushing food scene is a bit of jealousy that Flushing has incredible numbers of interesting regional food shops, especially from China, that are difficult or well nigh impossible to find elsewhere in the country.

After Flushing, I returned to Manhattan to visit the Morgan Library & Museum. More library than museum, most exhibits focused on books. Soon after entering, I watched the video introduction to the museum. It was bad: a history of the founder Morgan, with little on the museum's highlights.

I enjoyed the building's architecture. Morgan appears to be a true bibliophile. There are multiple rooms of libraries with wall-to-wall bookshelves in multiple levels (and corresponding narrow balconies tracing the bookshelves in the upper levels). The bookshelves, elegantly done in hard wood, house old hardcovers, one, two, or even five centuries old. There's also an ornate, formal study. Connecting these rooms is a rotunda that made me gasp when I entered. It has such vibrant colors and gilding in its ceiling that it looks like new.

As for the exhibits, there was one showing the (only surviving) first edition of Milton's Paradise Lost. I didn't expect to like the exhibit, but there was enough information about the history of the printing and of the book to make it interesting to me.

Another exhibit showed a first edition Gutenberg bible.

Also worth noting was the exhibit on Babar. It was fun to read some of the stories, and cute to see the father's and son's drawings together. (The son continued the series after the father died.) I like the colors in the son's later books. For me the highlight of the exhibit was not anything on the walls but rather a great, entertaining, lovely Babar rug!

I returned to Newark to meet B. When C returned to Newark, we headed to the Ironbound, Newark's Portuguese neighborhood, a short walk from their apartment, for dinner. We ended up at a seafood restaurant which turned out to be decent though unremarkable. Good enough, so to speak.

New York City: Dec 3: The New York Times Building, the Brooklyn Bridge, and Selected Shorts

The day's main goals were to see an exhibit at the New York Times building (which wasn't yet installed when I lived in the city), walk across the Brooklyn Bridge (which I never managed to do previously), and watch a staged reading of short stories by Selected Shorts (which rarely tours in California). These pictures document the day's adventures.

First, I took a slightly delayed train from Newark's Penn Station into Manhattan's Penn Station. (B and C say the rush hour trains run on time and the off-peak ones get less attention.) After grabbing breakfast at a mini-chain bakery in New York City, Hot & Crusty, I walked uptown to the New York Times building.

I went to the Moveable Type exhibit in lobby of New New York Times building. I heard about the exhibit in a radio segment (WNYC's On The Media via NPR). The lobby is filled with many dot-matrix/teletype-like screens that light up in a variety of ways. The exhibit was less cool in person than I imagined it would be--too many of the things the screens display were non-sequitur (e.g., noun phrases that lacked context). I started to like the exhibit more the longer I stood there, which I guess is because I got to see more patterns I liked displayed by the screens. For instance, I liked seeing the crossword puzzles filled in, reading interesting place names, learning about people's lives (as seen in obituaries), and seeing phrases with numbers in them (which usually conveyed a neat fact, or made one wonder why the New York Times printed that number).

After grabbing a train to south-east Manhattan, I ate lunch at Nyonya, a Singaporean/Malaysian restaurant of a type I ate at in Singapore. Indeed, it was recommended by a friend of mine (Mr. Lau) who lives in Singapore. The menu was full of familiar choices: all the standards from Singapore. I even saw them making Hainanese chicken the traditional way. I wish this place was near my apartment.

I walked by the edge of Chinatown, then spent a while hunting for the pedestrian entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge. It was a good day to walk across the bridge. Although cool, the sky was clear, yielding high visibility. Incidentally, the bridge has some bas relief panoramas (of the same view that the person standing in front of them sees) with notable buildings labeled: a nice way to inform the viewer what's what.

A short subway ride later, I made it to Pommes Frites, a Belgian fries shop in the East Village (a recommendation of another friend). My fries we made fresh when I ordered them: thrown into their own vat of hot oil, removed, salted, and tossed. Good quality.

With time to kill, after wandering a little, I ended up at the New York Public Library. I looked through the exhibits. I was struck again how fancy and lavish it is--everything is simply bigger and grander than, say, Boston's flagship public library (which I previously visited).

Given my large mid-afternoon snack, I wanted a light dinner. I headed to the upper-east side to try Papaya King, an acclaimed hot dog vendor. Though it has a few locations now, this is the original. I didn't think this hot-dog-and-papaya stand was significantly different than others I've tried in the city.

After a slow cross-town bus, I arrived at the theater to meet C and see Selected Shorts on stage. This was one of the reasons I made this trip to New York. Selected Short is a radio program where talented actors and actresses read literary short stories. I've listened to this show for years and wanted to attend a reading in person. The stories are often hit or miss for me, with the majority actually a miss, being too literary for my tastes. Nevertheless, I enjoy listening, and even the ones I don't like make me feel more sophisticated for having heard them.

The show is usually recorded in New York City, though sometimes they go on tour and record in other New England destinations and, occasionally, in Los Angeles. At one point, I almost planned a trip to Los Angeles simply to attend the performance. Well, given that I was in Boston, New York wasn't that far away, and I had other reasons to visit the city, I figured now was my chance to attend a reading in person.

I attended the performance Neil LaBute Presents The Grand Illusion: Tales of American Couples. The first two stories were too morbid for me. Intermission had a fun sing-and-answer game (which I never heard on the radio!), though some songs were too old for me to recognize. As for the final story, Neil LaBute's A Second of Pleasure, I really liked it. An amazing story composed entirely of (natural) dialog, further improved by great acting by the readers. C and I left in the middle of the worthless Q&A that followed the final reading.

New York City: Dec 2: Traveling

I rode the BoltBus from Boston to New York City. It was a cheap (< $20!), comfortable, and pleasant trip. The bus had fairly dependable internet access which made the time pass quickly.

Upon arrival, I met up with B and C. It was good to see them after so long. We went to dinner at Ali Baba, a Turkish restaurant I liked when I lived here, and had a good meal. Although I didn't take pictures of the food, being too busy catching up and not yet ready to do the embarrassing tourist stuff, you can read about what we ate.

After dinner, we went to their place in Newark, where I was introduced to San Juan, a nice card-based development game in a similar style as Settlers of Catan. I liked it so much that I plan to buy it to play with friends in California.

New York City and Newark Overview

I was in Cambridge/Boston at the beginning of December with relatively little to do. Then I (i) realized that New York City and Newark and my friends therein were a short and cheap bus ride away, (ii) discovered that a radio program in NYC that I'm a fan of was recording another episode on stage that week, (iii) recalled that Di Yin is busy during the week, and (iv) felt a bit antsy from hanging around in Boston doing nothing the previous few days. Consequently, I booked a bus ticket to New York City and ended up spending Tuesday, December 2nd, through Friday, December 5th, 2009, there. My friends B and C generously let me stay at their place in Newark, a short walk plus train ride from Manhattan.

Because I've written many previous posts about my times in New York City, I'm not going to rehash my impressions here. I will, however, mention new observations and features that, even if I noticed them before, suddenly struck me.

Riding the bus into the city reminded me that New York City is a real city. Everything is large in scale. Skyscrapers are too numerous to count. It's definitely a step up in scale from Boston and Barcelona.

While spending these days in the city, I noticed one contrast with Barcelona: in New York City, while one can walk in it as easily as in Barcelona, the existence of cars everywhere, densely packed on every street, makes it simply not as pleasant as Barcelona to walk around in. Nevertheless, NYC's an extraordinary city.

On my first full day in the city, I got asked for directions, and I knew the answer! Incidentally, I also got asked a few times in Barcelona. I guess I must often look comfortable in my surroundings.

I liked the fact that many bakeries sell hamantashen. I don't generally see them anywhere else. (It's not that I have an exceptional fondness for them; I guess I just like what having them for sale indicates.)