Chicago, Illinois, USA (23rd Apr 2008)
Our flight to Chicago was probably one of the best we have had so far thanks to the kind lady at the check in desk who gave us a row to ourselves so we had space to spread out. The journey to the hostel however was not so great. Although we knew the address of the hostel we didn't have a map to tell us whereabouts it was located so we asked a lady at the airport who told us to take a certain train and a certain bus and we would end up at Wrigley Field (home of the Cubs Baseball Team) and our hostel was in that area, simple enough we thought! Once on the bus we had been told to get on we asked the driver to drop us at Arlington Road, to which she said she didn't go anywhere near there and that we needed to go downtown, a complete contradiction to what the other lady at the airport had just told us. Totally confused, we got off the bus at Wrigley Field and did what we should have done in the first place, we rang the hostel for directions. It turned out we were maybe a mile or so away and that another bus would drop us right at the end of the street. So it took us a train journey, two bus rides, two questions to complete strangers and a phone call but we eventually made it to the hostel.
It wasn't really what we were expecting, especially for the extremely high price we had paid for our stay there. The building resembled some kind of mental institution or half way house and as we got to our room it just seemed more and more so true. We had two skinny single beds in the room with hospital like blankets on and a desk and a chair. The bathrooms weren't much better either, doors that didn't lock and only curtains not doors on the showers. Rather than whinge and let the state of the place get to us we decided we would try and spend as little time as possible in the hostel.
Our first full day in Chicago began with a visit to the Information Centre in Chicago's Cultural Centre located in 'The Loop', an area of Chicago defined by the Elevated Train (El Train for short). It was here that we discovered that The Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago has a visitor's centre that was free to visit so we made that our first stop of the day. After passing the airport like security system we were in and ready to enjoy everything money related. We were immediately drawn to a cube 5 foot by 5 foot pivoting on one of its corners that contained $1 million in $1 bills and then along to a smaller dome that had another $1 million in $20 bills. We also got to learn a bit of history about the mighty dollar and its journey through to modern day, we had a go on a computer programme that predicted how much you needed to be saving for a house/college/retirement depending on your age and current income, the results of which scared us quite a lot! The highlight of our time in the visitors centre came when we saw $1 dollars in $100 bills positioned in a silver briefcase on a plinth. We even got to have our photo taken with it to take away with us there and then...it excited us so much we came out with four or five photos. We walked out of the place each holding $364; no it wasn't a lame attempt at robbing a bank but a small bag full of out of circulation shredded money, a drop in the ocean compared to the millions of dollars that gets destroyed there every week.
Next stop was Millennium Park, a twenty-four acre haven situated between The Loop and Lake Michigan which effortlessly combines art, leisure, entertainment and nature. The main feature of the park is obviously the Pritker Pavilion, Designed by architect Frank Gehry. The structure is quite an imposing mass of brushed stainless steel with a trellis of steel pipes sprawling out over the 4000 seats. Although there were no performances on while we were there due to some maintenance being done we imagined it would be a nice way to spend the evening watching an Orchestra or Ballet performance under the stars. The must see feature of the park is definitely a sculpture by British artist Anish Kapoor. Nicknamed The Bean by locals, the 110 ton elliptical steel structure reflects the city skyline in a mirror-like gleaming surface. It was a pretty impressive sight to see we both agrees as we wondered around and under it capturing as many alternative reflecting views of the city as we could. Our last stop in Millennium Park was at the Crown Fountain which turned out not to be like any fountain we had ever seen before but instead was an interactive spectacle designed by Jaume Plensa. The fountain is basically two 50 foot tall glass block towers that face each other between a shallow reflecting pool and have faces of everyday Chicagoans projected onto them which intermittently spout water from their digital mouths. After waiting a while to see the water it felt like a bit of an anticlimax but we imagined it would be a real crowd pleaser on a hot day.
On the way back to the hostel we took a detour to The Magnificent Mile, a through-fare otherwise known as North Michigan Avenue that is known for its shopping and cultural and architectural icons. The Wrigley Building was by far the gem of the whole strip, along with the Chicago Tribune Building. The Wrigley Building is home to the famous chewing gum company and is a stunning creation standing tall in white terracotta. Across the road is the Tribune Building, the result of a worldwide competition by the famous newspaper to create "The Most Beautiful and Eye Catching Building in the World" a title it more than deserves. An interesting aspect of the building lies in its exterior walls where stones collected from famous spots around the world including the Taj Mahal, the Great Wall of China and even Edinburgh Castle are inlaid. The rest of the strip is filled with high end shops and as we only had enough money to feed ourselves we caught the train back to the hostel.
Our second day in Chicago was just as packed as our first one. We made our way to The Field Museum but as it took a lot longer than we expected to get there we realised we wouldn't have enough time to look around properly as we already had plans for the afternoon. It was back on the bus for us as we headed towards the University of Chicago campus where we had booked to go on a tour of Frank Lloyd Wright's masterpiece, Robie House. For those of you who don't know, Frank Lloyd Wright was an American architect who, amongst many other achievements, originated the Prairie style of design to which Robie House belongs. He is also famous for designing and incorporating many interior elements of a home into his buildings such as the furniture and the stained glass, something that was unheard of at the time. Although he was very well known during his lifetime, it was only in 1991 that he was recognised by the American Institute of Architects as 'the greatest American architect of all time. The Robie House itself has three main characteristics that it is most famous for, these being sweeping horizontal planes gliding out along the landscape rather than stretching towards the sky, dramatic overhangs which create outdoor areas below and continuous bands of art glass windows, all of which paved way for a whole new way of thinking when it came to house design. We had booked to go on a tour but as we were a little early we went for a walk around the neighbourhood and soon realised it was quite an affluent area as some of the houses were huge and beautifully built. The tour began and we were shown around the interior of the house and although it is in the process of being restored (which is most obvious on the outside thanks to the meticulous re-pointing of all the brickwork) and some of the rooms are inaccessible it was still great to see. This was especially so for Kara who had learnt about the house and the work of Frank Lloyd Wright at university and found it strange to actually be there, somewhere she had seen so many times in books and magazines. The most striking feature in the house was the fireplace and chimney which no longer hugged the exterior walls as traditionally seen but instead took pride of place in the centre of the room, not only functioning as a fireplace but as a room divider also. It was last used as a family home in 1926 and was purchased by the University of Chicago in the 1960's , although it seems their prioritieslie with building new technologically advanced buildings and not in trying to preserve a piece of history.
After immersing ourselves in the work of Frank Lloyd Wright for long enough we started to make our way back to the metro which took us through the University of Chicago's main campus. It appeared to be the most picture perfect campus, everything you would expect a traditional American university to be; neo gothic architecture crawling with ivy surrounding ample sized greens for recreation. One of the stops on the metro is for I.I.T, Illinois Institute of Technology, famous for its connections with Mies Van Der Rohe. Nothing better expresses his philosophy than the campus of I.I.T which contains his masterpiece, S.R. Crown Hall which is a prime example of his clear span designs which again were revolutionary at their time of completion. We also managed to see a new addition to the Institute, The McCormick Tribune Campus Center designed by Rem Koolhaas. Rather than being just another building Koolhaas decided to incorporate the El Train into his design. A long stainless steel tube sits directly above the centre's roof, muffling the noise and vibration generated by passing trains which creating an alternative interior space and although it seems like a strange decision to make in the design of a building it does seem to work well. At this point we were pretty knackered so we took the brown overhead train back to the hostel so we could get to see a little more of Chicago.
To begin our next jam packed day in Chicago we caught the train to Oak Park, a district ten miles east of the city centre where we were to go on another architectural tour, this time visiting the Home and Studio of Frank Lloyd Wright. Almost as soon as we got there it was time for our tour to start around the unusual complex that served both Wright's family and working life. HE built his home when he was just 21 years old with money he borrowed from his then employer and this is where he tried out design concepts before sharing them with his clients. The design of the house included a heating system which brought out the ability for a home to be open-plan; no longer did you have to trap heat in rooms with doors as it could now circulate a lot easier, this alone was revolutionary. The studio was a beautiful space which played with the geometry of squares and hexagons placed on top of each other; again it was strange being in the very room where Wright created his designs. The complex has been restored to its true original glory which is probably why we found it more interesting then the Robie House, not that it hadn't had its fair share of misuse and neglect. AT one point it was a series of flats and detailed murals that Wright had commissioned had thoughtlessly been painted over and over. The only damper of the whole tour was one of the other tour guides following us around as he believed one of the group didn't have a ticket and because we were the youngest there it seemed his suspicious eye obviously thought it was us, which it definitely wasn't! On the way back to the metro we saw at least five more of Frank Lloyd Wright's work along with The Unity Temple, another of his architectural treasures but unfortunately we were unable to get inside.
The afternoon saw us taking a trip out to The Science and Industry Museum and although we arrived with only a couple of hours until closing time we thought we would try and pack as much in as possible rather than giving up and going home. We managed to see the world famous U505 Submarine; it's sheer size overwhelming and it took up nearly three floors in high and was in excess of 150M in length. We then went into an exhibition called Farm Tech which teaches how modern day farmers use technology and it was interesting to find out just how they do get all the milk and collect eggs and harvest crops, the things we just rely on and never really give a second thought to. The last thing that we saw down on the ground floor was Colleen Moore's Fairy Castle, an enchanting storytelling dolls house, that lit up and played fairy tales over the loud speaker; you could even pick up telephone that were around the exterior of the house and listen to the tiny models having everyday household conversations.
The Transportation Gallery showcases the movement of flight and we got to do a walkthrough of a huge hanger type space which was filled with a variety of aircraft hanging over the atrium space. The most of the floor space was taken up with "The Great Train Journey" which is essentially a huge scale model of Chicago and Seattle which has over 30 scale model trains running to recreate a cross country journeys though mountains and cityscapes. Up on the mezzanine level they have a Boeing something or other plane which is built into the side of the museum and has most of the seats ripped out so you can have a look around it and in place of the seats they have interactive screens which quiz you and teach you the basics about aviation.
The most unusual exhibit we encountered was called Genetics: Decoding Life where we were surprised to find baby chicks in an incubator and then even more surprised to find eggs in another next to it which had chicks that were in the process of hatching in it, it was fascinating and we watched for at least ten minutes hoping that the egg we could see very gently pecking away at its shell would fully break free and get out, but it never did; two other chick however had obviously just got out of their shells and were covered in a mixture of blood and slime and were so cute to watch as they stumbled around. Just as we had gotten into the swing of things a really loud siren went off from the mining exhibition which signalled closing time and we were pretty gutted, it was disappointing not to see as much of the museum in as much detail as we would have liked but at least we got to see some of it! Closing time, meant home time for us, and since it was raining anyway there wasn't much to do so we thought it would be wise to go home and get a good night's sleep before Jerry.
Where to start, what to say, The Jerry Springer Show... It is a vile, horrible waste of television, but so incredibly addictive even to the most casual of viewers (us) and it is impossible not to be seductively drawn in and wrapped up in whatever garbage is being spewed up on the stage. The Jerry Springer Show started in 1991 (we couldn't believe it's in its 17th year) as a politically oriented, somewhat hard news talk show which addressed issues such as gun control and healthcare but when low ratings and increased competition kicked in, it had to change. Jerry Springer is the former mayor of Chicago, Illinois, who has turned himself into the king of sleaze TV and slowly but surely his show became the show we know and love/hate now, and like so many other shows it became a home to tabloid stories of strange sexual practices and other crazy stories. Today the show soldiers on like it has been doing for year upon year, a vestige of an era gone by, driving its guests and audiences crazy with its antics.
As soon as we found out we could go and see the show being filmed live we knew we had to go. Neither of us have ever particularly followed the show but the stuff we had seen on the Jerry Springer show was just too funny, exciting and over the top to miss out on and because it is based in America and we didn't see the sort of people he had on his shows (as much) at home; he had transsexuals, prostitutes, people who wanted to dress up as babies, dominatrix and extremely obese people to name a few. We somehow managed to get tickets for not just one filming, but two, Mark had applied online in both our names for separate days as "overseas guests", of which there must not have been many, and within a week we had confirmation.
After passing through airport security in the NBC tower lobby and sitting in the canteen for nearly two hours, it was time, time to get into that famous studio and on the Jerry Springer show. As we were been shown into the main studio looking at the crowd around us, we were not surprised as to the type of people we saw. We had been practicing our chanting the night before, Jerry Jerry Jerry, and once we had been seated we couldn't wait to get screaming and shouting. When the show starts the whole audience have already been fired up to almost a point of hysteria curtsey of the Jerry "Too Hot for TV" which is on all the screens above our heads; we could have quite happily gone home at this point having seen the best of the best fights, boobs and transgender's.
There's a charismatic stage manager who directs the audience on how to react. Before the show starts, Todd coaches everyone to do the "Jerry, Jerry" chant and tells us that we should get up to clap when fights break out. Throughout taping, Todd comes up with insults or general low-brow commentary for the audience to shout. This is done in almost comical fashion, like a kid trying to start a riot during class. By the way, people shout "Jerry" during fights, even though Springer himself is never physically involved, we didn't understand that, or most of the other stuff, but you know, you go with the flow.
There were a few odd elements for Jerry newbie's like us. One, a security staff whose name badge reads Luke is dressed in a Bigfoot-type costume. As well, puppets on stage do naughty things; I won't even say here what they did, but I will never see puppets the same way again. Campy sound effects supplement the show's dialogue, such as a baby crying to point out when a guest on the show is being a cry baby. (What a metaphor!)
Finally after hours of waiting Jerry came out onto the floor and began a bit of a stand up act, just in-case we needed a bit more to get us going, and it was at this point we realised why he is no longer involved in politics, he is a total sleaze, downright disgusting, blatant racist, [email protected]%£r (maybe he could be a politician after all). His jokes were the kind of stuff that would make Jim Davidson cry and we personally thought he did a great job at dulling down the crowd, anyway...
When the guests are introduced onto the stage to tell their story they are all very sure of themselves and manage to relate their story in a coherent way. As most of these people are supposedly new to television it is obvious that a lot of grooming and rehearsing has gone on before the programme has started. The first guest we met was a guy who was, and called himself, Midget (Mark was delighted). The midget had a problem with his, wait for it, girlfriend's son, who isn't her son, but has lived with her like a son for the last 10 years and he doesn't pay the bills, but she claims benefits for him as a son... it was all quite ridiculous, basically Midget wanted the kid to move out of the trailer and get his own place. The son came out, they had a fight, we got spurred on by the stage manager with chants like "don't hurt the Midget" and "down on your knees" which made things even funnier as they wrestled, and for some reason the kid took off his shirt?
At first watching Americans trying to kick the crap out of each other was quite amusing, but then we couldn't help but think how come these people actually volunteer to go on this show knowing full well that it is broadcast to millions of people worldwide, and that everyone can see their humiliation? It is so unbelievable it's believable. But why do people appear on the show? We are assuming that part of the attraction must be to travel to Chicago and be put up in a hotel for a couple of days, which you would expect the TV company pays for; or maybe they just want to be on television and don't mind how stupid they look, they just want their 15 minutes of fame, some poor souls may even expect to have their problem solved, but that really is wishful thinking. Another thing we both find very hard to believe is that a couple would agree to appear on the show, travel all the way to the Chicago and not even ask each other why they are appearing, which brings us onto the next set of social rejects.
Next on our stage was a pretty young black girl who had found out that her boyfriend had been cheating on her with a, quoting her, "Skanky ass, trick hoe, b****". The seemingly pleasant and attractive young girl really did herself no favours in winning over the crowd with her dirty fishwife mouth, telling tales about the other girl, and after hearing her sob story for 10 minutes it was time to bring out the other woman. Ding Ding, Round Two, the two women got into it and ripped chunks of hair out of each other and rolled around on the floor and to our surprise the security just let them for a couple of minutes and then they broke it up; this happened about five times and we just presumed it was so they got enough film to edit together some real juicy action for TV. The icing on the cake was when the guy they were fighting over came out, he climbed up the stage onto the balcony area and sang a song to them both describing who he was choosing, whilst throwing down roses and it was hilarious. After he came down and confirmed he was going with the other woman, who was now his childhood sweetheart, the women got fighting again but this time whacking each other with the flowers, it was comedy genius, this had to be real, you can't even write a script this funny.
Mark was hoping our day might finish with one of the shows where they reveal that a macho man had unknowingly been dating a hot blonde called Candy who in her former life was a welder called Frank, or something along those lines, but it wasn't to be, today at least. Our third and final lot comprised of a female soldier fresh back from Iraq, her semi Goth boyfriend and the lesbian friend / third wheel that had come to see Jerry about a love triangle / cheating thing they had going on. By the time the two women were on the stage Jerry had painted a picture of the soldier women been a hero and all the time she had been away "serving our country" the other women was sleeping with her boyfriend, it was a disrespect to the whole nation blah blah. Jerry Springer himself actually plays a very minor role in the show, but he is the catalyst that fires up the programme; all he does is make snide comments and incite trouble throughout the whole programme and that's exactly what he did here as the two some came to blows. The army woman had made a big deal about how she was trained in hand to hand combat at the outset of the show and after about two seconds it was evident that she must not have been listening too carefully in the lessons as she got a good and thorough kicking by the other woman. To top things of when the boyfriend did come out he was wearing one of the lesbian's bras and a pair of pink knickers (that didn't match) as he explained how the other woman had been there for him, to which he was booed by the crowd. The girlfriend went mental again and smacked them both before finally coming round to saying she would accept him, even if he is into wearing bras and stuff as long as he says he will cut ties with the other woman, long story short he says he won't cut ties with the other woman but he still manages to leave with his original girlfriend.
The day finishes off with all the guests back on stage for insults/questions from the crowd and then Jerry's final thought - y'know the bit at the end where he changes character and goes all thoughtful giving his moral speech on what's right and wrong and he has a heart to heart with the camera, and points out all the good advice you should have gleaned from that day's show.
There are many occasions in life when you see somebody and you would like to tell them exactly what you thought of them or their behaviour and on Jerry Springer the audience of the show have this chance. Along with the fact that the audience member are protected by Jerry's crew and that the people on the show are shown behaving in a way that is not normally ever seen in public most of the audience are not shy about speaking their mind and for some naff looking plastic "Jerry Beads" showing their boobs?
The shows celebrate a lot of the things that America would rather keep quiet about. It would no doubt prefer for the apple pie image to be seen, not the dysfunctional and twisted families that Springer insists on parading across his stage in a modern day freak show. The best thing about the show though is seeing everyone's dirty laundry being scrubbed and pummelled, and making you feel relief that your life's not like that but the sad fact is these people and their problems do exist, and the curious ones of us out here in the "normal world" just love to see how complicated other people's lives can be made to be and although like many other people who like to think it's staged, and some of it must be on the odd occasion, most of what we saw was real, gritty, angry, crazy people just trying to sort out their problems.
CUT, THAT'S A WRAP! Day one on the Jerry Springer show was over and when we got back outside into the cold dark evening we couldn't believe it had been nearly 4hours. Within what seemed like a blink of the eye, we were back, queuing to get back in NBC tower the next morning, tickets in hand and ready to go once again into the world of Springer.
Disappointingly, but not surprisingly the start of our day was the same as the previous one, a long queue followed by the filming starting late, the same warm up DVD playing (this was still pretty good fun though) and the same bad jokes from Jerry.
Today our first guest, a young black woman, had come to confront her boyfriend whom she had found out had been working as a Pimp and sleeping with one of his "girls". When the girl he had supposedly been pimping out and sleeping with came on stage we couldn't help but wonder who would pay for that; she was foul, skinny as a rake, big microphone afro, yellow teeth, a real potty mouth and a lovely bright yellow spandex skin tight dress on that left nothing to the imagination. The ladies started up a slanging match and the traditional fight soon followed but what made this more interesting than your usual fights is that they both were wearing wigs which got yanked off and then used as weapons to whip each other with.
By the time the pimp finally made his way onto the stage the girls had managed to teach us both at least ten new swear words and had smacked each other with shoes, punched, slapped and wrestled at least 5 more times. The pimp flat out denied sleeping with his "colleague" only to be trumped by Jerry who had lie detector results on hand to prove he was lying, of course this meant more of the same, fighting shouting and swearing.
As could be expected, the banter between guests and the audience is not meant to be modelled like a logical debate and during the question time an audience member had a question for the pimp, and we can't even remember the question just the pimp's response which was literally no more than "You look like a fat version of me". Everyone then forget that this cheating boyfriend was a lousy snake of a character and cheered the incidental yet puerile brilliance of such an observation. Stage manager Todd even got a "Go on stage" chant started, so that we could all see and sure enough, side by side, the fatty from the audience happened to be dressed and groomed exactly the same as the rather slim pimp, no rebuttal necessary.
The second and to our surprise final segment was about a cheating husband; he was a big guy who got so riled up, he practically jumped into the first couple of rows in the audience to beat up the audience members who were taunting him and we think for dramatic effect the security let him loose for a couple of seconds, we're sure that must make for good TV. Anyway this was more like your typical Springer episode, a couple of cheating husbands and wives, all best friends, all kicking each other's heads in on stage for the adoring public.
During taping, it was pointed out a few times that if you want a sensible show that talks about feelings in a comprehensive way, you can go to Oprah... That is, if tickets were as readily available as they are for Springer! Anyway, if you are not easily offended and like seeing old wrinkly boob's, fights and lots of mullets, we would highly recommend you go and waste / spend a day at the taping of the Jerry Springer show.
The last thing we did in Chicago that is worth mentioning was going to the top of the once tallest building in the world, The SEARS Tower. Standing at a whopping 528 M to the top of the roof aerials, 488 M to the Skydeck and 436 M to the top floor (highest occupied floor), the Sears tower is still the 4th tallest building in the world and regardless of its height status (it still boasts the highest occupied floor record) it is still one of the true architectural wonders of the world. Initially we had been quite unimpressed with its height when we had seen it from a distance and we couldn't believe that for 25 years it was the world's tallest building but that is due in part to the buildings pioneering design. The building was one of the first in the world to use the tube system which is essentially 9 smaller structures in a 3x3 pattern with each being different heights; it is due to the surrounding smaller towers that the main tall building in the middle look small compared to others around the world which just go straight up. Anyway since we were in town we had to go up to the top and see for ourselves what the view across the bay and across the city was like. Before we went up though we watched a twenty minute documentary about the building's history which we both found really informative as we didn't know much else about it other than it was the SEARS Tower, hence where the above information came from. Once up on the observation level we had a look to see if we could see out hostel but it was difficult to differentiate between all the other buildings, we did however see Wrigley Field which was good enough for us. On our descent down in the elevator we realised that we had seen plenty of Chicago and didn't need to try and cram in anymore, so we were happy to get back onto the train to the hostel so that we could pack our bags and get ready for another early start, but not before one more night's sleep in the world's most expensive hospital beds.