“You missed the toll station.” I say to Mackenzie, my little sister.
“What? What toll station?”
“The one we are driving by right now,” I say.
“Why didn’t you tell me we were coming to a toll station?”
“Did you not see the giant sign that said ‘Toll Station Ahead’?” I say.
“Oh… well too late now,” She says. I can only smile. “Wouldn’t be much of an adventure without mishaps like these, would it?” she says is a mock Australian accent.
“You make a good point,” I laugh.
“Ooh! This is my favorite part!” she cranks the stereo up, blasting her new favorite song. Even though we are sisters, we don’t share a lot of similar traits; but we each love jamming to tunes in the car.
Soon enough the Chicago sky line appears in the distance. It’s Labor Day weekend, most families are getting together for backyard barbeques and camping trips, but not us. We’ve decided to take a break from the normal traditions, well normal to us traditions, and go on an urban adventure.
We plunge off the interstate and join the roller coaster of Chicago traffic until we find ourselves at the parking garage. We’ve parked under Millennium Park and as we emerge to the surface we are blinded for an instant by the mid-morning sun; Lake Michigan behind us and the skyline towering over head.
“Finally,” I say. We both look up at the skyline.
“It’s a view you never get tired of, eh?” Mackenzie says.
“Never,” I agree. My heart swells with excitement, let the urban adventure begin!
We giggle at the group of unsure segway tourists that almost run into us and climb the stairs to the park.
“I didn’t know they had a garden here!” Mackenzie says, stopping to take pictures of every flower she sees. The garden is like a piece of serenity in the middle of the urban bustle. “Come on now,” I say. “We have to be at the restaurant by 11:30.” Our first stop of the day is brunch at the new pop-up restaurant Saved by the Max. It’s a temporary Saved by the Bell themed restaurant in Wicker Park; and we happen to know one of the owners. We make a quick pit stop by The Bean.
“Maybe the person who made it really liked beans,” We over hear someone say. The park is busier than normal, full of people setting up and awaiting the Jazz Festival set to take place later that evening.
“We’ll be back,” I say. Then catch an Uber to the restaurant.
There’s a line forming outside as we approach. In the large display windows, red neon signs read The Max. As people walk by, they all comment “This is Saved by the Max; it’s a Saved by the Bell themed restaurant.” And “Mario Lopez ate dinner here the other night!” I get butterflies in my stomach, this restaurant belongs to someone I know, and everyone loves it.
We are seated in a glittery red booth and gaze around the restaurant taking in the 90s aesthetic.
“I’ve never actually seen the show.” Mackenzie admits, I tell her not to worry, because I haven’t either. Episodes play on TVs all around the restaurant. The waitresses wear red t-shirts and white converse. Bayside lockers filled with 90s props, like hair scrunchies, line the walls. A payphone hangs nearby along with signs in purple, red, blue, and green neon. The brunch menu is limited, first come first serve. Sadly, by the time we got there, the Tori’s Fried Chicken was already gone. Instead, I get the Bayside Burger; she gets the Eggs Benedict, both fantastic! Another lovely touch the restaurant offers is that all of the food is named after characters from the show-Mr. Dewey’s Honey Buttermilk Biscuits and Gravy and Mr. Belding’s Fries to name a few. We finish out meal and are off to explore Wicker Park. As we leave I look back one more time, a little sad that this place would be closed in a few months, but grateful that I was able to experience this once in a lifetime place.
Wicker Park is much quainter than the urban bustle of down town. The streets are lined with boutiques, restaurants, and old brick town houses. Chicagoans stroll about, enjoying the sunshine. Some catcall us, and call us twins. Others taunt the man wearing a Red-Sox shirt. We make our way to the actual park and browse the farmers market.
“It’s interesting,” Mackenzie says, “How normal life seems here.” I give her a puzzled look. “Well everyone just assumes that people in Chicago are snobby or criminals, but they are actually just normal people, who go to work and go to restaurants and even farmers markets.” We find a bench and sit, gazing at the water fountain in the center of the park.
“Everyone at home is so worried about getting mugged in Chicago; they don’t even realize how very similar this place is to home. Sure there aren’t as many trees here and you can walk to the nearest restaurant, but besides that there isn’t much of a difference.” I agree with her, “Everyone has been pretty nice to us so far,” I say.
“Yeah, even the creepy cat callers,” Mackenzie giggles. I laugh with her. We fall quiet for a moment and take in the afternoon sun.
“I could stay here forever,” I say.
“Me too,” Mackenzie says, “Except I need coffee.” We get our coffee and head back to Millennium Park.
“We should go back to the car,” Mackenzie says.
“I just want to take a quick power nap.” She says.
“Are you serious?”
As we emerge once again from the garage the sun is sinking, silhouetting the buildings with a golden glow. The sidewalks around Millennium Park are buzzing with the sounds of traffic, street musicians, and the jazz concert. Drum beats echo in our chests and match our pace as we cross the chrome BP pedestrian bridge into Maggie Daley Park. We turn back to see the Crain Communications Building (the diamond building) silhouetted by the sun. Mackenzie talks about never wanting to leave and I again agree with her. We keep wondering until we are half way to Navy Pier. We stop on the bridge looking over the river, the sun almost set.
“Isn’t it amazing what people have created?” Mackenzie says. “Sure nature made mountains, but look at what people built.”
I laugh, “Chicago really brings out the philosopher in you doesn’t it?”
She’s quiet for a moment. “I loved living in the country, but there is something about a city that makes me so happy.” It’s true, she moved to Milwaukee two years ago and while it is no Chicago, I’ve see my sister come to life in the city, and she thrives.
“I never thought I’d like cities either.” I confess. “But after you moved to one, I couldn’t help but see the beauty in them too.” I feel a sense of warmth rush over me; I realized that while Mackenzie and I have little in common, our love for Chicago is one thing we shared.
We keep walking, lost in thought until we’ve reached Navy Pier. The place is crowded with people eagerly waiting to board the cruise ships for the evening.
“Why is everyone dressed in white?” Mackenzie asks.
“Probably for a Labor Day party,” I say.
“But why white?” I try to explain to her the no white after Labor Day rule, but she doesn’t get it, she thinks it’s silly. We’ve made it to the end of the peer and leaning over the rail we watch the calm waters of the lake. The sunset reflects in the water, mixing pink and orange with blue.
“I’ll live here one day, when I can afford it.” She says. And to my surprise I say, “me too.” The day is perfect, the weather, the food, the people, everything. It was like the city had opened up her arms and accepted us as her own. This city has the power to make you feel welcomed and accepted, but also give you the power to remain anonymous. We make our way back to the car through the dark. I look at the city once more in the rear-view mirror and my heart aches.
“See you soon.” Mackenzie says, and we drive into the dark country night, the glow of our beloved city behind us.