Notes From Flatland

Uncle AndrewUncle Andrew
Filed under: @ 10:07 pm

[I wrote this while waiting for my flight to arrive during a recent business trip. I fully intended to publish this from the airport as well, but Boingo Wireless’s equipment does not seem to like my Macbook’s packet radio card, so I had to wait until I got home to do so.]

Stuck as I am in the Chicago O’Hare International Airport for a few hours, I thought I’d take a passel of moments to regale avid readers of Uncle Andrew dot Net with the tales, trials and travails of my trip to scenic Pontiac, Illinois for our catalog press check.

Our Winter 2009/Spring 2010 catalog is being printed by RR Donnelley, a rather large conglomerate of various printing facilities seeded throughout this great land of ours. This is our first project with them, and by and large everything has gone quite smoothly. As is usually the case with large, expensive or crucial printing projects (this happens to be all three), we have elected to send a representative—me—to the site of the printing to oversee the process.

The facility RRD is printing our catalog at is in Pontiac, about 120 miles south of Chicago. It’s easy to forget that much of Illinois is highly agrarian until you are driving through it. Take a look at a satellite view of the area and you’ll see what I mean about “agrarian”; practically the entire state looks like a patchwork quilt of farm plots. Along much of I-55, densely packed fields of corn appear to stretch to the horizon on either side of the road. Amplifying the effect is the flatness, the unrelenting, mind-croggling flatness. My brother-in-law once stated that Central Illinois is the only place he’d ever been where you could get road hypnosis simply looking out the living room window. At one point, a series of girdered towers supporting strands of multi-hundred-kilowatt power lines marched across the highway and into the distance, like an advancing skirmish line of War Of The Worlds shock troops. They gradually vanished into the light haze of atmospheric distortion….or possibly over the curvature of the Earth. All in all, once you’ve left the manmade megaliths of Chicago proper, driving through Illinois is basically a traverse through a seemingly limitless expanse of miles and miles of miles and miles.

I found myself thinking that perhaps the state could avail itself of some of the federal stimulus money and buy itself a Z axis.

Pontiac is little more than a wide place in the road, a farm town and railway whistle-stop that just happens to be ideally located for plonking down a rather impressive sheetfed web-offset printing facility. Land prices are doubtless extremely reasonable, and I imagine that the Town Fathers were willing to offer just about any concession—up to and including virgin sacrifice—to secure that kind of industry. From the looks of it, choices in employment in Greater Metropolitan Pontiac are restricted to farming or working at the Wal-Mart (of course there’s a Wal-Mart). The RR Donnelley facility must employ at least sixty or seventy-five people, at a more than appreciable average wage for that community.

(On the subject of the Scuzzy W, something that I noticed since my last trip to Central Illinois many years ago: the Wal-Mart to Hardee’s ratio has drastically altered over time. It used to be that you couldn’t find a Wal-Mart in a community without also encountering at least a brace of Hardee’ses [Hardi?] as well. At the time, Margaret and I concluded that the two enterprises coexisted in a predator/prey relationship, the spry and wily Hardi forming packs to track and consume the larger, slower Wal-Marts. Or perhaps the Hardi served a function more closely akin to that of a remora, affixing themselves to the host in order to make the most of its leavings—presumably soiled Pampers and discarded RV tires, which would go a long way towards explaining the quality of the food served therein. Whatever the real answer, there was not a Hardee’s to be found in Pontiac, despite the all-too-evident presence of the prey/host organism [Wal-Mart is by far the tallest thing in town; you can practically see it over the horizon. Then again, you can practically see folks’ mailboxes over the horizon too. In summary, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the place is FLAT]. What this indicates about the delicate retail ecosystem of the Midwest is not for me to say.)

Aside from the relative dearth of employment opportunities, the town of Pontiac is one of those storybook-cute farm towns you see all over the United States, anywhere where folks can convince things to grow that other folks can be convinced to buy. Long shady tree-lined lanes, peak-roof houses, small cozy churches, friendly local diners (the main one in Pontiac is called “Baby Bull’s”; great place for a steak, unsurprisingly). And not a decent cup of coffee to be had for love or money. Really, this is just about the last place on earth to be entirely Starbucks-free, much less any local independent gourmet coffee shops. You want that kind of highfalutin’ city slicker shit, gotta go to Bloomington.

I’m being snarky here, but it’s not like I don’t understand that this is the way folks in Pontiac and countless other small American communitites would seem to like it. And that’s great: not everywhere on the planet wants or needs espresso stands, comic-book shops, computer and electronic parts stores and a good spot for Unagi or a Caterpillar Roll. But I do. In fact, I don’t think it’s out of the question to identify these things as a requirement, a staple of survival as vital—for me—as shelter or fire. More than a few days’ abstinence from any two of these things and I’m likely to go into withdrawal. And for those in Pontiac who want a touch of the exotic, the aforementioned Bloomington is only about thirty miles away, and they have at least three of the crucial amenities I listed above. Haven’t tried any sushi there, but I’d be willing to give it a stab. Might stay away from the fugu, though.

Anyway, despite the fifth or sixth worst night of sleep I’ve had in my life (just don’t sleep well in hotels, particularly the day before something important), the press check went extremely well, and I topped off my visit with a quick picnic lunch in a small local park. Folks were out walking their dogs in the crisp but perfectly lovely October sunshine, others were playing with their children or slowly paddling down the lazy Chautauqua River that runs through the community. All in all a positively idyllic scene. At least until the guy in the meshback cap and bracers started bellowing to someone out on the river about health care and the economy, at which point I wadded up my sandwich wrapper and got the fuck out of Dodge—sorry, Pontiac.

Since I didn’t know how long the press check was going to take—I’ve had them last better than two days at times—I scheduled myself for a flight back to Seattle on Tuesday (the day after rather than the day of the press check), with an overnight stay in Chicago, which I’ve never visited except for the airport. Chicago is a surprisingly easy town to get around in by car. I hear it’s also a great town for transit, but since I didn’t feel like paying a cab driver eight hundred dollars to take me to Pontiac, I already had a rental car in my possession, so I decided to keep using it. Heading out for a little dinner, I decided to take the opportunity to sample the famous Giordano’s Stuffed Crust Pizza. I had experienced the stuff sort of second-hand when a friend and Chicago native had some shipped here for a pizza party (we also sent some to my nephew and his wife after the birth of their kid, figuring they had enough cards and balloons to last them for a good long while), but I wanted to try it as it was meant to be eaten—fresh off the vine, so to speak. I found a location in the Irving Park area and struck out in a quest for pie.

Chicago seems to have a lot of just the kind of roads I like, namely “back-“. I never take a trip on one highway when I can take six surface streets instead, and getting around the greater Des Plaines/Chicago area on the local roads was a real adventure, particularly since the Chicago DOT seems to repave their highways and byways once every hundred years whether they need it or not. In addition to tooth-loosening potholes, the trip to Giordano’s featured everything from charming tree-lined boulevards to what would pass for slums in the minds of a lot of spoiled whiteys such as myself, but were probably just mid-to-lower-working-class apartments. I found the restaurant with a couple of false starts, parked on the street and went inside to some of the best pizza I have ever eaten (though my heart—and my gut—will always belong to Peppinos): cheesy, gooey, with a wonderful flavorful crushed-tomato sauce and an amazing, almost pastry-like crust. Outstanding.

All in all a great dining experience, which really helped to ameliorate the fact that, upon leaving the restaurant, I discovered that my rental car had been sideswiped by a Chicago Transit Authority bus while I was eating. Harold, the bus driver, was forced into my car by another motorist who attempted to merge into his lane. Rather than stay where he was and bounce her into oncoming traffic, he pulled to the right, clipping the front of my car in the process. I know all this because Harold, bless his heart, waited in his bus for over an hour for me to get back to my car so he could explain the circumstances. He and I had a nice chat while we waited for the police to arrive. Even now I find myself positively charmed by Harold’s earnestness, his honesty and his unflappable demeanor in the face of what must have been a really long, really boring wait for little expected return. Assuming that the CTA covers the damage to my vehicle without complaint, I will be writing them a glowing note regarding his job performance.

After I and my wounded Hyundai got back to the hotel, I found out from the concierge that there was a Giordano’s around the corner, about a thousand yards from where I was staying. How do you say “D’oh!” in a Chicago accent?

Anyway, the next day I returned my slightly-worse-for-wear rental car and headed off to the airport, where I remain to this very minute. I made sure to give myself plenty of time in case Budget wanted to subject me to enhanced interrogation techniques regarding the accident, but they seemed pretty satisfied with a copy of the police report. That gave me  p l e n t y  of time to take in the fleshpots of O’Hare Airport, which, truth be told, are in fact fairly fleshy. I was able to grab a decent cup of coffee to go with my Chicago-Style Philly (?) from Giordano’s, and sit around on some of the more comfy airport benches I’ve ever encountered whilst gnawing on my nosh and assembling this entry. Some day soon I expect to board my flight and bid fond adieu to the Midwest, returning home to my sweetie, my cats and my Tempur-Pedic mattress.

Tap, tap, tap….there’s no place like home….

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