Scratching beneath the surface

How I found myself in the underbelly of Chicago

I've never understood why our little dog Jolie scratches the couch, the floor, or her dog bed before she lies down. She will scratch and scratch and scratch, and make absolutely no dent in the surface. Is she searching for something? Does she think she's getting somewhere? In her little mind, is she making progress? 


This year, my spring break is literally going to the dogs. In addition to Jolie, my "grand-dogs," Gibson and Cody, are coming for a visit while Seth and Maddie go to Austin to visit Jared. Though it's not quite Mexico or the Bahamas, my break promises plenty of time for reading, a pastime I'm sure will bring its own unique kind of pleasure.

Still, when Chloe told me she needed to be in Chicago early Sunday morning to catch a ride back to school, I saw the chance for Tom and I to fit at least one fun excursion into my break. An outing in Chicago is always an adventure, and beats sitting at home waiting for the dogs to arrive.

We left at the crack of dawn with no definite plan in mind. Having been to Chicago countless times in the past, we tend to visit the same old, same old attractions, like the "Bean," Water Tower Place, and the well-known museums. Hitting the same spots feels like scratching the surface of a city which has so much more to offer.

For instance, not long ago we took in an architectural river cruise and were amazed at the hidden gems we didn't even know existed. We'd never seen Chicago from that perspective before, and it was so interesting to dig deeper. (If you've never taken one of these cruises, I highly recommend.)

As Tom drove, I Googled "Chicago museums" and perused the list for something new. I was immediately captivated by the “American Writers Museum," which opened a couple of years ago. Since Tom is an avid reader, and I am slowly becoming a writer, this was an attraction that sounded intriguing to both of us. 

After our farewells to Chloe, we spent our morning searching for a very specific coffee shop we were disappointed in never finding. On the flip side, we were able to find a meaningful and uplifting church service to attend on the north side of the city. (Watch for these stories in a future blog post.)

As we exited the school building in which the church meets, we found our car boxed in by several others in the small parking lot. While waiting for the other cars to leave, I jotted down some notes about the worship service, while Tom found the address of the museum and figured out our downtown parking situation.

As we often do in big cities, he used the ParkWhiz app to secure a parking spot near the museum. Sixteen dollars for the whole day at 205 North Michigan Avenue, sounded like a great deal!

Little did we know. 

We followed our GPS as it took us to Lower Wacker Drive. Unfortunately, once you get off the upper and onto the lower drives, the GPS signal is intermittent at best. We circled around the elusive parking garage at least three times. Like a weary dog circles to find that perfect place to lie down, we went round and round, so close we could smell it.

We drove on the lower roads, making wrong turns and hitting dead ends, turning around, finding ramps to the upper roads, circling again, and searching endlessly for the garage. At one point when the GPS said, "you have reached your destination," (and we had indeed reached 205 N. Michigan Ave.) we looked around and saw nothing resembling a parking garage. 

After about thirty minutes of circling, it was time to dig a little deeper. We pulled over and looked more closely at the ParkWhiz app. Scrolling down, we found four paragraphs of very explicit instructions on how to find the garage, one for each direction one might be coming from. Ah-ha!

Turns out the garage was TWO stories below street level, and we needed to get on Lower Lower Lake Drive, and then turn on Lower Lower Columbus Drive, and then boom! we were there! We scanned our code, the gate went up, and we drove up a little ramp to the entrance to the garage, only to find a closed garage door.

Confused, and just a teensy-weensy bit frustrated, I picked up the phone to call ParkWhiz and complain, while Tom started to turn the car around. As he inched forward to make the turn, he practically touched the door, and Voila! it opened!

We were in! Now all we needed to do was park the car and we could finally start enjoying our day in Chicago!

Little did we know.

We stepped out of the car, and saw a couple of "STAIRS" signs in the corner. Approaching the door, we stopped to read a small notice that was scratched and torn, half-falling off the steel surface. It read: Emergency Exit. Alarm will sound.

Hmmmm. Checking our surroundings, we saw a cement wall to our left, another cement wall behind us, cars parked to our right, and a door in front of us. Seeing no other way out, we opened the door. No alarm sounded. Whew!

Once inside the stairwell, we saw what appeared to be the actual "Emergency Exit" door, with a larger "Alarm will sound" notice. We went up one flight, and found another steel door, leading out to what we assumed was our exit to the street.

"Oh no!" I exclaimed as I tried to turn the knob. "It's locked!"

"Whaaaat?? No way!" Tom said, running up behind me. He tried too, just to be sure I wasn't joking.

There was no more "up" so we went back down. Returning to the door through which we had entered, we discovered it had also locked behind us. Still, we had one more chance as we noticed the stairwell continuing down. We stumbled down one more flight, and found a third, locked, steel door.

At that point, we both uttered a few choice words, not becoming of two relaxed spring-breakers, who had just exited the church doors an hour earlier.

We were beginning to feel like someone was trying to tell us we were NOT supposed to enjoy a spring break day in Chicago. We were trapped in a fortress of cement and steel, two stories underground, with the glorious sights and sounds of Michigan Avenue on the surface above us, and out of reach.

There was only one thing left to do. 

"Well, if being trapped in a stairwell isn't an emergency, I don't know what is!"

"Let's go for it," Tom said, as we together leaned on the push bar of the "Emergency Exit." No alarm. Whew! again. We stepped through the door, in hopes of finding our escape route.

What we found instead was an intensifying bad dream. We stood dumb-founded on a crumbling sidewalk, running alongside a crumbling Lower Lower Lake Drive, in the dark, dirty, and dingy belly of Chicago.

We scanned our surroundings for the escape hatch. Nothing. No stairwell or exit signs as far as the eye could see. Through a chain link fence we could see a deserted lot and two layers of roads above us. 

"I think we need to go back to the car," Tom said. 

"You've got to be kidding me! The only way back is to walk all the way around!" I whined. But I soon realized we had no other option.

We started walking. Recalling the route we had taken when driving in, we followed it again, this time on foot, in hopes of getting back to our car. Watching our steps as we dodged holes and debris, we cautiously proceeded. 

"This is the worst parking experience I have ev--" I stopped myself mid-sentence. It was dimly lit, but in the shadows I could see we were not alone. 

Sheltered between the cement columns supporting the roads above, I noticed piles of blankets, plastic bags, and sleeping bags; makeshift dwellings. Some were empty, but others were occupied. I realized we were invading a small community of homeless individuals. They were living in the squalor that I had been unnerved to spend a few minutes walking through.

This was one event in my series of unfortunate events. Yet, this was their home.

Minutes earlier, as we drove by in our frenzy to find the parking garage, we had not even noticed them. Now, as we slowed our pace to a walk, we saw a side of the city that often goes unseen and unheard. The people living in darkness. My heart broke for them. 

Realizing there was nothing we could do at that moment to solve the injustices of the world, we walked on, as I asked a silent prayer of forgiveness for the privilege I too often take for granted, and for the helplessness I feel in the face of suffering.


Another fifteen minutes of our day was gone, by the time we approached the door of the garage. An approaching car caused it to open, and we walked in. Our blue Ford was at the far wall in front of us.

"Oh. My. Gosh." I said in disbelief as I glanced to my left. Tom followed my gaze and started cracking up. 

There in the corner,  stood a well-lighted, glass-enclosed entry to an elevator; something we had completely missed earlier in our haste to get on with our day. As we took a moment to survey the garage, we realized what had happened. We had seen the "STAIRS" signs, had hustled toward them without looking around, without pausing to examine our situation. In so doing, we had fixed ourselves into a corner from which the elevator, our way out, was hidden. 

With laughter and a huge sigh of relief, we hopped onto the elevator and zoomed up two flights to the beautifully-lit, immaculately-clean lobby of the bank building at 205 North Michigan Avenue.

No expense was spared in this structure. From the marble floors to the lush plants; from the sleek furniture to the massive windows. The contrast of the squalor below to the squander above, was enough to jab me once again with the guilt of the privilege I've been given.


We stepped out into the bright, sun-shiny day, and onto Michigan Avenue, filled with its hustle and bustle of tourists and passersby. We found some lunch (another slight fiasco of wasted time which I won't go into now for the purposes of finishing my already never-ending story), and around 2:30, we finally entered the American Writers Museum.

For the next two and a half hours, we leisurely browsed, and thoroughly enjoyed the wealth of information on display. We were entertained and enthralled as we remembered authors and books we've enjoyed throughout our lifetimes. We were also inspired and motivated as we promised to find more time to read the many stories we had yet to encounter.

The sheer volume of American books and authors on display made us realize we've barely scratched the surface of the stories available to us.

And the events of our day made me realize there is always more below the it an address, a city, a book cover, or a story...than meets the eye.

Like Jolie, I've just got to keep scratching until I find it.