This year, instead of having one National Convention, the National Society of Tax Professionals offered Regional Conferences that corresponded to four of the six IRS-sponsored National Tax Forums, held on the two days before the Forum. I was pleased to find that one of the selections was Chicago. I had been to Chicago twice before, but each time was only for a few hours between Amtrak trains on one of Peter Calleo’s cross-country train tours. I looked forward to a real visit.
I had originally hoped to travel to Chicago via Amtrak, but because I had to do a payroll on the morning of July 8th I was forced to fly. The train trip takes about 26 hours, and I would not be able to get to Chicago in time for the first day of the NSTP conference.
I parked my car at the VISTA lot and took the shuttle to Newark Airport. As my flight was on Continental, the shuttle let me off at Terminal C. However, when I went to queue-up to check my bag I was told that Continental flights to Chicago (and a few other US cities) left out of Terminal A – so I had to schlep my bag to the AirTrain and to Terminal A. During take off a child in front of the plane screamed continually at the top of his lungs (“I want to go pee now!”), and repeated his performance, with a different demand, as we landed. I am a firm believer in the old adage that children should be neither seen nor heard.
Upon retrieving my bag at O’Hare I followed the signs for a long hike to the Shuttle/Bus area. I asked the person at the information desk where to go to buy a ticket for the hotel shuttle and was told there was no need for a ticket. I should just wait outside for the appropriate hotel van. This sounded a bit odd, as I had read somewhere that the shuttle cost $25.00, but I assumed she knew of which she spoke and followed her instructions.
A van for each hotel (Marriott, Holiday Inn, Western, etc) came and went, but no Hilton (FYI the Airport Hilton was directly across the street from where I was waiting). After a while I went back to the Information Desk and told the women I wanted to go to the Chicago Hilton downtown. The “cafone” told me, as if it was common knowledge that I should have known, that I had to go outside and walk back to a Terminal to get a downtown shuttle. The free shuttles were only for airport hotels. I hiked back to the Terminal and finally got a Airport Express shuttle to my downtown hotel, which did indeed cost $25.00 one way or $46.00 round-trip.
The NSTP Conference and IRS Forum were held at the Chicago Hilton and Towers on South Michigan Avenue. Originally the Conrad Hilton, when built in the 1920s it was the largest hotel in the world. While the facilities and services of the hotel were fine, I would have preferred to be at the Palmer House Hilton or some other hotel closer to the theatre district and a wider selection of reasonably priced dining options. The hotel was across from Grant Park, which borders on Lake Michigan, but the combination of summer heat and my girth prohibited me from exploring too much of the park.
There were three restaurants located in the lobby of the hotel. I dined at Pavillion (enjoying a Chicago-style deep-dish “personal pizza”) and Kitty O’Shea’s Pub (Newkie Brown Ale and what was identified on the menu as Shepherd’s Pie – although as is often the case in the US it contained beef and not sheep). As one would expect, the prices were on the high side. One Stinger at the hotel cost more than the two Stingers I had enjoyed at dinner a week earlier during my stay in PA. I had ventured north on Michigan Avenue on Sunday night looking for a more reasonably-priced dinner option with more menu choices, but was not successful. I also checked Wabush Avenue (behind the hotel) within a comfortable walking distance and found only a Subway franchise and the cafeteria-style Chicago Carry-Out. I eventually discovered the Savoy Restaurant in the Essex Hotel one block south of the hotel with a very varied and reasonable menu.
While the NSTP did provide a free continental breakfast, the IRS gave participants nothing. I was not going to spend $20.00 for breakfast at the hotel, so I had most breakfasts at the Chicago Carry-Out in the Travelodge one block north of the hotel. They had very good French toast and pancakes.
Prior to the trip I had ordered a ticket for a taping of the Chicago Public Radio’s WAIT, WAIT…DON’T TELL ME, which I listened to on the local public radio station on Sunday mornings, on the last night of my stay for only $20.00. I had also checked out the various theatre offerings online. The cost of any ticket I would purchase online would be inflated by $10.00++ in various processing and mailing fees, so I decided to wait and purchase any tickets at the box office. The Sunday paper’s Chicagoland Theatre Directory advertised productions of MOVING OUT, THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE and WICKED, shows which I either did not want to see or could see in NY via TDF. There was also THE RAT PACK IS BACK, which I had seen in Vegas, and a “Broadway bound” one-man show with Martin Short, whom I can do without. Another apparently pre-Broadway offering, Tommy Tune in DR DOOLITTLE, which I would have gone to, did not open until July 18th. A live version of THE BLUES BROTHERS that I had looked at online was not advertised. So no theatre this trip.
I scheduled my IRS Forum educational sessions, each one lasting 50 minutes, so that I had most of Wednesday free for the American Sightseeing (aka Gray Line) Grand Tour, “a comprehensive tour of everything Chicago has to offer”. After explaining that the name “Chicago” comes from an Indian term meaning “smelly city”, our knowledgeable driver took us through “the Loop”, an area of down-own surrounded by a rectangular section of Chicago's elevated "L Trains", along the “Magnificent Mile” shopping area, and throughout the North Side and South Side business and residential districts, passing all the various sports venues and museums. Everywhere you looked high-rise luxury condos were being built, or converted from former hotels and office buildings.
You could also see America’s “Second City” via the hop on hop off Chicago Double Decker Company Tours. In addition, free Trolleys run on several routes, serving popular visitor, cultural and shopping destinations such as Navy Pier, the Museum Campus, Michigan Avenue and Lincoln Park Zoo - with dozens of stops in between.
When not on tour, WAIT WAIT…DON’T TELL ME tapes Thursday evenings at the Chase Auditorium in downtown’s Chase Tower. While a bit of a hike, I walked to and from the Tower. The “oddly informative news quiz” stars Peter Sagal and NPR icon Carl Kasell and features a three-member “celebrity panel” as well as a weekly celebrity “contestant” via telephone. This was the second Public Radio taping I had attended, having been in the audience when A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION visited the Great Auditorium in Ocean Grove last year. The panel for my taping included writer Ray Blount Jr, a rehabilitated Paula Poundstone, and movie critic Richard Roeper of “Ebert and ”. Comedienne, actress and outspoken liberal Janeane Garofalo was the telephone guest – she got all three of her questions wrong. I picked a good night - in addition to the weekly show they also taped two segments for an upcoming pledge week episode. We were promised cookies on the way out if we stayed all the way till the end!
Due to the IRS National Tax Forums the hotel was booked solid for the week. It was also fully booked for the next week, when it would be headquarters for the annual “Gay Games”. The IRS and the gays at the same hotel. There is a politically incorrect comment just dying to be expressed, but I will take the high ground. I am glad I would not be in Chicago for another week. Not only would the hotel be overrun by gaiety, but it was forecast that it would be in the 90s during the day!
The process of flying home from went much smoother than that of getting to Chicago – there was no misdirection or screaming brats! Within an hour of “deplaning” I was being greeted by two hungry cats. I enjoyed my visit to the “windy city” and look forward to returning now that I am familiar with the layout.