As the parents of triplet boys, we've learned that even though our sons look alike, they don't necessarily share the same perspective.
For example, at eight years old, Luke has already declared his intention to live in a big city. “In a penthouse. With my own helicopter.”
Leo wants to stay in Louisville and go to the university he refers to as, “Lou of L.”
And Ace has been known to say, “I just want to live at our house and play video games.”
Of course, there’s no need to get too worked up about a third-grader's plans for the distant future. Still, answers like that helped prompt their mother and me to take the triplets on their first trip to a major metropolitan area:
It’s a lot – too much, perhaps – to ask of any trip, any destination, that it sell your children on the potential of travel and the world outside their hometown. Although, it turns out that if any city can handle that burden, it's the place Carl Sandburg called, “city of the big shoulders.”
Our single most popular choice of the trip is the Peninsula, a luxury hotel whose management understands that on a family trip, if the kids aren't happy, no one is happy. We arrive to a welcoming tray of cookies, gummis and popcorn. The kids take in the view of the city and the enormous flatscreens. They start shouting and jumping, exploring every corner of the 840-square foot junior suite.
“It says they’ll deliver video games up to your room.”
“There’s a phone by the toilet - and a TV in the bathtub!”
“Wow, Dad!” Ace says, his mouth full of gummis. “This place is faaaaaaan-cy.”
Oustide of Grandma's, our sons have never been so catered to. Each day, when we return from exploring the city, the boys find the charging cords to their hand-held game systems neatly wrapped and tied with a bow with the hotel's name. And a refreshed tray of snacks.
How was the pool fellas?
“Awesome. It’s up on the 20th floor and has big windows and you can see the buildings and the lake and stuff.”
“Yeah, the only bad part was that old people kept coming in and taking our lanes.”
And the beds?
“The pull-out's a little scratcy, but the rollaway is really soft.”
“Yeah, feels like you’re sleeping on a raw steak.”
The Urban Experience
We visit Shedd Aquarium and the Art Institute of Chicago, and they're both great in their own ways, but both are essentially collections made up largely of components from other places. We find the real Chicago-ness of Chicago in the spaces between the attractions, in the streets, the parks and the restaurants, on the Metra and the El.
We walk the Magnificent Mile, holding hands from Superior Street toward Millenium Park. As Chicagoans and the Lake Michigan wind swirl around us, we take in the archictecture, a different kind of collection. We see buildings that one boy says look like “something from Minecraft,” and another says, “make me feel small.”
Part of the urban experience is also seeing their mother and me outside our element, like in a Metra station trying to negotiate the Chicago Transit Authority's (CTA) confusing card system. I admit defeat and seek the counsel of a nearby CTA worker whose nametage reads Joni.
“Sure,” Joni says, with a smile, “where you want to go?” She doesn't seem rushed or resentful. She shows me how to operate the machine and wishes us well. Joni wasn't alone in her act of casual kindness. Later, on the elevated (or El) train, Gabrielle, the boys and I are swaying with every chugga-chugga clank clank between Sedgwick and Armitage when a man in a suit wordlessly stands so that my family can sit together and watch the city go by.
Even twentysomething servers were friendly, even in loud, busy, restaurants, like Giordano’s, considered one of the pioneers of the city's signature pizza with the thick stuffed crust and tomatoes on top of the cheese. I have to repeat my name and order several times before the tired fellow at the carry-out counter can process it above the din, but he never loses patience. “Enjoy,” he says, handing me our boxes.
Our verdict on Chicago-style pizza? Pretty good. But Leo says, “I like Kentucky-style pizza better.”
“You know, flat with the cheese on top.”
Right. (I’ll start working on that trip to Italy.)
The highlight of the trip for me happens on observation deck on the 94thfloor of the John Hancock Center at sunset. Gabrielle and I watch the boys' expressions change as their eyes fill with the city.
Writer Nelson Algren described Chicago as “a city that was to live by night after the wilderness had passed. A city that was to forge out of steel and blood-red neon its own peculiar wilderness.”
Or, as Luke says, “It's like another dimension.”
On the drive back to Kentucky, Gabrielle asks, “Do you guys think you could ever live in a big city like this?”
Luke says sure. A city like Chicago will have more penthouse options. Leo says he might - if he could move into The Peninsula. And Ace?
“Maybe,” he says. “Or someplace like London or Tokyo.”
His mother and I exchange a smile.