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Diary of an Escort – Part 1 in a series… January 10, 2010

Posted by Fritz in Travel.
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2010 Rose Bowl Champs

I ended ’09 and started ’10 in California. I escorted a Rose Bowl tour working for my buddy at Prime Tours in Columbus, OH. What made the job so fun was the added bonus of adding a cross-country Amtrak trip to the mix. The following is an account of that adventure.

Immediately after Ohio State secured the nod to the game the tour was selling briskly. It was quickly approaching a sellout when airfares suddenly started to skyrocket at exactly the wrong time. Not wanting to lose anyone because of price we turned to a creative solution. I must give credit to Kathy, my wife, for coming up with the Amtrak idea. It turned out to be a stroke of marketing genius!   We quickly marketed the package as the ‘Buckeye Express” (Ohio State Buckeyes) and appealed to the nostalgia factor in our pitch. Our target market were OSU alums so it was a match made in heaven. Within a week we sold the remaining 20 spots to give us a complete sellout almost two weeks prior to the game.

On Monday, 12/28 I flew to Chicago to meet up with the group. We chose Chicago as our embarkation point because of scheduling and the proximity to Ohio. It was easy for people to fly into Chicago and not too far a drive if they chose to do so.

I arrived at O’hare on schedule at 9am. Spirit Airlines has a nice, early non-stop from Ft. Lauderdale that fit the bill. Once on the ground I headed for the “L” station conveniently located under the airport and hopped aboard the blue line towards downtown.

Chicago Transit Authority

Chicago has one of the best mass transit systems in the US. You can get practically anywhere, via mass transit, in a reasonable amount of time. The “L” ride was about 50 minutes to my stop at LaSalle downtown—about the same time it would take by car. I lived in the Windy City for two years back when I was a pup and we took the train to work and back every day. It was an enjoyable ride traversing the same route I had taken each day way back when. I even called Kathy when we passed through the stop that was our old “home stop” when we lived there. On this day, Chicago was cold and snowy and the gray skies just added to the bleakness of the homes and businesses along the track. However, the city is very much alive, regardless of the aging patina on her buildings.

My stop came sooner than I wished and now it was time to brace for 20-degree temperatures and an even colder wind chill. Luckily I was a short six blocks from Union Station when I emerged from the subterranean tube under LaSalle street. I had done my homework prior to traveling and with the help of a very detailed Google map, discovered I was just a block and a half away from the finest pizza on God’s green earth. I’m talkin’ Giordano’s.

Giordano's Stuffed Pizza

Chicago style stuffed pizza. It had been over 20 years since I last tasted that ridiculously delicious pie. Nearly three inches thick and stuffed with cheese, cheese and more cheese. It was only 10:30 in the morning but I was ready for lunch. The only problem was Giordano’s wasn’t ready for me…as I walked up to the storefront I pulled at the front door only to be rudely rejected—locked. I peered through the plate glass window and saw a waitress dutifully doing her pre-lunch prep. I wrapped on the glass and mouthed “what time do you open?” She held up both index fingers together, universal language for 11. I had 30 minutes to kill but it was too cold to kill it outside. Our train, the Southwest Chief, was scheduled to depart at 3:15. As tour escort and holder of the group’s tickets, I needed to be at the station by 1:00. I decided to head to the station and see about stashing my bag so I wouldn’t need to lug it back and forth. There was two inches of fresh snow on the ground so not having a bag made for easier walking.

Chicago’s Union Station was three blocks west, across the Chicago river. As I made my way over the bridge I chuckled at remembering seeing this same river, now looking like cold, gray steel, shining a bright neon green during St. Patricks day oh so many years ago. Once inside the station I asked about lockers and was pleasantly surprised to find they had them. I was fully prepared to find a post 9/11 mentality in place with all lockers removed for security reasons. That was not the case and after some fumbling with the high-tech locking mechanism (they scan your fingerprints, then confirm them again before issuing you a secret code for retrieval) I stashed my bag.

Ever mindful of my schedule I still had enough time to check out the station before burying my face in about three pounds of hot cheese and getting back to meet my group.

The station is actually the confluence of three different rail systems as well as the main Greyhound terminal. As such it was plenty busy—and I was experiencing off peak crowds. The station must be a complete madhouse during rush hour commuting.

Chicago's Union Station - The Great Hall

Built back in 1925, the Great Hall is considered to be one of the greatest indoor spaces in the United States. The 20,000 square foot classic Beaux Arts style room boasts 18 soaring Corinthian columns, terracotta walls, a pink Tennessee marble floor and is crowned with a spectacular five-story, barrel-vaulted, atrium ceiling. The actual working station is below the great hall so the hall can be closed off and used, as it frequently is, for private functions.

After my quick spin through the terminal and the Great Hall, my stomach took over and I headed back out into the cold to Giordano’s. When I lived in Chicago back in ’86, I went to the only Giordano’s I knew of, the one on Rush Street. It was close to my office and all the fun that is Rush Street. After settling in I asked the waitress how many other Giordano’s restaurants there were in Chicago. Her answer floored me…39. It seems this little family pizza business wasn’t so little anymore.

I ordered a stuffed 10” with anchovies knowing I’d have at least half to eat  later that night on the train. Now I know most people freak at the thought of anchovies…but that’s part of my plan. I love ‘em and since almost nobody else does…I never have to share. What I forgot was how long these pies take to cook. My little 10 incher would be over 45 minutes  in the making. It was worth the wait and it was everything I had remembered.  A deep dish of molten cheese, covered with a liberal topping of stinky mini-fish all baked in a perfect crust that was crusty on the pan side and chewy on the cheese side—freakin’ heaven! I managed to consume half, feeling only slightly guilty for my gluttonous achievement and boxed the rest for the train.

As I waddled back to Union Station I paused as I passed what used to be The Sears Tower. Currently the tallest building in America, the building was recently purchased and thus a new name bestowed upon it. It will always be the Sears Tower to me so I will not honor the new owners by calling it by its new name. Especially since they now charge $14 damn dollars to ride the elevator to the observation deck. I regret not doing that back in ’86 when it was free….

Once back at the station I retrieved my bag, having once again to prove my identity via fingerprint and secret code. A pretty cool system once I figured it out and the rental wasn’t too bad at $3/hour—well worth not having to lug my bag across town.

By now it was time to set about looking for my people. I staked out the info desk and passenger services office and let them know I was the group leader for our tour. They promised to send any wandering members to the passenger lounge where we were to meet. I ended up running across most of them and it wasn’t very hard to do. Anyone over 60, wearing a Buckeye red sweatshirt was undoubtedly one of mine. Before long I had accounted for everyone except one couple who were coming in on a delayed train out of Ann Arbor. They were friends with another couple who were already here and had been talking via cell phone. Thirty minutes prior things were looking bleak as to their arrival in time to make our train. The friends reported the delayed train was still stalled and over an hour out.

Wonderful. Having to report back to the boss we were starting out a tour with missing members was the last thing I wanted.

To be continued…