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Chicago on the cheap

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There is this moment in travel when a city becomes more than just the faceless skyscrapers and unnamed bridges over teal rivers -- Anytown, USA. On this particular trip, it happened when I turned onto West Washington Street on a Friday morning and saw a collage of mast-like steel slats, a massive structure that looked like it could intercept public access television from Japan. It was the Frank Gehry-designed band shell at Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park.

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Hello, Windy City.

The News Tribune recently sent me to Chicago with a CTA pass and a loose plan: Have fun. Don't spend any money .

The goal was to simulate a weekend trip by Duluthians who now have access to direct airline flights to Chicago.

I was given a meager per diem -- enough to keep me rich in Dunkin' Donuts, but I probably wouldn't, for instance, end up at Charlie Trotter's waxing hysterical about seasonal veggies. (Carpe per diem!)

This was a pretty easy mission in a city that boasts Millennium Park, Lincoln Park Zoo, amazing architecture, seamless public transportation, and pockets of free art exhibitions.

Here is how I spent nearly 60 hours in Chicago -- armed with dozens of Web sites, guides and Facebook friends' recommendations of what to do:

MILLENNIUM PARK

Millennium Park is a visual playground starring the Cloud Gate, a new-to-this decade piece, affectionately referred to as "The Bean" for its lima-like shape. It is a seamless stainless steel piece that provides a funhouse-mirror reflection of the Chicago skyline. It begs for self-portraits. Sign of a successful public art installation: School children in matching uniforms tested the acoustics in the hollow center of the structure. Tiny hand-prints were smudged into the mirrored surface.

Barefoot visitors -- some dressed in rain ponchos -- kicked wakes in Crown Fountain, a strip of shallow water book-ended by matching towers with LCD screen surfaces that show the changing expressions on faces of Chicagoans, and real bursts of water squirt from the virtual faces. Its nod to the city's diverse population has water cascading down the sides.

Giant tin replicas of prehistoric animals loomed nearby.

While Jay Pritzker Pavilion hadn't yet moved into concert season, this 4,000-seat amphitheater hosts free shows throughout the summer: She & Him and Great Lake Swimmers play there in June.

CHICAGO-STYLE DOGS

Not every dog is a Chicago-style hot dog. Step away from the ketchup, rookie. Gold Coast Hot Dogs, a Chicago chain, laid this out very clearly, framed it, and hung it on the wall of its North Wabash Street location.

This place felt like a mistake, sharing space with Popeye's -- the Duluth equivalent of Sammy's Pizza and KFC under one roof. These dogs are touted on a wall of cred -- testimonials from a load of media and celebrities, including Harry Caray. (I would later see that most Chicago eateries have been named No. 1 something by someone, and that moment is captured and laminated like insects frozen in amber.)

Regardless, these were good: served on a poppy-seed bun and fixed with a mess of mustard, Kelly-green relish, peppers and a tomato. That is the Chicago style. Gold Coast, you had me at peppers. I had two. Consider me a convert.

PRETTY DESSERT

Sugar Bliss Cake Boutique (115 N. Wabash Ave.) is an adorable cupcake shop that feels like stepping onto the cover of modern chick-lit. The shop features five flavors, which change daily, with the signature flower bloom of frosting. I picked two ($3.50 each): Texas Red Velvet and Vanilla Milk Chocolate to go. These were packed into a cute little gift box that attracted plenty of attention as I walked down the street. Passersby looked at the box, looked at me and practically cooed. It was like owning a puppy. Or a baby. I stopped into Steve Madden shoe store and offered an employee a peek. "I'm going to eat both of these," I told him. "Then I'm going to hide the wrappers and not tell anyone about it." He nodded seriously.

ART HERE, ART THERE

There are free and discounted days at Chicago museums and galleries throughout the week, but these deals are harder to find Friday-Sunday. While I was there, the Blackstone Hotel (636 S. Michigan Ave.) hosted a free exhibition of a handful of pieces by MTV-famous graffiti artist Outlaw, hanging in the hotel's art hall a few floors above the lobby. His subjects in this show included gangsters, guns, women and words, loopy styles and colors like the side of a surfer's van.

At the Museum of Contemporary Photography (600 S. Michigan Ave.), exhibitions on the first floor are free, while there is a charge for admission on other floors. I caught an exhibit featuring work by photographer Sarah Pickering. "Incident Control" is scenes of fires and blasts used to prepare people who will investigate them for a living.

Chicago is an architectural buffet, and one of my favorite stops was the Cultural Center (78 E. Washington St.), originally Chicago's public library. On Friday night, a new bride stood on the steps outside. Inside, the dark-hued stained-glass dome is stunning.

EXPERIMENTAL THEATER

My 58-year-old travel companion -- we'll call her "Mom"-- and I waited outside a nondescript building on Ashland Avenue on a relatively traffic-less street with about 100 other people to see the Neo-Futurists' production of "Too Much Light Makes Baby Go Blind," which bills itself as the longest-running show in Chicago at more than 20 years.

The Neo-Futurarium (5153 N. Ashland Ave.) doesn't sell alcohol, and none can be brought in, which probably correlates with its young audience.

We were looking for something quirky, outside of the mainstream. Anyone can go to Second City or iO Improv, or the Chicago production of "Billy Elliot" at the Oriental Theater.

This was high on quirk: As show time neared, 250 tokens are passed out on a first-come, first served basis. On some nights, this means turning away some theater-goers. Eventually we were led inside, up stairs, through a kitchen and to an auditorium space where we bought our tickets: A base rate of $9, plus whatever number comes up on the roll of a dice. I paid $15.

Members of the audience each receive a menu listing the numbered titles of 30 two-minute sketches. The actors, dressed in street clothes, try to complete them all within the hour. When the skit ends, the audiences yells out numbers. The first number heard, or the loudest from the crowd, is then performed, after some quick shuffling of minimal props. The stage includes a blackboard and stadium-style seating -- like a lecture hall in a small liberal arts college campus. Scenes range from funny to political to arty, serious and interactive. These scenes were hit or miss, with about a 75 percent hit rate. Like most things performed on the fly in an ever-changing repertoire, some of it worked, some of it didn't.

At one point, a young actor in running shorts, a tank top and pony tail ended up sprawled across our laps.

We might have been too old to be there, although the humor and content is ageless. The mom character isn't really into alternative theater.

AND OTHER TOURIST PURSUITS

Our stop at Navy Pier, the city's No. 1 tourist attraction, was relatively brief, in the spirit of "as long as we're here." Of greater import was Buckingham Fountain, as seen in the opening credits of raunchy 1980s sitcom "Married with Children." Then we wandered down to the shore, where the sand is like sifted sugar.

Magnificent Mile, among the top venues for shopping in the country, is rich in shops that far exceed the hopes and dreams of a woman on a Dunkin' Donuts budget: Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Coach. But there are also shops that fall into a more modest budget: H&M, Forever 21, Urban Outfitters, Gap. It's free to look. And for those who want to look like Gucci, and spend like high-end Gap: Filene's Basement. This mid-April trip coincided with the famous tulips blooming in satellites along the strip.

PEOPLE-WATCHING

This is still the Midwest, so there aren't men dressed as Superheroes, like outside the Chinese Theater in Hollywood, or reedy women with grand manes of hair clomping around on shoes that cost as much as a hybrid car, like in Manhattan. On this weekend when the Cubbies were hosting a series, there were enough fans in jerseys to make four teams.

A cute couple in muted tones of corduroy and wool dug for a used coffee cup in a garbage can outside Walgreens. They had a cat carrier and a sign: "We are weary." In Duluth, they would be mistaken for a folk duo.

Just a block from a street preacher on the Magnificent Mile, a man had a slat of cardboard with a head-sized hole cut in the middle, where he rested his face. "Too ugly for prostitution," his sign said. Once when I walked past, he had received a thin slice of pizza.

In my final moments in Chicago, a man had fallen down the steps at my El stop. He lay, unmoving, while transportation officials called for help. When he shifted, a CSI-style soup of blood formed around his head. We made a single-file line and exited around him.

AND MORE CONSUMPTION

We ate brunch at Heaven on Seven, the Wabash location on the seventh floor of the Garland Building. This is a Cajun restaurant under chef Jimmy Bannos with a diner feel, and is famous for its gumbo. We ate dinner at Renaldi's (2827 N. Broadway) in Lincoln Park, where the tablecloths are checkered, and they serve RC Cola from a fountain. We ordered a big, fat, deep-dish mess of sausage, onions and olives, and fought over the last piece. We also had Thai food at Opart (4658 N. Western Ave.), where the Kuay Tiew Kee Mao with Tofu made my nose ooze.

After "Mom" was tucked into bed, I made for Rossi's (412 N. State St.), a self-described dive bar located across the street from our hotel. Other bars in the vicinity boast bouncers who corral patrons into a single-file line, allowing them into the establishment only as others exit. Cover charges and cleavage. Rossi's seems like a place where one could be easily etched in as a regular. At the end of the night, patrons converged on a central spot at the bar and shared pizza.

As I squinted at the taps, the bartender sidled up to me at the half-moon shaped bar with a juke box mix that ranges from Kenny Rogers to the Killers: "Old Style," he suggested.

At $3 a pint, I liquefied the next day's lunch budget.

WRIGLEYVILLE: MEET MY MOM

Our intent was to hit Metro, a longtime music venue on North Clark Street, where Ok Go was playing later that night. We decided to cruise along North Clark Street about a mile and a half to see this band with Chicago roots that has gone international. Instead, we found a strange truth about this neighborhood -- and maybe Chicago as a whole: The 20-something boys certainly dig the walking-talking senior citizen discount.

Let me back up: My mom is a cute lady. About 5-foot-4, and thin. She's got a chin-length bob, and dresses exactly like you would expect a fourth-grade Catholic school teacher to dress. Turtlenecks up to her bottom lip, form-fitting polar fleece. I call her style Sporty. Conservative.

Earlier in the day she had regaled me with a tale of how some guys in the hotel elevator had been flirting with her.

"... And then he asked me to touch his ear," she said. "So I did, and it was super cold!"

"Wait! You touched his ear? Why did you touch his ear?"

"He asked me to," she answered. She's not shy. "He'd been at the Cub's game."

Interesting.

Now, here we were in Wrigleyville, hours after a game, and a barely legal grabbed her by elbows and asked her if he could talk to her.

"I have a business proposition," he slurred.

"You need us to buy you beer?" I asked.

He threw me a wary look, and turned back to my mom.

I grabbed her other arm, and tugged her along. She giggled.

Half a block later, another dude leaned out of a limo and yelled to her "Hey! Lady in the green coat!"

Behind us, a block's worth of boys had been whipped into a frothy lather.

We did a do-si-do around a Rorshak splatter of sidewalk vomit, and two men walking behind us shared groans.

"I'm going to go eat a bunch of chicken wings, and then have a bunch of beer," one of the men joked.

"Whoooo-eeee, it's my 21st birthday," my mom added to the hilarity. And the two guys busted out laughing. Like, my mom was actually funny and not just someone who has to read aloud every street sign, advertisement and menu.

Later, my friend Laurie Viets, a former Twin Ports-ian who knows every crook and cranny and good deal that can be found in Chicago, told me that this neighborhood is notorious for young lads scoping out the AARP set. "Cougar night is pretty popular at those bars," she told me.

Meanwhile, back home in Rochester, Minn., I bet my dad has tired of hearing this story.

MEAT PINATAS

Viets lured me to Lincoln Park Zoo with two words: Meat piñatas. This free zoo, on 35 acres that include wooded areas and paths, and houses 1,200 animals, is a stone skip from Lake Michigan and boasts a view of downtown.

I missed the gorilla feeding: They were just licking empty boxes when I got to them -- an act I was familiar with, having just licked a box from Sugar Bliss. A sort of frosting pinata.

I got there in time to see the wild dogs get fed. Zoo employees brought a zebra-shaped box into the dogs' enclosed area and used squirt bottles to perfume the piñata with blood, like a scene from "Twilight." The dogs were let back into the yard, and they competed in a tug-of-war for cardboard limbs, pinkish meat spilling as the fake zebra became dismembered. A whole drama played out as they vied for the food.

After much yelping and chasing, a little dog deked out the others and won the brunt of the piñata. Onlookers laughed and cheered.

AM I BLUE

I hit Briar Street Theatre on Halstad Street for a matinee performance of Blue Man Group, the mute performers known for their blue faces and mad drum skills. The stars were dressed in all-black with rubber gloves, their shaved heads like dark blue lightbulbs perched atop necks. The house band channels the costume predilections of Kiss.

They opened with a three-part drum piece, their snares simultaneously doused with colored paint that sent colorful neon sprays into the air while they play. The almost-two-hour performance is a mix of music, gestured hilarity and projectile Twinkie debris, and it ends with the audience getting toilet-papered. At one point, a Blue Man made modern art by spitting colored paint onto a white canvas, while another one made a marshmallow sculpture with his mouth.

Fans in the front rows were provided with ponchos.

All told, I spent $108.13 News Tribune bucks while in Chicago, including food, entertainment and a transit pass. I saturated the northern part of the city but never scratched the surface of the South side or even got around to the Obama tour. I did uncover the unrealized potential of the newspaper industry: The Chicago Tribune has a store. Who wouldn't pay for a Sam Cook fishing pole, or the poker chips Brandon Stahl juggles when he's thinking about the state of the city?

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