Toronto and Chicago, Two Great Cities on the Great Lakes

The View from W. Adams Street and the Chicago River

Five days later, on Wednesday the 14th, I flew north to Toronto, for a two-day planning session for a new client, Environics Analytics, a marketing analytics firm (one of the principals, the geographer Tony Lea, has been a friend since he was a visiting professor at the University of Minnesota in the mid-1970s, when I was a grad student). Arrived mid-afternoon and as I always do, hopped on public transit into town, the Airport Rocket express bus and the subway.

Checked into the huge Royal York Hotel (for many years the largest in the British Commonwealth), worked my e-mail, and hopped back on the subway, riding north on the Yonge Street line to our dinner venue. I had a bit of time, so I hopped off two stations south of the one closest to the restaurant, and walked up Yonge, past the wonderful North Toronto railway station with an impressive bell tower (part of it was recycled as a liquor store – the Province of Ontario has a booze monopoly, and I later learned it was the largest alcohol retailer in the world). That part of Yonge was the western edge of Rosedale, a very upmarket neighborhood, and the stores reflected the affluence. As I always do early in every visit to Canada, I remembered: every person I saw on the street, rich or poor, had health insurance. That reality made me smile, as it always does, and silently celebrate the humanity of our northern neighbor.

The former North Toronto railway station, Yonge Street

After six I met Jan, the Environics president, Michael, the VP of Marketing (and a highly regarded author and expert on U.S. demography), and a new sales exec, Diane, at Cava, a Spanish restaurant. We had a great meal, feasting on tapas of all sorts. Took a taxi back to the hotel and clocked out. Up early the next morning, on foot to the planning session at a very cool new-style women’s club, Verity, on Queen Street East. After a long day, we repaired to George, a restaurant in the club, for an absolutely brilliant dinner. The Italian chef is part of the Slow Food movement, and our repast, a five-course tasting menu, lasted four hours. The courses were small, but not that small, and everyone was stuffed by the end. And the conversation was equally swell, particularly the chance to exchange hitchhiking and backpacking stories with Peter, who was my age. Jan earned even more cred when she told us that she had been at Woodstock. Whoa! Cool!

Mobile in front of the Toronto Dominion Centre, downtown Toronto

Next day, I was up just after five to do some writing for another client (nice to be busy!), and out the door for a coffee with Toronto friend Lorne Salzman prior to the start of the planning meeting. We got caught up with our work and family; Lorne is a senior lawyer in a big Canadian firm, and a prince of a fellow. The planning meeting ended at three, I took the subway and rocket back to the airport, and flew home, in time to walk MacKenzie after ten o’clock.

Urban texture, Queen Street East, Toronto

The Transport Geek spotted this mishap on Queen Street East, Toronto; never a good idea to disobey stop signs!

It was a short night, Friday blending right into Saturday. Was up 5:30 and out the door, down to west Dallas to build a wheelchair ramp. We finished pretty quickly. As we were loading up our tools and leftover lumber, the client’s son, Roberto, asked if I would like to meet his mother. Sure, I replied, and in a moment was speaking a few words of poor Spanish to Irena, 72, blind from diabetes, and lame. But her handshake was firm, and her words of thanks strong. And that’s why we build them.

Four days later, I flew at 1:00 to Chicago, headed toward a teaching opportunity in the University of Illinois EMBA program. Landed and walked fast to catch the airport shuttle train north to the suburban bus station. I had a pleasant flashback when we passed the international terminal, T5, back to a Saturday night in November 1966: my dad sprang for a cut-price youth fare on Eastern Airlines and we had flown down that morning. He headed to a sales meeting and I hung at O’Hare, collecting airline timetables, then took a bus down to see my Uncle Alan and Aunt Dorothy. On the return, the bus passed the old international concourse, and from the window I could see a Swissair DC-8 and SAS DC-8. It looked so exotic, and so cool. It still does.

I just made the 3:22 PACE bus on route 330, south on Mannheim Road. We soon traversed the huge Soo Line (now Canadian Pacific) rail yard, just southeast of O’Hare. Three miles farther, we crossed vast Union Pacific yards, and I was reminded that Chicago is still rail city. I watched the suburban landscape keenly. Signs indicated lots of Hispanics, some South Asians. I spotted a sign on the east side of Mannheim, “Spumoni by Victor Lezza and Sons,” evidence of who used to live there. Reading ethnicity in the landscape is one of the reasons a bus ride is such fun (and way cheaper than a taxi).

I got off the 330 at La Grange, ambled a few hundred feet, and hopped on the Metra suburban train, riding a few stops to Hinsdale, then a taxi with a young Jordanian immigrant, and in no time I was back with Uncle Alan and Aunt Dorothy. Alan, born 1931, is the last survivor of my parents’ generation. He was long the one to emulate: smart, curious, active, articulate. “Be like Uncle Alan,” intoned my mother.”

During my earlier years of wanderlust, in the 1970s, they frequently welcomed me to their old house in La Grange, a few miles east – I was heading to or from Europe, or visiting friends, or riding my bike across Wisconsin and detoured south. They have been very kind to me.

Because Alan is the last one, it made sense to organize a “roots day,” to see the two neighborhoods where he, my mom, and my Uncle Joe (Cousin Jim’s dad) grew up, and that was the plan for the next day. First, though, it was time for an early dinner with them and their middle son, Justin, who lives nearby. We had a great meal and a lot of laughs, and I learned a nice name of endearment for Alan. They call him “Caro,” Italian for dear, and henceforth I will, too.

Drawbridge, Chicago River

The next morning, the roots adventure described in the previous post began. After I said goodbye to Caro and Jim, I walked east on Adams Street to the Club Quarters hotel. I worked my e-mail for a couple of hours, and at 5:15 I walked north across the loop, which was teeming with tourists, to Northwestern University Hospital, to visit a longtime friend, Charlie Kubert. I e-mailed him a week earlier, hoping to see him and his family, and he told me that we could do that, but in the hospital. Charlie was recovering from some serious surgery, but he looked pretty good, and it was fun to catch up. His brother-in-law Richard Nathan was there, and we quickly fell into the kind of animated and informed conversation that I have long associated with Charlie. His doc and a trio of residents visited for awhile, and we bantered with them, too. Soon Jonathan, a longtime skiing pal (Charlie has for decades competed in long-distance Nordic events like the American Birkebeiner) from Indiana appeared, and the yak continued.

At 6:30, Charlie’s wife, Karen Murchin, and their two sweet and energetic daughters, Jessica, 12, and Arielle, 9, arrived, and with pizza from Gino’s East, across the street.

Aspiring gymnast Abigail Kubert

We repaired to a family waiting area in the hall, and pretty much set up a party, munching pizza, chatting, and watching Abigail demonstrate her considerable gymnastic prowess (she’s in a quite serious program, and it shows). I left after eight, walked south, stopped for a quick beer at the Berghoff, and fell hard asleep. A long and good day.

I met Keith Burton a long friend, for breakfast Friday morning at the Union League Club, Chicago’s power bastion. We caught up with the last two years, and Keith reckoned he might have some business for me. I headed back to the hotel, then walked south to the Archicenter, the shop and exhibits of the Chicago Architectural Foundation. There’s always something interesting on display, and that day it was an awesome scale model of downtown. I circled it, marveling at its fidelity. An amazing device called a stereolithograph built the model buildings in batches. Each batch starts on a 20-inch square bed (typically 10-20 structures), and a digitally controlled device fabricates each structure layer by layer – a blade sweeps across the bed, depositing a very thin layer of clear resin, then hardened by a laser. Each bed takes 20 to 80 hours to create, depending on building height (the Willis, formerly Sears, Tower must have taken the full 3+ days!). The whole model took 1,600 hours to build. The outcome, and the process, were way cool.

I walked several blocks south on Michigan Avenue to the enormous Chicago Hilton to introduce myself to the chief concierge, Karin von Krusenstierna, the best friend of the SAS flight attendant Maja who I described a few updates ago (and who is the mother of a young Swedish friend, Peter Gabrielson). After patiently working through a number of people with some pretty dumb questions, it was my turn, and I greeted her in Swedish. She was surprised, and even more so when I told her the connection. We had a nice visit.

At noon I met a former AA colleague, Jeff Zidell, for lunch. He runs the loyalty program at Hyatt. We had a good chat. Ambled back to the hotel and did some work. At 5:15, it was time to stand and deliver, first time in a couple of months, and I was pumped. In addition to 40 EMBA students, there were about a dozen prospective students, there for a free “test ride.” I gave my stump speech on the financial travails of the business.

During the talk, a thunderstorm swooped in, ending the plan for dinner outdoors on a lovely terrace right on the Chicago River. So we ate indoors. Had a nice mealtime chat with six or seven of the students; as I have written before, I like EMBA programs because the students are older and thus have more work and more life experiences, and my tablemates were no exception. One woman, now with Caterpillar, spent nine years in the Army, including tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. Another was the sole woman African-American mechanical engineering major in her class at Cornell. The fellow next to me worked at Goodyear, and was on a team investigating the puncture of one of their aircraft tires, which began a series of cascading actions that led to the crash of the Air France Concorde in July 2000. As I wrote, a lot of experience.

After dinner, I spent 45 minutes speaking generally about leadership and what makes a good (and bad) leader, drawing on my experience at American. Answered more questions, and took a bow at 8:05. I stayed for a few more minutes, chatting with faculty and students, walked back to the hotel, and clocked out early.

The plan was for a long walk at 6:00 on Saturday, including a visit to Lake Michigan, but I awoke to heavy rain showers, so hopped the CTA Blue Line to O’Hare and flew home.

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