With a few days to spend in Chicago, it seems like a good idea to explore a little further afield. And about 90 minutes to the north is Milwaukee, affectionately known by some Chicagoans as the “second city’s second city” – perhaps a reference to “yeah, we know it’s there, we just don’t quite rate it that much.”
One of the easiest ways to get there is by train. Amtrak remains one of the great under-used transport networks in the United States, often because journeys across vast distances can take several days. Yet a short hop between these two cities is convenient, and significantly cheaper than flying.
Chicago’s Union Station looks impressive from both the outside and in the main historic booking hall. Built in 1925, it’s survived the facts of many Americal rail terminals which have either been flattened or abandoned.
Despite running five services each way every day, the route is still relatively under-used, at least judging by the few dozen passengers waiting to board the culturally appropriated Hiawatha train travelling north. And yet, many seem to have no concept of how trains work.
“Come and see me if you will need help getting to they train,” announces Cynthia, the Amtrak host in the waiting room.
“Is she talkin’ to me?” Asks an older guy who clearly will need assistance. Followed by a barrage of questions from other passengers : “If you help me on the train here, will there be someone to help me off it in Milwaukee?” “Yes, m’am.”
“Why do those men have dogs?”
“They’re for security, sir.”
“You’d better watch yourself,” says his wife. “Remember at the airport that time – I had orange juice in my bag and that dog was right all over it.”
Thankfully, the train is big enough to separate the children, the confused, the incapable and this passenger who’ve actually used a train before. And there’s a quiet coach. So quiet, it’s empty.
We’re soon out of Illanois and into Wisconsin, allowing me to clock up my tenth American state. The landscape is pretty uninspiring – a highway, lots of logistics depots and the occasional industrial plant. The rest is empty farmland – wheat fields out of season, with small towns on both the right and wrong side of the tracks.
And so to Milwaukee itself, known as the brewing capital of the America . During the 19th century settlers from all over the world came here, but most notably the Germans. Sadly, although the they brought with them their impressive brewing skills, they ended up succumbing to two of the most lifeless beers on the planet – Pabst Blue Ribbon and Miller. Although the former has a decent strength, it’s still a byword for ubiquity.
The brewery buildings themselves are mostly on the outskirts of the city, so making a visit on a day trip is tricky. But not far from the station is the Historic Third Ward and the Milwaukee Public Market.
It’s a shadow of its larger cousins in places like Seattle – or even the French Market food section in New Orleans, but it’s filled with plenty of fresh food and cooked meals at decent prices. Surrounding the market, the Third Ward is a collection of former warehouses now turned into bars and shops. I’m sure this would be impressive in the summer, but on a chilly day, the wrong side of Easter, it’s all a bit empty and depressing.
And this seems to set the theme for the day, The Riverwalk would be nice enough on a warmer day, and maybe the sight of Arthur Fonzerelli would raise a smile. But the Bronze Fonz is actually smaller than life, with his jeans looking like they’ve not been washed or ironed since the 1950s.
Milwaukee does have loads of history – it’s just a matter of knowing where to look and having the time to do it. For now though, it’s back to Chicago for a slice of the Blues.
Organised venues don’t always do it for me. For one, anywhere that has a cover charge can always be a bit hit and miss. But at Buddy Guys Legends, a man who befits that title is playing tonight. Jimmy Johnson is 90.
A young couple share the table with me. They don’t look like your typical blues fans. But once Jimmy and the band get going, they’re yelling for more. It turns out that Nadine is a music teacher, and focuses her classes on the importance of the African American influence of the blues genre.
Buddy Guys could easily be in Memphis or New Orleeans. But here in Chicago, it’s carved out a niche for audiences who want to feel the soul of the south without leaving the Midwest. Add to that a Louisiana-inspired menu, a man in the toilet handing out soap and towels for tips and a large line in merchandise, it’s also carving out a healthy profit.