2004 US Open Championships - Postcard from Chicago


As the song goes: Chicago is 4BR's sort of town...

My kind of town: Chicago viewed from Sears Tower
My kind of town: Chicago viewed from Sears Tower

Chicago really is a man's sort of town. Things are not measured in feet and inches here - no, things are measured in testosterone levels.

It is home to the Sears Tower, the "Bears", the "Cubs", the "White Sox" and Arlington Race Track - 100% men's things. Even the airport is named after a World War 2 air fighter who shot down more Japanese than John Wayne could manage.

Musically, Chicago is also men only territory - brass wise anyway.   The Chicago Symphony Orchestra has a brass section of players locally known as "the killers", with the trumpeters renowned for their ability to fill the vast Chicago auditoriums, or "aircraft hangers" as they are affectionately known as, with huge sounds from their bespoke Vincent Bach C trumpets coupled to VB 1C mouthpieces.  They produce a sound as wide as the backside on an American tourist in Disneyland.

The city itself is perched on the edge of Lake Michigan and is surrounded on three sides by the flat Plaines of the mid west that stretch for mile upon mile. Think of Norfolk ten times the size - not a hill or valley in sight, but without the people with odd accents and the interest in combine harvesters.

The US Open itself took place in Arlington Heights, a "village" according to the spookily named Mayor, Arlene J. Mulder, of 77,000 souls. It is a suburb alright - acre upon acre of those type of houses you last saw in the film "Edward Scissorhands"; all wood and wide drives with every third house sporting the "Stars and Stripes" from their very own flagpole.

It is also home to the famous Arlington Race Track at Churchill Downs, perhaps the best and prettiest track in North America and which has a main grandstand that is the size of a small town. The race season goes on for five to six months of the year here, and the turnover is greater than the GDP of many a small African Republic: it is a multi million dollar industry and is home to the "Arlington Million" - the biggest and best horse race in the USA - and men love it.

The city itself is also something to behold; a monument to Chicagoans need to express themselves by being bigger and better than anyone else. The biggest of these is the Sears Tower - built in the early 1970s in concrete, steel and glass to a height of well over 1700 feet. It dwarfs even the huge leviathans that surround it in the downtown area such as the famous John Hancock Building and the much more beautiful Chicago Board of Trade Building.  You can take a ride in the elevator up to the 103 floor and survey Illinois from the highest vantage point in the whole of North America. In fact, tourists are informed that on a clear day you can actually see three other States - it is some view.

Back on terra firma though and the passion for size really hits you. One of the reasons why Chicago is termed the "Windy City" is because you can be literally blown away when the wind blows in from the north off Lake Michigan in the late Autumn and Winter.  It gets so cold that the dangly bits of even the bravest brass monkey soon drop off, and what makes it worse is that the downtown area is so jam packed with these huge edifices. As there are little or no open spaces between the buildings, the streets become elongated wind tunnels.  By all accounts is can become almost too difficult to stand.

You know what they say about men and big fast cars as well. If it was really true, then Chicago would be home to the worlds greatest population of eunuchs, for they have a penchant for the type of cars you can house an American football team in. Even the taxi drivers ride about in big flash things; usually old American Cadillac's that lack any kind of suspension and have the build quality out of the US version of the "Pound Shop". Such is the price of "gas" here (just over $2 a gallon) that there is no pretence to the designer even thinking about aerodynamics either to save on fuel costs. Cars here are hewn out of solid steel in shapes that have no curved edges at all; they are breeze blocks on wheels, whilst the taxi drivers (a tremendous mix of nationalities) are simply amazed when they enquire about the prize of petrol in Blighty.  "How do people live?" one great driver from Haiti told us.

The natives though are a great friendly lot. Be polite and you get into the types of conversations that are the stuff of make believe, for the average American's grasp of a topic such as the British Constitution, is for instance, almost frightening.  The pair of taxi drivers who took us from the airport for instance knew we had a Queen, but thought Tony Blair was our "President", and didn't know where Wales or Scotland were, whilst a truly frightening woman in the bar at the hotel thanked the "English" for helping bomb Iraq and the rest of "the Arabs" who had destroyed the "World Trade Centre". At times like that you really do realise that America is a foreign country.

Still, they have taken to the brass band scene with a gusto and enthusiasm that only the Americans can deliver in as big a dollop as you get on your breakfast plate in the morning. Talking of which, the helpings at breakfast are delivered by the tonne: eggs in more varieties than Heinz could manage, bacon so crispy it snapped on your fork and pancakes the size of wheelie bin lids - all covered with a maple sauce as thick as tarmacadam. You are what you eat - and Americans are living proof that if scoffing was an Olympic sport, then no one else would get a look in for the Gold medal.

Back at the contest and there was a real air of a venture in the making. The organisation was excellent, the hall (a school hall maybe, but a school hall that was as good as 90% of concert halls in the UK) was fine and there was a good audience as well. They liked the format (not so they said, the traditional test piece format we are used to) and applauded the efforts of every band with a genuine enthusiasm. The loved the Dearham Band from the Lake District - although it was fair to say, the vast majority in the audience didn't have a clue where the Lake District was (many thought it was north of Lake Erie), let alone where Dearham was.

Chicago is indeed a town flowing with testosterone - great surges of it flow along its highways in the form of big, bold and brash cars, whilst the buildings are really a form of male fertility symbols. Who's got the biggest eh? Still, it is a wonderful place to visit - it has the blues, jazz, it has sport, it has culture, it has a fledgling brass band scene. Who could ask for more?

Iwan Fox


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