Monday, 12 October 2015

Computers, cookies and crime

For most people – and for me most of the time – Sunday is a day of rest. But not yesterday. I had work to do and I won't bore you with it other than to say that from 1300hrs yesterday, I was sitting in a conference hall listening to people talk about the digital age and how it's going to affect everybody, even the manufacturing industries. In fact, it's not so much 'going to' affect everybody, it already IS affecting everybody. We have more computing power in our mobile phones than the computer used to take Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin (I nearly said Lightyear) to the moon. I could go on, but I'll spare you the lecture as you probably already know that mobile technology is moving fast and there will come a time when you'll trust the technology in your iphone more than the medical profession.

Central Chicago is said to be relatively safe
With all the above in mind – not so much the subject matter as I'd yet to learn some of the amazing facts I was assimilating yesterday afternoon – I thought I'd spend the morning wandering around, doing a bit of shopping and generally checking things out.

It was a wonderful day in Chicago. In fact the temperature this week will hit the 70s (fahrenheit) and residents of the so-called Windy City won't be experiencing too much in the way of breezy weather.

Whether those running in yesterday's Bank of America Chicago Marathon felt the same way, I'll never know. The race kicked off early yesterday morning and was being covered by the television networks in the early hours. Later, when I took to the streets, I saw plenty of people covered in silver foil capes having completed the 26-mile course. Some were elated, some were looking a little weary and a couple of people I spoke to were complaining about foot problems. Well, what do you expect if you run 26 miles.

My 'uncle' John – who I used to live virtually next door to when I was a kid and who, incidentally, wasn't really my uncle, he had something to say about running that annoyed the crap out of my dad.

God knows why we called him 'uncle' but we did, just like we used to call 'uncle' Brian our uncle too. They – John and Brian – were neighbours who were friendly with my parents. We used to enjoy happy holidays on the south coast with Brian and his family, back in the day when the summers were always sunny and warm. Sadly, they're both no longer with us. But it's 'uncle' John I'm referencing here because he used to say that 'animals only run if they have to', and if you knew my dad, which most of you don't, Jon excluded,  you'd understand why he wasn't happy with this remark. Dad competed in the 1984 London Marathon when, if I recall, he still indulged a smoking habit. I can't remember his time but it was pretty good for a man of 55 who, one way or another, wasn't THAT sporty in his day-to-day life. He started with half marathons and progressed to the big one.

Whenever I see marathon runners I think of dad. He loved it. In fact, every April from 1985 onwards, he always got his medal out on the day of the London Marathon and never ceased to encourage us – my brother and I (not so much my sister) – to enrol for the next event. I never did, but my brother Jon ran a handful of London Marathons and also put in some good times.

Running doesn't agree with me. Whenever I have run in the past I've injured myself. In 2005, after running around a disused Second World War airfield in deflated running shoes – the air in one of the soles had 'left the building', leaving me running unevenly – I did my back in. The net result? Severe lower back pain that persisted for around six months and led me to cancel a trip to the USA. Now that's not something I'd do lightly. I'm fine now (touch wood) and the problem has not returned, but I steer clear of running in any shape or form; I won't even run for the bus or the train.

My hotel (centre) on North Michigan Avenue
There were marathon runners everywhere yesterday: on the streets with family and friends – marathon running is a family affair for a lot of people – in the hotel lobby, anywhere you'd care to mention; and I saw them throughout the day, even last thing at night, in the hotel bar, when I sneaked in for a light snack and a glass of wine having walked the length of North Michigan Avenue from East Washington. Since lunch time I'd only eaten an oatmeal and raisin cookie in Peet's Coffee opposite Millennium Park and close to the Chicago Cultural Centre.

Earlier in the day I'd visited a few of the shops on North Michigan Avenue. I even tried on a pair of jeans and was amazed to discover that I've reverted back to my old size, that of a 32in waist. This surprised and elated me and that's why I feel mildly guilty about that oatmeal and raisin cookie and, indeed, that late night snack in the hotel bar. I could have just gone to bed and waited for breakfast.

Last night at the Cultural Centre I chatted with a fellow journalist who lives in Chicago near the Midway airport where crime is a bit of an issue. He lives in a townhouse in what he regards as a reasonably safe part of town, but he said that within a few blocks, the crime levels go up but the house prices go down. Always be concerned if you're looking to buy a house in the USA if the house you're looking at is much bigger, say, than what you're looking for, but is incredibly cheap. It probably means you might be moving to a dodgy neighbourhood. I keyed the Midway district into Google and found a forum site on which people discussed the inherent dangers of living in the area. Some people said it's fine if you're simply going to the airport, but others said keep an eye on your surroundings if you're walking about outside the airport.

The journalist I was talking to said he'd experienced very little in the way of trouble, but he did relate an incident during which he and his girlfriend were mugged by guys with guns and another incident some time ago when he was on a train late at night when two men boarded the train and one produced a razor from his mouth and told my journalist colleague to say nothing – or else. There was somebody else on the train asleep and he was the guy the thieves targetted, stealing, I think, his wallet without him waking up. Something like that.

It all made me think how relatively safe it is in the UK. According to my journalist colleague, the problems start when an area is going through a transition from run-down 'dodgy' neighbourhood to something a little more gentrified. When it's run-down, the residents are all in the same boat, ie they're all poor. But as the area starts to attract professional people with money, the crime starts and continues until the process of 'gentrification' is completed, everyone is respectable and the 'low-lifes' – if that's what they are – have moved on.

Human statue on North Michigan Avenue – she's safe
In the UK burglaries tend to occur when the occupants of the house are out; it's mostly opportunist thieves and small-time crooks from the locality. Crucially, however, they're not armed. Alright, perhaps they might have a knife, but they won't be packing a piece. In the USA, Americans have the right to bear arms – something like that, I'm not au fait with the legal technicalities – so intruders are likely to be armed and the chances are that if you produce a gun you're engaging them in a fire fight that you'll probably lose (assuming the bad guys have greater experience of using their hardware than you do).

Central Chicago, I'm told, is pretty safe, but one thing I have noticed is that so far I've yet to see a single police patrol car purring around the city. Normally, whether it's LA, Portland, Knoxville, Detroit, you name it, I've seen a police presence. Here in the Windy City I've seen (and heard) plenty of ambulances and vehicles owned by the Chicago Fire Department, but no police. Here's hoping they're out there somewhere.

Postscript: just looking at that shot of the human statue (above) can you imagine how awful it must be if your job is being a human statue? She must have woken up this morning in her house or apartment and thought 'where's the silver paint?' Then I'm guessing that she stood outside in her back yard – Americans don't have gardens, they have 'yards' – and sprayed herself. She might have a husband or boyfriend (or girlfriend) to do it for her, I don't know, but what a palaver! And then those clothes she's wearing must stand up on their own. Theoretically, she could probably jump into them, but I'm sure she doesn't. And then of course she's got to get to where she's working – North Michigan Avenue – from wherever she lives. I'm assuming she'll travel by car – imagine meeting her on the train or bus – and in that case I'm wondering what kind of looks she gets from other drivers. What if she gets out to fill up with petrol? "No, I'm perfectly alright, I'm a human statue," she might say to passers-by. "This is how I earn my money, by standing absolutely still and scaring the shit out of old-age pensioners and little children."

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