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Summer at North Avenue Beach

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Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water…

Actually, at North Avenue Beach, you’re probably safest in the water.

The heat and humidity, intense today, especially when compared to the preceding, unusually mild August Chicago’s been awarded thus far, attacks the beaching crowd like the villain of a disaster flick.  Only a percentage dip themselves in the water—most hit the attractions, or take up property for the day with no other interest than soaking in the threatening sun.

Families take to the shade—large camping tents house toddlers, dads grill dogs, moms take in mags like InStyle and US Weekly. The cookouts unleash familiar scents, they reek of end-of-summer, the last moments before school grabs hold and we’re off, off to the white-out woe of winter. If you can develop some distance between yourself and the crowd, the view to the west ain’t bad—Hancock, Drake, a strangely dormant Navy Pier, blanketed by the cloud-spotted sky. To the east, of course, the unknown sea.

Along the pier that juts out from the south end of the beach, shirtless joggers, some no older than adolescents, work up their wind, chugging along intently. The same painted sign on the concrete, on display every ten feet, warns us not to dive into the water from here, there or anywhere. Volleyballers do two-on-twos, high on Bejing—some practice one-on-one off to the side waiting for a net to open. At the end of the pier, a lone fisherman lets the line fly, shirtless and an easy 70, ballcap shading a withered face that with one squint or grimace offers more wisdom than anything else found remotely close to here.

Back at the beach, a group of friends get written up by bicycle cops for consuming booze on the sand. They get a chuckle out of it—the cops do not. The Cranberries’ “Zombie” bombards from above, courtesy of the dim cover band that’s assaulting Castaways. Zombies, zombies everywhere.

More follows, you’ll see. Suit up and the damage is already done. One more weekend of fun in the sun, each ray another road to the unexpected, but also to the expected, indeed.  (Tom Lynch)

Head into the Sand: The view from the actual beach
“It’s a melting pot of yuppie stereotypes,” laughs Mark Wallen as he guzzles a Heineken. Wallen and three of his buddies, self-described “knuckleheads,” stand in a semi-circle and ogle the many bikini-clad blondies who sizzle on North Avenue Beach like rashers of bacon. Local color is tough to root out on this Chicago stretch of sand. Instead, the beach is packed with variants of the same three typecasts: dudes, babes and babies. Chicago’s most happening, free-of-charge beach may be plagued with predictability, but somewhere in this yuppie desert—drowned out by the blasting tunes of Bon Jovi—hides a surprise or two.

For example, along the beach’s northern point, activity of an unusual nature is clearly a-brewin’.

“Go! Go! Go!” barks a marine. “Get the hell over there! You’re moving like a girl!” He bellows at two young women who kick up sand while holding mock M-16 rifles overhead. They are participants in the City Chase Challenge, a race between 715 teams that jetset between thirty-three different stations. North Avenue Beach is the site of the most rigorous stop, the United States Marine Corps Obstacle Course.

“City Chase asked us to do a little boot-camp challenge,” explains Christopher Shore, a soldier with the Chicagoland Offshore Marine Corps Recruiters. “We took elements of our combat fitness test, so people could get a little taste of what it’s like to be us.” Shore and the other marines are clearly enjoying themselves as they shout and insult the hapless teams through a grueling labyrinth of physical challenges: push-ups, chin-ups, running with twenty-pound weights and crawling fifty yards through the sand. At the end of the course the racers, now swathed in sweat and smeared with muck, collapse and gasp for sweet oxygen. “It was hell on wheels, pursued by flaming ninjas,” describes one exhausted participant, Josh Elster. “Did I say flaming? I meant inferno.”

Meanwhile, in the water not far from the obstacle course, a second piece of North Avenue Beach peculiarity is afoot: a young women in full bridal wear wades waist-deep in the lake.

“We’re here to trash the dress,” the bride explains. Beads brocade her gown’s flouncing tiers of delicate lace and silk, all of which is now brown-stained and soaked. The bride, Katherine Owens, seems unperturbed. “I’m getting married at the courthouse, and you don’t wear a dress to the courthouse.”

Her groom-to-be, Colin Riexinger, stands by in his tux. He dutifully holds her muddied train aloft. “We couldn’t afford a ceremony or reception, so we decided we should at least get a dress and some cool pictures.” Owens and Riexinger’s photographer has spent the morning snapping photos. Now that the shoot is at an end, Owens decides (since she won’t be getting any more use out of the $1,100 gown) to do the unthinkable and slosh into the lake. When asked why she chose North Avenue Beach for the locale, Owens smiles and shrugs. “We wanted the beach look, and this was the cheapest place to go.” (Laura Hawbaker)

Swimfan: Off of the beach and into the water
Ah, Lake Michigan; the refreshing east side of Chicago, sprawling aqua-marine as far as the eye can see. Though it is only the fifth largest lake in the world, it is the largest lake contained entirely within one country. The only thing Lake Michigan is ever tainted by is the Chicago River, and sewage run-offs, and the toxic waste being dumped into it by companies in Indiana and E. Coli (sometimes). Lake Michigan is not only a fantastic local source of fresh, “clean,” drinking water, but a source of endless entertainment (weather and contamination permitting). The torpid August air is thick, almost tangible, as if the world were drowned in lukewarm bath-water, and with the sandy shore clear of any bacteria-riddled fish carcasses, today is the perfect day for a dip.

It’s always the kids who charge first, too young and stupid yet to realize that they hate being cold. They splash and scream, having fun at the general expense of everyone else. But it isn’t long before sun-bathers join them, abandoning their towels for sweet relief from the heat. Soon the water is writhing with people from all walks of life—siblings attempting to drown each other playfully, while mothers watch on, attempting their slow plunge toward ankle-deep water; muscle-bound dudes with tribal arm bands toss a football, secretly hoping with each swell that the next wave will be big enough to remove the bikini tops of girls standing nearby; and an old man with a snorkel and flippers may be searching for sunken treasure that he will never find.

The water’s edge is a verifiable breeding ground of brotherly love because no matter what your age, race, class, gender or sexual orientation, everyone must take that same first step, and that first step sucks, no matter who you are. Today the water is the warmest it’s been all summer, and still it’s freezing cold. Seasoned vets know that getting it over all at once is the best, like pulling off a band-aid or receiving a refreshing slap in the face. Wading is like death by tiny increments. However, the water is lovely once the body becomes numb and loses all sensation. It feels so good that someone may want to swim on through a day, and in and out of weeks, to that point of muddled blue where lake meets sky, the ever-illusive horizon.

Of course, an angry teenaged lifeguard in a rowboat will stop people from going over chest deep. (Reilly Nelson)

Match Point: The volleyball battlefield
“Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet?” I’m not quite sure what the kid walking in front of me is actually waiting for, because judging by the rotisserie-cooked sunbathers and boathouse eyesore that pumps out watered-down covers of John Mayer, I’m pretty sure that we’ve arrived at North Avenue Beach.

It’s only 11am and already the beach has become a scene of Euro-gaudiness filled with scores of Michelangelo-sculpted players on the volleyball courts and brave spectators who are two-pulled-g-strings away from making Chicago’s most popular stretch of lakefront a nude attraction. Today is summer’s final appearance of the North Avenue Beach Ball™ competition and, like the temperature, the games are heating up.

The first player I meet sits in a rickety lawn chair on the far north side of the beach. His name is Art—a freckled, middle-aged veteran who waits on the sidelines wearing Ray Bans with a limp blond ponytail covered by a sky-blue bandana that matches the water in the distance. He proceeds to give me my first lesson about the sand courts—and not anything relating to two-on-two competition; rather, about the turf war brewing between north side volleyball players and the south side “hot shots.”

“You may want to stay on this side,” he tells me cautiously, alluding to the horrors that await me in the forbidden land. “We’re much friendlier. Over there,” he continues, wagging his finger south towards the skyline, “are the snobs that only play to be seen.”

I am nothing if not a risk-taker so I decide to proceed with my plan anyway and bid Art adieu. As I walk south along the barren land dotted with a mosaic of colorful swimsuits and beach towels, I notice that the Marines have landed and are embarking on a brutal bootcamp screaming at girls in bikinis who are crawling on their bare stomachs across the barracks. Art was right—this must mean war.

“This competition attracts the best players of the Midwest,” one of the south side tournament organizers, an older fella that goes by the name “Mr. Volleyball,” tells me as he offers a chair in the shade of his tent that has become the central hubbub. No sooner than he gives me a pitch on his Sand Socks (a genius product that anyone who has danced over hot sand can appreciate) that his point is proven. Calling for a time-out, one player excuses himself to puke loudly into a garbage can, wipes his mouth, and runs back to his court just in time to spike a crushing blow to his opponents. In another game, a man interrupts the robotic rhythm of grunts and volleyballs hitting flesh to pull a Piniella, throwing his hands up in the air and screaming in the face of his teammate, “Are you fuckin’ kidding me? God, you’re fuckin’ horrible!” (Selena Fragassi)

Life at the Beach: The plight of the lifeguard
Standing atop one of many white monstrosities on the city’s lakeshore, her clipboard falls to the sand practically unnoticed until a heavy-set youth, sandwich in hand, seizes an opportunity for praise from none other than one of North Avenue’s “finest” by returning the clipboard to its red-clad guardian. Meanwhile, another youth stumbles from the water, snatches his beach towel from the tower’s lower rungs and carries on without a passing glance, trivializing the tower’s occupant and her position of authority.
Meanwhile, the remaining staff paddles around the water, rotating with one another every so-often. Among scattered “Yo”s and “Whoah”s from the life preservers, the crowd that flocks to North Avenue Beach amuses itself well, but only on stringent lifeguard terms. Dare to straddle the lifeboat line, and one arrives at a moment’s notice—making the beach-goer suffer by hovering over him, of course. Others are friendly and will shag stray frisbees in order to keep their possessors from harm’s way—perhaps chest-deep water—but the hospitality is all too hard to find. The only guests that are seemingly “safe” from lifeguard scrutiny prefer more shallow areas. A man in a Speedo tries to be a good parent while a marginally better one takes continuous photographs of her child, yet stands in the line of fire of what should have, at that point, already been a lifeboat setting off into the waist-deep water. “Ma’am,” the guard politely hollers, but when his efforts fail, his comrade backs him up with two abrasive renditions of the same utterance—quite impressive coming from mouths that say things like, “What’s the timeage on that?” Nevertheless, as the wading boundary is tight and the crowds are relentless, no one escapes the eloquence of the shore surveillance team.
We’re sorry North Avenue lifeguards, but it’s not your fault. This is what happens when your summer job forbids you from talking to anyone who sits on sand where any attempt for regulation is nonsensical and beyond the job description, so rest assured, Chicago Park District, your employees do not accept ballpark-priced, bottled water bribes to talk about their days to eager-listening land-dwellers, let alone look in their direction. Instead, they endure the hoards of sea gulls that feast on the chip remains conveniently scattered at the bases of their towers and the jabs at Bon Jovi songs that sound off from Castaways while patrolling the lakefront. (Elise Biggers)

Cast Off: An afternoon with the boat crew
“May I take your order?” a severely farmer’s-tanned waitress, called Jenny, asks a group of guys, completely unphased by the fact that they are all shirtless. After taking a moment to ponder the colorful menus, the guys order a list of bar food—burgers, chicken fingers, a buffalo chicken wrap—and a round of beers, which will come in really large cans that sweat away, like everybody else, in the hot, midday sun. When one of them asks for water, Jenny points to a yellow cooler and tells them that, “The water is self-serve,” before settling her aviators back on her face and heading to the server station where a gaggle of other red-shirt-clad servers stand around, the back of their uniforms reading slogans like “Please seat yourself” and “How about another one?” They goof around with one another, enjoying the quiet before the storm that is the afternoon lunch rush, wherein the thirty or so four-tops will be packed with thirsty patrons, and a chorus line of others circle like hungry sharks waiting to snag the next available table.

The tone of Castaways on this particular Saturday, and subsequently every other day, is very casual. Located on the top deck of the Boathouse (the unmistakably boat-shaped building rising above the sand), tourists and locals flock to this restaurant to eat salads with plastic utensils and finger heaping mounds of seasoned fries while the metal chairs cause grid-marked indents into the back of sun-burnt thighs. Since most clothing is optional, people dine in swimsuits and flip-flops, giving this Phil Stefani Signature Restaurant a decidedly South Beach feel. “I feel like I’m on spring break every day that I’m here,” says a blonde bartender who hangs out with her co-workers listening to the band tune up across the way, and waiting for the drinking crowd to arrive. “Once the band gets going things get pretty crazy on the north end of the beer garden,” says a server named Dan who claims, like everyone else who works there, to have several stories of drunken debauchery. “Because people are drinking in the sun they tend to get drunk faster without realizing. It sorta hits them all at once,” says a spikey, dark-haired bartender who’s seen his fair share of people puke this summer. But unlike a typical bar, the people here are usually “happy drunk.” “There’s a lot of people on vacation so they’re here to have fun, not start fights.”

Because it’s practically the only place to get food or drinks, Castaways is the official watering hole of North Avenue Beach, drawing a crowd that’s as diverse as the music piped over the speaker system, which ranges from techno to country and everything in between. “Yeah, I’ve been here before,” says Kristin, a DePaul student who’s enjoying a few more days of summer with her friends before heading back to school. “It’s kinda overpriced, but it’s the only place to eat around here. Unless you bring food, and I don’t cook.” The girls sip Diet Cokes, making the polo-wearing family who “just drove in from the suburbs” look very uncomfortable. Jenny comes by to take their order, then heads to a table of hockey players, one of who is an actual player on the Blackhawks. Once they’re taken care of, a table of twenty-somethings takes a seat and she heads off in their direction, as more and more beach-goers filter in. Over the buzz of conversation the cover band kicks off their set, and the lunch rush has officially begun. (Reilly Nelson)

The Ice Must’ve Melted: It’s never too hot for hockey
The roller rink at the North Avenue Beach is swarming with kids on this hot summer Saturday. Just outside, Comcast Sports News interviews a giant man on roller blades. Dustin Byfuglien (pronounced “BUFF-lin”), a forward for the Chicago Blackhawks, is here for the last day of RollerHawks, a summer program run by the Blackhawks for kids of all ages. Every Saturday for the past ten weeks, about ten of the twenty-to-thirty kids in the program have shown up for one to two hours of instruction followed by one or two hours of play. Today their hard work and dedication will pay off: not only do the kids get a barbecue, a certificate and tickets to Blackhawks games, they get to meet and scrimmage with Byfuglien.

“Byfuglien! Byfuglien! Byfuglien!” shouts one kid as the 6’3” player skates past onto the rink. “I remember I used to think he stunk,” says one kid. “He’s a beast!” agrees another. Byfuglien himself is even-keeled, a Minnesota twang in his voice. He lives nearby, across Lincoln Park, and has practiced on this very rink once or twice before. He huddles briefly with the kids out on the floor, and the game starts up again.

Annie Camins, Director of Youth Hockey for the Blackhawks, watches nearby. RollerHawks used to have up to sixty kids, she explains, but the program didn’t take place last summer. She hopes to get enrollment back up for next summer, and is considering using the footage of Byfuglien the Comcast people are shooting for promotional spots. How did the kids decide which team got Byfuglien, I wonder? Camins points out that the teams are divided by shirt color, and Byfuglien happens to be wearing a plain black shirt underneath his gold chain. It’s not clear how much of an advantage he is, though. He mostly skates around near the action, occasionally making a halfhearted play for the puck before quickly losing it to a bold youngster in a red shirt.

As Byfuglien pretends to body check a kid into a wall, another team lines up nearby in full gear. Their uniforms say “Crystal Lake Voodoo,” and they are here for the Tour Beach Cup tournament that’s about to start. As they take the floor against the Panthers, RollerHawks graduates pose against the rink wall with Byfuglien. While a parent fumbles with the camera, the game begins. The flash goes off, and a player goes down right behind Byfuglien.

The Voodoo are no match for the Panthers. After the game, Crystal Lake coach Brian Rafferty has no doubts about why. His team is made up of 13-year-olds, while the Panthers are all 15. A technicality allows them to play in the fourteen-and-under tournament. Since the rink is smaller than usual, all tournament games are three-on-three instead of four-on-four. Furthermore, his kids are used to playing on ice, which makes a big difference when stopping or starting. “It’ll take ’em probably a whole game just to get warmed up,” Rafferty says.

In a literal sense, though, the kids must be plenty warm. The sun beats down on the crowded beach, the ink from my pen practically sizzles as it touches the paper, and, somehow, the kids play on. (Sam Feldman)

Checkmate!: For the thinking beacher
Just past 11am on this humid Saturday and the Chess Pavilion is near-empty; one guy reads a book, another just sits, and the only sign of chess activity is the yuppie couple playing quietly by themselves. The second man, who sets up a chess board with no one to play, is Tom Johnson, an Arlington Heights resident who has been coming to the Pavilion to play for twenty years. “It takes time to fill up,” he says, “but it should be packed by two or three o’clock.”

It wasn’t always such a long wait. The Pavilion used to be crowded by noon when Johnson first started playing, but tailed off in the nineties as Internet chess became more and more popular. What Johnson (and other chess players, who slowly arrive over the next few hours, as he said they would) sees as a community is slowly being disregarded by players who don’t see the face-to-face interaction as worthwhile enough to leave an air-conditioned house on a humid summer day. But Johnson is here early in the morning, wearing jeans and a black t-shirt to boot, and the day isn’t getting cooler.

Have you ever seen players engage in speed chess? Two players start a game, with a game clock on the side, each with a pre-set amount of time on it. When the game starts, the first player’s clock starts running; when he makes his move, he hits the buzzer on his side to stop his timer and start his opponent’s. If a player’s clock reaches zero, he loses the game even if he’s ahead. Each game starts out normally, maybe a little faster than usual, but as the clocks dwindle down the pace becomes lightning-fast, hands shooting out in half-seconds to quickly jab a piece in a direction and immediately slap the buzzer. One observer is with his friend; they’re both from Austria. When asked if he plays, he laughs and quickly shakes his head. There’s no space to pretend; if you can’t play, you’re going to lose very quickly.

As the Pavilion fills up, people come just to watch. Ted Wierzbickr, a retired senior, used to play chess but stopped five years ago when, as he puts it, he “got too old to play.” Now, he just comes down the beach to relax and watch the players, even though he says he doesn’t recognize most of them.  Like many of the bystanders, he watches silently, taken by the strategizing but out of touch with the current scene. “I used to meet my friends here,” he says, “but most of them have passed away. The old people I used to play with evidently have gone.” (Jeremy Gordon)

This One-Time Offer: Collecting the handouts at the beach
Like free shit? Of course you do!

And marketing execs know it. That’s why companies promote their products in a way that will guarantee a positive response: giving them away for nothing at all. To do this, they hire attractive twenty-somethings looking for a summer job to hand out free samples of energy drinks while sporting their company’s brands on trucker hats and fitted tees. You’ve seen these guys at summer music festivals, sporting events and on your college campuses. And this summer, you can find them amongst the bronze and the beautiful at North Avenue Beach.

A plane flies over the lakefront trailing a banner that features the Geico Gecko. As I walk by (or rather, try not to get hit by) runners and bikers on the path, I pass tents of various DayGlo colors, each marked by a company name. The first to lure me is a promotional booth for Zym, an electrolyte tablet that buffs up water. This tablet is likely intended to fuel those who are way more motivated to exercise on this Saturday morning than I am. Regardless, I go in for my free cup. I ask the man working the booth about his job. Decked out in brand gear, he looks charming and clean on this sweaty beach. He tells me that the pay is bad, the sun is exhausting and the beach gets overwhelming. However, he adds that nothing beats rainy days on the beach when he can sit and read and not have to talk to anyone.

Hungry for whatever else I can get without paying, I move on to the next tent. Here, the people are decidedly less real and the product is less appealing to my immediate needs. A woman wearing blue eye shadow and green filigree earrings hands me a flyer for Zipcar, a car-sharing service that charges by the hour. Suddenly, I feel a bit underdressed.

Fifty yards later, I’m in the middle of a crowd. A lively man spews gibberish and stands on a curtained stage like he’s some bandstand politician in an old Western. I listen more closely to hear that he is auctioning off items such as sandwiches and inflatable flamingo drink holders. This is the Jimmy John’s Freaky Fast Sandwich Auction, the proceeds of which go to the Greater Chicago Food Depository. A great cause, but it also has the intended effect of making me want some food myself. A woman in a bikini approaches the stage to claim the item she has just won, a red inflatable lobster. The half-naked woman juxtaposed with this beach toy is just like a piece by Jeff Koons on display at the MCA. Indeed, this place appears to carry out its own American fantasy.

Flashy promotional tents set up next to modest ice-cream vendors pushing refrigerated carts. These old ice-cream vendors have outlived their baby-boomer era and now remind us that the beach scene isn’t what it used to be. Has brand culture finally conquered the beloved blue lakefront? Is nothing sacred in this city? Oh well. At least I saved fifteen percent on my car insurance. (Cheryl Luce)

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