Tres Chic(ago)

I head home today from Chicago. While the conference I'm here for is in the Palmer House Hilton, I'm in the "overflow hotel," the W Chicago. Eurostyle, or so I'm told. I've only been to Iceland, which is technically North America. Or so I'm told.

My plane leaves this afternoon, and I've got one last conference session this morning, so I'm hoping to pack up later. It's early, and I haven't been sleeping well. I open the hotel guide, but it contains nothing as mundane as a checkout time, at least that I can see. The indexing tabs say Yum, Wish, Wired and Show. Where's Leave?

I want to call the front desk, but there is no such button on the phone. There is a Whatever Whenever button. I hesitate, then press "0" — downstairs (I hope), a phone rings.

A woman's voice, young, joyful and vaguely French, says, "Thank you for calling Whatever Whenever. What is your wish?"

Do I get three? A waffle-maker. Hot coffee. And the check-out time.

It's been like this: My room is the last room on the 12th floor, near the fire escape and train tracks. It's IKEA meets Sinatra inside, grays and dark browns; textiles, wood and stainless, with odd flourishes like a high gray leather headboard, and shadow boxes on the walls displaying a silver hip flask, Zippo lighter, and lipstick case. On a shelf in the bathroom is an insistent message from management: "What can we do for you? (Anything. Just ask.)"

Each elevator ride is a rave or a fashion show, depending on who you're with. The holographic multicolor gemstone wall coverings, the über-chic clientele from the upper floors, and the pounding house music make the close confines feel like an absurdly short runway; the same music in an elevator full of land-grant college folks like me has the lack of eye contact and close, bouncing discomfort of a club packed with strangers.

You spill out into a lobby lit like perpetual midnight, and the music changes: '70s cop show. The registration desk is a series of glowing podiums. The walls are lit with giant projections of colorful flowing liquids, a two-story bottomless cocktail. The lobby doubles as a trendy bar, with leather couches that meander and curve so that you face everyone and no one at all and divans unsuitable for anything expect perching bird-like on the edge or passing out.

The cocktail nymph would glow in black light — a pale-skinned, dark haired beauty with icy eyes. Her thin smile says unattainable, but she has thoughtfully chosen to wear a form-fitting black polo shirt as a dress. Very whatever whenever ...

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