Chicago I: The Pink and the Brown


For as long as I can remember, the city of Chicago has fascinated me.  I’m not sure why, but it probably has something to do with John Hughes, Bob Newhart, Ferris Bueller, Airplane and deep dish pizza.  I have been there eight times since the summer of 2001, including three trips in the dead of winter, none of which bothered me (though I did have to make a pit stop at Lori’s Shoes, aka “The Sole of Chicago”, for an extra pair of wool socks once). Chicago is the only place I’ve been in the world that looks and feels exactly the way I imagined it would – and the only place that feels as much like a city as New York. I love the architecture, I love the food, I love the shopping, I love the history, and I love the people. Sure, they’re a little less svelte than the average New Yorker, but still. They’re friendly and they still think brunettes are a novelty.  I suspect that in a past or alternate life, I lived in a sprawling penthouse apartment in the Gold Coast and wore clothes purchased at Sugar Magnolia to my job as a crackerjack copywriter at Leo Burnett.

The view down from the 103rd floor
The view down from the 103rd floor

But in my current life, I reside in a less-than-sprawling 1 BR in over-priced Manhattan, and the city whose name means “smelly wild onion” in Potawatomi is still a plane ride away. So Keith and I decided to spend Labor Day weekend there, inspired by the newly opened “Ledge”at the newly renamed Willis Tower (better known as the Sears Tower). “The Ledge” is actually three 10×10 glass-walled, glass-bottomed boxes that jut several feet from the 103rd floor skydeck. “They” claim it can hold five tons of human weight, which is good, because that’s about how much pizza we ate at Giordano’s shortly before making the pilgrimage.

After Giordano’s and the trip up to the 103rd floor, we were both feeling a smidge bloated.  The only remedy I had with me was the chewable form of Pepto Bismol – bright pink tablets that taste like cherry-flavored chalk but are weirdly kind of good. I’d never actually taken Pepto before, if you can believe it. It just wasn’t my go-to drug of choice for stomach ailments. But, the chewable form was easily portable and complied with NTSB regulations, so I kept a pack in my bag  just in case.

The following morning, Keith rose early, as he usually does, and went for a run along Lake Michigan.  I did not rise early, as I usually do not, and I did not go for a run along Lake Michigan. I did, however, wake up with a strange rubbery taste in my mouth. I didn’t panic at first, although I thought it was odd, as I did not recall having eaten anything made of rubber. Nor did I think of rubber as the kind of thing that “repeated on you,” as Jan and Lew would say.

During the denial phase of my extended wake-up process, I decided that my rubber breath was most likely a delayed reaction to the industrial strength tooth glue the dentist had used a few days back whilst installing a porcelain overlay on a badly broken pre-molar.  (That’s another story – it involves an olive that was supposed to be pit-less.)  Nothing to worry about. 

Until I went into the bathroom and saw my tongue, that is. It was … wait for it … dark brown. [Insert Law & Order “dun dun” sound effect]

Ew! OMFG! Ew! What the hell is that?!!! 

My knowledge of freak diseases is quite impressive for someone who never went to medical school or appeared on the FOX drama House. But in all my years of practice I had encountered nothing whose symptoms were dark brown tongue and tire taste.

I cannot convey to you the terror that came over me.  What kind of rare, unimaginable condition had I contracted on the subway en route to work? What weird virus had been lurking on the baggage claim at O’Hare? Was this a sign that my internal organs were disintegrating and causing some enzymatic by-product to travel up my throat? Should I prepare to puke out my gallbladder? Should I call 911?

Frick on a discolored stick.

I did the only thing I could think to do. I rang Lew.

“Lew! I have a strange medical question,” I said, not wanting to worry him but quite sure he was going to tell me I needed a biohazard suit to protect the city of Chicago from whatever I had.

Such a question is not unusual. I pose strange medical questions to Lew on a regular basis, and nine times out of 10, his answer is either “stress” or “pulled muscle.” I could be bleeding to death on the side of a deserted road from a gunshot wound and Lew would tell me it was just a pulled muscle.

But in this case, he was truly stumped.

“A brown tongue?” He was silent for a few seconds. I waited for him to tell me it was a pulled muscle. But he couldn’t. Because he knew what I knew. That I obviously had a rare filovirus/protazoa/bacteria/fungus/prion morph usually found only in male wild gazelles in the  jungles of Nambia.

It may look pretty and pink now ...
It may look all pink and pretty now ...

I thought it might be worthwhile to mention the Pepto ingestion, on the off chance that had something to do with BTRT (Brown Tongue Rubber Taste) syndrome.

Get this: IT DID!

Evidently, the bismuth and the salicylate in Pepto can separate after ingestion, combine with the sulfur found in spit, and create something called bismuth sulfide. Delish!

After a few minutes of over-zealous tongue brushing, I was able to restore most of my tongue’s original color. The rest — which couldn’t be reached via toothbrush without a major gag — faded as the day went on, as did the yummy rubber taste. But wow. Note to self: travel with Zantac and Mylanta from now on.

Chicago I: The Pink and the Brown

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