I traveled to Chicago this past weekend to see family at a couple of functions, including a Cubs game that swiftly turned into a second Cubs game when the end of the regular season forced a one-game divisional playoff conveniently timed before my flight back to Duluth on Monday. After the Cubs lost that game to the Brewers, a cousin and I had a text exchange in which he wondered if I might somehow befall some weather that would leave me in Chicago through the next night yet another Cubs game, their one-game Wild Card showdown with the Colorado Rockies. Alas, the forecast looked pretty good. “Shame,” he replied. In retrospect, I should have just bought a ticket.
Monday evening begins innocently enough. The sun comes out by the end of the ballgame, and while a few raindrops fall on me on my walk from dinner to the Blue Line, nothing seems ominous. I get to O’Hare with an hour to go until my flight, fly through security, and board the plane sure I’ll be home by 11:00, a perfectly reasonable hour. Even when parked out on the tarmac due to some incoming weather, no one seems to suspect a long delay. How wrong we are.
This isn’t a total horror story. If I’m going to spend three hours next to someone on a stationary plane, it might as well be Eje Johansson, a longtime Swedish hockey player, NHL scout, and coach who forged a friendship with Duluth’s Tom Wheeler, and sent his kid to play for a year at Duluth East in the 80s. He tells me stories of his hockey travels across Europe and the United States for most of the delay. But after a few hours even that gets old, and we resort to gazing out at the lightning that continues to flicker over us. A bit after 11:00, the pilot announces we must conform to FAA regulations that prevent planes from sitting on tarmacs for more than three hours. We head back to the gate, and shortly after most of the plane’s passengers disembark around midnight, the gate agent announces that the flight won’t go until 8:00 the next morning.
The United customer service line provides an effective method to kill the first of my eight hours of unexpected layover. My fellow sufferers and I wait beneath Concourse B’s watchful Brachiosaurus skeleton, and wonder whether we will become skeletons before we get to the counter. At one point a United employee comes out and yells some just-inaudible details, after which some people walk away with pink vouchers never to return, but other people swiftly latch on to her, and she cannot escape to make her announcement again. The Asian college-aged kid on my flight gloms on to me and asks me a lot of questions that I cannot answer. A guy who probably works for Epic comes up and asks if anyone else in line can chip in $50 on a $200 Lyft to Madison, and another guy who probably works for Epic immediately volunteers. Never has Madison sounded so alluring.
When I do finally get to the service counter, an upbeat yet thoroughly blasé man gives me my options: call a mystery number to get a discount for a hotel room for a few hours, or accept United’s care package of a blanket and a water bottle filled with toiletry fun. I shake off the temptation to stick around for the Wild Card game, take the latter option, and resign myself to a night in O’Hare. Someone comes down the line and gives me a $10 meal voucher in the name of Ruthanna Seidel. Between now and 4:00, though, the only options in all of O’Hare are a Starbucks and a McDonalds. My kingdom for a bar, however overpriced and mediocre it might be. Rumors flit up and down the line of cots available somewhere, but no one says anything of such luxuries to me. I am resigned to my fate.
I wander Concourse B in search of a passable place to sit beneath my blanket and achieve something approximating comfort. This is hard to do. Every waiting area by a gate has an obnoxious TV that still blathers away, and most chairs have arms, as if the designers of O’Hare were afraid that vagrants would wander in and start napping in the concourse. Eventually I find a bank of four chairs with outlets opposite a couple of bathrooms and a United Club, which is dark at this hour. I settle in to the steady drip of water down from the ceiling and into the scattered buckets along the concourse. American infrastructure at its finest. Every ten minutes, a warning orders us not to use unauthorized ground transportation options; only on much rarer occasions do we hear the lines about unattended bags and liquid regulations. Priorities, I suppose.
Around 2:30 a British man ambles up the concourse filming the emptiness. He stops before one of the buckets collecting dripping water and narrates as if it were a nature documentary. “There’s nobody here!” he says as he pans past me. “I’m not nobody!” I want to yell, but the circumstances would suggest otherwise. Narration aside, the concourse is devoid of any talk, with just a few lost souls meandering past from time to time. Repeat passersby include a lost-looking kid in a suit who goes for five cups of coffee, a Santa Claus lookalike in a sweater vest, and a man in cowboy boots and a blouse.
Even in the wee hours of the morning, though, there is steady activity on Concourse B at O’Hare. Most of the people in action are just invisible to many of the ticketholders. The maintenance work is unending, with steady processions of people cleaning floors or bathrooms or just driving small vehicles dangerously close to my feet. Over by gate B4, two men are painting the wall; around 2:00, a couple of women head into the United Club to restore it for the morning business crowd. A man wheels an overflowing bin of garbage bags up to the bathrooms across the way as they’re getting cleaned and demands the basura. Bring out your dead!
Shortly after 3:00 a man from the Madison flight joins me on my bank of chairs. We make brief small talk, but I am increasingly incapable of conversation. He nods off. I huddle beneath my blanket and pull out the laptop to start this account. Just before 4:00, there are some signs of life: new employees check into a locker room next to me, some restaurant prep work begins, and the United Club reveals that its cool-looking dark blue mood lighting is just the glass on the doors, and the interior is bland and tan. I feel somewhat less like a plebe. I’m halfway through my sojourn.
The worst moment of my ordeal comes when I finally start nodding off around 4:30. “Wake up!” some soulless, demon-possessed woman says as she walks by. I start to life and give her a look. Judging by her reaction and rush of apologies, my look has conveyed the desired combination of hurt, betrayal, and murderous rage. No acting is necessary, yet I embellish it with a little more anguish and a near-tears shake of my head. This earns me another cascade of apologies, which goes a very slight distance toward atonement for her mortal sin. I hope her flight got canceled and she was forced to take a Megabus to Omaha.
Now wide-awake, I spend the next half hour contemplating the human capacity for evil. The crowd slowly thickens with early-morning business travelers, and I’m left feeling like a disheveled wreck. I go sit on a toilet for a while, and have the revelation that this is the most comfortable I’ve been all night: it’s actually warm in here, I can recline against a wall instead of an advertising board, and I have privacy and quiet outside of the white noise of stall doors and toilet flushes. I’m not quite at the point where I want to spend three more hours in a bathroom stall, but it is tempting.
I wander the length of Concourse B in a lethargic daze. I reach one of the Starbucks outposts at the far end and make use of Ruthanna’s meal ticket, though its $10 value can’t even cover a yogurt parfait and a grande chai. I consume them with little fanfare in the seating area for a gate across the hall. Here, there are paired seats without bars between them that have allowed the vertically impaired to lay down to sleep, though the seats are coming apart at the seams. I conclude I wouldn’t have survived here anyway, as the incessant babble of inane cable news pours forth nonstop from the speakers. On my next circuit of the concourse, I carefully search to see if there are any seats off the main hallway that are not within earshot of such misery. There are none.
Communication with friends, family, and work colleagues who are now awake distracts me for the next hour. A lack of flight attendants leads the flight to depart the gate some 50 minutes later than scheduled, and we spend another half hour-plus taxiing about the airport and sitting in lines of planes waiting to take off. The flight itself is on the bumpy side, but mercifully short, and I manage to doze off for a chunk of it. Eje Johansson is excited to see that winter is on its way.
As I await my bag at the baggage claim in Duluth, I drop my new United water bottle. It shatters, and water spills all over the floor. This seems somehow fitting, though to United’s credit, the weather was beyond its control and all of the people I interacted with who tried to sort things out did their jobs as they should have, usually with a smile. Sure, there are annoyances with vouchers and lack of communication here and there, but no person can really take the blame for my thirteen hours of O’Hare hell. Except for that satanic woman who had the nerve to wake me up for no reason, of course. I hope her Megabus to Omaha broke down in Iowa, and she is stuck in some sorry motel tonight.
Few places remove identity quite like an airport: first we’re all cattle in the TSA lines, then we get herded on and off of planes. Airports are in some ways rigidly stratified, with pre-check lines and United Clubs and special boarding groups, yet a delay for one is a delay for all. Airports lack the grandeur and street life of a major train station, and just try (often falteringly) to move people around efficiently, with no care for comfort. They are places only in their role in moving people to other places. Up in the Air, the 2009 film that featured George Clooney as a placeless drifter who racks up obscene frequent flier miles as he travels the country firing people, had the diagnosis right.
Somehow, I still found some faltering Zen in that deadened early morning concourse. I write some reassuring words and reclaim air travel in my mind. The view from a window seat can still make my day after many years of flying, and the Duluth airport is the anti-O’Hare in its comfort and ease of use. Some of my more enjoyable travel experiences have come commiserating at an airport bar or in the interminable wait at the gate with fellow travelers. It might never have the romance of a train trip or the freedom of a road trip, but planes do make things possible that wouldn’t otherwise be, like my attendance at that division championship on Monday. Sometimes the journey is very much not the destination, but brings rewards nonetheless.
And I hope that motel in Iowa has fleas.