My flights from Little Rock to Detroit on June 21 got held up by thunderstorms that stopped Chicago’s drain. Several hundred of us arriving from here and there to the airport on the prairie spent the night on cots in Terminal 3 at O’Hare.
My months over the winter of crossing south India on trains, buses, motor scooters, rickshaws and on foot bubbled up as I walked O’Hare’s Musak-coated corridors at midnight.
India is dirtier, but even at its worst—I’m thinking here of the Marsan Lodge on Indira Gandhi Road in Chennai, samosas stacked and restacked by unwashed hands and a profligacy across Tamil Nadu and Kerala of open sewage canals —it was more appealing. We American whites, initially fortunate in the vastness and richness of a continent lightly inhabited by quickly exterminated aborigines and wildlife and built by slave labor, are well along in the creation of the landscape we deserve.
I was in a bad mood. American Airlines and its mumbling versipel, Envoy, which flies narrow tubes with stubby wings under the name of American Eagle, had been gum-chewers with cattle prods all day, herding us up and down the chute with corporate certainty: GET ON THE PLANE NOW WELCOME BACK TO LITTLE ROCK HAVE A WONDERFUL DAY WELCOME BACK AGAIN SUCKERS GET ON THE PLANE NOW!
Beyond the churlishness of flight attendant Vanessa and the Okie gate woman in Little Rock chewing three sticks of gum and later a breathing but cardboard gate woman in Chicago, I had a bad blister on my right foot from clambering the day before up and down Ozark mountains, and the chiggers had gotten me, and I’d fallen into poison ivy.
By the time knees-in-face 3259 got to Chicago, all the connections were void, and after eyeing a block-long line at McDonalds in Concourse K and having been refused a ride on one of the electric carts that buzz up and down, though I was hopping on one foot, I bought a regular-size Snickers bar for $2.13 and settled in for the night.
We forget quickly, so it is necessary to record these end-of civilization experiences for Jean Luc Picard to recover half a millenium down a narrowing road from our possum-filled ruins.
We’d backed out of the gate in Little Rock a half-hour late at 3:20, waited long enough for passenger bleating on the runway, went back for more fuel, waited again, went back again with no clear explanation to the terminal and finally rushed onto the plane again to avoid losing our window out at 7 p.m. American wanted to get us to Chicago, despite their blinking computers chuckling we would all be stranded there.
The waits had their amusing moments. During our first long delay, an attractive frost-headed publicist escorting a gangly teenage producer of something, mentioned to Vanessa, a lemon-sucker throughout the long day, that Gangle’s seat wouldn’t stay up. Vanessa sent Frosty back up the jetway to get a seat reassignment from the gate woman, who slammed the door in her face and chased her back to the plane, by which time the pilot, who had been morosely silent, told us Chicago was now closed. Vanessa loudly blamed the publicist, “that woman in the sparkly jacket,” so when she returned, blinking long eyelashes from the abuse at the gate, she was met with glares. She protested her innocence with shakes of her hair. “Shut up!” the man beside me in 8A told her, then bent again to his fluttery iphone.
Four hours later, when Chicago opened, a ground crew man in overalls took the mike at the gate, as decisive as Dick Cheney. If we didn’t have wheels up by 7, he blared as though we were resisting, we couldn’t fly, so MOVE IT MOVE IT MOVE IT!
We trotted down the jetway—“jetway!” “concourse!” “Wheel’s up!” “Device!” (the plastic thing that will supposedly drop from the plastic ceiling when American cuts off the oxygen in mid-flight to pay for a vice-president’s pedicure)… Avoid all enterprises wrapped in jargon!—in plenty of time for that seven o’clock lift-off, and then waited, and waited, and waited, while bleary standbys staggered one by one onto the plane.
At 7:15, we pushed back and after a while lifted off and then after an hour and 18 minutes touched down. WELCOME TO CHICAGO’S O’HARE TERMINAL THE LOCAL TIME IS LATE LATE LATE ABANDON HOPE ALL YE WHO ENTER HERE.
My flight to Detroit had gone (or the plane was repainted and traded to Qatar Air for a night at the casino). What to do?
The Agent, an unhappy, sweating man at the end of a long, long line, shrugged. Not his problem. He handed me a blue slip from his stack, from a company cleverly called Travelliance: PASSENGER PAY ROOM – DISCOUNT COUPON.
Travelliance, I’ve learned on my computer, is a “global leader” in what it does.
Buried in the fine print was a phone number. It led to a phone menu, Muzak, and finally a far-away voice from a meth addict telling me none of the hotels which my airline and Travelliance had “organized” at an unspecified “discounted rate” had any rooms.
Addict, responding to my “but?” sent me to a customer service specialist who hid behind Muzak and a promise every 30 seconds of an immediate appearance, for 12 minutes and 16 seconds. Where was I? Specialist asked, not having been briefed. Chicago? No rooms in Chicago. Click.
American, its single glowing eye on its next quarterly, had by then sent all the gate agents but one home. She wouldn’t talk and was surly for having to stay. If you won’t talk to me, who will? I asked. Where’s an agent? “Walk around until you find one,” she said.
The terminal, encountering airline-abandoned passengers for the first time, improvised. At midnight, a group of workers just out of the big house began putting up cots, very close together, near K-1. A long line waited, eyed by guards, each person clutching a white pillow and a thin blanket.
A pleasant couple near me, he a worker with the blind, she a teacher of autistic children suffering from cancer, began to move their cots to a quieter area. A cop interfered. “You can’t do that. Get back over there with the others!” he pointed, then returned his thumbs to his belt.
He was a burly man in his forties. No stripes. Working the midnight shift at the airport. I didn’t ask why. He answer was certain: “Because you can’t!” I recognized him from ’68, still wearing the black Chicago cop shirt, his voice an industrial grind. He was the one who hit the woman in a wheel-chair with his truncheon. I waited until he turned away to pick his nose and slid my cot behind the gate structure at K-2.
“They said you can’t do that,” the couple said, concerned that I’d be taken to the cellar.
As I lay there, my foot throbbing, waiting in dim slumber to be rousted, the brazen lights and corporate noise slapping at me, I nearly wept that the couple had gone without struggle to the cot pen. Resistance to this crass new world is our duty. When did we become so easily managed, or has it always been so? I covered my head with the thin blue blanket and wondered why the feeling surged over me as I waited for the cop, “What fun!”
At four a.m., the inmates roused everyone and took the cots down. Why so early? Because, one told me.
At the Marsan Lodge, the clerk, who ran a few girls on the side, tried to add 30 percent to the bill so he could pocket it, and he wouldn’t give me a towel or blanket, no matter how foul, until I lifted my walking stick and eyed his forehead.
My night at Marsan was better than O’Hare. I understand pimps. All night at O’Hare the taped warnings went on with Gitmo intensity. Don’t do this, or that. Don’t smoke, or else. Tell the TSA about metallic things. Don’t leave your car unattended! CNN would not shut up: a woman with pretty thighs. Bright lights to prevent the theft of ranks of gray unadjustable chairs. Two dollar Snickers. An overweight black woman limping behind her cleaning cart. Captains in their white shirts, all walking fast and thumbing their phone.