A tiny plane lets us off on the tarmac. For two hours the girl in the seat behind us has been screaming that the plane is too small to fly. Now slack-jawed ground workers usher us towards a filthy lobby presided over by a slovenly duchess whose nose has cauliflowered fantastically.
I get a glimpse of the control tower – massive, imperious, paned in glass glowing black under the grey morning sky – before entering duchess’s battered lobby. Newspapers, orange safety vests, and bits of trash are strewn across the seating. The escalator up and out of this dingy way station is broken, and a pair of old women look up at the frozen staircase with a mixture of indignation and fear.
From here, those who have chosen this gamblers’ form of travel will begin to navigate their route boldly, gamers following clues and signage with confidence that the system works; or they will fall apart, overcome by stimuli, tricked by their own anxieties into interpreting the complex as unknowable, impenetrable, until they lay down shrieking on the glossy terminal floor and wait to be given a pill that will put everything back into perspective.
Being young and travel-ready, we succeed in interpreting the glyphs of this realm and line up for a shuttle that will take us to the next gate. We pass a Chili’s with a line of fat people beading out from it across the concourse. We are both sharing the thought that there is something a bit decayed, a bit ill-assembled, about the buildings and people here. We also share the thought that we should eat at Chili’s, here in America, while we have the chance.
The shuttle arrives and we’re escorted down a flight of concrete basement stairs to a tiny threadbare wagon that buzzes us out onto a massive staging area. I remember the purpose of this colossal realm. Green-glass buildings with rusting steel girders roll in enormous wave-shapes on either side of us. I see letters and numbers denoting the gates. Then the planes. Not just a fleet but fleets of 757s are parked nosing suggestively at the gangways, robbing them of any visual allusion to steampunk splendor. I see the UA logo and think of fiery mid-air explosions.
No, don’t think of that.
I can’t help it.
Now, at last, we are in O’Hare’s airy marbled halls. Here the best people are at work. We find our gate and sit near pretty, efficient flight attendants. A Dominican woman sings orders to her co-workers. Over the loudspeaker, the City of Chicago promotes its bid for the 2016 Olympics, in between warnings that the threat level is orange and that we must report all suspicious activity. I suddenly fear that perhaps I am a suspicious sort of person, with my shoes off and my feet up, scribbling and glancing around me. We have seven hours to wait for our flight home.