The 40ish blonde does the Bush Era multi-task, blathering loudly and flatly into a cell phone, haranguing the help. She badgers the effeminate American Airlines agent. He appeases her, clacking authoritatively on the computer, raising an eyebrow every now and then, feeding her secret morsels of flight information.
She wants any flight out of Chicago. We all do. We're stranded.
The Sunday before Memorial Day, O'Hare closed for six hours, canceling 70 flights and stranding thousands. Piddling holiday's got nothing to do with all this chaos. It's God's fault. It's weather.
When another white woman demands information from another agent, he elevates the debacle to performance art.
"See the dark clouds?" he says, stiffly raising his left arm and pivoting like Vana.
I'm the only one who laughs.
Lightning has already killed a boy in Denver. When I left there, the sky was brilliant and crowded with white clouds. But 90 minutes into tarmac sitting at Denver International, the word from Chicago was bad.
We waited it out and came on. A tornado touched down in Louisville, two hours south of my desire.
At O'Hare's Gate H1A, I sit nearest the counter, attentive to travelers making moves. Each time a successive flight to Cincinnati is postponed and then cancelled, I'm the first or second person in line for reassignment.
Suddenly the African woman with her aged mother and 3-year-old daughter, the old Spanish-speaking woman left to travel alone, the gay white Yuppie transplanted from Cincinnati and the pushy blonde are my enemies. It's survival of the flitted.
Despite my foot-ear-coordination, I've less than 50 bucks and someone else's cell phone. Nothing beats a gold card.
If I could get to Dayton, Columbus, Cleveland or Louisville, I cannot slay the beasts of holiday weekend price gouging on hotels and rental cars.
I can, however, make columns from lemons. Documenting eases my anxieties.
I help others worse off than I. My Chicago friends are a 20-minute train ride away. A couch, nap and hot shower are mine.
Once the final Cincinnati flight is cancelled, I secure a seat on the 6:53 a.m. flight.
The blonde leaves the counter. She's smirking.
"Where'd you get a flight?" I ask.
Bitch, I think. Her linen's not wrinkled and the sweater tied country club around her shoulders hasn't flinched.
Returning to the American Airlines Support Group, I pass the cell phone to the Vandalia family returning from London. Next the phone goes to the African woman who, cool yet distressed, calls her Dayton brother.
Several calls later, he's arranged a ride from a friend of a friend who'll fetch them at the curb.
I check in one last time with Rare Groove, a Cincinnati DJ coming off tour. He'll sleep in the terminal. I walk the Africans outside.
Becky, a former CityBeat colleague living in Wicker Park, gives me Forest Gump directions to the train. "It's really easy. My station's Damen. Get off at Damen," she says.
"Like Lynch?" I ask, keeping anxiety lightweight.
It's 9:30 Sunday night, and my real life's unavailable. I follow blue arrows to the blue line. A transit authority worker helps me put the fare in the turnstile and I try not to look like a hick.
I try to act like I've been twice to Europe, to Cuba and to many major American cities.
"Is this the blue line?" I ask everyone on the train. Dumb ass.
"It's the only line leaving O'Hare," says an exhausted O'Hare employee.
When Becky wakes me at 4 a.m., rising feels like falling. I shower quickly, fooling my clothes into not stinking. My heart races. Hoards of other stranded travelers are beating me to check-in.
It's 5 a.m., and the train is packed with solemn bobbleheads. We're mostly Latin peppered with blacks. They're Stepford style in dark blue uniforms stamped with gold TRA badges. They're transportation workers paid with the fear of terrorism.
Will they hem me up in security? A pilot gets on.
Will he fly me home? I've been here before. Obsessing, worrying, delirious.
I was detained by a Customs agent my first time leaving Amsterdam. "Are you carrying any meat products?" she asked.
Then the airline cancelled my flight. I spent the next seven hours begging, running and waiting.
Driving from Detroit, where I dropped my sister at the airport, my mother's car quit on the dark expressway. After walking three miles I accepted a ride to the nearest store from Randy, a drunk factory worker.
I know stranded.
Back at O'Hare, terminals are littered with red-blanket contortions, people folded into those small, plastic airport chairs. We reconvene at another hope of home.
Finally, we're called to board the flight. It's not yet 7 a.m., and the day's already long. I fall asleep in seat 2A as we taxi.
I greet Memorial Day not with salutes, flag waving or graveside visits but by watching travelers I've come to know by their O'Hare tales of woe straggle on a plane none of us believed would leave. We'd been there before.
And in this way we're veterans.
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