Late at night, things began to get weird on the F Concourse of O'Hare International Airport. December 26, 2009. Snow outside. On the F Concourse, children roamed unsupervised, giving wet willies to stranded passengers who were sleeping on the floor. I saw a stooped 90-year-old lady win a fistfight against a Mexican teenager. I think she may have had a knife. She pivoted on a heel in front of the Departures/Arrivals screens, asking "Who else wants a piece?", ready to level all comers.
At one point an eagle swooped through the concourse in pursuit of a team of white laboratory rats, causing travelers to trip over their luggage to get out of the way. The fact that there were rats running through the airport was easy enough to explain -- they could, for example, have escaped from the luggage of some traveling experimental scientist. But where did the eagle come from?
In fleeting moments, there was a sort of camaraderie among the passengers, us against the airlines. (Which reminds me: DO NOT FLY UNITED. DO NOT GO TO O'HARE. Those are my pieces of advice to you.) But we also turned on one another, Lord of the Flies-style. I am guilty myself, though I am not the only one. A reasonably nice guy bound for Stevens Point, Wisconsin, started talking about how United ought to open more customer service stations and I said, somewhat snidely, "Yeah, you should really say something about that." As if his perfectly reasonable complaint were just too stupid an observation to verbalize.
Hours earlier, a group of people bound for Fort Wayne, Indiana, were marched out through the snow, put in their plane, where they sat for hours. Then they all came back inside. Then they sat at the gate for hours longer. Then their flight was cancelled. And they were shocked that they would not make it to Fort Wayne, Indiana that night. I watched it happen. This was the essence of the experience of that day.
I saw a young woman with curly hair sobbing as she walked through the concourse pulling her bags behind her, tears streaming sideways across her face.
They opened a third customer service station and a murmur went through the line, as if things were finally beginning to look up. A group of teenage girls tried to cut in line -- pretending they were just starting a new line in front of the new service station instead of joining the one long line we'd all been shuffling through like dead-eyed zombies for more than two hours. As if they had discovered a secret the rest of us didn't know. They got a lecture over the loudspeaker from a bearded customer service worker. Not that it would have mattered, anyway. The new station saw exactly one passenger before the bearded man disappeared into the back room again.
I believe the F Concourse of O'Hare International Airport was only hours away from devolving into a sort of post-apocalyptic universe of powerful warlords, robust trade in sex and illicit drugs, violence and contagion throughout the land. And I was prepared to fall in line with any charismatic leader who could promise me things. Not so much promises of escape -- it was too late for that, we would be in the airport forever -- but rather the promise that we the passengers could rise up to punish our oppressors. I would have been down for that.
Luckily, I have a permanently reserved private suite at the O'Hare Hilton, to which we now retreated. We were pursued by a pack of filthy travelers pleading to share our bed, offering inducements -- sex, chocolate, a controlling interest in various major companies. Laura had to mace a number of them as we ran for the elevator.
In the room, I opened the curtains and looked out across the snow and the parking lot on the other side of the airport, and I saw vagrants gathered around a fire they had started in an oil drum, and in the snow on the top level of the parking deck, in tremendous letters visible only from above, the message was spelled out: DO NOT FLY UNITED. DO NOT GO TO O'HARE.
Laura and I sprawled across the silk sheets, ordered two of every item on the room service menu and two bottles of Dom Perignon and then fell asleep without eating or drinking a thing.
[Note: This account has been lightly fictionalized.]