I was in transit this weekend. I was heading east across the country when thunderstorms over Chicago turned O'Hare airport into a pack of frustrated humanity worthy of the former "Hog Butcher for the World." I was trapped there for several hours as a participant/observer to this impacted chaos. They called it an "Air Traffic Control" delay--which I believe is the aviation equivalent to driving slowly when a downpour turns your windshield into a semi-opaque waterslide.
As I trekked through the concourses to find my departure gate, I noticed the curious transformation that occurred. The deeper I ventured into the airport, the more the architecture began to reflect the desperation of the stranded passengers.
I started beneath the gleaming glass and steel struts of the airport's newest terminal. I passed by Wolfgang Puck, Hudson News, Chile's and other denizens of the jet-set. Cyborg-like business travelers, electronic gear dangling from their earlobes, sipped coffees and beers with the confidence of frequently-delayed travelers. Plus, it's easier to be calm when you aren't paying for flights and meals. Here I glided along walkways under glowing fluorescent tubes.
But as I journeyed deeper into the airport, the wide corridors gave way to construction littered hallways, blind corners, and broken escalators draped in yellow tape. The information monitors announcing the arrivals and departures changed from crisp flat-screens to dinky RBG monitors dangling from the ceiling.
I left Wolfgang Puck behind, and found myself in the realm of Cinnabun, greasy pizza, and a forlorn Starbucks besieged by long lines of caffeine addicts. The air conditioning died out, leaving crowded hallways hot with unhappy people. Soon I noticed passengers splayed out on the floor like-war wounded waiting for the end to come.
From my quick study of the in-flight magazine map, I knew my gate was located at the far end of a long corridor. But when I reached the end of all paths--it wasn't there. Then I noticed the stairs going down. My gate was one of those basement departure zones--the cattle yards of airline travel. I saw people camped out on the stairs, their bags forming a hasty perimeter around their bodies.
I had little hope as I started my descent.