Is Not Chicago

I was 19 when I flew for the first time – July 31, 1995. It was out of Seattle, with a connecting flight through Chicago. It doesn’t matter where I was going because in the end I wouldn’t really get there. I would be riding a Metro bus back to downtown Seattle before the following day was over. The plane landed at O’Hare and the pilot said there would be a delay before we’d be able to exit. Then he drove the jetliner around the airport. I’m not sure if we did a complete circuit of the airport – it seemed like it. We wheeled around a few terminals, crossed an overpass over a freeway, and then crossed back the other way. Finally we pulled up next to a terminal and stopped. The pilot got on the intercom and explained that he’d been stalling all this time. There was a crew working on our gate’s skybridge, but it wouldn’t unfold, and they finally decided that we’d exit the plane onto the tarmac and walk over to the terminal. The rear exit was opened and passengers filed out onto a staircase that had been wheeled up alongside the plane. I followed the line out, stepped onto the little platform, and recoiled with a gasp. I was choking on dry air. Chicago was having record high temperatures – it had been all over the news. People were dying from heatstroke. Somehow my flight to Chicago and the news of the exhausting record heat had not connected in my head. I walked fifty yards through the searing heat to the terminal’s entrance, and then into a cavernous chilly air conditioned airport.

August 1, 1995 found me standing somewhere in the middle of the same airport, lonely and disappointed. I had to re-check my luggage – a clunky external-frame backpack – and then find the gate for my flight back to Seattle. An American Airlines clerk gave me a boarding pass and tagged my bag. She pointed me to the conveyor belt where I needed to drop the bag. I walked slowly over and an idea flickered through my head. I could walk past the conveyor belt, follow the picture signs to ground transportation, and take whatever transit there was into the city. I’d find an apartment and a job, and I’d live there in Chicago, just because my bad luck had landed me there. I knew nothing about Chicago except that there was a river and a bunch of bridges. I had never even thought of living there until that moment. It was just the kind of thing I could picture myself doing. (I dropped my bag onto the conveyor belt.) It would great. It would be an adventure. I wandered over to my terminal and bought a slice of pizza. Hey, I know something about Chicago – Pizza! In the course of my musings, I hadn’t thought once about the only thing I did know about Chicago — that, at that moment, it was probably very hot.

I flew for the fourth time on August 1, 1995. We descended into Sea-Tac and I watched the sun set from above, and then from inside, the clouds. It was dark outside when I got to luggage return. My backpack slid down onto the luggage carousel without its aluminum frame. The frame came along a few minutes later. I sat on a bench and reassembled the pack. When I had it all together, I followed the airport signs to the Metro bus stop outside.

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