Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Sweet Home Chicago

Q. How long does it take to get from Denver to Chicago?

A. Approximately ten and a half hours.

Here is how it works. Either get in the car and drive there, or have a day like this:

2:00pm Friday. Downtown Denver.
I am driving as fast as I can to my friend Tim’s house. My dog, Blue, is hanging his head out the window, unaware that I am about to dump him with friends for the weekend while I jet to Chi-town to see his mostly-absent, adoptive father. Blue has a look on his face that says he is pretty sure we are headed to the park. I feel horribly guilty and hope that Tim will maybe take him later.

I get to their house having left myself an extra five minutes to hold Tim and his fiancĂ©e’s adorable baby. I know better than to do this, because all that happens is that I give the baby back and then immediately start wanting one of my own. Which I cannot afford right now. Biological clocks are funny things. Or maybe not funny at all.

2:30pm Denver International Airport.
I drive to the parking garage with the intent of parking in the economy lot. Cost? Eight dollars a day, a major bargain. As I get close enough, I glimpse the red blinking sign that tells me the economy lot is full, full of other, apparently faster, bargain hunters. Rather than turning around and making the two-mile circle that will bring me back to the farther cheap lots, I park in the covered parking at a cost of eighteen dollars a day. I am not happy with the price, but it is at least convenient to walk to the terminal, and there are plenty of spots.

I select a parking spot smack in the middle of an entirely empty row. I grab my purse, pop the tailgate, lock the doors, and go to the back of my SUV to retrieve my suitcase. I pull it out and set it on the ground, only then realizing that, although I have parked in a completely barren section of the lot, I have still managed to be over the line on one side by quite a bit. I leave my suitcase sitting in the empty spot next to my car with my purse on top of it, and get back into the driver’s seat to renegotiate my horrible parking job. Just as I am pulling out, a security guard comes running up to the side of my car.

“Maam! Maam!” he yells, tapping on the side of my car.

I slam on the brakes and roll down the window. “What?” I ask, kind of freaked out.

“Maam, where are you going? You can’t leave your suitcase here”

I smile. He does not. “I’m just re-parking my car, I did a bad job of it before, but I didn’t want to completely load everything back up” I explain.

He looks at me like he does not buy my story, but walks away. As I walk into the airport to check in, I have the very odd feeling of being watched. I feel every security camera trained on me, and know that they are all staring at me, the girl who tried to leave a suitcase-bomb in the parking garage.

Because I am a tentative flyer, I always leave myself two hours between check-in and flight time so that I can relax and have a beer and talk myself out of having a panic attack. Today is no different, and, as far as I am concerned (although Mike would argue) I am right on time for my 4:49 departure. I check in electronically because I am not checking a bag. My boarding pass prints up and says that my seat assignment will be given at the gate. I’m sure, by now, news of my attempt to leave a bomb in the airport parking garage has traveled throughout the entire security network, and I still feel all eyes on me. I wonder if they are holding off on giving me a seat until I have been sequestered on my way down there to have my bag sniffed by a German Shepherd and my cavities checked by a large, be-gloved woman named Roberta.

I give my driver’s license and boarding pass to the TSA agent at the end of the security line. He looks at my license, pulls out the little FBI magnifying device they use to make sure it isn’t fake, and then proceeds to read every iota of information on the card. I am mentally preparing myself to give answers to all of his potential questions. “Yes, I am really 6’1”, no I do not really weigh 155, and no, I was not trying to leave a bomb in the airport parking garage.” He doesn’t ask any of these questions, though. Instead, the kid smiles, and kind of winks at me and says “ I wouldn’t have thought you were that old.”

I smile and blush and say thank you, and I am all the way to the conveyor belt with one shoe off and in the bin when it hits me. Since when is 31 old? I mean, I’m flattered that I look younger than that, but honestly, is 31 really considered old? That just seems ridiculous to me. Am I OLD? I am not old. Wait, am I?

I am still stewing over what I have now decided was a snide comment when I reach the metal detector. The officer on the other side instructs me to remove my jacket and place it on the conveyor belt before stepping through. I now want to cry. I am wearing my recently-fitting-again sassy jeans with a cute, swingy black blazer over a lace, Banana Republic tank top. This particular tank top is one of the favorite items of clothing I own; it looks beautiful under blazers and v-neck sweaters, but it is not, I repeat NOT, meant to be worn on its own. I grimace at the security officer and begin gingerly removing my blazer. I instantly morph from a classy, well-dressed young woman into a wrinkly 31-year old hag wearing a slutty lace tank top that provides a veritable picture window to my bra and belly button, not to mention the muffin top that is spilling over jeans that, while close, honestly do not quite fit me yet. I hang my head and step through the metal detector. If they weren’t watching me before, they are definitely all over me now.

I find my gate and then go to the nearest bar. I am starving, plus I need a beer or two. Or twelve. I order a sandwich and a Coors Light from the bartender who calls me honey, baby, and sugar all within the first four minutes I am sitting there. Sometimes women can pull this off, but everything that comes out of this woman’s mouth which, coincidentally, she has not shut once, seems rehearsed and fake, and she is really rubbing me the wrong way. I stick my nose into my book while scarfing my sandwich and beer. When I ask for the check, I do not make eye contact.

I get in line at the gate to get my seat assignment just as they make the first announcement. “United Flight 958 to Chicago is oversold. If you would like to volunteer to fly out tomorrow morning, you will receive a free round trip flight to anywhere within the 48 contiguous states.”

I am not volunteering. No way. I am going to Chicago. Tonight. To see my boyfriend whom I never get to see. I am getting on this plane.

I am wrong. I am not getting on this plane. I am still waiting in line as I watch my plane pull away from the gate. I did not volunteer; they volunteered me. They book me on the 9:35 flight to O’Hare and send me to the customer service desk to get my free ticket voucher. I now have five hours to kill in the airport.

I am waiting in another line. This time to get my voucher. As the people in line start chitchatting about the various ways United has found to screw them over, the woman in front of me suddenly starts to cry. I ask her if she is ok, and she starts to cry harder. She is trying to get home to New Orleans for her brother’s funeral. She flew into DIA at 8:30 this morning from San Francisco, and she has been stuck here for eight hours. She needs to get home. She has to get home. I am now crying in the customer service line with this woman, rubbing her arm, and telling her it is going to be all right. If she had been going to Chicago, I would have handed my seat to her right then and there. This is so unfair. She and I both get to the counter at the same time with different attendants. She is fifteen feet down from me and I hear the service rep arguing with her. At this point, the woman lets out a racking sob and walks away. I look for her, but I cannot find her after that. I hope so hard that she got home. Suddenly, me catching up with Mike for a fun-filled weekend of dinner and drinks and baseball seems not so important at all. I am done being negative about this situation.

I find a perch at the bar of the airport’s “French” restaurant. I order the fruit and cheese plate and another beer, and I settle in for the day. In a move that is very unlike me, I begin chatting with the various people who come and go in the seats around me. I meet a woman who is headed to Nebraska to watch her son play college football. She sits down and immediately says what I have been thinking all along about the bartender. “Holy shit, nice eye shadow.” I laugh and we fall into an easy conversation.

She leaves and is replaced by Bob and Patti, world’s nicest couple, hailing from the great state of Iowa. Patti has been in Denver for a week on business, and Bob, who is retired, tagged along for the ride. We share stories about all of the great Denver sights they saw this week, and I immediately want to adopt them as my second parents. After over an hour of hanging out with them, I am sad when they leave.

I still have an hour and a half until my plane boards. I give up on my tight jeans ensemble and change in the airport bathroom. The mark left by my jeans across my stomach makes it look like I previously worked as a magician’s assistant, being sawed in half each day for a living. I am so over looking hot for my boyfriend. I am now wearing comfy gaucho pants, flip-flops and a cardigan. Suddenly, I look just as old as my driver’s license says. I’m sure they are also probably turning the cameras back on me wondering if I am gradually changing my disguise. I do not care. I walk a slow, lazy, beer-buzzed amble into the gift shop where I watch a teenaged boy shove a Hustler magazine down the front of his pants. I laugh out loud and he turns to look at me, then hurries out of the store. What is this world coming to?

I wander back to my gate where they are currently boarding a flight for Albuquerque. I look at the departures board for my 9:35 flight to Chicago. It says “Aircraft Delayed”. I notice the girl standing next to me has been one step behind me in every line all day. She got bumped from the first flight, too. She asks me if I want to just cut our losses and go to Albuquerque with her, just to go somewhere. I agree and we joke around about the many fun and interesting things to do there. She mentions that at least they have a Trader Joe’s (something Denver is notoriously lacking due to our stringent liquor laws) I laugh feeling like, if given more time, this girl and I would most definitely be good friends.

I wake up from dozing in my chair to find that my plane actually made it, and they are getting ready to board. It turns out the aircraft had been delayed due to a “customer service issue” Who would have thought?

I take my window seat in the very last row of the plane. I have to fold myself up like a paper airplane to fit, but I do not care. The girl who sits next to me speaks loudly into her cell phone right up until the plane is on the runway ready to take off. She is still talking when the flight attendant, who has told her several times to turn it off, plucks her phone out of her hand, says goodbye into it, and clicks it shut. For some reason this makes me smile. Justice is served at least once today.

1:30am Chicago Time. O’HARE AIRPORT.
Yes, that’s right, I made it! I sprint off of the plane and down the people movers. As a kid who spent many summer vacations in my dad's hometown of Chicago, the streaming, colorful neon lights above the walkway at O'Hare always intrigued me. Tonight, I barely notice them. On the other side of the baggage claim door is my sleepy-looking boyfriend waiting for me. I hug him and he smells like home. Tonight, Chicago is most definitely my kind of town. I think back to all of the nice people I have met during my travels today. I laughed, I cried, I drank a little too much, but what a day! What memories! Now get me the hell out of this airport!!


Maggie said...

I am so glad you're back!

I think I would have gone crazy in the airport for that long -- especially with the security people keeping an eye on me!

My only funny airport story: My husband and I left for our honeymoon from the reception, still in our fancy clothes. As we're going through security, the guard looks me up and down, and up and down again, and asks if I was coming from the Prom. Yeah. That happened.

Crabby McSlacker said...

You are about the only person I know who can make an airport horror story both amusing and ultimately cheerful! Good for you for turning it into a great anecdote--I would have been in danger of pouting the whole weekend. Your approach was much better.

katieo said...

Oh dear.
I will be flying to MI with my husband and three children soon. Standby.
I think we might drive.

yes indeed, 24 hours in a car sounds much better than 8 or so in airports.

(p.s. I totally exhaled as soon as you wrote about changing into those gauchos and cardy. Aaah.)

(p.p.s. Thanks for your nice comment on my blog, it made ME want to cry! :)

That girl from Shallotte said...

OMG. Reading this just made my blood pressure rise! And I couldn't get to the next sentence fast enough, such was my need for relief for you (an myself?) to get out of that airport!

Were you blogging this all in your head as it happened, reminding yourself that it would eventually be funny? Because it is and you portrayed it brilliantly. Awesome story, my friend!

Bex said...

What a great story! Thanks for sharing it!

ThickChick said...

I'm on a blog-break myself - but definitely still checking up on my blogger buddies!

Cara - I'm so glad you're back!! I've had similarly frustrating experiences at DIA, flying United, natch. I know the 'French' restaurant you speak of, all too well in fact! I'm proud of you for not hanging at Paradise Bakery (I LOVE THEIR COOKIES) instead. ;)

Can't wait to hear your exciting news - DO TELL!

WeightingGame said...

Uch, what a story! Can they just volunteer you without asking? Crazy! I feel so badly for that lady going to her brother's funeral. That was thoughtful of you to console her...I bet she'll remember it for a long time.
Glad you made it to Chicago (my town!) It likely either snowed or was 75 and sunny while you were here. Enjoy!