Snapshots from Chicago-O’Hare. Nov 5, 2011. 11:00am – 1:00pm
A tired man drops the weight of his body into the padded airport chair. With thick hands, he pulls a wad of napkins out of a paper bag. He pulls the food out of the thin, noisy paper bag. His sandwich spills out of the paper wrapping onto the low table where he had set the bag and napkins. He pinches up a fistful of shredded lettuce, tomato slices, and half a pickle and drops them back onto the sandwich.
Across the terminal walkway, a bulky, young man makes working at the airport McDonalds his own stage. He tries to get customers to come to his register instead of other registers, he jokes with the customers and listens to their stories, he teases his co-workers. He switches between Spanish and English to spread his bountiful, nervous joy.
A stunning African-American family walks into the waiting area. The radiant little girl, maybe six years old, has wild, pink shoes. Her soft, tiny curls are so thick that her shoulder-length hair extends wider than her shoulders. Everything makes her smile or giggle. She climbs into her daddy’s lap and won’t leave though she twists, leans, and crawls around in his lap. The dad is reading something on his phone, and he frowns as she shifts and bounces and throws her arms around his neck and scoots under his arm and then lays over onto her older brother in the next seat.
The dad gets up to stretch his legs. The girl follows him and leans against his leg. The dad continues to read his phone. She reaches her arms up to him, and he chuckles and picks her up. She wraps herself around him. She scoots up higher in his arms and lays her head into his neck. The dad is smiling as he reads. She slides down out of his arms and grabs his hand and swings his arm, laughing.
Next to me, a thin, weathered man with combed white hair and a short white beard is reading an old, square, hardbound book that has English and French together on each page. He marks some pages with skinny Post-it strips, and he occasionally chuckles out loud as he reads. He wears Merrill shoes and wool socks.
An older, round couple sit down across from him and begin to talk together about the trip to Alaska that they have begun. The thin man’s head snaps up and he adds himself to their conversation. He offers information authoritatively. The older couple ask questions. The more the thin man talks, the louder his voice and larger his gestures become. He now cannot stop himself and moves from offering information to giving orders, telling them what they should do on their visit to Alaska. The thin man has fished in each river the couple has heard about on TV. He has hunted in the wilderness they have read about. He has explored on foot the ice fields they want to fly over. He knows when the boats and planes run and when the Northern Lights are visible and what flights take you from Seattle to Alaska. The husband fades out of the conversation. The older woman asks the thin man how he knows so much. The thin man has lived in Alaska for 34 years on a small island across from a small town. He races bikes and swims in the bay.
The gate is crowded by now and a woman in her 50s arrives alone. She is dressed in a bright pink shirt, light green sweater, and grey pants with the elastic band pulled up over her stomach. She wears a plastic, pink butterfly brooch covered in sparkles, and she wears a small piece of carved wood on a necklace. She laughs easily and has long, grey, un-styled hair. She finds someone she knows waiting for the same flight and stands by them, talking and laughing. “I had to go barefoot this morning.” she says in one of her stories. She pulls a t-shirt from her bright turquoise, flower-print carry-on. She is thrilled with the shirt and tells its story. She pulls several books on plants from her bag and tells about each one with wide, excited eyes. Each story is punctuated with laughter.
Seated behind where she stands is a middle-aged woman who glances absently around. Her blue, striped shirt is tucked into high-waisted, plain jeans. She does not wear a belt. She has white, Apple ear buds connected to an iPhone in a pink case in her breast pocket. She sits with her knees together and her hands tucked between her legs. She occasionally presses her lips together.
A man in a beige shirt with chrome snaps for buttons finds the last open seat. He wears rubber-shoed black ropers and an expensive-looking, worn leather jacket. He has rectangle-framed glasses and styled hair. He sits down and digs for a magazine in a large computer bag. He slides down in the chair and opens Field and Stream magazine. He reads every ad and article.
Next to him is a college student with full lips and eyes so dark they are almost black. There is an announcement over the intercom. She pulls her passport from an inner coat pocket and leafs through a pile of folded papers and ID cards in the passport. She stuffs them back into the passport and puts it back in the pocket. She wears fitted grey slacks with light grey pinstripes and zippers that go up the inner seam from hem to knee. She wears several layers. One is a thick, soft sweater of green, black, grey, and white stripes; the kind of sweater with thumb holes so the cuffs cover most of the hand. Her bare fingers move in jerking motions over the keyboard and trackpad of a small, black netbook computer. She wears a couple of necklaces and a green, plaid, stretchy wool hat with a tiny bill. Her thick, black hair is pulled up under the hat.
Next to her, a thick man sits with his legs spread, feet pointing out, each forearm on an armrest. He squints and talks about what he has eaten that day. He drinks from a straw in a large McDonalds cup. His baseball hat and turquoise t-shirt look new. His jeans are dirty and stained. He is unshaven. Someone in the seat across from him hands him the thick burger they could not finish. Between bites and sentences, he belches or scratches the back of his head. The hamburger is gone, and he licks each finger. He holds the cup by its top and sucks through the straw. He shakes the cup and sucks again. It is time to board their plane. He picks up a large, Oakley backpack and a huge military laundry bag and puts these on a cart with wheels. The rows are crowded, and he lifts the cart from one side to another to get through the aisles.
Everyone boards the plane. The gate is empty.
(This was written during a few hours waiting in the terminal. It was edited over most of the day. As published, it represents well over a hundred individual edits.)