Chicago, Chicago – wasn’t my kind of town

storm-106426_1280Do you want to hear what happened when bad weather forced me into the grimmest of layovers in Chicago? Okay, here we go…

So, this is the same holiday back in the mid-nineties, where the Yellow Cab affair had taken place. I was travelling alone. I’d flown into New York from the UK to visit with a relative, flown on to Atlanta to see friends, thence to New Orleans to attend a wedding. It was a great trip, but I was on my way home at last.

I was to fly from New Orleans to London via Chicago O’Hare with a four hour layover between flights (I remember the details so painfully well). The evening transatlantic flight from Chicago would have brought me home at 7:00am or thereabouts the following day.

Heading northwards from New Orleans the weather went from bad to atrocious. Rain lashed the plane and the pilot climbed and dipped trying to find gaps in the turbulence, to little avail. By the time we got to the outer reaches of Chicago O’Hare it had become – apparently – unsafe to land.

You already know I watch too many movies, don’t you? Well, the perils of Airport and Die Hard 2 and any number of other airborne disaster movies were already rattling around in my nervous-traveller’s skull by this point.

We circled Chicago several times waiting for the storm to abate. We rattled and bounced as granite thunder clouds gave way to rain-swept twilight and stormy darkness, as the minutes turned into hours and my four hour layover dwindled.

Eventually it was decided we would be unable to land at Chicago – it was just too dangerous. I hate to imagine the fuel status by this point, but we took off to a regional airport at Rockford, some 80 miles north west of Chicago, in the expectation that it would be less perilous to get the aircraft down on the ground there. We made it in one piece courtesy of the skill of the pilot and I choose not to speculate how close we might have come to the end of the regional runway, or the expiration of what vapours remained in the fuel tanks.

Now, I’m not very technical when it comes to planes, but we were in a big one. Rockford, as anyone from rural Illinois will know, is a small airport – or at least, it was a small airport in 1996. I see from Google that it is today known as Chicago Rockford International Airport, but I suspect this may be in the same spirit as a baseball tournament played by teams from all over America is known as the World Series.

Being on the small side, Rockford was unable to provide exit facilities adequate to a jumbo jet. The best they could do was a flight of wheel-along steps that, when brought as close as it could get to the main exit, platformed some 3-feet below the door. After some debate in the driving rain, passengers were invited to climb down out of the plane, aided by a team of airport workers. It wasn’t fun and I suspect it might have been easier had they let down one of the emergency slides and pushed us all out. It took a while, we all got very wet, it was extremely undignified – and that was that.

After that though, nobody seemed to know what to do with us.

Eventually it was determined that we and our luggage would be put on a coach back to Chicago O’Hare. By then, my four hour stopover having dwindled to minutes, I’d gone from frustrated and anxious to a state of pathetic do-whatever-you-want resignation. I’d missed my flight – someone, somewhere, would have to sort me out another one. We all identified our baggage and eventually a coach materialised and drove us the couple of hours back to Chicago. I’d like to say my unscheduled bus journey provided me with an opportunity to take in the delights of northern Illinois, but it was pitch dark, still raining and I was beyond exhausted.

But that wasn’t even the half of it.

We arrived at O’Hare and were disembarked at the entrance to be met, not by an apologetic airline representative, but instead by a sea of camp beds – and the conspicuous absence of anyone – anyone at all – in airline livery. I guess they’d all gone home to their nice, comfy real beds by then.

If you’re an American business traveller you might be familiar with this practice, but I was not. Flights had been suspended for the night and that meant the camp beds came out. I can only imagine that Chicago O’Hare, being beset by weather which warrants it, keeps a stock of camp beds in a very big cupboard, ready for stranded travellers. There were hundreds of the things, they covered the halls – and they were all occupied.

So I’m stranded at Chicago O’Hare Airport at midnight on a stormy night. There’s nowhere to sleep and every available seat is occupied. There was hardly a square foot of floor to be seen. I was manhandling an enormous suitcase and my homeward journey for the time being, was in hiatus.

I was directed to a giant electronic noticeboard which seemed to offer some hope. It contained the names of dozens and dozens of hotels and some push-button contraption which would automatically dial any selected hotel, so weary travellers like me could – in a more comforting world – book a room. I pushed every darned button on that board and every darned hotel was, not surprisingly, full. As I pushed button after button a man in airline pilot’s uniform stood beside me, performing the same fruitless process as me. “If I get one, you can come and share it with me, sweetie,” he said. The leer which accompanied this offer told me all I needed to know. “Thanks, but no thanks,” I said, although by then certain parts of my weary body were going… oh, go on, it’ll be ok, he’s a pilot isn’t he, what could possibly go wrong? Common sense, propriety and self-preservation prevailed – I’m a sensible girl.

I was on my third run around the board when I dialled a motel which had, perhaps a half-hour earlier, been fully booked. Miraculously they had a room available. They asked would I like them to send a minibus for me? I was amazed at this courtesy and accepted – only afterwards wondering what I might have let myself in for. Faculties weakened, I’d evaded the clutches of a lecherous pilot only to allow myself to fall into the hands of a psychopathic night porter and his mad, axe-wielding cab driver. Those movies I watch – they get me every time.

It was 2:00am by this time, yet the driver who collected me from the airport was polite and courteous and his minibus branded with the motel’s name. I confess I couldn’t help being unsettled even then, as I rattled along in total darkness towards an unknown destination, escorted by a stranger.

We arrived and I was given my room key. It turned out to be one of those places where the carpet is sticky and refreshments come in the form of plastic-wrapped unidentifiables located in massive machines in the corridor. An ice machine clattered away somewhere.

When I entered my allocated room, I understood immediately why it had been unavailable only an hour previously. The bed was rumpled and the pillows bore evidence of heads. By the bedside a cigarette butt glistening with fuchsia lipstick nestled in an ashtray. In the bathroom, the towels were damp. I felt a little sick. But in all honesty, I was grateful to have a room where I could lock the door and rest for a few hours. It wasn’t the time or the place to be picky.

I didn’t use the bed – I slept on top of it in my clothes. It seemed wise.

In the morning I telephoned the airline and explained my situation. They were clearly aware they’d fallen short the previous evening and booked me on the same flight back to London, one day late. I held on to my room until the last possible minute then removed to the airport where I found my resilience had been rewarded by an upgrade to business class. This, at least, was some consolation, and I was grateful for it.

I’ve travelled a lot on business and for vacations but I don’t enjoy flying and, necessary though it may be, I loathe the airport experience that has evolved over these post 9/11 years. It’s a big deal, to get me on a plane today. For the first time since my Chicago experience, I’m planning a trip to the USA which involves a connecting flight – and it’s brought back all these memories. My fingers and toes are firmly crossed for a better experience this time around.

7 thoughts on “Chicago, Chicago – wasn’t my kind of town

  1. I am not a fan of flying either, but I’ve never had anything go that wrong. How miserable it must’ve been. And that hotel room! Ugh, I’m not sure I could’ve survived that. Not without a bottle of 409 cleaner and some rags. But I suppose in the grand scheme of things, the outcome could have been worse. At least you didn’t crash or get abducted by a psycho shuttle driver. 😉

    1. Exhaustion is a powerful antidote to obsessive compulsive cleanliness, let me tell you! All ended well though, and the compensatory business class seat for that eight or nine hour flight home went a long way to redressing the balance.

  2. I see your disastrous plane story and raise you a train/bus story. Back when I lived in the Windy City, we often took the Amtrak home for the holidays. Typical of the season, the trains were packed…so when the train broke down in the middle of nowhere Indiana (I think, all cows look the same at night), we were hustled onto Greyhound buses for the remainder of the journey. The story might have ended all well and good, had the person who brought the bus remembered to drain the bleach they’d left standing in the toilet for overnight processing. All the people in the back of the bus were overcome with toxic fumes. Of course, this might all be a hallucination of the strep throat I had contracted just in time for the holidays!

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