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Survive 24 Hours at O’Hare

In which the intrepid writer spends one long day (and one torturous night) experiencing the good and the bad of what the world’s busiest airport has to offer

Illustration: Emiliano Ponzi

I arrived on a Tuesday morning, armed with a ticket to Denver that I would not be using, on an airline that may or may not exist, and made my way through security. Over the next 24 hours, I learned a lot. 

For example: The biggest grumps are flying to Phoenix. The iPhoniest go to San Francisco. Those waiting for a flight to Milwaukee should just go rent a car already. JetBlue and American Eagle tie for the hottest flight attendants. Whoever organizes the racks at Hudson News considers Strawberry Shortcake: A Berry Bitty Ballet to be “Inspirational Reading.” The Admirals Club is for smug bastards who would rather block out the sun than give the rest of us a moment of warmth. Anyone under the age of 40 wearing a neck pillow is a loser, anyone over 10 with a stuffed animal is a budding sociopath, and if it were possible to deep-fry existential despair, it would look like a $2.29 seafood rangoon from the Manchu Wok near Gate H5. 

When my editor offered me $200 in pocket money to spend the night at the world’s busiest airport, I said yes, reasoning that it was $200 more than I’ve ever gotten before to spend the night at an airport. The goal, presumably, was to try out the amenities available to travelers. Find O’Hare’s beating heart. But I had a different agenda: Could 24 hours reverse my long-held belief that O’Hare is not, in fact, an airport but rather Beelzebub’s waiting room, a 7,200-acre living colonoscopy full of unhappy souls and Dean Koontz paperbacks?

The interfaith chapel   Photos: Courtesy Chicago Department of Aviation

My first stop was to be the interfaith chapel on Terminal 2’s mezzanine level, where I could fortify my spirit for the task ahead by attending Mass. Instead, Garrett Popcorn’s buttery aroma lured me, though I approached the empty counter with great suspicion because no one has ever gotten to the front of the line at Garrett before, and there I bought a mix of sticky caramel and orange-cheese corn ($5.05).

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In a glassed-in room outfitted with a makeshift Lady of Loreto tapestry and a giant crucifix, I watched two kindly white-haired priests named Donohue and O’Brien conduct a service. Although I am not Catholic, I found the proceedings lovely and strangely touching. Neither the 737 taking off nor the harried passengers rolling suitcases over each other’s feet beyond the windows could stop the Lord from washing away our iniquities. A prayer even popped into my head: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to not eat that popcorn in my backpack right now because it smells so damn good. 

Soul clean but belly empty, I sought out Tortas Frontera, Rick Bayless’s Mexican sandwich place, near Gate K4. All around O’Hare, you catch snippets of people discussing Tortas Frontera’s three locations (“The one in Terminal 1 has the shortest line,” “My brother ordered six Cubanas and fed his whole row on the plane,” etc.). In a bathroom near Gate L6, I heard a German hilariously attempting to pronounce cochinita pibil to his friend.

As I awaited my order, I spotted two celebrated journalists from national magazines in the long line and went to say hello. While polite, both gentlemen were obviously more enthusiastic about lunch. “We took a train from another terminal to eat here,” one gushed.

“Tortas Frontera,” the other whispered. “Is it as good as they say?”

It is, sort of. In an airport, you’re grateful for any restaurant that tries, and Tortas Frontera tries mightily. My handmade cochinita pibil ($12), complete with slow-roasted, antibiotic-free Berkshire pork on a crisp Labriola bolillo, served as a good approximation of Bayless’s beloved sandwiches at Xoco. The margarita ($11) was another story. Herradura Silver tequila deserves a better fate than living out its final moments in a plastic cup in an airport terminal.

Across the hall, I spied Bubbles, a wine bar with a player piano. I heard they stocked a good selection of prosecco and that anyone who wished to play the piano could do so. I wished to, but decided to wait until later. Instead, I settled in at Facades, a cozy bar hidden at the end of Concourse K, to drink a cold Samuel Adams Rebel IPA ($10 with tip) under an enormous skylight. With the sun streaming in, the reassuring soundtrack of a ball game on the TV, and a pale malt blend mingling with tequila in my bloodstream, I felt that rarest of airport feelings: contentment.    

But it was while recharging my phone on the cushy curved love seat in a corridor between Gates H6 and K6 in Terminal 3 that I achieved total enlightenment. Tossing back my Garrett popcorn with filthy abandon and blasting Fang Island on my headphones, I watched jets lift off through the massive window in a choreographed aeronautical ballet and felt a fleeting euphoria. Maybe it was the buzz and mysteriously free Wi-Fi. I embarked on a cockeyed odyssey and began to notice horribly out-of-place upscale shops. Brooks Brothers? Erwin Pearl? Who’s buying suits and jewelry in an airport? “It’s usually men on business trips who have forgotten something for their wife,” said the employee at the Erwin Pearl near Gate H6. She pointed over her shoulder at a guy in khakis and loafers sheepishly perusing necklaces before slinking away. Ladies and gentlemen, keeping your airport economy thriving: America’s army of corporate pinheads.

The yoga room

As my buzz wore off, a melancholy sank in, one that could be cured only by O’Hare’s free yoga room. I’ve never gotten into yoga—my throat chakra is full of fury and ranch dressing—but when I entered the tranquil studio on the mezzanine level of the Terminal 3 rotunda and met a stunningly gorgeous woman named Emily from Kansas City, I gave it a shot. Tattooed, toned, and clad in an outfit so skimpy I could see pretty much her whole Shakti, Emily contorted her frame into improbable shapes on the sustainable bamboo floor while I alternated between unsettling arousal and stunned disgust. After pretending to do yoga for 20 minutes, I returned Emily’s breathy “Namaste” and left to cool off. Less erotic but equally zen, the aeroponic garden towers over the mezzanine outside the yoga room. Vertical vines of Swiss chard, Genovese basil, and Asian red leaf lettuce grow without soil, aided by light pouring through floor-to-ceiling windows. If you need a place to feel ashamed for brazenly objectifying a stranger’s body, it’s as good as any.

Kids on the Fly

To repair my fractured karma, I needed culture. And culture I found in Ice: Portraits of Vanishing Glaciers, a wonderfully random collection of photos near Gate F1. Just down the Terminal 2 corridor is Kids on the Fly, an interactive aviation exhibit to frolic in, though it turns out if you’re a middle-aged man without your kids and giving off skeevy postyoga vibes, you may not feel welcome. Better to visit the Butch O’Hare exhibit beneath a giant F4F-3 Wildcat around the corner from Terminal 2’s TSA security screening and learn the sad history of the man the airport is named after. Dude shoots down five Japanese bombers in four minutes over the Pacific and all he gets is his name cursed every time a flight to Dallas is delayed. Tough break, Butch.

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I was nosing around Hoypoloi, an eclectic art gallery obsessed with bronze frogs near Gate B6 in Terminal 1, when I heard a jazz version of “See Emily Play” and realized I had jacked up my shoulder in the yoga room. Good thing for the Terminal Getaway Spa next to Gate B12, where I sprang for a wonderful deep-tissue massage ($23) administered by a large man with meaty hands that emitted pure sunshine. Within 10 minutes, he had worked a grapefruit-size knot from my upper back.

For dinner, I perched myself on a swivel stool at Terminal 2’s sleek Wicker Park Seafood & Sushi, which my masseur had recommended (after suggesting Tortas Frontera). The long blue-toned bar was filled with pristine sashimi, nigiri, and people Skyping on iPhones. No one’s in a hurry at Wicker Park Seafood & Sushi, least of all the sushi chefs, who apparently go all the way to Wicker Park to get the fish. I liked my eel roll ($10), spicy salmon-tuna roll ($9), and miso soup ($4), but wish I had avoided the cloying Skinny Buddha ($14.49), a cocktail of Hendrick’s gin, sake, and cucumber and an insult to Buddhists and skinny people alike.

My plan to get a haircut at the gentlemen’s barbershop on the other side of security, in the underground walkway between Terminal 2 and the parking garage, hit a snag when I realized that it had closed at 7 p.m. Then all at once, everything else started to shut down, including the shoe doctor, the yoga room, and pretty much every restaurant and bar.

Oh no. Bubbles.

I hustled back to Terminal 3, only to find the wine bar’s plush chairs upside down, the player piano empty, and a bartender wiping up. “We close at 9,” he said. It was 9:02. I eyed the piano longingly. He shook his head.That’s when O’Hare’s shadows began creeping in and my wandering became aimless, desperate. The guy driving the little airport car honked at me for no ostensible reason. I played Which Flight Sounds the Worst, which ended in a tie between the 8:40 to Harrisburg and the 9:25 to Flint. I sat down at Gate G20 with passengers bound for Fargo in hopes of hearing some good accents. Then the power-tripping horn whore honked at me again from the other direction. When I found myself watching live lacrosse on TV, I knew the airport officially had nothing left to offer. So I circled back to the Love Seat of Complete Consciousness, which, now that I was sober, proved to be an unforgiving curved four-foot cushion in an echoey corridor.

Our hero’s overnight perch

Around 12:45 a.m., using a wadded-up thermal shirt for a pillow, I drifted off. It was less a drift than a shove, a desire to be anywhere else—say, the Singapore airport, in a reclining leather chair in its free private napping area, or at its butterfly garden, nature trail,  pool, free movie theater, or four-story slide. But my lot in life right now was four feet of squeaky pleather, numb and pretzeled legs dangling, back twisted into a question mark. No human could fit on this thing. Emily, maybe. Oh, Emily …

My long night on the little scoliosis crib, during which the thermal shirt alternated as a pillow when my neck got sore and a blanket when my body went into hypothermia, ended in pathetic surrender at 6 a.m. Around me, bodies sprawled on love seats, shifting, moaning, stiff, miserable. The corridor, which, apart from a few janitors and employees passing through, had been quiet most of the night, was waking up. Just a few hundred feet away, I found Concourse K in full swing. Tortas Frontera already had nine people in line.

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“Long night?” an enthusiastic waiter asked as he slid a fresh-squeezed orange juice ($3) on my table at Wolfgang Puck Café. I grunted my desire for a goat cheese omelet ($13), which I ate while watching the sun rise over Terminal 3. Really great omelet, the sort of gooey-fluffy specimen that gives you an inexplicable rugged hope for the day. The kind of omelet that tells you an airport can be a pleasant place, to a point, and that point is roughly 9 p.m., when it morphs into something eerie and stuffy and a little sad. But every morning, the air and action refresh, and the whole thing starts over with an optimistic energy. New day rising, circle of life, that whole thing. 

While paying the check, I felt a niggling itch in my bellybutton, which, upon further inspection, turned out to be a sticky shard of Garrett popcorn. Did I eat it? Yes, I did. That’s when it was time to go home.

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