Back to Chicago--what's left of it

My journey from the east coast back to Chicago began at the airport when my flight was not on the monitor. Did it actually exist? I'm still not sure. They checked me in and, because security has trumped other aspects of check-in procedure -- at the small airport where some of the 9-11 hijackers first boarded -- they didn't bother to charge me for the excess baggage weight. (This is a significant detail, just wait and see.)

Upstairs at the gate area there was still no sign of the flight on the monitors or on the gate area display. Finally it emerged that it'd be two hours late. We boarded. In the air, we were told that we were about to land in Chicago, and then stayed in the air for another half hour. Then we were told that we were in a holding pattern and if we couldn't land soon we'd have to go to Cincinnati. There was, it seemed, a big storm in Chicago.

Twenty minutes later it transpired that we were landing in Indianapolis. Better, I thought: it's closer to Chicago. (Also a significant detail.) We landed around 10. The utterly incompetent flight attendants read the prepared script just as they'd do if we were landing where we were supposed to be, without telling us what was going on: were we getting off in Indianapolis? would we be rebooked? would some of us stay and some of us go? Nada, nada, nada.

Finally the pilot told us we'd have to wait on the tarmac while refueling and waiting to hear whether we'd get to fly back to Chicago. The flight attendants continued to say nothing. They looked about eleven years old (this, by the way, is United Express operated by Go Jet). They also looked alternately bored and anxious. There was no gate crew even if anyone had wanted to get off. We were told this wasn't a good idea, because somebody else who wanted to get to Chicago would take our seats.

They ran out of ice and beverages. Babies were crying. Older people were trying to walk off their stiffness. The man sitting behind me had five cell phone conversations, in each of which he loudly informed his listener that his son liked Bates, that he had a good group of friends, that he had come in eighth in his debate competition on the topic of euthanasia, that he (the speaker) had bought his son and his friends a case of beer, because he'd made a deal with him that he could drink after he turned eighteen, and the college had a policy that beer and wine were OK. (Is this guy an idiot, or what? No college would have such a policy; they'd be in court sooner than you can say Bud Lite.) Two of the conversations were with someone he's having a blind date with tonight. Her name is Heidi. In one of the conversations, he talked about Heidi with a buddy. Whenever he got excited about his prospects with Heidi, he pressed his legs, hard, against the back of my seat.

The first sign we had that we weren't flying back to Chicago was when the baggage truck drove up to the side of the plane and started unloading.

Inside, the gate agents gave us a hotel voucher, and a meal voucher for $10 good only in the airport, where all the restaurants, it being midnight, were of course closed. On a 5:30 flight that got in at midnight in a place other than its actual destination, you'd think they could do better. But I guess there's probably no place to get food after midnight in Indianapolis.

They couldn't tell us what time our flights out were; they told us to call the airline from the hotel room to find out.

Down at the baggage claim, our flight, of course, was not on any monitors. A kind airport employee tried to help me figure out which baggage claim my stuff would be at, but she had no idea.

I wanted to cry. I was scared of trying to deal with my excessively heavy bags, and dreading finding out at 2am that my rebooking was for 6am, or not until 6pm, or the next day.

So, the Hertz car rental counter was open. They had a $150 minivan left. I did a quick calculation. I could deal with my bags to the hotel, back from the hotel, back from the airport--or I could deal with them to the rental car shuttle. The cab from O'Hare would be about $80. The excess baggage charge, which for sure they'd impose this time, would be $50. And what if I wanted breakfast, and it didn't come with the room? And what's the price of sleeping in my own bed with my sweetie?

Three hours of driving through the storm, with driving rain and 40mph winds and admittedly beautiful (but scary) lightning, from 1am to 3am (including time difference, for which I've never been so happy), that's what!

Driving into Chicago was surreal. Just about every other tree on the Midway is down, some of them on top of cars; there's flooding everywhere. It looks like a war zone, or hurricane aftermath. But I'm home.


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