When you enter the O’Hare international airport as an international visitor, the government of the United States graciously informs you of what you may encounter within its borders and what will be expected of you during your stay:
Do not turn on your cell phone until you have exited the immigration and customs processing area.
You may be photographed and fingerprinted.
You may be asked about the reasons, location and duration of your stay.
You are asked to report any activity in which you have engaged that might lead to hoof and mouth disease, and are instructed how to cough, and sneeze correctly.
I didn’t notice what color of terrorist alert the homeland security announcements informed us were under, and therefore what level of wariness I should adopt. I tried to look appropriately cautious under the gaze of the security cameras.
Generally, the immigration process is without incident except for the inevitable improper use of a cell phone which can result in a STAND DOWN incident if the culprit is not fluent in English or is hard of hearing, which likely was the cause of the improper use in the first place.
Though I have traveled this route many times I still have to ask directions from the ombudsman of the elevator bay, who not only laid out directions worthy of the maze Daedalus, but also informed me that I was now in America’s most dangerous city through his Santaesque guffaw. I could have kissed him for his outrageous display of pride at the title, and his pat on the back when I told him I lived in Mexico and he said,
“Oh! No worries you’ll feel right at home.” But– I was absolutely not to go past 65th street, “It’s a war zone down there.” He heartwarmingly warned me in his thick Westside Chicaga accent. I then invited the horror stricken Belgian couple standing next to us to come with me to the Subway since they had also engaged our enthusiastic greeter for directions; together we entered the first leg of our journey.
I donned my most benign smile as we made our way to the leg of the trip that would put us in a remote, barely marked corridor of the parking ramp and would very likely make my companions wonder if I had lured them off to rob(or worse) them.
The moment we stepped into this circumstance I began pointing at the worn yellow arrows on the floor directing us to the elevator cubicle with the indistinct train logo, in the distance . They looked at each other and shook their heads rigorously back and forth and then slowly up and down, as their ‘warning’ look faded, morphing into ‘proceed’; they hesitatingly followed me along the almost indiscernable arrows.
Thankfully, we emerged from the elevator into a presentable portion of the airport, though the journey is still lengthy, it is well lit and marked. As we walked we were serenaded by ‘official ‘street musicians and the promotions began! With huge backlit photos of happy Chicagoan faces in all the fabulous locals that Chicago will make available to you as soon as you have completed this quest for the grail that is the route to the city trains.
After about a ½ mile trek we made it to the terminal where our next round of instruction in American mores were to begin. Here our international travelers were introduced to what I like to call the US’s if you ‘see something say something’ soundtrack.
Shortly after 911, Chicago city buses and trains began to drone with this ominous and ambiguous warning, “If you see any suspicious behavior please report it to the authorities, if you see something say something.” The obvious newspeak implications of this message were overwhelming to me when I lived here, though amazingly it seemed to go unnoticed by most people in the daily commute.
After getting my ticket, I assured the Belgians they could not get lost at this point and headed to the train as they worked out the logistics of using a credit card in the ticket machine. On the train, the newspeak resumed and we the passengers, were advised to report solicitors, be courteous to our fellow passengers, not play music without headphones, or talk too loud on the phone, not to place our personal articles on the seat, and not to litter.
We were then subjected to a speech by a desperate and pathetic young man. As I listened to his story, I tried to decide if he was authentic or it was an elaborate con, whether or not that mattered, and if I was the only one listening– I was the only one that gave him any money. I thought about giving him what he asked for, 18 dollars, but I only had forty and had no idea if or when I would get more. I gave him my emergency phone change.
It is amazing how quickly city skills return. As I gave him the change, I looked in his eyes to acknowledge him, but… not too long in the case that my eye contact would encourage him to try to tell me his story in more detail.
After the sad young man’s departure I told the Belgian couple, who had chosen to join me, how to get to the loop and not to be concerned when they went underground near their stop, that they would indeed emerge into the heart of the City of Big Shoulders. I was careful not to ask them where they were staying so they would not fear I was stalking them. I then made my way to my favorite part of my trip to Chicago.
It is a magical thing to step out of your life on a mountain in the middle of nowhere and materialize on a bustling street corner in one of the greatest cities in the world.
I love Chicago; you may find this a curious statement considering my lifestyle, and the bulk of this post. I lived here for ten years, and I never quit appreciating what an intense and wonderful place it is, even on the days I felt dead inside from lack of contact with nature (a park can never suffice) or so battered by the constant suffering of the world I had to curl up with the Simpsons and a bottle of wine.
If you love humanity it is impossible not to love a great city. They are like a tortoise shell. They wrap around you and become your whole world, they are difficult to penetrate and no matter where you go, you carry them with you.
Weds August 15, 2012 Chicago, Illinois