It was the fall of 2014 and I had lost the ability to notice when the leaves changed color and to write without relying on a class to give me a deadline. I made excuses for why I couldn’t write; I have too much homework; I don’t know enough; I’m behind everybody else. Yes, these excuses are sometimes valid—but I enabled myself into a Period of Waiting, an epoch of my life that occurs in phases long enough to watch the dinosaurs be born and die off. How was I supposed to break this Period of Waiting? I needed to find something I hadn’t been waiting for.
I woke up on February 2nd in 2015—on the day that DePaul closed campus because it snowed enough to soak and freeze St. Vincent De Paul’s boots in his grave. I walked to Jewel to get whole milk and it was the brightest day in history. I squinted so hard against the snow’s reflection that you would have thought I juiced half-a-lemon over each eye. When I got back, I brewed light roast from beans that I stole from work at the Pig. I also scrambled eggs, which shows how much I’ve changed since I now eat my eggs either sunny-side-up or hard-boiled. I decided I would travel to O’Hare airport to people-watch and write on this day nobody was traveling because it was the most dangerous day of that winter.
I layered my coats and scarves and headed for the Montrose bus from Uptown. This would be the first time I would take the bus by myself. I avoided buses for most of my life because of the Arthur episode where Arthur falls asleep on the bus and ends up downtown; this episode freaked me out so much as a child that I made the same mistake my first day of kindergarten, except that I ended up at a junior high and my principal had to pick up me and my snot-nose and drive us back to the right school.
The toddler in front of me at the bus stop tried to step onto the Montrose bus with his mom but the snow swallowed him up to his chest. I laughed even though I didn’t know if I was supposed to. I tried to read On the Road on the bus (you can laugh at me), but I was too anxious I’d miss a street name over the speaker. I transferred to the Jefferson Park Blue Line where, on the platform, an elderly Asian woman wearing a neon-pink fur coat four times her size pushed hard on the “Customer Assistance” button like she was pushing a chef’s door open. She didn’t need customer assistance and she didn’t wait to see if the button she pushed was actually for heat lamps which made me think she just wanted to annoy the CTA personnel who came out after five minutes and stared at her as she stood at the farthest end of the platform.
I picked what seemed to be the only seat left of all the benches at O’Hare. There were more people than there were animals at a zoo, except instead of feces, the airport smelled like the perfume that all the Polish women who shopped at Justice Fruit Market, my childhood grocery store, wore. The scent was so strong I wondered if these women went to bed smelling the way they do when buying vegetables. An elderly Caucasian woman next to me donned a red coat that reminded me of the one Mama used to wear before she gave it away.
The buzz of the red-coated lady’s phone continued for ten minutes and I began to worry she couldn’t feel. She finally took the flip-phone out of her pocket and talked for a long time with Mary. Mary, I think, was her daughter, because the woman kept saying “honey” and “I love you” and spoke to her so long that the following calls she made to others totaled half the time of this conversation. Mary was on her way to pick up this woman. I wrote down her whole conversation and now I knew the story she’d tell for the rest of her life; “When I got stuck at O’Hare…” she’d begin.
And I didn’t even know what her face looked like. All I needed were her words, the shake of her leg, and my audacity to be a real-life-spy.
The red-coated woman left some fifteen minutes before I decided to ride back home. When I left the terminal, her coat caught my eye as a Jeep pulled up next to her. Mary came running out of the driver’s seat to squeeze the red-coated woman into a hug so big that it seemed like the woman just arrived in Chicago and had not been miserably stuck at its airport. My heart tingled like somebody was pouring granulated sugar into its chambers.
The dates in my journal from the days before and the days after this event show a shift in my inspiration. I had gone from writing only a few substantial journal pieces a month to writing over a dozen. The world had become new again because I did something new, something I wasn’t expecting I’d do. I discovered, on my first trip to people watch and write at O’Hare, that the best way for me to write is to find something new to write about and then write about it exactly as I experience it. It sounds creepy to transcribe a stranger’s conversation and write their actions (especially if you’re sitting next to them), but it is the writer’s job to be the spy of the world. After all, spies carry pens too.