Every time I'm in an airport, I think I'll see somebody I know.
This morning in Chicago, though, things are especially blurry, and they all look about the same. Trying to pick out individuals in the predawn terminal is like trying to tell one tree from another when you're driving down a highway.
Still, sitting at the end of a terminal, surrounded by glass, I'm amazed that all the people around me are uniformly ignoring the beauty outside. The sun is rising out beyond the tarmac -- a brilliant show of soft reds on the underside of the clouds, which bathe the sleek airplanes in a pink glow and silhouette the towering downtown skyline against a rising glow.
I know it's early -- 5:50 a.m., and I'm just off a redeye from the West Coast -- but when this is happening outside, something beautiful that will never happen quite this way again, how is it that so many of us disconnect from it, never even notice? Instead, we talk on cell phones, or stare into newspaper boxes for baseball scores, or watch a screen where happy faces are spewing numbers from the stock market.
Among the sea of faces in O'Hare this morning I see pudgy-faced businessmen with doe eyes, skinny girls who make eye contact with no one, suits who are so polite they seem odd, sleepers in contorted positions in chairs, worried pacers on their phones, and kids running around, still amazed at the sight of an airplane and the chance to actually see the pilots. Mommy, look, it's a plane taking off! Yes, honey, Mommy sees it.
Another thing airports remind me of: malls. And really big subway stations. And office parks. Generica. Honestly, if you were blindfolded, put on a plane, flown for several hours, and plopped into an airport, could you guess where you were without looking out a window? Would looking out a window even help? I suppose it's no wonder people just talk on the phone and watch TV. It's basically all the same out here, anyway, right?
Actually, I know how you could figure it out: advertising. You walk through the Chicago airport and see tourism ads for Chicago -- which is odd, really, because anybody reading those ads has already made their decision, either to come to or leave Chicago.
The guy across from me is also staring out at the sunrise, looking dreamy. For a moment I think maybe we're sharing a kind of spiritual connection, a bond with nature, a sense that there's something bigger, more beautiful, more real beyond -- or maybe beneath -- the unreal culture we've built. Then he shakes his head like he almost fell asleep, takes another sip of his coffee, and goes back to his book.
Did he notice the red in the sky is slowly giving way to blue?
Across the way, people are lined up at a Starbucks cart like horses at a trough, the same trough they're lined up at in every other airport in the country. The woman behind the counter speaks almost no English, but Starbucks supplies the language to go with the coffee. There's probably not a taste of Chicago anywhere in this airport. The folks in the Chili's are sweeping up, telling people they open at 10 a.m. The newspaper guy is dropping The Wall Street Journal and USA Today and The New York Times and The Chicago Sun Times and The Chicago Tribune into the boxes. So many papers from so many places!
I walk over to check them out and look for baseball scores. They all have the same stories on the front page: Iraq and Howard Stern and the president attacking somebody. The Sun Times has something about indictments and truckers; now there's a taste of Chicago.
The sun is up now, and the glare makes the computer screen tough to read. I could swear I saw an old fishing friend from Seattle, a newspaper editor from Memphis, my insurance friend from Portland, and any number of people who might have been, could have been, somebody I might have known somewhere or sometime. Some of them see me looking at them and either snap their heads away or shoot me a look.
I wonder if maybe there's actually a limited number of individual humans, maybe we're all just variations on, say, 135 different basic people.
I've got my own coffee now, my own nipple from Mother Latte, and the sunrise show is long over. It's just a sun shining now, and the skyline is settling back into the haze. The folks going to Wichita are filing out, Indianapolis is long gone, and pretty soon they'll call out for Memphis. The faces in this gate seem slightly more familiar, the folks of home.
Waiting in line to hand in my little piece of paper and take my place in the metal tube that will transport me to another place, I look up at the TV and see that the happy face that was talking about the stock market is now chatting happily with the happy face that had given the weather, and there are other words and numbers all over the screen, and I look out into the sea of faces and see that many are sleeping, many are watching the screen, many are pacing, and somewhere beyond it all, Chicago is waking up to another day.