THE OVERBOOKING THAT WAS A BLESSING
I'd like to thank United Airlines for screwing up.
Last week, on a business trip, I landed at O'Hare for an early morning connection that the lady at the counter said was overbooked.
She told the guy ahead of me in line that he was number 13 on the standby list. I know just enough math to know that's not good.
Fourteen has never been my lucky number.
He said something angry and stormed away. I stepped up to the counter and theorized aloud that the likelihood of more than a dozen people missing the flight was not good and that consequently the probability of me being on the flight was similarly not good.
The counter lady seemed impressed with my reasoning.
They'd sent the wrong plane, she said, and the one we had was smaller than the one we needed.
So I asked her what we could do. She said I could volunteer for a later flight. I asked when that later flight was. She said it was nine hours later, in the early evening. I asked her if I could be certain of a seat on that flight. She said I could if I volunteered.
So I volunteered.
And then she said some really nice things. Like they were going to give me a voucher for a free round-trip ticket to anywhere in the lower 48. Like she was going to put me in First Class. Like there was a subway station right at the airport and it was a sunny springtime day in Chicago.
And thus began my adventure.
Walking out of the terminal I saw a gift shop selling wares from the Field Museum. I asked the man who worked there how to get to the Field Museum. He told me.
And 15 minutes later I was stepping onto the Blue Line train feeling like I had won the lottery. It's underground for a while and then above ground and stop after stop we rattled along toward Chicago proper and its skyscraper heart. I forgot how the gift-shop man said to get to the Field Museum but I'd picked up a free map that told me where all the Starbucks were and I decided to get off at the Washington station.
My rationale was that Washington was our first and best president and I owed it to him.
The stairs up to street level did smell a bit of urine but when I came out into the sunshine I was on this amazing plaza with a giant ugly modern-art sculpture and impressive beautiful buildings rising on every side. It was the end of morning rush hour and well-dressed people with newspapers under their arms were going in every direction. It was just a little chilly and pigeons huddled for warmth around the eternal flame that honors Chicago's war dead.
According to my Starbuck's map, if I walked a certain way on Washington I would come to Michigan which, if I turned right, would eventually take me to Roosevelt where, if I turned left, I ought to be pretty close to the Field Museum.
And why did I want to go to the Field Museum?
Because it has a gift shop at the airport. And I think it has a dinosaur at the airport, too, but I didn't see that this trip.
Anyway, the walk out Washington was impressive. Chicago is a clean city at its heart and it has kept most of the vigor and swagger that made it great. Most of its buildings make a statement about the American can-do spirit. As I walked I sometimes smelled smoked Polish sausage, and tried to find where it was coming from, but never saw any hot dog carts.
Where Washington meets Michigan it opens out into something I think they call Millennium Square. The stately library is on one side of the street and a nice park is on the other. The buildings along one side of Michigan – facing the lake – are tall and well kept. At Millennium Park there is this giant modern-art building or sculpture that just looked odd. It seemed like it was shiny Katrina wreckage. But there was lots of landscaping and this huge convoluted blob of polished metal, a sculpture that tourists gathered around in awe. It was as reflective as a mirror and the cityscape reflected in it and probably stood two or three stories high.
I probably spent a half an hour marveling over the shiny thing.
Then I walked out Michigan in the direction I was supposed to go. I passed the art museum, where long lines of young people waited to get in. I took pictures along the way. Of a sculpted lion in front of the museum, of odd bits of other statuary, of the symphony hall.
After a few blocks, it seemed like every building was a university or college, their names carved in stone on city high rises. I imagined that they must be pretty expensive places to go to college, as they occupied such extraordinary real estate and had such nice buildings.
I passed a big Civil War statue and the headquarters of Jet magazine. A Chicago firetruck went by trailing a big American flag but it was gone before I could take a picture of it.
Before I got to Roosevelt to turn left I could see the Field Museum and followed a walkway that lead to it. It was a giant building, like a palace, erected by retailer Marshal Field as a gift to the city.
Leaving myself plenty of time to get back to the airport, I had budgeted two hours for the museum. Sadly, almost 40 minutes of that was spent standing in line. Not that there were that many people waiting, just that the people manning the ticket table were that incredibly slow. Several of us in line had a pretty spirited conversation focused on our amazement at how slow these people were.
But finally I got in.
The museum has a huge central hall, two stories tall, all kinds of stone and beauty, a giant, bright open-air display area. In one corner was a guy carving a totem pole. Near him was a woman doing some Native American weaving. Dominating one end of the hall was a dinosaur skeleton. I think it was a Tyrannosaurus rex. Like a dope, I posed for a picture in front of it with my little digital camera. On the other end of the hall were two giant African elephants. Near them was a high school orchestra playing classical music.
Along both sides of the big hall were doors which went off into exhibit areas. There were a lot of them and I didn't figure them out. I just wandered into various ones. The problem with that was once you got in, it was very hard to get out. The corridors twisted and turned through exhibits that seemed to go on forever.
Luckily, I got into two exhibits I liked a lot. One was stuffed animals and the other was American Indians. By stuffed animals I mean creatures somebody shot and stuffed to put on display. The Field Museum is not politically correct, and people love it. As room after room featured exotic creatures and expert taxidermy, people were packed in, in awe and wonder.
It was in the animals that my premonition came true.
Walking out of the subway station on Washington, the feeling came to me that I would see somebody I knew or who knew me while I was ambling about. It is a big world, certainly, but I've learned it's not that unusual to come across people you know in the most far flung and unexpected places.
Anyway, I was walking past some stuffed animals in a crowd of people when I heard someone say tentatively, “Bob?” I didn't think of it, and then the voice, a woman's voice, again, “Bob?”
I turned and said, “Yes?”
“Are you Bob Lonsberry?”
“Yes,” I said. “Are you from Rochester?”
“No,” she said. “I'm from Mount Morris.”
Mount Morris is where I live. It turns out that this lady's parents live around the corner from me, not 25 yards in a straight line. Sometimes her dad comes over and knocks on my door to complain about the troubles of the neighborhood.
She was in Chicago visiting a childhood friend of hers, whose parents are great friends of mine.
So we visited a bit and took some pictures and went our separate ways. And after I looked through the Native American exhibits I headed for the door and the walk back to the train.
I passed several subway stations because I wanted to see more of the city. I walked back to Washington by a different route than I'd come, in order to see more. I went up State and saw more colleges and universities and a couple of times the elevated train went thundering nearby and that was pretty neat.
I was looking for a place to eat, not so much because I was hungry but because I wanted to eat something that was “Chicago.” I smelled the smoked kielbasa again, but couldn't find where it was coming from. Finally, back at the station where I needed to catch the train, I hadn't found any food and was about 15 minutes ahead of schedule. So I explored around some more and found this big indoor plaza with a food court.
All the stores in the main area where national franchises and I figured I could get that stuff at home. Back in a corner of the basement, however, I found a soul food place and a Mediterranean place. The soul food place didn't look that good, which was too bad as I really like that kind of food, and I couldn't quite make out what the Mediterranean place was. I didn't recognize many of the names of the food. But they had lentils and rice and that sounded wholesome so I went up to the counter.
The gentleman who came to wait on me was just that – a gentleman. Kindly, handsome, well groomed. He was middle-aged. I told him what I wanted and he yelled it back to his helper and a pregnant young woman came to the counter.
She was well dressed and groomed and was wearing a Muslim head covering, and she looked to be seven or eight months pregnant. She walked up happily to the counter and said something I didn't understand and the man behind the counter said, in English, that no, she couldn't have any food, as they didn't serve pregnant women there. The lady laughed and the man tried to keep a straight face and then he apologized to me for the joke.
This was his daughter, he said, a lawyer, and she was carrying his first grandchild.
I told her my wife and I had just had a baby and we talked about children and she said she was thinking about not going back to work after the baby was born. She talked about the baby's formative time and how she wanted to provide that. Then her dad brought her meal, a wonderful salad looking dish. And the lady reached for a little cup and scraped some of it off into the cup for me. She said I had to try it.
She and her dad were about the nicest people I've met in a very long time.
And the salad stuff she gave me tasted great.
When I'd eaten I went to the subway place and ran my visitor's pass through the turnstile and went down to the platform to wait for my train. It was about 4:30 and the rush hour was on and it was standing room only on the train. Finally it cleared out and I got to sit down and watch the highways and neighborhoods we passed.
Eventually the train got to the airport and I walked to security, got through quickly, and went to my gate. When they called for First Class I went in and sat down in a far-too-large chair. Then they waited on us in an almost embarrassing and uncomfortable way.
I rode in First Class once before, but I slept through most of it. This time I was awake the whole way, and amazed at the service. They bring you drinks non-stop. And they bring you hot mixed nuts in a little china cup. Then they bring you hot towels to clean your hands after eating the nuts.
And they serve you dinner. A good dinner.
And the guy next to me was putting down beers pretty good, and I didn't see him paying anybody for them.
So First Class is pretty plush.
And as I sat there, looking at the pictures I'd taken through the day, and thinking about that free trip they'd given me, I was a pretty satisfied customer.
I'd like to thank United Airlines for screwing up.
They gave me the best day I've had in a long time.
- by Bob Lonsberry © 2007