Crowds and Loneliness and Passive Social Wandering

I love airports. I loved them long before I went to work for the airlines, back when an airport drop-off meant getting to sit in the terminal and watch the planes load and embark. I loved them when driving to nearby Chicago meant seeing planes ascending and descending amid the cityscape of red morning skies. I love them now, even when they mean lines and delays and probable hassles.

Airports have this magical feel to them. Even after all the bureaucracy and commercialization of the aviation industry, an airport, to me, is this epicenter of action and excitement, this gateway to endless possibility. I love the screens that broadcast arrivals and departures, and when it storms, I love watching them flicker and change before my eyes, black and then red.

Chicago’s O’hare airport has a special place in my heart. I lived there for so many years, sometimes literally, with nights spent sleeping on a recliner in a crowded airline crew lounge. It was the place, for almost a decade, where I spent each Thanksgiving or Christmas. It was the place where I became myself and where I felt most comfortable. The blue-grey pillars and columns with expansive windows and noise were part of me, and I suppose when I was in uniform, I was probably part of them.

O’hare gave me an appreciation for early mornings. 4am at O’hare airport is a quiet,sleepy peaceful I often long for these days. As a mother of two young children and an admitted workaholic, quiet-sleepy-peaceful is often accompanied by exhaustion. The ambient moving walkway at the United Terminal, illuminated with spiral wraps of neon light welcomes one passenger after the next, and when it’s so early, the day has typically yet to bring the panicked family hauling suitcases and crying babies as they run to inevitably miss their connecting flight. Everything is still clean and new.

It’s about crowds and loneliness and passive social wandering.

Sometimes I like a crowd. This is never true when I have my children at a festival or event and every anxious minute is spent in fear as I frequently turn them to see their faces and ensure the little blonde heads trailing beside me belong to them. No, there’s something comforting about being alone in a crowd. As much as I love the tranquil mornings of a near empty O’Hare, I have an even greater appreciation for the crowded terminals.

Comfort, in itself, is an interesting concept. I’ve been told I am impossible to comfort, to the point now, where I might even feign resolution or relief to end the process of someone attempting to console me. I hate pity. I hate to be hugged when I’m upset. I don’t “want to talk about it.”

I want to be alone.

There have been times in my life, so many within O’hare airport, and really one moment in particular, when the worst heartache of my life seemed to cripple me with emptiness. As someone who abhors commiseration, I would keep it to myself and somehow find relief in the people around me, hustling and bustling from one gate to the next. Even a phone call, a chilling conversation, ¬†all behind the little wall that supports the gate agent’s work station, was just feet away from the masses. I remember it clearly and, while desiring to be by myself, I never felt alone.

How is it to feel pain or joy or love, alone but surrounded by others? For me, it is the freedom to feel without justification or sympathy, and yet a reminder of perspective and humanity.

When my friend Brian died, I went to his funeral, which was standing room only, and afterward, I went to a favorite haunt of his, one of mine too. I ordered a pint of the darkest stout. It had been raining much of the day, and I thought the milky-brown cloud of beer was the absolute best fit for the occasion. I ordered a bread pudding, chocolate, and I sat at the bar alone, entirely secure in myself, the word around me but not on top of me.

A conversation this week took me back to these places, the scene always O’hare airport, always in or around those dark blue chairs with arm rests that sit too tall for me, or the moving walkway with it’s ethereal lighting. As I thought about comfort and crowds and passive social wandering, I came to feel there is a difference between being “among” others and being “with” others. It’s the reconciliation of the introspective dignity and the masses.

For me, it is comfort. It is knowing that people are there, even when you don’t need them… a social construct safety net. It is the opportunity of being one of many, while preserving the one. It is navigating the crowd, towing baggage, like everyone else, and arriving to the next gate.