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The O’Hare Derby

It’s a bitterly cold night in Chicago and I’m landing in O’Hare on my way back East. It’s the Christmas season, and Santa doesn’t know I live in California yet. It’s a serious situation beyond mere seasonal claptrap. There are presents on the line. My parents insist they need my presence too. I have to get home to my family and in order to so, must make this tight connection. It’s the last flight and I don’t want to be stuck until morning. Not this time of year.

Landing with a tight connection in a big city airport like O’Hare, most people lace up their running shoes, wield their carry-on as a battering ram, and mentally prepare to knock over the slow and the elderly. These aren’t my options, except the battering ram. As soon as I exit the plane, I’m going to be at the mercy of a system I have little control over. I can’t run for it, I can’t even tie my shoes. And yet, I expect to make this connection and many others thanks to the heroics of the Passenger Service Assistants.

The women and men who push wheelchairs to get people like me to their gate on time.

Airports are notoriously large places. I can’t walk the lengthy distances, but this issue has already been mostly solved by the network of passenger service assistants. If you’re like me, they’ll pick you up at the check-in counter and take you to your gate. Sometimes, they’ll even push you all the way down the jetway to the airplane door. This service is free of charge, but comes with a few caveats. Often, one has to wait extra time, usually well after everybody else has left the plane, for the wheelchair and assistant to arrive. If the layover is decent or it’s the last stop, then the delay isn’t a problem. However, if the connection is tight or the plane’s delayed or any number of other travel time crunches are in effect, the time spent waiting, being smiled at by sympathetic gate staff and cleaning crew, can be excruciating. Outside of the moment, I never assume the airport is making me wait on purpose, but in the moment, I know I am a political prisoner persecuted by vindictive (or incompetent) overlords. When I see the wheelchair and the uniformed assistant coming down to get me, I always intend to give them a motivating pep talk. Anything to gain some measure of control on what’s going to happen next. But usually I’m too happy that they’re finally here to remember.

That night in Chicago, I wait for ten minutes before asking the gate agent to re-call for the service assistance. Ten minutes later, they show up.

The first thing the assistant will ask is to see your boarding pass. Like everyone else, they need to squint at the tiny words on the flight monitor boards to determine which is your correct gate for departure. In my case, it never helps that Charleston, West Virginia is often confused for the more popular Charleston, South Carolina. When I have my wits about me, I make them double-check. When I don’t have my wits about me, I end up at the wrong gate. So far, I’ve never boarded a flight to Charleston, South Carolina, but letting your guard down and enjoying the experience is for advanced users only.

Because the gate agent called twice, two airport assistants show up. One has a wheelchair. The other, an electric cart. I have a decision to make.

Wheelchair versus electric cart may seem like an easy choice. The electric cart is faster, it commands the right of way better, and makes you feel like a pimp. The wheelchair option is only as fast as the person pushing it and frequently garners stares and sympathetic smiles. The kind of smile that makes me fantasize about using my carry-on battering ram. But here’s the thing. The electric car has no options. No stopping for the bathroom, no pausing for hot cocoa, and no second chances on getting the gate correct. An electric cart service at most airports will pick you up in the general area of your arrival gate and drop you off in the general area of your departure gate. Better hope they got the correct gate, because before you can turn around and say, “West Virgina, not South Carolina!” they’re gone. They do have a bitchin’ horn though. Beep. Beep.

Over the protests of the cart driver, he insists he will get me there faster, I go with my gut and choose the wheelchair and the young guy pushing it.

Most airport wheelchairs are built for stability over speed. I think this is a mistake, but I doubt they take my comment cards seriously. I once was momentarily excited when I landed in Salt Lake City, I was on my way to a friend’s wedding in Detroit, and discovered the wheelchairs there have seat belts. Seat belts. In a wheelchair! Either they bought them used off a psychiatric ward or these bad boys were built to zoom. Why else have a seat belt if not to zoom? As I learned from the nice man pushing me through the Salt Lake City airport, the seat belts were put in to solve a particular problem. Much to my disappointment, it did not involve zooming. Often, the boarding jetways are sloped, sometimes significantly so. In order to make sure passengers don’t fall out of the wheelchair, the seat belts were added. Now, most other airports, and possibly Salt Lake as well, have solved this particular issue by pulling the wheelchair down the ramp backwards. From the perspective of one in the wheelchair, this is eerily similar to a space station sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey. The corridor looks like it’s extending away from you, rather than you going through it. In Salt Lake City, the seat belts on the wheelchairs mocked my disappointment as we sedately strolled to my departure gate without the slightest rush.

Back in O’Hare, me and my wheelchair assistant quickly determine which gate I need. It’s the backwater terminal on the other side of the sprawling airport. I hesitate. Maybe the electric cart would be better. This reluctance disappears with one look up at the young assistant pushing me.

His eyes say, “Buckle up.” There’s no seat belt.

With a burst of speed that takes me by surprise, we launch from my arrival gate and join the milling throng. Swerving around slow walkers, people on cell phones and obnoxious families, me and the assistant make good time, but the clock is ticking and we have a long way to go. Before we reach the first set of elevators, the ones near the giant dinosaur skeleton, a familiar, odious horn BEEPS malevolently behind us. It’s the electric cart. They’re hot on our wheels! We enter the elevator, my assistant turns me around, and, as the elevator doors close, I see the cart moving on ahead of us.

I ask my squire if my chosen steed will make it there on time. He assures me we’ll make it. I think aerodynamic thoughts.

Underneath O’Hare is the giant rainbow neon-lit tunnel with long people movers that links terminals. I’m sure this straight stretch has an official name, I call it Rainbow Road, but right now all that matters is the high speeds we can hit because the obstacles (other people) will all be on the human conveyor belts. We move fast. A few obstacles look in our direction, but if they smile pityingly at us, I don’t have time to tell. Waiting for the elevator at the other end, I hear my assistant breathing heavily. I ask if he’s okay.

He replies, “I’m just warming up.” We’re going to beat the cart.

The next leg takes us through another crowded terminal. Our swift pace slows to a crawl as large groups of foreign tourists wander getting their bearings. Welcome to America, now move it! We maneuver around them as best as we can, but, like in the Olympic luge, each small deviation costs precious time. Worse still, once we get to a clearing, an intersection devoid of shops or food courts, we see the electric cart. The driver waves at us. He’s ahead!

The service assistant questions the Universe. “How he’d get here so fast?”. My confidence erodes.

The home stretch of our course is the long, barely traveled corridor to the backwater terminal where a puddle-jumping jet is waiting for me, and only me. We hear the announcement over the intercom. Our previous speed had been a swift walk. My assistant rises to the occasion.

He runs.

Faster and faster we go, whooshing past the closed snack stands and duty free shops. I can’t look behind, I grip the wheelchair tightly, but I hear my assistant’s footfalls behind me. His feet thud with ever increasing gaps. I see the cart ahead of us. I am an aerodynamic thought. There’s a gate coming up. We see the cart stop! It’s not my gate, so we overtake the electric cart and leave him in our wake.

We never see the driver or the cart again.

An intersection, the last intersection stands before us and my gate. It’s late and everyone is gone but a lone McDonald’s fully staffed by a crew of beautiful, boisterous women. We hear them long before we get close.

“Hey! Slow down! You’re scaring him!” The spoken form of the pitying smile.

I cannot let these well-meaning ladies slow us down. As we approach, I do the only thing I know how to do in this situation. I beam the brightest smile I can in their direction. My young assistant pitches in and hollers, “We gotta make the flight!” The effect of our efforts is immediate and awesome.

“Oh! He likes it! He’s smiling. You better run boy! Go! Go! Go!”

With the whole McDonald’s crew cheering us on, my man kicks it into turbo-mode. We fly. Their cheers fade, but my smile doesn’t.

We’re greeted at my gate with an anti-climatic wave from the patient gate agent. The flight was waiting for me, it’s barely populated. I thank my wheelchair assistant. He takes the wheelchair and returns the way he came. All in a day’s work for him I suppose, although before he leaves, he informs me this is his first day on the job. I’m glad I didn’t know that earlier.

Someday, Santa is going to learn I live in California, but until then, I’ll be counting on the gracious women and men who push wheelchairs to get me there and back again. From the air, the city lights of Chicago’s grid look like the North Pole.

Published inNon-fiction


  1. Laurie Hill Laurie Hill

    Well done! I swear I’m out of breath as though I was running along with you across the airport.

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