Nonfiction: “Terminal L”

Let me tell you about Terminal L.

Because if you’ve never flown to a college town from Chicago, you’ve probably never had the pleasure to observe this part of O’Hare International Airport.

It’s like a campus in itself. There’s a McDonald’s, vegan snack station, Bank of America ATM and bubble tea stand, though you wouldn’t notice them behind the everlasting line for the crown jewel: Starbucks. The frappucino ingredients are the first to run out as students load up on caffeine and sugar — mostly sugar — before returning to institutions of higher learning, where the brain damage incurred by childhoods fueled by corn syrup, aspartame and Red Color No. 3 is no match for tuition bills and student loans.

Passengers walk around in hoodies and athletic shorts, regardless of the weather outside. Mismatched socks and Adidas slider sandals are the footwear of choice for about 49.8 percent of men here, and 38 percent of the female population carries sequined Victoria Secret tote bags that wear down the hip of their leggings. The other 62 percent lug around quilted Vera Bradley in colors God never imagined would be coupled together in one paisley pattern.

And then there are the hats. Pork pies, fedoras, newsboy caps, trucker hats, snapbacks, beanies, earflap-and-pompom hats and even a top hat crown the moving crowd, as if status is directly correlated to the obscurity of each style. Top Hat is probably working on his second PhD.

But the most utilitarian — and conspicuous — choice of headwear is a full microphone headset worn by a 20-something man balancing a laptop, mouse and external hard drive on his lap at Gate L6A, where the gate attendants have just announced a flight will be boarding. As precise as a sniper packing up his weapon, he stores the entire setup in the suitcase at his feet, nesting it around a box labeled “Game Capture HD 60” and a roll of red raffle tickets.

Replacing him is a 25-year-old woman daring to return to the place that prepared her for nine-hour days and two weeks of annual paid time off. She’s just changing chairs, though: The flickering fluorescent bulb above her original seat cast dizzying light on the pages of the Margaret Atwood novel nestled in her lap. But even in this more stable lighting, it’s hard to concentrate.

As she looks around at the people just three or four years younger than her, she wonders how a relatively short period of time has made her feel so much older than these broke dreamers about to board the same tin can hurtling toward mid-Missouri. Maybe it’s because she’s still in her office clothes — tights, boots, Calvin Klein dress, flaking mascara and her own cap of exhausted hairspray. Maybe it’s because she’s leaving for what she calls “vacation” and they call “midterm exams.” Or maybe it’s that she’s sipping straight black coffee instead of a smoked butterscotch frappucino with extra whipped cream and a cookie straw.

They call my flight. I dump the rest of my coffee in a nearby water fountain and line up at the gate, adjusting my tights on the way.

 

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