After several years of being a California homebody, I took to the air two weeks ago for a family visit to southern Indiana and my first exploration of Chicago, a great city that’s also America’s murder capital.
If I flew more often, perhaps I could sleep the night before takeoff. But I don’t and I can’t. Cheryl is equally paralyzed with departure anxieties. The hours before the alarm sounded were beyond miserable.
We climbed out of bed at 3 a.m. to drive to SFO. You can fly down I-80 at that hour. Napa to a San Bruno parking lot in 60 minutes.
I took this as a good omen.
People complain that TSA inspections can be humiliating. Not me. I happily go along if it means my plane won’t blow up.
On this trip I went through an X-ray machine that was having a paranoid episode. It reported that I had massive amounts of contraband around my waist. Possibly plastic explosives.
A male security agent stood me up straight and described in exquisite detail what he was going to do to me to clear things up. He was going to run his hands up here and down there. If I wanted this done in a private room, he would take me to one.
I recoiled. An intimate inspection by a stranger behind closed doors? No way.
With my hands up in the air, he began at waist level. The instant he touched me, I squealed. Audibly. In front of other would-be fliers.
As he descended, my squeals and wiggles became more ridiculous. I was embarrassing myself, but I couldn’t help it. I’m ticklish.
Having a good time, were we? Cheryl said afterward.
The TSA agent found nothing. Composing myself, I continued on my journey.
All went well on the Southwest flight to Phoenix, then on to Indianapolis. The crispy peanuts were delicious.
We visited my brother in Bloomington, then prepared to drive some 200 miles in a rental car to Chicago, a city that I had never visited. To get us there, Cheryl carried a printout of Google driving instructions.
My brother’s departing words will always stay with me: Don’t go through Gary.
He was referring to the Indiana steel town, once prosperous, but now a symbol of urban decay.
Our drive was delightful until the home stretch when we missed three successive interstate turnoffs.
This was beyond unbelievable, but it happened. With Cheryl sitting in the navigator’s seat, I might add.
We have concocted a story to explain the navigational failures that plunged us into two hours of unbelievable traffic jams and frustration. First, there had been construction detours. Second, Indiana’s freeway signage is not up to California standards.
Eventually, Cheryl gave up on Google. From a free map picked up at a rest stop, she chose a minor roadway that seemed to be heading in the right direction.
We plunged into urban desolation the likes of which we had never seen before. Like a moth to a flame, we’d arrived in Gary.
We gawked at the burned out buildings, the endless vacant lots, the lovely payday lenders. It felt like Mosul after liberation from ISIS.
We texted my brother: Guess where we are, we said.
Our Chicago stay went fine. We mastered elements of the “L,” the city’s partially elevated rail system. We walked miles.
For the flight back to SFO, we boarded the “L” at dawn for the ride from the Loop to Midway airport. It weighed on my mind that Midway is on Chicago’s south side. That’s where more than 100 people were shot and 15 murdered during the Fourth of July holiday while we were there.
From our train perch, the south side looked better than Gary. This wasn’t the highest praise.
Within two stops of Midway, our train came to an abrupt halt between stations. My hackles went up.
A pre-recorded message told us to be calm. There had been some kind of equipment malfunction. The operator had left the train to learn the cause, we were reassured.
Left the train? Meaning the passengers had been left unprotected? Were they kidding?
Then Cheryl piped up. “Isn’t that smoke we’re smelling?”
It was smoke! Some part of the train was on fire and we’d been abandoned by our operator.
Was it now every person for himself?
My adrenaline system got a good workout before the train resumed forward motion and the smell of smoke cleared. The PA system never gave an accounting of what had just happened.
We made it to Midway. Southwest ferried us safely back to SFO.
In San Bruno, I said good-bye to planes and trains and rental cars and reclaimed my dust-encrusted Honda.
It never looked better.