Thursday, April 14, 2011

Scenes From An Airport Neighborhood (Unpack Your Bags And Make Yourself At Home)

Does enchantment pour out of every door or just on the street where you live?  I currently live two blocks from Chicago’s close and convenient Midway airport.  I’m sure your mind automatically went “BLECH” when you read airport, but hear me out (okay, read me out). 
Some airline lingo 101 for those of you not in the biz, airlines write their flight schedules for their various “base” cities, cities where all trips start and end, generally speaking.  As many people choose not to live in their base city, they must commute to work, often using their flight benefits to get there.  These commuters require a place to stay before/after trips as the trips and flight schedules don’t usually allow for people to fly in/home the same day their trips start/end.  Hopefully you’re still with me.  These places are commonly known as “crashpads” and every neighborhood near an airport that operates as a crew base is full of them.  They come in all shapes and sizes, apartments, houses, hotel rooms, you name it.  The concept operates under the idea that many people will split the expense of whatever residence they share as no one will be around very often.  The crashpad experience is as varied as the people involved….sharing domestic space with other people that your only common thread is your employer can yield some unpredictable results.   Imagine the person you dislike most at your job.  Now imagine listening to them snore at night.  Imagine them in the bathroom when you really need to go.  Imagine coming home to them after you’ve had the world’s shittiest day.  But what if they listen to you bitch and moan?  What if they’ve made dinner and they share it with you?  What if they offer to wash your clothes while you take a nap?  What if they don’t end up being as dislikable as you’d once thought?  It’s all a pretty fascinating social experiment, one that the makers of reality TV should seriously consider.
I started my career ten years ago, commuting out of Seattle to Oakland.  I shared hotel rooms with other flight attendants before and after trips, as that was the Oakland way, often sleeping in the same bed with people I didn’t know at all. Not as fun as it sounds. When hotel rooms were too much dough, I slept in a sleeping bag in the flight attendant lounge, another sucktastic experience.  When I came to Chicago not knowing a soul, I lucked out on getting into a great crashpad, one that was dropped into my lap by someone in the Fate Deals You The Right Cards At The Right Time department.  I’ll spare you the details, but let’s just say everyone involved took a leap of faith trusting that I would be worthy of a top bunk bed in a house with eighteen other people, none of whom had ever laid eyes on me.  Sleeping in a twin bed where you can touch the ceiling is a real blast from the past, let me tell you.  I slowly got to know everyone, and unlike most of my other crashpad situations, I developed a bond with a lot of my roommates.  It’s a strange job for friendships, mostly people are away more than they’re around, you can connect with people and not see them again for years (handy when you don’t hit it off), often the gig is a blur of nameless, faceless people, with your nights spent in generic hotel rooms where your love of miniature shampoos has run dry.  To be at home tends to be your greatest pleasure when you travel for a living….but to have a crashpad that acts as your satellite home away from home is a rare treat and makes the job much more pleasurable.  I enjoyed that scenario for five plus years.
I moved to Chicago permanently almost two years ago.  I picked a tiny convertible loft in the South Loop area of downtown Chicago as I thought I needed the Urban Experience.  I loved the allure of walking to cool shops and bars and certainly walking home wasted from Lollapolooza after mashing with a boy half my age was something from a wish list I hadn’t yet written.  I enjoyed my slick digs, assuming I was exactly where I needed to be.
Slick digs, however, proved to be expensive.  When my lease came up for renewal, I ran into a friend who was moving out of her two bedroom joint by the airport who suggested I check out her place….more divine intervention from our friends in the Right Place/Right Time department.  I opted to make the move purely for financial reasons as it cut my bills in HALF.  Half is A LOT.  Half means less airplane, more time to write, or spend time with friends or WHATEVER.   I moved all my stuff into the two bedroom with no lease, thinking only of the cost savings and the joy of having a guest bedroom and an office to write my nonsense in.
My old crashpad is a short walk away from my current apartment.  When I moved back, I started seeing my crash family all the time again.  We make dinner, we go to the store, we bitch about work, we drink wine, we borrow clothes, we sleep over, we do STUFF.  Stuff that makes life worth living.  Stuff that I missed out on living downtown in my slick digs.  I don’t regret starting there; I had a great time.  But I am now a happy resident of Westlawn, a neighborhood filled with a wide range of immigrants and transient airline workers alike, a neighborhood packed with kids on bikes and ice cream trucks and pictures of the Pope in the windows and taquerias and little to no slick action.  When I walk around my neighborhood, I see dogs barking, kids practicing cheerleading routines, people hanging out on their stoops and doing yard work, which brings me unexplainable joy.  Something I didn’t know my life was missing.   And when people ask, “Why on earth would you live near the airport?”, I now answer, simply, “I have family here”.  Family are the people we choose to be in our lives, people who support you, people who celebrate your triumphs, and console you on your dark days.  People who put their faith in you and trust you will do right by them.  ‘Tis powerful stuff.
Should you ever find yourself at Chicago’s close and convenient Midway airport, drop a line.  I’ll buy you a taco if you bring change for the ice cream truck.

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