Chicagoans is a first-person account from off the beaten track, as told to Anne Ford. This week’s Chicagoan is Al Borcover, Travelers Aid volunteer at O’Hare.
“I used to be the travel editor at the Chicago Tribune. Everybody thought it was a dream job, and it is a dream job, but it’s not as easy as one would think. I retired in 1994, when I was 62, but I continued writing for the section for another 15 years. I’m not a golfer or anything like that; the first week I was retired, I already had a deadline to meet. A few years ago I stopped freelancing. I decided I’d been doing deadlines for about 50 years and I needed a rest.
“A little bit after that, I started volunteering at O’Hare with Travelers Aid. I’d been through O’Hare a zillion times and written about the construction of Terminal 5, and I love to see the people. It’s one of the best places for people watching. Some of us refer to it as the world’s greatest people zoo. It’s just sort of a hoot.
“I sit at an information desk in Terminal 3, which is primarily American Airlines. Our desk is at the beginning of concourses H and K, so you have this constant stream of people from all over the world. Some of them look like they just got out of bed in the morning and came to the airport; some are business people and nicely dressed; some are in ethnic garb. Everyone’s half dazed and eager to get home. A constant stream.
“On a slow day we’ll handle maybe 200 people, and on a busy day 300. We get ‘Where’s my gate?’ a lot. Sometimes they’re looking for Terminal 4, and there is no Terminal 4 at O’Hare. A lot of people are just looking for an outlet to recharge their cell phones. Occasionally somebody comes up and says, ‘Where can I buy a pair of pants?’ Terminal 3. There’s a Brooks Brothers.
“I remember a day when three Muslim women came to the desk, and they were looking for a place to pray. Well, the chapel at O’Hare is outside security. Most people don’t want to leave security and come back through, and in Terminal 3 on the mezzanine level there’s an urban garden that’s usually pretty quiet, with just some pilots or flight attendants eating. So I sent them there, and when they came back toward the desk for their flight, they gave me a thumbs-up.
“Usually the people who ask for our help are in a pretty decent mood. Occasionally you find somebody who’s distressed and weeping, or somebody might be angry, but we can defuse them pretty quickly. Sometimes people have trouble understanding English, so one of us will walk ’em to the main lobby of Terminal 3 and point to the escalator, which takes ’em to the airport transit system. There’s a shoeshine guy near our desk who speaks Spanish, and sometimes we’ll ask him to translate.
“Everybody flying has a bit of anxiety, so mainly we’re just helping people ease their way into or out of Chicago. Being kind, joshing a little bit, welcoming them, wishing them a good flight to Düsseldorf or wherever. The funny thing is, you never know the end of their story because people go off to their next destination, and you’re left to wonder what happened.”