We drove down the ramp leading to the parking structure. Police were blocking the ramp; they asked us what we were doing there and received a chorus of "Cars! Getting!" in reply.
After twenty-four hours of driving, after a day spent waiting for a rental car in a city clogged with people trying to get home, that's about all the five of us could have given them.
The police waved us through and we continued to the dip in the ramp, just before it bifurcates into the maw of the enormous parking structure.
Here, another blockade. Many other rentals were clustered near a wooden barricade, all lit by the oscillating yellow glow of various emergency vehicles. Police and airport security personnel milled about, chatting idly with other travelers as they emerged from their vehicles.
I pulled the car up to the barricade and jumped out, as did my passengers. I looked up the ramp and saw people walking along, trailing their luggage behind them; they seemed so small, like ants crawling slowly up a gigantic mountain. The building was completely dark. As people reached the entrance they faded to black. No one was being allowed to drive in, of course.
My passengers emptied the car of their luggage and started walking the ramp to their cars. I jumped back in and drove away, to return the rental.
I pulled into the Enterprise lot, opened the door, and got out. I lit a cigarette, and started walking towards the corner of the lot, towards the terminals and runways.
I looked up at the starry sky.
None of the stars were moving.
Many were twinkling, but none of them were moving; none of them were blinking red and green.
Then I heard the crickets chirping.
I looked around, and saw a small tree planted alongside the lot, on the boundary with a competing rental company. I heard birds singing in this tree. I heard the wind.
"I can't believe this," I said quietly to myself. I was standing just a short distance from one of the loudest, busiest, fastest places I'd ever seen, and it was utterly silent and still.
September 13, 2001. That's when it really hit me. Loud was silent, stars were still. At O'Hare.