December 19th, 2006.

The 94th story.

Sometimes life has other plans. You have a schedule all planned out and everything in place, then something happens and your best-laid plans are shot to hell. That was the case for me on Friday. The plan was simple enough, catch a flight to Chicago do a quick change then fly on to Portland, Oregon. But some kind of technical problem with the plane delayed the flight by 5 hours and that meant that I missed the connection to Portland. Life had other plans, and you know what, I’m can’t say that I’m in the slightest bit annoyed that it did.

When my flight eventually left Manchester, England, it was already dark. We had several hours of chasing the sunset ahead of us. From my window, there was nothing to see but hour upon hour of darkness over the North Atlantic Ocean.

The usual chicken or beef offerings were duly served in plastic-wrapped containers on a tray that was big enough to fit on the seatback table, but not big enough to accommodate the micro-meal itself. I made a ‘flying friend’ of the guy sat next to me, an American called John on his way home to Seattle. Together we put the world to rights from our cramped cattle class seats above the oppressive low noise of the engines which were busy undoing all my efforts to save the planet.

Upon our late arrival in Chicago, I learned that I would be spending the night in ‘the windy city.’ The airline had made hotel arrangements for those of us who had been marooned. They were also going to pick up the tab for our evening meal and breakfast, so I checked in then enjoyed a big bowl of linguini and a cold beer. The airline's sins were forgiven.

Even though I had now been up for some 24 hours I decided that there was simply no way that I would spend a night in Chicago and not go into the city. Chicago is one of my favorite cities and I couldn’t be so close and not walk its streets bathed in the glow of the street lights and fairy-lit trees.

I wrapped up warm then went outside to get a cab. It was already nearly ten o’clock and I had it in my head to go into the city and the observatory at the top of the John Hancock Tower. It was one of those crazy ideas that defies all logic, but I had to do it, I just had to!

Waiting for a cab was taking too long so I walked up to a nearby limo that was parked and tapped on the driver's window.

“Can I hire you? Are you available?” I asked.

“Actually, I think so. It looks like I’ve been stood up, where do you want to go?” Asked the driver.

“Downtown, how much would that be?” I replied.

“Fifty-six dollars my man," he said, and with that, I said “Done” and jumped in.

“Take me to the John Hancock Tower as fast as you can!” I said as I sank into the plush black leather seat stretching my feet before me and smiling broadly to myself. 'I’m in Chicago!' I thought to myself as we set off toward the glittering skyscrapers of downtown.

About a half-hour or so later the limo pulled up outside the Hancock Tower. I jumped out and hurried toward the observatory entrance. The Skydeck closes at 11 PM and it was now 10:40 PM. The entrance to the observatory was as empty as one would expect at such a late hour. A lady sat at the desk looking bored and somewhat puzzled as I ran back and forth between the zig fence that presumably controls the long lines that form in busier periods.

“Sir we close at eleven.” She said in a tone that revealed her level of boredom.

“Yeah, I know!” I said as I ran back and forth on what seemed like an obstacle course there to challenge this rather ridiculous idea.

Arriving at the desk with my wallet open I said “One please.” She looked at me smiling and shaking her head with a look of on her face that showed she thought I was nuts, and in this very moment she wasn’t wrong, I was nuts! But I was in Chicago for one night, and despite my early morning flight the next day and the late hour for my body that was still on UK time, I wasn’t going to pass up an opportunity to gaze out of the windows of the 94th floor at a view that would be worth every penny of the $80 it had effectively cost me.

Frantically pressing the elevator button as if this would somehow hasten its arrival, I paced up and down the lobby anxious to get to the Skydeck as quickly as possible. With ear-popping speed, the elevator launched me to the observatory.

The doors opened and I rushed into the wide-open space and right up to the window. Chicago stretched before more, its lights twinkling like the hot embers of a fire.

“Chicago!” I said to myself. “I’m in Chicago!” My reflection smiled back at me broadly as the thrill of this crazy notion lifted me much higher still.

I eked out every last moment of my 20 minutes of city gazing pleasure, snapping a picture here and there, but mainly just being in the moment with the glittering city before me and my bursting with the kind of joy only found in unexpected moments like this, the bonus material of life.

I walked around trying to absorb as much Chicago as I could from each of the floor to ceiling windows on the now practically empty Skydeck. Staff were lingering, eager to finish up their long day, and head home. They didn't hurry me, maybe because they saw me rush in when most of the day's last visitors were wandering out. Instead, they allowed me to squeeze the juice out of every one of those twenty minutes I had

"Thank you, sir. You have a good night now," said the staffer who opened the elevator doors for me as the clock reached 11 PM.

I felt elated as I stood alone in the elevator hurtling to ground level. Once outside I strolled up Michigan Avenue as if it were a slow summer afternoon. I listened to the symphony sounds of the city that filled the air, the sirens, cars, the people whistling for cabs that in turn honked their horns as they jostled for position on the busy streets.

Eventually, I hailed a cab myself to take me to the subway. Once at the Blue line station, I jumped a train back to my hotel and as it rattled along the tracks I sat there feeling satisfied that I had taken one of those opportunities to feel alive in the most unplanned and exciting of ways.

If I hadn’t done this, although I would have undoubtedly had a better night of sleep, I would have regretted my decision in the morning. My memory of this night in the bright lights of Chicago will far outlive the tiredness that I felt the next day.