24 hours at the Des Plaines oasis
Editor's note: Countless people have passed through the doors of the Des Plaines oasis since it opened in 1959. That will end when it closes Sunday. To help mark its closing, we're republishing an article in which our staff spent 24 hours capturing all the stories of the lives touched by the oasis. The article, titled "Midnight (to midnight) at the Oasis Hundreds of stories walk through the Des Plaines Oasis every day. Here's what we found on one random day," was originally published March 12, 2002.
The Des Plaines Oasis would seem to be little more than a stopping point, a resting place.
You pull in when the gas gauge gets low, or the kids are screaming for a burger, or when you have some time to kill before hitting O'Hare.
You buy a quick breakfast at the McDonald's there, high above the tollway. You wash up. Maybe you sip some coffee in the bland entryway, surveying the traffic below while bad EZ listening music plays a little too loudly from above.
Most people forget the Oasis a few minutes after they've left it.
There wouldn't seem to be much here, but if you look a little closer, there are hundreds of stories that pass through the Oasis doors every day.
There are travel-weary truckers and tanked teens; cheating couples and chatty chocolatiers; long-distance lovers and rejected Romeos.
We should know. We spent 24 hours at the Oasis talking to people from all walks of life. Here's a peek at what we saw and heard.
12:07 a.m. -- Steve Bonnes of Algonquin sits alone in the quiet, darkened area above the tollway, paging through the newspaper. Traffic sporadically whooshes beneath him.
He just got back from a business trip to San Francisco and looks forward to getting home to his wife and two daughters. But first, a quick bite.
Bonnes almost never eats fast food, he says -- he's lost nearly 70 pounds in the last six months through a new workout regimen and an improved diet. In other words, no McDonald's.
"I went to my dad's grave on Father's Day and I was peeved with him for leaving me when I needed him," he says. "I just vowed to be around for my kids."
So what's with the greasy food now?
"Hey, I haven't eaten anything since morning," he says. "I'll eat whatever I want now -- I'm hungry."
1:37 a.m. -- Three black-clad younger customers order their food, then furtively skulk into a corner out of sight of the counter.
Why the sneakiness? Because they're carrying forbidden loot: Two bags of goods from other fast-food joints.
"When you first came up to us, we totally thought you were going to bust us," says Annie Laterza of Norridge, who is eating a clearly non-McDonald's tostada.
But that's not all. Chicagoan Amanda Hohmeier takes a bite of what appears to be a Big Mac, then she reveals another secret: It's a Big Mac without the meat. She's been a vegetarian for nearly seven years.
"One McDonald's guy said, 'I've seen no pickles or no onions, but no meat? That's the essence of the Big Mac!' " she says. "I was like, 'Um, actually, I thought the essence of the Big Mac was the special sauce, but let's not argue about it.' "
2:41 a.m. -- An extremely mismatched couple staggers in, tipsily leaning into each other. She's tall and elegant in a long cashmere coat and large gold earrings, her hair stylishly up.
Him, he's wearing ill-fitting pants and a bad baseball jacket with a white body and blue sleeves.
It seems that the cat is away and these mice are playing. They quickly rebuff requests for a photo or a chat: "No, no, no, I don't think so," he says with a dismissive wave of his hand.
They eat their fries so closely it wouldn't be surprising if they reprised the let's-share-a-strand-of-spaghetti scene from "Lady and the Tramp."
They leave their tray on the table and slink out of the restaurant into the dark night, giggling and holding hands.
4:07 a.m. -- Two attractive, twenty-something women -- one blonde, one red-haired -- wobble in for a predawn breakfast after a long night at Chicago bars.
The blonde, who will only give her name as Jamie, quit her job as a flight attendant in early January because it wasn't paying the bills.
Now she's in town from St. Louis to look for another job as -- of all things -- a flight attendant.
But that didn't work out too well before, did it?
"No, but this will be better," she says between massive mouthfuls of Egg McMuffin.
"Because this will be better," she says assuredly.
OK, we're not getting anywhere. So what did you do tonight at the bars?
"We met some real loser guys," says Jamie's red-haired friend Trish from Barrington. "They weren't very cool. We kind of ditched them."
"Yeah, they were lame," Jamie says, then she stops and looks at her Egg McMuffin. "Hey, my eggs are green." She pauses. "I've got green eggs and ham!"
They erupt in laughter.
5:17 a.m. -- The breakfast crowd starts to trickle in, and after a desolate morning suddenly two lines of five people are standing at the counter.
They're all men, mostly unshaven, most wearing baseball hats, gazing wide-eyed at the pictures of breakfast above the counter.
One of these customers is a massive, overall-clad man with hands the size of footballs. He gets his breakfast and hunkers down in the corner over a meal of eggs, sausage and hash browns. A heavy layer of pepper coats the plate.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Mike Hauffe from Casper, Wyo., has been a steelworker for 21 years.
His work brought him to Chicago several years back, but he still longs for the "wide-open spaces of Wyoming. There, you go out and you don't see anyone else. Here, there are people everywhere."
His wife doesn't mind the change so much though.
"She loves it downtown," the amiable Hauffe says in a deep, resonant voice. "She likes the shopping and all the stuff women do."
6:13 a.m. -- It's not quite light out yet, but the Oasis bustles with customers. Many of them are truck drivers, like Freeman Barber of Cobbs Creek, Va.
Barber wears a shiny black jacket decorated with several American flag pins and a baseball hat bearing the acronym BARF.
"It's computer code for my trucking company, and I have a lot of fun with it," he says with a slightly unsettling chuckle.
He's hauling an order of catalogs up to Minnesota, and boasts a unique take on life as a trucker: "I live in a box, and I'm my own best friend. I gobble my food, and I mark my territory. I'm a mog -- I'm half-man, half-dog."
He used to own a construction company in southern California, but his business went under in 1996. That's when he became a trucker.
"I couldn't compete with the immigrants," he says. "They'd come up and completely underbid us. You can see it all the time on the Clinton News Network. But hey, that's all right. In a couple years, I'll have a new career of hunting and fishing."
7:08 a.m. -- A man in a navy sailor's hat and a turtleneck with a Chicago Bears emblem on the collar sits on the stone bench, somberly staring out at the traffic. He sips on a steaming cup of coffee as the cars whiz beneath him.
Turns out Des Plaines resident Jerry Meyers is a candymaker for Fannie May who's leisurely waiting for a tow truck after his car broke down.
He's now several hours late to work, but he doesn't seem to mind.
"Hey, cars break down -- it happens," he says. "And this is a nice place to be when your car breaks down."
Meyers began making candy for Fannie May 38 years ago, simply because he wanted a job in the food industry.
Since then, he's made thousands of Pixies, Trinidads, and all the rest.
"It's a pretty sweet job -- ha ha!" he says with an impish smile, as if he's never used that line before.
His car broke down at about 4:45 a.m., but when the first truck arrived the lift wouldn't work to tow it in.
"The tow truck actually broke down," he says. "Now there's a story, huh?"
8:03 a.m. -- Teena Viens has just opened the tiny gift shop that sits at the center of the Oasis. She sells mostly gum, candy and cigarettes, though the shelves are stocked with the usual assortment of vacation knickknacks -- boxes covered in seashells, Land of Lincoln souvenir plates, key chains emblazoned with phrases such as "Mom's taxi" or "Drink 'til he's cute."
Viens has been working the cash register for a couple years now, daytime hours only, five days a week. If a bus comes through, the store will fill in minutes -- sometimes with 20 kids, no chaperon.
"That is a problem," she says. "How can you watch them all? One person?"
The job's easy enough. The tough part comes when people ask for directions.
"They'll come in and say, 'How far is Elgin?' I don't know," she says. "I'll take a guess."
8:58 a.m. -- Derryl Barnes is on his way to the airport. He sits in the back of McDonald's finishing his breakfast with longtime girlfriend Chris Wright of Elgin.
They've got this long-distance thing going.
They met in August of 1999. Barnes noticed the woman in front of him at the airport one day.
"She had a suntan. She looked kind of good," he recalls. "I said hi."
Barnes, who is black, realized that he was making her kind of uncomfortable. He figured it was because he was a "brother."
"I thought he was a thug," she admits with a smile.
Barnes, a professional photographer in Dallas, gave her his card. Not long after, Wright checked out his website. She liked his work. She liked him, too. She called.
They spoke by phone for months before hooking up again. Now, they fly back and forth -- debating where they'll finally call home.
Wright is betting on Chicago. Barnes has an added incentive to come here, she says, rubbing her tummy: A baby is due in May.
Still, Barnes says this long-distance stuff isn't too bad.
"When she's mad at me, I'm away," he says. "You don't have to leave. You're already gone."
11:03 a.m. -- Snow falls lightly as Richard David walks along the brown, dry grass of the Oasis' perimeter. He walks looking down, eyes searching for empty packs of Maverick cigarettes.
A few times a week, David goes hunting for the packs. He hits this Oasis, and a few other good spots.
When he gets enough, he turns them over to a waitress friend of his. She has a catalog of Maverick gifts. They pick what they want.
"I got a shirt from it," says David, his unruly white hair tossed by the wind. "I got one of them boom boxes."
David lives in Wood Dale. He's retired and figures this is a good way to fill his days and get a little exercise.
"I sometimes find 25 at a time," he says.
The wind picks up and David pulls on his black gloves. He's got more ground to cover.
12:05 p.m. -- Two buses pull up. Dozens of teenage girls -- hair pulled into ponytails, some still in pajama bottoms and fuzzy slippers -- pile out.
They bypass the lunch crowd at McDonald's and line up for the bathroom, talking as they wait. Moms, dressed more conservatively, join them.
The girls are part of a synchronized skating team en route from St. Paul, Minn., to a competition in Michigan. Their bus is jammed with snacks, pillows, blankets.
The girls have passed the last couple hours sleeping, watching movies and braiding their friends' hair.
"It's been pretty quiet," says mom/chaperon Lori Cocchiarella. "We left at 6 a.m.."
2:35 p.m. -- Ann Vujica sits on a hard, picnic-style bench facing the western windows of the Oasis. Her legs are crossed, her hands clasped around her knee.
She watches each car and truck that turns off at the Oasis exit, waiting for a bus filled with seniors.
Vujica has driven out from her home in Berwyn to meet the bus and surprise her mom, a Wisconsin widow taking a monthlong trip to Florida -- her first vacation since she lost her husband four years earlier.
"I don't get to see her very often," Vujica says. "I thought it would be fun to surprise her and my aunt."
The travel company's itinerary allows for a 3 p.m. stop at the Oasis. The time comes and goes.
Her mom was hesitant about making the trip, Vujica admits.
"She wasn't sure she wanted to go," Vujica says. "My sister said, 'Get on the bus. You're going.' "
3:29 p.m. -- The bus pulls up. A steady stream of men and women make their way from the bus to the door.
Vujica waits in the falling snow just outside the door. Her mom, Lydia Svoboda, is one of the last off the bus. Her face slowly shows signs of recognition. The women hug.
A few minutes later, Svoboda -- excited by the visit -- needs to use her inhaler.
"I was just so surprised," she says. "I thought, 'What in the world is she doing here?' "
5:26 p.m. -- Limo driver Isy Vilarreal has a million stories, and he's telling a few of them in the Spartan area above the constant thrum of the traffic. The cars below make their way slowly through the snow, which has started to accumulate on the road.
Vilarreal isn't due at O'Hare for another hour, so he's passing the time with some coffee and a smoke.
His first name isn't short for anything, he says. It's just I-S-Y.
"We were so broke when I was little, we couldn't afford a bigger name," he says with his omnipresent laugh.
Speaking of his childhood, he remembers the time his dad booted him out of the house to be a truck driver at the age of 14.
"He took me in to get a driver's license," Vilarreal says. "I was 14, what do I know? I say, 'Sure.' I got it, he gave me the keys to a truck and said, 'There you go. Bye.' "
After being divorced for 18 years, Vilarreal decided he might be missing something. "So I got married again, and that lasted about four months," he says.
"My mom says, 'Are you ever going to get married again?' and I say, 'Why? Somewhere out there, there's a happy woman. Why would I want to come along and make her miserable?' "
10:38 p.m. -- Norris C. Wilburn sits in the outer portion of the Oasis, smoking and, every few minutes, dialing his cellphone.
Wilburn was headed into the city for an 11 p.m. date with a woman he met the previous night. He's calling her just to make sure the date is a go.
One problem: Every time he calls, her phone is busy.
"I want to make sure it's still on," he says about his date. "If it isn't -- oh well, I'll keep looking."
He picks up his phone and dials. Another busy signal. He sighs, and puts the phone down on the table. He looks out at the nearly empty expressway beneath him.
"I'm sitting here waiting, with that feeling of despair and doubt," he says.
Wilburn used to live in the city, but moved to Barrington a few years back to be closer to his job. But now, as a 45-year-old single man, he's re-evaluating that decision.
"I think I'm going to move back to the city," he says, lighting up another cigarette. "You gotta have a wife and kids to live out here."
He sits for a few more minutes, then reaches for his phone at 10:57 p.m.
"This might be garbage," he says of his tenuous-looking relationship. He dials the number. Busy.
"OK, that was the last call," he says, then pauses. "Well, I'll call tomorrow and see what happened. I'm not going to give up quite yet."
11:43 p.m. -- A youngish, well-dressed couple comes in, heavy white snow peppering their frowzy hair. Despite their elegant duds -- him, long camel coat and hip black shoes; her, long black coat and black high heels -- they're obviously unhappy.
Why? Their car has a flat tire, and they're going to be late for the party in the city. Even if they fix it, they still have to fight the growing storm, the heaviest snowfall predicted thus far in an otherwise mild season.
"This really stinks," says Aaron Martinsen of Elgin, shaking his head angrily.
There's some reason they can't fix the flat -- the jack doesn't work, the wrench won't fit. It's something. Martinsen is too angry to say.
"It's OK -- we'll get there somehow," says girlfriend Stephanie Connell of Elgin. But her hesitant voice says she doesn't fully believe it.
Then Connell spies a wiry trucker, Mike Griffin of Mitchell, S.D., sitting in the corner. She heads over to him and describes their problem. He nods patiently while she details the situation.
Griffin takes a last bite of his hamburger then wipes his hands on his dirty blue jeans and heads to his truck. He grabs his toolbox, then goes to Martinsen's car.
Within minutes, the car has four full tires and is ready to go. Connell thanks Griffin with a hug, and Martinsen gives him a hearty handshake.
Their car takes off down the ramp, and soon it's just another pair of taillights fading red toward the city.