A few feet away, a fan hands Johns his iPod to sign, then a phone with a girlfriend on the line. The Australian native obliges on both counts. How can he be so relentlessly accommodating?
"Hey, mate, beats what I was doing this time last year," he says.
A fan shoots Johns a thumbs-up for his Chicago Cubs jacket. "Yeah, my buddy Mark DeRosa's the second baseman. I'm going to sing the national anthem at Wrigley again. Doing that made me more nervous than any Idol performance I ever …"
A thundering 747 cuts Johns off, flying just over the roof of the arena on its way to land. The clouds it slices through look menacing.
Time for a quick bite to eat — and a few quick laughs
"Well, look at that, shepherd's pie," says Smithson, surprised to find a British staple as she loads up her plate at the mess hall. The Idols are traveling with their own chef to help mitigate a range in the quality of concert-hall catering.
She sits down with David Archuleta, who's poking at his soup and sandwich. Dad Jeff sits nearby; he's along because his son is only 17.
Castro ambles in. He looks in need of a nap.
"I can't really sleep at night. I guess that's a problem for a lot of us," he says. "I don't go on until the second half of the show, so I grab an hour or more of sleep then."
His favorite part of the tour was a recent two-day hiatus in St. Louis, where the fairer Cook brought him good luck at the blackjack tables. "She and I have gotten close. She's just great."
In a room next door, some of the Idols are trotted out for local media. But given that it's a Saturday and the arena is far from downtown Chicago, the crowd is thin.
After a quick TV interview, Mercado plops down in a plastic chair and exhales. "This is grueling, but being friends helps get us through it."
She says bonding is intense on the girls' bus (the boys have their own). It's an oasis of "Zen calm," complete with candles and healthy foods. Except for Malubay's boxes of sugary cereal.
"Hey, she eats my cereal, too," Malubay says, pointing at Mercado, whom she calls "my sister."
"I do not!" mock-yells Mercado, looking over at White, who also is digging into a bowl.
"Would you look at that woman," says Mercado. "She is so small, but she's always eating."
White laughs. "It's like we're about to graduate, and I can only hope we'll keep in touch," she says. "I am so much myself with these people."
More meeting, more greeting, more signing
All 10 Idols sit at a long table, a bottle of water and a box of Pop-Tarts — the tour's sponsor — in front of each one. Time to get the pens moving again as part of two meet-and-greets, the first with Pop-Tarts' guests, the second with the fractional jet ownership company, NetJets.
Between autographs, Kristy Lee Cook tugs at a bracelet on Archuleta's left wrist. It reads "Archie." A fan gave it to him.
"The crazy thing is, no one has ever called me that before this show," says Archuleta, who is now called that exclusively to distinguish him from the other David.
Cook ascribes Archuleta's huge appeal to the fact that he's "the perfect gentleman." Albeit one she's trying to toughen up. Trained in martial arts, she's teaching him "how to really punch," she says. "He could use some practice."