There is no better place on the planet to watch the ultimate culture convergence than at the airport. Where else does just about everything seem normal?
As you frantically pull your luggage from the car at curbside, hustle past the long-huggers and breeze through the double doors toward the check-in counter you already begin to experience the majesty. You can see people with huge metal cases, duct-taped trash bags, snowboards, cellos, and cutesy luggage. Then without fail, there’s the older married couple frantically searching for their passports and the younger couple showing up too late to board the aircraft.
With boarding pass in hand, you’ve got the green light to head for the security checkpoint. Here you’ll hear the TSA agent yell out the same message over and over, born out of frustration that 4 people in a row did not “take your laptops out of their cases and set them into a bin separate from the rest of your items.” Security checkpoint is one of those rare public spaces where you get half undressed in front of total strangers without an exchange of money.
At the airport, even standing in line for coffee can provide endless fascination. In just one coffee line you may see a cowboy complete with 10-gallon hat and a belt buckle the size of a dinner plate; standing next to him is an incredibly stylish woman with heels so high that you want to hold up a scorecard for the degree of difficulty. Next to high heels lady is the weathered and disheveled guy who’s obviously been backpacking in some far off land just dreaming about a decent cup of coffee for 3 months. Behind backpacker guy is Captain Pajamas and pulling up the rear of the line is the mom traveling solo with 2 children who appears to be just barely holding onto her sanity. Brave, brave woman.
Yes, the airport is a magical place all right. In the airport neck pillows reign supreme as they adorn travelers like a point of pride, always leaving me wondering, “Do those things actually work?”
Roller bags skate across the glossy floors as smoothly as the cool high school guy from the 80’s who could skate backwards at the roller rink. Meanwhile, strollers stop as frequently as a garbage truck so the parent can pick up yet another item flung to the floor by a precocious toddler.
There’s hustle, there’s bustle, there’s an equal amount of sleeping in awkward spots and running for the gate. It is a place where there is never enough time and simultaneously an endless amount.
Bathrooms are packed with teeth-brushers, face splashers, and make-up appliers, the inevitable sprucing and primping which derives from landing after a long flight.
In this space business commuters converge with vacationers and the bereaved collide with honeymooners. Then, of course, there are the holiday travelers who always appear stressed-out and slightly panicked yes, it’s a regular hotbed of emotions strewn throughout the corridors and gates.
Depending on the airport you could take in some art, watch live music, ride a tram, or take your pick of vending machine items. You could get a massage, have a sit-down dinner, buy a new watch, shine your shoes, and peruse a newsstand all in one space. Honolulu has open green space, Detroit has water fountains, Seattle has impressive mosaic tiled pillars, and San Francisco has yoga rooms. There are elevators, escalators, moving sidewalks, endless corridors, and lines, lots and lots of lines. There can be disdain for airports no question, but you can’t say that there is nothing to do while you wait for your flight. People watching alone could provide hours of entertainment.
The airport is a space where every person has something in common; everyone is in purgatory. Each person in on their way to someplace else but has no control over when they will get there. We all cross our fingers and hope that the weather cooperates or that the plane doesn’t suddenly have a mechanical issue. A 30-minute layover could turn into a 24-hour airport marathon but there is a silver lining to that cloud, which is that you won’t be there forever.
Eventually, you will hear the call for boarding and witness the insanity of people at the gate as they begin to get edgy and scramble into a zigzag line. Pure determination drives them to get on as soon as possible so they can gain the best overhead bin space for their carry-on bags, whereas I vie to be the very last person to board.
Yes, you’ll reach your final destination eventually, and what is there to greet you as you reach the other side? Another airport with a whole different set of experiences. It starts with the long-stride walking race down the jet-way and back into the terminal where your eyes scan for the big arrowed signs leading you like a confused herd of cattle in search of your bags.
As you descend into the bellows of the airport looking for the correct baggage carousel you walk past the fancy capped chauffer-type people standing with name signs, which begs the question, who are these travelers that get picked up with a name sign? Where are they going? What are they doing?
As you take your carefully selected spot at the baggage carousel there is nothing to do but wait; wait and hope that you don’t win the unlucky lottery, in which, “winning” means you have ended up with a lost bag. Just when you think you can actually feel your soul dying while waiting for your luggage the belt begins to move. Slowly bags pop out onto the belt as if they were submerged under water and their buoyancy managed to shoot them to the surface. Again you are able to marvel at the truly baffling things that people check onto an airplane as you swipe your bag off the carousel and make way for the exit.
As the doors open and you breeze out into the curbside chaos you walk past the long-huggers and find your source of transportation, tipping your cap to airport purgatory, until next time.