An airport enthusiast relates “experiences at airports named for supposedly great men.”
Tales of the Terminal
Experiences at Airports Named for Supposedly Great Men
I couldn’t tell you the genesis of my love for airports. Sometime in my youth I developed a peculiar affinity for them, but exactly when and where I began to enjoy traversing the long, circuitous corridors is hazy, one of those memories lost in the cloudy morass of adolescent interests. But while hobbies like organizing cheese trays and applying sabermetric analyses to each and every game of the NFL season have been largely abandoned for what one might call nobler pursuits, the thrill of the airport, in all its juvenile throttle, has remained. This always bemuses people. The nausea of the airport, they rebut, or the baggage-hauling, belt-loosening frustration that builds, like a crescendo, to the mind-numbing aggravation of TSA. But the thrill? I suppose I can illustrate it better than I can explain it, for attempting to convince you, reader, that the airport is chock full of thrills—gastronomic, architectural, anthropological, even the simple thrill of solitude—is an exercise in futility. Even now, as I sit in the terminal at LAX, in gate 11A, it’s hard for me to wrap my head around my own fixation. My eyes stick like cling wrap to the over-congestion of it all, as brigades of men and women and children look indignantly at the moving walkway, like it’s something to be defeated. Their feet quicken. A bag switches from left to right, right to left, and the insignias of twenty-first century capitalism breathe down their necks, having been squeezed, methodically, into this epicenter of pure, molten commerce.
As for me, I am neither the least nor the most well traveled, but I have been to maybe a dozen-and-a-half different airports, mostly domestic. In the early days, it was to fly from Baltimore Washington International to Florida, either West Palm Beach International or Ft. Lauderdale, for my family and I would invariably spend winter holidays sequestered from the Mid-Atlantic reality of the winter season. I would ask my parents if we could leave for the airport say, at eight in the morning, for an afternoon flight. They looked on, puzzled. Absurd, they thought, to voluntarily, and prematurely, enter the Gates of Hell that is air travel. No, we will leave approximately an hour and forty-five minutes before takeoff, no earlier, no later. This was the source of childish disappointment and deprivation, but it occurred to me that, after the atrocities of 9/11, this is what people came to consider the airport: not a place of leisure, not a lackadaisical middle-ground bridging departure and arrival, but a sort of high-security, high-anxiety purgatory, a cesspool of collective annoyance.
If our natural inclination is to interact only with those of similar background, of comparable intellect, of coinciding interest, then the airport, if one is willing, corrodes this impulse. It embroils us involuntarily in society’s random undulations; for this reason, the airport has become synonymous with tedium, a ceaseless place of Beckettian stature. And the airport terminal, perhaps reductively, has been diminished to just that: intermittent series of waiting. But it ought to be said that how one chooses to spend one’s time waiting will dictate the extent to which one enjoys the airport. If one, like Vladimir and Estragon, waits impatiently for their airborne Godot—legs crossed, hands resting gently in lap, butt planted reluctantly on the worn, dark-blue leather of terminal seating—the experience of the airport will be a dreary one. But this sort of clinical nausea seems to me in total contradiction to the importance and sheer immensity of the airport. Because any massive structure, similarly fifteen to twenty minutes outside most metropolitan cities, consisting of the same food chains and coffee shops and gadget stores and magazine stands, bringing together the man in the blue pinstriped suit and the mother who has secretly sedated her twin sons and the couple from Tampa Bay with matching tattoos on the smalls of their backs, is no bullpen, but rather the field itself, where the outstretched tentacles of capitalism and democracy and self-determination meet, a place in its own right.
Free Cologne and Vodka in Seemingly Post-Apocalyptic Warsaw
I am hungover at the airport in Warsaw. It is mid-January, 2015. The temperature is two degrees Fahrenheit. This past week has been one of sorrow, replete with derelict concentration camps and snow-frosted morgues. Many prayers have been sung for the deceased, many scarves furled around our necks and ears as we’ve honored and remembered our ancestors who were so mercilessly brutalized in the Second World War.
But I am relieved now to be leaving, and the airport represents a shining passageway back to a civilization marked by cell-phone service and fast food. For even the airport in seemingly dystopian Warsaw, a place of arrant gloom, stuck, at least visually, in its history of destruction and besiegement, reminds me of any airport anywhere. It is the optics that lend each airport its particular charm, but in spite of these differences they each retain some fundamental sameness, a comforting sense of the orderly.
It might seem irreverent to be hungover given the fact that I was in Poland on a Holocaust memorial trip. And indeed it is. So, here I am, about to miss my flight, a rare occurrence given the many hours I’ve spent, wasted, you might say, in airport terminals. Not this time. A dysfunctional hotel alarm clock led to my waking up just an hour before my flight, and despite the considerable language barrier between me and the Polish hotel concierge, I could communicate as much to him. The taxi driver he called sped through traffic lights as if we were in a Tony Scott film. And, by some stroke of fate, I am here with a few minutes to spare.
The Frederic Chopin Airport is a dismal gray, an artless canvas. Named for Polish composer and pianist Frederic Chopin, it possesses none of his virtuosity or artfulness. It is pretty much wholly uninspiring except for the duty-free store in Terminal 1. In here I take a swig of Krupnik, a Polish vodka-based drink being proffered, at nine in the morning, nonetheless, by two Polish women in matching navy skirt-suits, navy knee-high socks and black brogues, the leather shiny as new. According to their nametags, one is named Aleksandra and the other is Justyna. They say hello to me—HAH-low, is how they pronounce it—and mutter in wonderfully broken English about the two-for-one deals on handles of Polish vodka. This deal is one I’d be an idiot not to take advantage of, especially given Poland’s terrible zloty, a currency that, a few nights before, allowed me to order six glasses of wine for the American equivalent of two dollars and seventy-six cents. I proceed to buy a hat, a couple shot glasses, little mementos cloaked in the colors of the Polish flag, and a knitted Polish national soccer team scarf for my grandfather. I also get a coffee but am received with scorn when I ask to pour the milk and sugar myself.
My favorite thing about the Warsaw airport is that it looks like some clandestine military base, or a sort of abandoned aerodrome, with its flat roofs and neutral coloring and eerie quietude. This airport is functional, above all, unconcerned with flashiness. There are no automatic doors, no designer clothing stores and certainly no reclining chairs with built in outlets. When I board flight 114 headed to Zurich, my layover stop before JFK, I am happy to leave Poland but sad to leave Chopin, for it leaves me with the feeling that I’ve seen but a fraction of what the airport has to offer; of course, I’ve been here for less than twenty minutes, having missed out on a lounge called Rest & Wine, what with its delightful titular implication, and several other attractions. I am also forced to cut short a conversation with a loud and overzealous Lithuanian woman in the duty free store who was squirting cologne on my wrists and neck. In Chopin there seems to be an appreciable dearth of subtlety, perhaps having something to do with a distinctly Polish forthrightness. Or maybe, as the thumping in my head increases, everything just sounds louder to me.
Fear and Loathing in Thurgood Marshall
It is March 2015 and I am the Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport. It is seven in the morning and my entire family is here, a boisterous clan of Peruvian-American Jewish alcoholics, each with dangerously short fuses, delightful, at times, as individuals, but unbearable as a whole. We are beginning our first ever family vacation, a trip to Cancun at one of those all-inclusive resorts where vastness oftentimes comes at the expense of quality. My grandparents, retired, with their life’s capital invested in the stock market, are treating us, and they have managed to call attention to this each time the slightest complaint comes forth from our mouths, holding their largesse over us like some oppressive, patrolling force.
It is by no undeserved sense of exceptionalism that I assert, here, that my family is particularly maddening, like a band of misfits each convinced of their own moral uprightness, yelling at one another in the heavily accented cadence of pathologically self-absorbed Peruvians. From the top down, starting with our unhinged South American patriarch Moises and my grandmother, Frida, to their three vastly unalike progeny, to me, we tend to speak in a series of drunken and discordant notes.
My aunt Beth is noticeably absent when it is time to go through security. As I remove my shoes, belt, hat and watch, my phone rings from the grey tub of my belongings. It is Beth, who relies on me most in those moments when she feels like the pariah and the subject of our collective disdain. I don’t understand the first few things that she screams through the phone, her voice muffled in panicky screams and sobs.
“Jake,” she screams breathlessly. “I’m at the kiosk. I’m fucking freaking out. You have to help me.”
“What? I’m at security. Just follow the directions.”
“But I can’t and not one fucking person here can help me. They’re all fucking morons.”
“Just, can you calm down?”
Beth is forty-seven, twelve years sober and hasn’t smoked a cigarette in seventeen months. She is mortally afraid of flying and has been anxious about this trip for months. Her total aversion to calm, though, is less a product of the impending flight than it is her behavioral homeostasis.
We are now in the terminal, terminal B-26 to be exact, and Beth has finally joined the group, lumbering towards the gate like a runner after a marathon. She wears tall black stilettos, grey sweatpants, metallic silver lipstick and a cropped tank top, standard airport garb. She is terrified, tells me that airports and airplanes both make manifest an acute anxiety that was once mollified by copious amounts of liquor and Pall Malls but is now, in her sobriety, uncontainable.
“I’m fucking pissed off I’m here, Jake. I’ve been dreading it ever since we planned this trip. Like, the moment I committed to this I was just thinking about this flight and how brutal it would be.”
“Do you want me to get you a diet coke?”
“That’s the thing. Because I’m sitting here panicked, and I’m thinking about my demise, and how we’re all going to die on this airplane, and you’re interrupting my thoughts asking me about a fucking diet coke, like you’re happy as a goddamn hippo. A diet coke. I mean, really? And you need to understand that fear is illogical. Listen, I know that. If anyone does, I do. Fear is an illogical fucking thing!”
I try to get a word in but Beth continues.
“Have you ever heard, what is it, that Mark Twain quote. It goes ‘I’ve been through some terrible things in my life, some of which have happened to me.’ That’s what this is like. You know, people die in car accidents more than they do in plane crashes but when you’re like me, you don’t think about that kind of thing.”
Before every passenger has even boarded the airplane, my sister and I have both ordered alcohol, and I’m drinking mine guiltily in front of Beth, knowing it’s exactly the palliative she needs at this very moment. I wish that just for a second, we could trade places, and she could enjoy the airport and ensuing flight the way I do, but instead Beth removes two melatonin from her Gucci purse and falls deeply asleep, pulling her platinum blonde bob back into a ponytail. When the flight lands, I all but heave her tall, thin body through baggage claim. We’ve arrived in Cancun unscathed, and as our family checks in, the hotel receptionist understandably overwhelmed, Beth and I find out that we’re rooming together. When we get to room 438, greeted by one large king bed, I have a glass of complimentary champagne, pretending it’s far more expensive than it actually is, while Beth goes to the balcony and cracks open a Danielle Steele novel.
Nabokovian Navel-Gazing in Chicago
At Terminal 3 in Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, named for Edward Henry O’Hare, a World War II naval officer and Medal of Honor recipient, a middle-aged man approaches me at the gate as we wait for our American Airlines flight to New York City. He looks maybe fifty years old and is wearing a brown wool sweater, New Balance sneakers and “dad jeans,” an unkempt beard and general dishevelment indicating, at least to me, that he is a scholarly man, perhaps a Classics professor at Wesleyan or a former oboist with a penchant for Kafka. He wags his finger violently as he walks towards me and I grow increasingly uncomfortable with his proximity. As he nears and I direct my body ever so slightly away, it becomes clear he’s pointing at my book. I’m reading, no, laboring through Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov. If reading is supposed to be one of the singular, cathartic joys, an intellectual and aesthetic undertaking, Pale Fire represents both the apogee of the form and a testament to its occasional insurmountability. It requires you to flip back and forth, from a 999-line canto to a line-by-line analysis of that very canto. Though I am a Nabokov acolyte, I’m slowly growing more convinced I ought to burn this book and never look back.
“Now, I was just over there minding my own business but I saw you were reading Nabokov’s magnum opus, if you will. I’m a, well, I’m a literature professor, a writer too.”
He stops, as if waiting for my reply, but continues speaking before I can think of what to say to him.
“You see, Pale Fire is a curious book, not for the faint of heart.” He chuckles at himself. “It’s important, I think, to place it within the intellectual, cultural context of Nabokov’s career, because, well, you know, it’s after Lolita, after Pnin, two of Vlad’s most famous works, his most, uh, universally lauded. And so many authors, you know, run out of gas, or they mimic their earlier prose, try for some verisimilitude as a means of, you know, continuing their previous success. But not Vlad, I mean, Pale Fire is a total reinvention of the novel’s form. It’s multi-genre, it’s metaphysical. The poem in and of itself, really, is just this sumptuous thing. And then the exterior. You can tell the novel, it we want to be reductive and call it that, is this consummation of his intelligence. You’re lucky, you know, to be giving it a go.”
“Yeah, for sure.” I am taken off guard and wish the man would leave, and I continue to nod profusely, like a bobble-head.
“Well, take care and, uh, enjoy!”
The man jolts away, flushed with bookish adrenaline, his New Balances squeaking, the lanyard on his eye glasses dangling below his chin. I place a bookmark on page ninety-eight of Pale Fire and I’ve yet to open it since.
Prayer and Pornography with President Bush
Rain makes it way down the massive windows in Concourse C, Gate 8, at the George Bush Intercontinental Airport. It is 2005 and I am here with my father, waiting for our flight back to Baltimore. I am only ten years old but feel as though I have brushed elbows with death. Minutes before, as I looked around panoramically, in thrall with the airport’s high ceilings, listening closely to a conversation happening at currency exchange about a potentially inaccurate conversion from Peso to Dollar, I realized I had lost my dad. Or, rather, he had lost me, the four-foot tall peripatetic amongst legions of adult-size travelers. When I realized he was gone, I immediately began to reconcile his absence, to imagine what my life would now be like without a father, forever within the confines of George Bush Intercontinental to the colorless tune of flight delays and cancellations.
The first time a child gets lost is always a life-changing event. At the outset it’s most startling, the realization of one’s solitude, quickly descending into existential panic. But I was in an airport, a place, though heretofore unexplored, in which I always felt at home. I was only lost for fifteen minutes, but that quarter-hour was my first initiation into airport culture, a crucial recognition of the sheer breadth of experiences to be had hopscotching across the moving walkways with an open mind.
I wandered first to what GBI calls the airport’s “interfaith chapel, a place of comfort, meditation, worship and aid for the traveling public and the airport community.” I thought it was a television room but gave up hope after watching several consecutive minutes of Yule Log, in which an ambient fireplace blazes and a Labrador retriever occasionally steps into the frame to survey the scene. A minister or priest or cleric—this Jew has no idea which—later entered wearing a white and purple vestment. He asked me if I was lost, but having heard things in the news about some of these men, things I then could not entirely grasp but made me wary nonetheless, I politely walked away.
From the interfaith chapel I went to Hudson News, where I’d been before but never on my own. Hudson News was special to me, but in the way the unattainable is special. I’d seen adults in there before, staring contemplatively at the wall of magazines and the best-sellers, a predictable collection of Stephen King and Mitch Albom, selecting a light read before grabbing a Nutri-Grain bar and maybe even a seventeen-dollar parfait, and I yearned, precociously, to be like them. But the longer I stared at the magazines the more they all began to look the same. Except the ones at the very top, the ones with inky-black plastic covering them, cloaked in mystery. The fact that they were unknowable and quite literally unreachable only served to intensify my intrigue. Why were they covered? How would anyone know if they wanted to buy it or not if they couldn’t see the front? I jumped once, and then a second time, like I would when trying to dunk a basketball, knocking down the magazines and earning the derisive glances of the very same travelers whom I aimed to emulate. I began to tear through the plastic out of curiosity, realizing in seconds why they were censored, the kind of adolescent revelation I now see as a definitive crossroads, a seismic shift from puerile unreality to the dark and strange unknown. At this very moment, as my ten-year-old eyes glanced upon a woman’s bare-naked body for what might’ve been the first time, her breasts, and soon her entire hour-glass shape, appearing almost three-dimensional, making their way off the glossy paper as if to assume corporeal form, my father spotted me, nestled unassumingly in the back corner of Hudson News, in Concourse C, in George Bush Intercontinental. It was my favorite airport store, not the warm and comforting clergyman, which ultimately corrupted me.
The rain is still making its way down the big windows, and the plane has arrived. My dad writes on a pale-yellow legal pad and I am sitting, slumped childishly in the navy-blue chairs at the terminal. We sit in silence. I play Aaron Carter on my Walkman. We board the plane.
A Conversation Between Husband and Wife, Age 60, At LaGuardia Airport
“I lost my cell phone.”
“You lost your cell phone?”
“I can’t find it.”
“What the hell, Greg? You just had it!”
“I know. But I can’t find it.”
“Look in your bag.”
I am sitting across from them and I see the man’s cell phone buried beneath his crotch as he sits cross-legged.
“I did. Nothing.”
“I can’t believe this.”
“Can you call it for me?”
“Jesus, Greg. I was playing a game on my phone.”
“Just call it, please!”
“I feel it.”
“Is it dialing?”
“I’m sitting on it.”
An American in Paris
Charles de Gaulle Airport (Aéroport de Paris-Charles-de-Gaulle) is a romantic place. The ceilings are latticed in shiny hardwood and the arrivals gate, even more so than others, is the scene of constant communion, fliers and picker-uppers reuniting with the kind of hyperbolic expressions found in a Jean Renoir silent film. It would seem to me to have something to do with the romanticism of Paris itself, except Charles de Gaulle, not unlike the model cities at urban planning conventions, is a sort of self-contained microcosm of the city, an aggregate of its upscale cosmopolitanism and its cobblestone-y charm. Its more elaborate ceilings take the semicircular shape of a croissant cut in half, and through the little squares it is braced with beaming natural light, reflecting off the carpet and the metal of the moving walkway, like some celestial presence brought to enhance your travels.
I am leaving Paris after a month-long summer class in which I studied fiction writing and attempted, to moderate success, to live like the Lost Generation writers of almost a century prior, spending inordinate amounts of time moping around Shakespeare & Company and reading Rimbaud on the Seine. My flight to Dulles is in about four hours, which means four more hours to be Parisian, to hit all corners and crevices of de Gaulle.
The outdoor smoking area at CDG, called the Star Alliance lounge, looks like an editorial spread in Home & Garden, or maybe even a polaroid of the Tuileries, with patches of perfectly-green grass and pristine concrete. Adding to the smoking zone’s beauty are spherical bushes that come out of tall, cylindrical metal statues. I spend twenty minutes staring at the smoking section, wondering whether or not I should bring my bags with me or ask the American family, all of which are clad in University of Illinois sweats—hoodies, hats and sweatpants—if they will watch my bag for me.
I sheepishly ask them, they oblige, and I go for a coffee. The scene at the coffee shop in Charles de Gaulle is different from your average Starbucks in an American airport, where the snakelike line of weary travelers reminds one of the communal isolation of a smoke break at AA meetings, the same perfunctory one-liners shared between reluctant, fidgety men and women. Here, the coffee shop is casual and baristas chat at length with their customers. I have no interest in talking to my barista, less so when I order a regular coffee and am handed an iced Frappuccino.
Though I’m sure many more exist, Paris and New York are two places where lighting up a smoke does not yet make you a social leper. I’ve witnessed the brutal haranguing of a man smoking a cigarette on the geriatric streets of Carmel, California, and it’s no less ostracizing in other small American towns. In New York, smokers are guiltless flinging their cigarette onto the dirty, heavily trodden concrete. It can’t get much filthier. But in the Star Alliance lounge, a place for smoking, a very chic Parisian lady, wearing an oversized black tuxedo jacket and a fancy black pocketbook, has no qualms using the bottom of her stripy stilettos to entrench her cigarette deeply into the area’s perfectly cut grass. A man a few feet away from me ashes his cigarette in the slim crevice between the perpendicular wooden beams of the oak bench. When I finish mine, symbolizing the end of my Rimbaudian summer in Paris, I remove the lid of my Frappuccino and jab the butt deep into the caramel-colored ice before returning to the gate, where the alumni of University Illinois are asleep, my luggage luckily intact.
The airport is that immense, largely unavoidable, vaguely democratizing phenomenon of the latter half of the twentieth century that begs contemplation, asks of us to make sense of it and its rapid proliferation in some meaningful way. Except the inherent difficulty in making sense of the airport lies in its conflation of binaries. Sure, it’s quite simply a place where one travels, but it’s also a gulf of contradictions, contradictions that evoke the sort of ambivalence with which airports are chiefly regarded: reunion and departure, the thrill of a destination and the dreaded wait to get there, its status as a supposedly populist hub ironically replete with the class distinctions of economy, business, and first. The airport is the global headquarters of Westernization; it’s congested, constantly evolving, containing the whole gamut of human life and emotion, and still feeling, to most, remarkably lifeless.
In my case, I’ve come to consider that the thrill of the terminal has less to do with its physiognomy than it does an interesting sort of paradox: only between its cramped corridors, alongside thousands of strangers with whom we share one thing, a compulsion towards isolation, can we obtain a certain solitude, an elusive, self-imposed equanimity. The airport terminal is a place that absorbs human life, disturbs it, impels it, and, most of all, forces it to perform a most unusual task: account for time not already accounted for, to find a way to be with oneself. In an age of constant mobility, where our lives seem absurdly fleeting, the airport terminal asks, if only for a couple hours, “What now?”
Airports offer plenty of answers to this terrifying query—upscale eats and fast food, designer fashion and state-specific paraphernalia, masseuses and shoe shiners, etc.—and yet, in spite of these ambulatory gates and their ceaseless activity, it is the opportunity to stop, the oxymoronic solitude of it all, that makes airports most enjoyable to me. The idea of being alone is one we’re increasingly uncomfortable with, but the solitude provided by airports is of a different kind. It doesn’t make us cringe, the way sitting alone in a restaurant might, nor does it carry the considerable burden of shame and loneliness. Instead, it’s accepted, calming, the opposite of an awkward silence.
Because I am now old enough, I usually go to airports alone. I no longer need to beg my parents to arrive several hours early. I can instead hop in a cab and do so on my own. A few weeks ago, when traveling back to New York City from Los Angeles, I gave myself plenty of what I now call “terminal time,” a conveniently alliterated nickname with an unfortunate, slightly morbid connotation. At LAX, I spend a good chunk of these hours eating a Five Guys cheeseburger (as far as I can tell, most traveling Los Angelinos have opted for plant-colored smoothies and kale chips), an even larger chunk reading all the things I’ve yet to read for class, another portion rudely eavesdropping on couples and watching parents berate their children, and finally, a fair amount of time wondering what it is about LAX, and airports in general, I was going to write about for this essay. Is it the googly-eyed look on my face at the gate, seeing before me a Bethlehem of possibilities, time to dedicate to myself as I head wolfishly towards the pre-packaged paninis? Or is it the oracular sensation of a flight revving its engines on the runway, prepared to take the air and, as this tone-deaf thespian might say, defy gravity? Perhaps I am just truly amazed at the breadth of human life that occupies the airport, a slave to its vast, heterogeneous terrain? But as I contemplate any and all of these things, on the vertiginous brink of what might be an epiphany, it’s announced that we’re boarding.