In the last three weeks, I have spent approximately 35 hours in airports. Just in airports. I stayed the night in JFK, had a 10-hour layover in Newark, and passed in and out of the truly lovely Burlington International Airport at least 4 times. In my time here, I’ve noticed a few things.
Airports are strange. They are a bit like the purgatory of travel—the holding area you must pass through before moving on to better things (or worse, depending on where you’re heading). And this limbo-land of modern-day crossings offers every temptation your heart might desire: free WiFi (with the notable exception of JFK), cuisine from every part of the globe that never quite satisfies, an orgy of coffee and a baffling number of retail options.
Like purgatory, airports play host to every kind of person, too. Uniformed escorts wheeling old ladies with too much perfume to and fro. Business men in suits. Children visiting relatives, signs that read “unaccompanied minor” (or something to that effect) draped around their necks. Students carrying tattered backpacks. The mysterious person who left an empty handle of cherry-flavored vodka lying on the bathroom floor at the airport in Detroit. Somebody had a very drunk, cherry-scented neighbor on their flight Monday.
These vague, loosely defined souls crowd onto escalators and through security lines, into cafes and along moving walkways, each with their own, individual mission to arrive. They rarely seem to notice one another.
Babies are the notable exception to this rule. They will stare at you forever if no one stops them.
In the first class lounge (which I talked my way into in Newark), the light is softer, the announcements muted, and the cushions thicker. (Oh yes, and the food is free.) But you can make yourself comfortable elsewhere if you only find the right nook, the right corner in which to nest. I have found, too, that it is worthwhile to buy a drink or a sandwich at a sit-down restaurant just to have someplace to sit.
There is a 24/7 diner in JFK where the waitresses don’t mind if you lie down and sleep at night.
In Detroit, there is a really interesting fountain that can easily kill 10 minutes if you are early—I have been sitting here gazing at it for at least that long now. I have yet to find the pattern the jets of water follow.
I have noticed that most people are happy to chat if you engage them, like the Australian girls I met in Newark, or the guy working at the Skinny Pancake in Burlington. Others are perhaps too happy to chat, like the people trying to buy drinks for the Australian girls in Newark, whom I obdurately ignored. Still others will surprise you by how much they don’t want to talk, like the woman I smiled at in line last week who abruptly turned away in response.
Airports exist at a strange midpoint between private and public space. Most people seem to carry a small bubble of impermeable air with them as they travel through. I know I certainly do. And yet our meals, our naps, our personal conversations and our arguments take place in shared, public space. The airport paradox.
It is always too cold, or too loud, or too hard or too rushed. Airports are anything but comfortable and warm. And yet, I kind of like them. They are the limbo-land of my crossings to the next place, my next destination, and for that alone, they are bearable.
And then there is this awesome tunnel at DTW (Detroit):