Only in an airport are human beings compatriots in a netherworld of suspension, neither here nor there. They are on the way. An airport is the in-between space where an eccentric confluence of human specimens are reduced to a common ilk, though traveling methodologies could not be more diverse. I stood in a check-in line recently behind a large woman in a kaleidoscope sarong, her hair braided tightly and effusively about her crown, with painted fingernails grown so long they curled grotesquely to the reaches of her wrist. How could she possibly manage handling the photo ID? I saw an aching woman, by no means elderly, who shuffled along with a cane in obvious pain, silent, steady, face bent down moving slowly toward the boarding area, as we had been instructed, never asking for help or privilege.
An airport is one place I truly understand and appreciate the use of earbuds. We are humans, after all. We have souls. If we aren’t to enjoy private exterior space, we at least must possess some sense of interior space. Behind the crossed legs and opened books, we are processing, even if only subconsciously, the landscape of where we we have been and where we are going.
Stepping from the airbridge through the door of the ship is the only truly intimate confrontation with the stark reality that you are entering a hold that will carry you to 30,000 feet that is pieced together with rivets and screws. Am I the only one who wonders if we will step out again or die in harrowing descent because of a catastrophic malfunction (a screw came loose!)? I am consoled by Annie Dillard, who wrote in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek that if people falling out of crashing airplanes understood truly the essence of our relationship with time, space and God, they would fall through the sky saying “Thank you, God! Thank you!”
Perhaps the most poignant aspect of the airport is the fact that so much is hidden in its sacred subtext. There is trauma some people carry along with their rolling carry-ons. Maybe a son is flying to the deathbed of his dying mother. Maybe a mother burying her father. Maybe a lover has kissed his love good-bye until a time unknown. Maybe someone is simply trying to “get away.”
Of course there are always the heel clickers, those snappy travelers embodied in George Clooney‘s brilliant performance in “Up in the Air.” They know all the tricks, seamlessly passing through the indignities of security, skirting along terminal walkways leaving the lumbering folk in the dust. They have it all: executive club privileges, first-class tickets that enable them to board by way of the section to the immediate left of — but sharing the same carpet as — “general boarding.” Their side reads “priority.”
Yet once they are buckled up inside the beast they are up against the same forces as the herd: cramped, shared bathrooms, frazzled hair, and a sunken visage by the trip’s end. Or in the case of serious mid-flight turbulence, cold silence.
It is a bizarre yet oddly holy world that for the most part, works. There are the bullies, of course. But there are more people who are kind, who help. They give that final push as you struggle to get your bag in the overhead bin; they defer.
In this way we are all of us driven by a singular purpose: we all want to get there, wherever it is we are going. We want to survive and get back on the ground. That is where we are going. And, God be praised, in shockingly reliable proportion, we arrive. Then, back on the ground and after a final fleeting moment of solidarity at baggage claim, our intimate struggle ceases. We go our separate ways into differing worlds, once again enmeshed, invisible to our fellow travelers. Moving on.