I’ve been traveling the past couple of weeks. This explains my half-assed post from last week. But I love to travel. I love the airport. Not so much the flying, which, when done properly, is just like riding the bus but with better scenery. No, I really, honestly love the airport itself. It’s a high-stress environment where almost everyone is out of their element in one way or another. I dig that. Not sure why. I’m sure this particular quirk is indicative of some sort of mental instability. But I’d call that a chicken/egg question, if pressed.
I’ve traveled a lot in my short little life, and have spent an inordinate amount of time waiting for flights. There’s something really comforting about it. It’s all very strictly regimented – numbers and times and gates and uniforms. My OCD responds well to the airport. Also, some of the best people-watching ever.
The airport is liminal. The airport is limbo.
It’s not just airports. I love train stations and bus stations. Even elevators. All those in-between spaces that seem like they exist just outside of our reality. Like if you look closely you could find all the cracks in the world, hidden behind the anonymous steel door at baggage claim.
Some of my favorite liminal space stories (in brief, because I’m still exhausted) –
– Sharing a joint with a homeless guy in the bushes outside the bus station in Salt Lake City at six in the morning, watching the sun come up.
– Flying as an unaccompanied minor and explaining to my wrangler that, no, actually my parents didn’t mind my reading Stephen King (it was my Dad’s copy of It). I was twelve. She started praying. Fuck Dallas.
– Same flight! Sitting next to the director of marketing for Cadbury who insisted on grilling me, the little fat kid, on all the many and varied reasons I loved chocolate. I really don’t.
– Listening to a string quartet play in a subway station somewhere in New York at like three in the morning and, therefore, missing the last train back to the hostel where I was staying. Being forced to walk through the city in the dead of night was both enlightening and terrifying.
– Waiting for a train in Calais, watching my mother smoke and read a book, two things that she does very rarely and very beautifully.
But I think that my airport experiences are changing every time I go somewhere. I blame smartphones. There are fewer and fewer actual human interactions happening and more and more folks staring at tiny screens. Also fewer people reading books, which used to be one of my favorite things about people watching, seeing what everyone was reading. Yeah, I’m nosy. I’m aware. I’m also aware that a lot of those tiny screens are probably e-readers. That’s not the point!
The point is that there used to be some level of expectation that it was okay to talk to the person sitting next to you. Even if it was annoying, you couldn’t say you didn’t see it coming. Now all you have to do is put in headphones or stare blankly at some electronic gadget and it’s like you’re wearing a sign around your neck that says “I will be super cranky if you talk to me for any reason.” And that bums me out. People are cool. People are really interesting. People are full of stories, but we’ve kind of turned ourselves off to the possibility of hearing them. It’s sad.
On the other hand, some of the most interesting people I’ve met in those forced-to-travel-together situations were either hitchhiking or riding the bus, so maybe this is a problem that’s limited specifically to airports. A hierarchical economic thing. A snooty air travel demographic that I never knew existed. We should really get an anthropologist on the case posthaste. Anthropologists? Anybody? Someone want to crowdfund this study? TSA? NSA? CIA? Come on. It’d be fascinating.
And I’m not the most social of butterflies to start with. I’m not going to walk up to any old random unsuspecting stranger in the airport and try to make them my new best friend. I have a best friend. But those encounters, probably by nature of their rarity and their placement in a liminal environment, have been more interesting than your day-to-day ho-hum chit chat, for the most part. It’s not like meeting someone at your local dive bar and hearing their fairly mundane sob story (I also adore local dive bars; I’m not using that as an example of a sub-par social environment). Everyone at the airport/station is on a mission. “Where are you headed?” Jesus, that question could lead anywhere, couldn’t it? To a celebration. To some sort of tragedy. To the utter terror of a whole new life. To a place I’ve never even heard of. So try it, just once. Talk to someone, make a travel buddy. And you never know. You might cross paths with that person again. Stranger things have happened.