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It was 10 a.m. on a Thursday. I sat at a bar in the Denver Airport, eating a hot dog and drinking a beer while chatting with a 60-something woman who, despite being retired, was traveling to St. Louis for business. We laughed about the changing nature of the working world, commiserated about the hassles of air travel, and waxed poetic about the different stages of parenthood we currently inhabit. I have never met her before, and after our brief interlude, will likely never speak to her again. As we prepared to part ways, she offered to buy me a shot.
It should seem weird, but it didn’t. Because airports, especially international airports, exist outside of normal space and time. There’s something about them that makes you throw out almost all of our normally agreed upon social conventions. Is 10 a.m. the appropriate time for a beer and a hot dog? Should I accept a free shot from a 60-year-old woman? Were we just flirting? Is it morning, afternoon, night?
Nobody knows. None of us came here to come here, we all came here to go somewhere else.
This is life at the airport. And, yes, I had that shot.
The airport as liminal space
Airports are what could be referred to as liminal spaces. They exist between other places — that is to say, nobody comes to the airport to go to the airport. They come to go someplace else. And before you mention the folks who work here, keep in mind they don’t come here to come “here.” They come to work.
Because nobody goes to the airport for the sake of going to the airport, they don’t function the way normal destinations and locations do. They are, essentially, a place designed to take you someplace else. A space between spaces.
I don’t fly very often, and if I did, I might be less inclined to see airports the way that I do — as locations that aren’t locations. But despite my infrequent flyer status, I don’t think I’m wrong. This is how airports have that power to throw normal rules, mores, and social conventions out the proverbial window, empowering you to have liquor at any given time. The added benefit of anonymity — it’s unlikely that anyone knows you, where you’re from, or what you’re doing — liberates you from the patterns of normal life.
We talk to people who we might otherwise never speak to in life. You run into a stranger, strike up a conversation, develop a relationship, and then part ways, never to see one another again, often in less than an hour. You have what would normally be an inappropriately timed drink and perhaps repeat the process. You can sit and watch hundreds, maybe thousands of people, all headed somewhere besides here.
What time is it?
Because of the nature of air travel, especially international air travel, the local time doesn’t really matter. Neither does whatever time it is back home, or the time it is at your destination. In an airport, there is only one time — now.
Except for the truly disciplined among us, we disregard the schedules of daily living at the airport. We don’t eat breakfast, lunch, or dinner. We merely eat whatever we desire from the available options whenever hunger strikes us. We drink coffee in the evening, sodas in the morning, and alcohol anytime it strikes our fancy — whether it’s celebratory, commiseratory, or just out of boredom.
Time doesn’t define what you’re doing at the airport, but that doesn’t mean that you’re not aware of time’s passing. As the day, or night, goes on and your flight continues to be delayed, the airline dragging its heels as you suspect you’re going to be waiting significantly longer than expected, you become exceedingly more aware of time. And it is maddening.
The airport as a force of nature?
The transitional nature of the airport is neutral. Oft chaotic, but neutral. It can be pleasant and welcoming, as in the case of the shot. Or seemingly malevolent and off-putting as in the case of the delayed flight or the inconsiderate passenger waiting near you who farts a little too freely — you know the one.
But the airport doesn’t care. It is neither for you or against you. It simply is. Do you know what else is like this? The ocean. Mountains. The desert. Raging rivers. The wilderness. Forces of nature. They are beautiful, inviting, enticing — begging to be explored.
Until they’re not. Then they are terrifying, dangerous, intimidating, and infuriating.
The airport isn’t as physically dangerous as these wild places, but emotionally? They can get to you in a way that most other places can’t. And when you’re waiting on a layover, or worse yet, a delayed or canceled flight, there is no escape.
You must simply wait.
Beauty vs beast
Airports are unusual places. Strangely beautiful at their best, and completely infuriating at their worst. You have the opportunity to see the breadth of human emotion and action. And it will, indubitably, make you smile. Then just as inevitably, it’s going to piss you right the fuck off.
You’ll sit at a Mexican-themed bar and grill watching the bartender offer compassion to a traveler who has recently lost someone they love. You’ll watch a stranger offer words of encouragement to a single parent struggling to keep a child entertained. You’ll see people sharing photos of their kids, dogs, and whatever else they can find in common.
And then, as is the nature of chaos, people will just knock the shit out of that compassion. They’ll barge to the front of lines. People will stand up as soon as a plane lands, obstructing the path of travel for folks who have mere minutes to make a connection. They’ll play obnoxious music through shitty bluetooth speakers. They’ll begin lining up the minute an employee arrives at the gate. They will be rude, aggressive, and downright mean.
And there is nothing you can do. Because that’s the airport.
The annoying protocol of air travel
I could devote an entire article to what I don’t like about air travel. It’s not the flying itself, it’s everything associated with it — the process of checking bags, the nonsensical security procedures, the seemingly arbitrary TSA rules, and the absolute insanity that overtakes people when trying to board or deboard a plane… But does anybody want to read that? If you’ve ever flown, especially in the last 20 years, you know what I’m talking about.
When people envision the future of travel, they always seem to come up with science fiction style solutions to the problems of air travel. From teleportation and superspeed transport, to flying cars and hyperspeed rail lines. But I think, for the foreseeable future, air travel is here to stay. Which means the airport is as well.
Of course, we want a better way to travel, without all the things that we don’t enjoy, like taking off our shoes and dumping out our water bottles. But perhaps it’s all part of the din and drum of the airport. The sense of urgency, the need to hurry up and wait, and the knowledge that you’re in a place that’s merely a waystation for where you want to be. After all, you couldn’t simply wander into an airport to hang out, even if you wanted to.
Airports — here to stay
Despite the aspects I don’t like — that I think most people don’t like — maybe it’s a good thing that the airport isn’t going anywhere. There’s always frustration, but perhaps it’s one of those things that make you appreciate what you’ve got. Like the joy of a hot shower and sleeping in your own bed after a week in the woods, the liminal quality of airports and the irrelevance of time within them helps us appreciate the relative reliability of our day-to-day lives. It’s fun to exist in a space where morning and night don’t matter, where up and down seem reversed, and left and right appear arbitrary. It’s a treat to be able to eat whatever you want, whenever you want, but ultimately, it’s not sustainable.
And for the majority of us, airport life isn’t sustainable either. Even the frequent flyers among us grow weary of existing in a space between spaces where it’s never a specific time of day. Like other rarefied locations — mountaintops, deserts, caves — the airport is a place that can bring the best or the worst out of humanity. But for every part of it that seems like an incorrigible wasteland, there’s another part that seems to be a striking wilderness. Savage, yes, but also captivating. And like most wilderness, most of us can only visit briefly, explore, and continue forward.
That’s life at the airport. And sometimes, just life.