Suspended Reality at the Airport

Does anyone else miss airports? I know you can still travel by airplane, but with all the Covid restrictions in place, airports aren’t the same place they used to be. And that’s a bit of a shame. Airports are one of those weird places where you can get microdosed with suspended reality.

What do I mean by that? Well, it’s like this: You know how when you go on vacation, (and I mean a good vacation with relaxation, meals, soul-cleansing, and possibly even beach drinks on a Tuesday) and it feels like you’re living some other life for a bit? Like a timeline and existence that doesn’t actually belong to you? Like you’re just holding someone’s spot in line at a resort, all the while knowing but not acknowledging that in a few short days you’ll be back to sitting in traffic and reporting to ungrateful bosses? You know that feeling?

Well, you used to be able to get that in little bitty doses at airports. Perhaps it would be best with examples:

Drinks All Around

For one thing, airports are socially lawless places. Jack & Coke at 7:30 a.m.? Why not? Eating breakfast at a Chili’s? Sure! Buying a book of sudoku puzzles even though you’re not normally the puzzle-solving type? Absolutely, but only if it costs more than $7.99 for some stupid reason. But it doesn’t matter, because airports create this little miniature suspended reality.

Take alcohol, for example. I love drinking at airports. I love it. Not only does the airport provide one of the best beers you’ll ever have, but it makes for great people watching. Sure, in regular reality you’d probably feel a little weird about having a Goose Island IPA at 8:15 a.m., but at least you’re not that crazy looking lady sitting at a table who’s clearly four gin and tonics deep, watching a surgical documentary on full volume on her iPad as she wipes syrup off of her onesie pajamas that she’s wearing. The airport dramatically lowers the standard for what is normal. It’s nice. And as long as you’re not on your way TO a work thing, drinking in the morning is fine. If you’re on your way to vacation, or an unpleasant thing like a funeral, or on your way back from a work thing, it’s perfectly acceptable—nay, encouraged!—that you should have a drink, regardless of what the clock says.

Even Work Could Be Worse

Canada and the Changing Nature of Work – Policy Horizons Canada

Even if you do have to work at the airport, it could be worse. I don’t know about y’all, but I’ve done a lot of work in airports. When I first got out of law school, I had a job in litigation, and working on reports, motions, pleadings, or even just reviewing documents and taking notes on them, at the airport, was a big part of what I did. And there’s some sort of smug self-important feeling that normally I would feel ashamed of, but at the airport it doesn’t matter. You’ve got your boarding pass, and you know that you’re going to have to work extra to make up for the time you’re spending at the airport anyhow, so why not just get some work done?

And there are two thoughts here: The first is to find a restaurant with a flat surface and drink coffee or bourbon depending on if you’re coming from or going to a work thing. The second is to just do that weird balancing act of taking up multiple seats by the gate, sorting paperwork and other stuff into nice neat piles, and the literal balancing act of keeping your laptop on your knees. It’s kind of nice, and it’s a weird way of letting other travelers that you’re there for business!

The Number One Spot for People Watching

We all love people watching. We all do. Don’t even try to deny it. And there’s no better place for people watching than an airport. European train stations are great, beaches at expensive resorts are good, university libraries around finals time are excellent, and the State Fair of Texas might be a close second. But nothing, and I mean nothing, beats people watching at the airport.

For one thing, there’s no dress code. That story earlier about the woman in a onesie? I saw that happen. I was at the Cantina Laredo at Love Field in Dallas, where I was making a connection from Lubbock to Austin. It was crazy. But onesies, two-piece pajamas, jeans-and-t-shirts, full suits, ball gowns, short-shorts and flip-flops…it’s all acceptable. And sometimes seeing what people are wearing is fun. I once saw a family at DFW Airport who were all dressed in Bermuda shorts and pastel shirts, except for one kid who I took for the youngest son, who was in jeans and a Slayer t-shirt. It was fun just sitting at the gate and thinking about the argument that undoubtedly happened as they were getting the car ready to drive to the airport that morning.

“Come on, honey, just put on your yellow polo with your Bermuda shorts.”
“No way, you guys all look dumb.”
“Well you’re the one who will stick out like a sore thumb. Now come on, just put on your pastels.”
“No, mom! Gosh! I hate pastels. I want to be myself!”
“Oh come on, dear. We’re taking a picture when we land and one day you’ll look back on it and think how foolish you were to let this phase get in the way of family time.”
“It’s not a phase, mom! I love Slayer and they sing what I feel! I wouldn’t expect you to understand!”

It probably happened just like that. I have a million stories. I feel like Roy Batty.

I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Bachelorette parties taking shots that were on fire at the Chili’s in Terminal C. I watched people eat homecooked meals they brought from home at the departing gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to depart.

But in all seriousness, the airport is great for people watching. I like seeing what books people are reading. I like watching what the very confused dogs do to pass the time at the gate. I like listening to couples argue in hushed tones and I like hearing those PA announcements where they say, “Would passenger Rebecca Henderson please report to Gate D7, your flight is now boarding.” And I like watching Rebecca Henderson start sprinting with her roller bag in tow as she tries to get from where I am at D33 all the way down the terminal to D7.

It’s just great. And sure, airports are also home to some of life’s great frustrations. People who don’t know how to go through security even though it’s been the same process for almost 20 years now. Large groups of people walking as slowly as possible down the very middle of the concourse. Some random person screaming at the poor ticket agent because the airlines have to audacity to charge $50 extra because a passenger’s bag is 3 ounces too heavy.

I Miss It

If people who have traveled with me could hear me say I miss the airport, they wouldn’t believe me. I have such a low tolerance for idiocy. My idea of hell is being in the airport security line behind people who despite being in their forties act like they’ve never heard about airport security. But I miss it. I really do. I miss the drinks and the people watching and the reading and the browsing a Hudson News for a book of crossword puzzles and a Toblerone for some reason.

When everything is back to “normal,” whenever that will be, I think I will appreciate airports more. I might even avoid getting frustrated in the security line because I’ll be so happy to be able to people watch as I drink a Crown Royal on the rocks at 9:00 a.m. It’s the little things in life, you know. One day we’ll be able to trade the pseudo-suspended reality of life during Covid for the true suspended reality of the airport. But until that day comes I suppose I will just fill the time watching The Terminal.

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