Ahhhhh. The airport.
Here’s what I love about this first step of flying: I’m at BWI right now, looking at all of these different people, knowing we are all sharing an experience and knowing that after today, I will likely never see these people again.
Do you ever think about that? Like, this lady: three bags craftily carried to look like the two permitted in flight, wearing a long embroidered cardigan, and sporting hair that is trying to decide if it’s a buzz cut or simply fashionable and choppy. We are sharing the experience of being in this airport together, on this day, and I have no idea what her story is or what she’s named (Miranda? Helen? Juanita?). I’ll forget all about her – except for this writing – and will, in all likelihood, never see her again. The meeting of our lives is complete.
This blows my mind, and I spend a fair amount of time – not only in the airport, but also while driving, or shopping, or walking around a park – thinking about this. I’m about to get on a plane full of people who can all say they were on this flight, and yet I won’t know their names, won’t know anything about them, won’t have anything obviously in common with them except the next two hours, during which time – hopefully – nothing exciting at all will happen, save perhaps for some momentary turbulence.
But what if it was possible to trace all the moments of our lives, straight back through everything we have ever done? We might actually discover that we’ve crossed paths with the exact same people thousands of times, never noticing how much we mirrored each others’ lives. “Oh, you were on that flight to Charlotte?” we might ask. “But you also went to Yosemite the same weekend that I did back in 2004, and then I think I saw you at a Pizza Hut five years later, after you lost all that weight and only ate from the salad bar.”
Could it be true that we actually crisscross our lives with only a small number of others – a few hundred, a few thousand – all of whom we could come to know, over time, if only we paid closer attention?
And with that, ladies and gentlemen: welcome to the thoughts that fill my head.
We hear a lot of crap about the airport, and about traveling in general, and some of that is of course deserved. I’ve gotten my security-strip down to a science, and pride myself on planning ahead, divesting myself of all items that could be considered problematic. But once I’m through security, I love being in the airport. All that wondering about peoples’ lives makes for a fantastic time (try guessing where people are going to/coming from based on their clothes). Plus, crappy food, my choice of magazines, perhaps a margarita, and the fact that I am going somewhere?
I’ll take it.
A few hours later, and I’m on my second flight of the day. I’m in a window seat this time, next to a friendly woman reading a book in Spanish and a freckled red-headed man who is wearing sunglasses perched on his head and who is transporting plants to his destination. (“They’re live,” he told the flight attendant, when she asked if she could move them. “Please be careful.” He seemed pleased when she suggested he move them himself, and either ignored or did not hear the snark in her tone.)
This is a vast improvement from the first flight, when I was crammed into a middle seat between two men who fidgeted the entire time, taking up the armrests with their elbows and forearms, so that I kept my own elbows close to my sides. A man with a hard-looking and very round belly, who seemed to deeply enjoy the simple stroke of his thick green pen, filled the window seat on that flight. Up and down, he traced the body of the pen lazily along the fingers of his opposite hand, then up his arm, and occasionally over his lips, never making a sound, for the entire duration of the flight.
Meanwhile, the man on my right busied himself with a game on his phone – his thumbs making the slight swish sound that comes with tiny, quick movements – until settling in for a nap. At one point in his slumber he shifted, and I noticed that he had his hand down the front of his pants, still fidgeting in his sleep against the cotton he wore. I wondered if he would be embarrassed about that, and decided that he probably would not.
Oh, the pleasures and comforts of men…
Perhaps because I mentioned it earlier, I decided to get a margarita on my layover. Airport-time is kind of the best time: hours disappear in a world where people are flying to and from all sorts of places, with wacky jet lag suspending the actual hour from intruding. An early margarita thus seems almost like a requirement of the experience, knowing that I’ll soon be airborne again, where time ceases to exist.
The drink was too sweet and too sober, though it still gave me a pleasant, fuzzy-corner feeling to the edges of my day, like a photograph gone slightly out of focus. It turned out to be more expensive than the tacos I ordered and I paused for a minute at the cost of it. I thought about asking the server if she’d charged me for the most basic margarita, the one I’d requested, and then decided not to worry about it. The waitress was probably close to my age, with blond hair pulled back into a haphazard ponytail, and tired eyes outlined in heavy black liner, and a crooked smile that made her look young.
So I instead decided to honor a long-standing tradition of tipping 100% to at least one person while on a trip, and left $30 in cash for her after paying the $29.74 bill with my credit card. Though I’m conscious of costs these days, I’m also aware of the privilege in my life, and I’m hoping that small gesture made her day a little better.
And because I had already spent so much money after just starting the trip, I decided to spend a little bit more, treating myself to TCBY when I came across it a few minutes later. I think it is delicious, regardless of what anyone else says. I enjoyed all of it, twirling the spoon around the tip of my tongue to make sure I got every creamy bit of that vanilla-chocolate swirl.
At the airport, I have a rule that I can buy as many magazines as I want, and that they can be any magazines at all. I occasionally wind up with something like a Redbook as a result, or a Ladies Home Journal, which I would never ordinarily purchase. But who knows? Maybe those 50 Brand New Slow Cooker Recipes really will Revolutionize My Life.
Once I was on a flight next to a man who apparently had a similar approach to magazines for the plane, as he spent our shared (and silent) time together nonchalantly flipping through a Playboy. Flip, went a page, as I watched out of the corner of my eye. Flip. He turned the pages regularly, as if monitoring the amount of time he spent on each page, occasionally licking a fingertip to grab hold of the top corner. There was no discernable reaction to any one page, regardless of whether it was a photo spread or an article; he moved at the same pace throughout. Flip.
There are lots of random things I hope to do in my life. One of them is to someday grab a french fry off of a stranger’s plate and eat it without missing a beat. Another one, just thought of today, is to get an updo while waiting for a flight, just to surprise and perhaps delight whoever may be waiting to pick me up on the other end.
Years and years ago, when I was a kid, my dad was on a flight on my birthday. He tried unsuccessfully to call me from one of those flat white phones that used to be occasionally embedded in the back of the seats. When he told me that, I was awed at such possibilities.
And yet here I am, about to publish this online from thousands of feet in the air. Talk about mind-boggling; the world is full of small miracles.
Sometimes I talk to people on airplanes; sometimes I make it a point to plug in my headphones and cut myself off from the world. A few years ago, on a cross-country flight, I met one of the most fascinating women I’ve ever randomly talked to, who was flying to the Midwest to move in with one of her daughters. She’d spent her career researching the habits of working women, and in her retirement, had just sold the house that she’d shared for 50 years with the love of her life. It was a bittersweet move, signaling a major change in her world.
We talked for almost the entire flight, and when we parted, we exchanged email addresses. For a while afterwards, we sent notes back and forth, and I felt like I was in the company of a truly wise person. We lost touch over time, though she’s crossed my mind occasionally. Recently, a friend posted an article to Facebook, and I was delighted to see not only that this woman’s life’s work was cited in the article, but also that she herself was quoted in it. I like knowing that she’s still out there, these years later, spreading wisdom to younger women who have much to learn.
Years before that, I met a man on a flight to San Diego, with whom I shared conversation for a few hours. I was preparing to run a marathon that spring and he wound up donating $100 to my fundraising effort, which I found out only a week or so later, as he’d sought me out online and donated the money that way. I don’t remember his name, but I remember his face, and I remember his story. I remember his kindness, and his warmth.
Funny how lives intersect, with these people who touch down briefly next to us, just for a few moments or a few hours, and then fly off again. Who knows who is on this flight with me now, and why they’re here. Maybe someone here is headed to a funeral, or to the side of a sick friend, or to a wedding, or to meet a baby. On a flight a few weeks ago, I chatted with the man next to me, who was on the first leg of his trip to Africa, to marry and stay for a few months before bringing his bride home to the United States with him. He grinned as he talked about her, wiping his hands on his pants and looking full of everything in the whole world.
I will likely never see these people again – though, who knows, maybe we’ll circle each other for the rest of our lives – but I wish them well. And from here on out, we’ll always have this in common: this flight, this time, this day, when we flew from one place to another, carrying on, carrying on, carrying on.