Jul/Aug 2012 Nonfiction


by Matthew Wollin

Airports get a bad rap. They're cast as a contemporary purgatory, trapping lines of unwilling supplicants in between machines that look through your clothes. Hated by all, there is no such thing as false goodwill, as pretention, when you are in an airport. We are all equally exasperated.

But there is a discreet purity to airports that I admire. Tied forever to the romance of flight and the drudgery of its implementation, they are temples to the sky that disguise themselves with networks of counters and X-ray machines. Those acronymic names still manage to summon up a ghost of awe: BOS; LAX and CDG; JFK and LHR. These are the grandest kings and queens of airports, the gods that no one believes in anymore but is forced to go worship anyway.

The processes for entry and exit seem nearly superstitious in the obsessiveness with which they must be undergone, presuming chaos at any exception. They level the playing field, as everyone is robbed of their personalized dignity by all-seeing machines and afforded communal rituals instead. Community is created and enforced, and is perhaps all the more genuine for the fact that absolutely no one wants to be a part of it.

There are airports to which I have sent people without having any idea at all of what these places are like, booking tickets at the request of my superiors, singlehandedly sending strangers routing through unknowable dots on the map. Minneapolis, Dallas, St. Louis, other cities I can't remember because my only experience with them was on an electronic itinerary. I have contributed to the economy and personality of these places. I have impacted and influenced the life of those airports and those people, placing my faith in Expedia and the consistency of a totally arbitrary series of laws that govern air travel.

Those few minutes spent disembarking and reacquiring your things are when you begin to form that crucial first impression of a new place. That time in the airport is valuable because it is capable of being discarded without a second thought, ensuring you get at least one do-over in a new and strange place. In the smallest airports, this first impression is the closest to being accurate. These are characterized by their lack of interruption with the towns around them. The most extreme forms of this I have ever encountered were a hangar that was contiguous with a Stop-and-Shop, and an "airport" on a tiny tropical island, which could also have been reasonably described as a dirt road next to a shack. These airports have no life of their own, acting as a temporary station for people instead of a home for airplanes.

Other airports seem totally capable of operating without human intervention, personalities with buildings instead of bodies. These tend to be the most automatic, running and turning and shifting with only minimal outside intervention. They work so smoothly and silently that their presence seems more ordained and less constructed, an existence mandated by some sort of cosmic decree instead of a merely human need to get from one place to the other. All steel and buffed surfaces, they seem alien to quotidian existence.

Some airports bashfully try and cover up this strangeness. Passing through LaGuardia recently, I was astonished at the veneer of luxury over everything. There were tasteful carpets, communal booths with iPad touchscreens, and seating arrangements that seemed to take college dorm rooms and Google offices as their model. Gone were the harsh lighting and Spartan accommodations that leave no choice but to watch the choreography of planes outside the curtain windows. This was an airport that prioritized its users over their creations. The one vestige of cold machinery it did still have were those overpriced and prepackaged sandwiches, which always manage to look vaguely appealing even though you know with every fiber in your body that they will not taste good.

There are the airports known only through layovers, with waiting areas full of compatriots who are complete mysteries to you. Here, momentarily freed from all obligations, rabid generalization is accepted and even encouraged. Enclaves of loosely connected travelers, families in transit, solo wanderers whose entire personal history you base on their choice of flying outfit. There are no consequences to passing judgment here, where assumptions are conceived prolifically, flourish briefly and brilliantly, and die quick, painless deaths without remorse.

And then there is the takeoff, and the landing. First, a giddy ascent into the air, as the place you know dissolves into wonder, then abstraction, then boredom. Coming back home, it is a slow recognition of the landscape, as you descend from the sky and things resolve into familiarity. Going somewhere new, the descent and the bird's-eye view is your first genuine chance to see what kind of country it is that these people have chosen to make their own. Descending into L.A., the city stretches on endlessly in glittering lights, reference points vanished in one vast, shining overlay. New York is stark and sublime: vast fringes of irregular, compressed humanity, and then without warning, sheer immensity that shoots up out of the earth and won't back down.

With places that I have never been before, it is strange that my first view of the people is from the sky, that I can see nothing specifically but everything at once. I had occasion to stop over in Chicago recently, a city to which I had never been, and on the approach was awed by miles after endless miles of absolutely flat land diagrammed into human perfection, grids of farms and suburbs and regularly planned houses. At first it seemed horribly artificial, but as we inched closer and closer to the ground, it began to seem almost miraculous that people managed to make rich and coherent lives within that grid, imbuing each of those cookie-cutter houses with distinct individuality.

Then we landed in the gray machinery of the airport, and I spent the next hour wishing that I could get out of this godforsaken place while eavesdropping on the group of teenage girls sitting behind me who were talking about theater projects for their school. My guess? They were actually CIA-trained operatives speaking in elaborate code. Unlikely perhaps, but I'll never know for sure.


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