Of Humans and Airports

The day is coming to a close, but still the Virginia sun bakes the tarmac outside the giant windows. CNN blares. A teenager stares blankly, white earbuds draped from her ears connect to a shiny black box in her lap. A man paces in front of the entrance to the restrooms speaking emphatically into a phone.  A man and a woman dressed in business suits exchange niceties.  It is time to board. With extreme alacrity everyone scrambles toward the jetway. The flight has been delayed an hour and there is a worried look on many travelers who need to make connections in Atlanta.

The flight crew hustles us to our seats. The captain comes on and apologizes for the delay due to bad weather in Atlanta. The last thing I do before the door is closed is gaze at my weather aap. There is a huge red blob sitting over Atlanta. We sit for a few minutes and then one of the flight attendants comes over the PA, “Disarm the doors”.  There is a collective groan. A ground agent comes on the PA and informs us we need to exit the plane. There is a ‘ground-hold’ in Atlanta and it will be at least 90 minutes before we can depart.

There is nothing quite as satisfying as walking off an airplane having finished a flight to your destination. Therefore, it stands to reason that there is nothing quite as dissatisfying as getting off an airplane having gone nowhere.  Some business travelers let down their guard, “Do you have a connection?”,  a portly man in a short-sleeve shirt and tie asks his neighbor. It is getting close to 8pm and the crowd heads for the restaurant and bar across from the gate. One by one the seats are taken. I sit one stool down from a man who appears to have been there all day. I order a sandwich and a beer and stare at the TV. It is going to be a long night.

A man with a large Starbucks cup asks me if the seat between me and the drunkest man in county is taken. “It’s all yours”, I say trying to conceal any double meaning.  “Thanks, I’m Jim.” He says.  Jim is lugging a canvas guitar case. His drunk neighbor asks him what kind of music he plays.  Jim politely  converses with him.  Then I suggest half-jokingly that he should play. “Nah”, he says and orders a glass of red wine.  He is friendly and we talk a bit more about the flight problems. He is going home to Austin and needs to make a connecting flight. “Really, you should get out your guitar and play.” I tell him. He is afraid of bothering people. I point out how busy the bar is and that no one should really notice. He looks around and begins to pull out the instrument and then hesitates. “What about security? Airports are funny that way.”  The drunk man erupts, “What are they going to arrest you for? Making people happy?”

Jim looks relieved and confident. He begins to play.   After an initial shock the bar warms up to him. It quickly becomes a sing-along as Jim belts out the Eagles an Jim Croce tunes. We all  laugh when he starts playing a song called “Walking Back to Georgia.”  The kitchen help comes out to enjoy the show and a few people pull out phones to take a picture. Looking around, the crowd has taken on a whole new tenor. People are smiling and some begin to speak with their neighbors. Laptops are closed and earbuds drop. Everyone is clapping and singing along to “Sweet Caroline”.

The PA roars outside the bar and everyone comes to attention. The flight is ready to go. It is almost 9.30. Everyone squares up on their tabs and Jim shoves his guitar back in the case. “Nice talking to you, Jim” I say. We spill out of the bar and walk to the gate. As the tickets ‘beep’ under the laser reader, and we begin to board the plane for a second time, the shroud of anonomynity casts itself over us once more. We fly home in silence and scatter wordlessly like dust.

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