July 24, 2014 2:54 p.m. - Updated: July 25, 11:59 a.m.
After I’ve run the security gauntlet, after I’ve shown my ID, after I’ve exposed the contents of my bag to whoever is manning the scanner, after I’ve emptied my pockets and made my way through, the world shrinks to the faces and voices I hear in the airport.
An airport is a collection of every kind of human and there is no better place for watching people. The strangers in the crowd are rich, poor, kind, crude, happy and unhappy. They are young. They are old. They sprint down the concourse or they ride in chairs pushed by others. We all hurry and we all wait. We move forward and stand in line. Some speak languages I don’t understand, but at that moment we all have one thing in common: We are all trying to get from here to there.
I stop to buy some fruit for breakfast and beside me a man sits hunched over the bar, his overnight bag at his feet. His face is strained and his mind is far away and I wonder if more than his drink is on the rocks.
As I walk past the “spa” another man stares off into the distance as he massages the neck of one more anonymous passenger who’s bought a little time in the chair. He is a robot with strong, warm, hands.
I find an empty gate and stop to charge my phone before I depart. A few rows away a pilot, his luggage piled beside him, is talking on the phone and after a few minutes I realize he’s talking to his wife and they are discussing the terms of their upcoming divorce. His voice is thick with anger and pain and, embarrassed to have stumbled into the scene, I unplug my phone and move on.
When my flight is called, people immediately crowd the gate, jockeying for position too early, dragging heavy bags behind them, anxious to get on the plane as quickly as possible before all the overhead bin space is filled. One couple works as a team. She edges forward, slipping between people who are distracted by last-minute emails or texts, their attention on their iPhones instead of what is going on around them. Once she’s in place she motions for him and he slides in beside her. Another mans silently gauges the diligence of the gate agent and I see him decide to slip into the priority line, hoping the harried agent won’t notice. She doesn’t.
On the plane two elderly women, their white hair permed, pink scalp showing between the tight curls, settle into their seats and, delighted to have an empty seat between them, forget we haven’t even taken off. They drop the middle seat-back tray and set up the picnic they’ve brought along, just like they’re on a train. They pull out sandwiches brought from home, wrapped in aluminum foil and tucked into folded paper plates, then settle back into their seats. Moments later the flight attendant comes by, sees what they’ve done, and gently—like she’s speaking to her own grandmother—tells them the tray must be up for takeoff. They’re embarrassed and hurriedly put everything away but something in me responds to their sweetness, their homemade picnic and the gentle way they do as their told.
Once all passengers are on board, just before they close the doors, a woman tries to switch to an empty seat a few rows up but it’s in an upgrade section and the flight attendants won’t let her. “It wouldn’t be fair to those who paid extra to sit there,” they tell her. The woman goes back to her assigned seat, with a few less inches of legroom, and turns away to look out the window.
Sometime during the flight we pass over the Rockies and the air becomes rough. The man across the aisle smooths his palms over his knees again and again in a soothing motion. His face shows nothing but his hands keep moving until the worst is over. I wonder what he would do if I reached out and covered his hand with mine, the way I would do with one of my children.
The women eat their picnic.
When we land everyone jumps up and starts dragging bags out of the bins, piling them into the aisles and around their feet, anxious to get away, to be part of the prisoner exchange that happens each time a plane rolls up to a gate.
It’s like a movie. All hours of the day, in airports around the world, the scenes are repeated as passengers file in and passengers file out. Each of us carries more than a bag, more than a boarding pass. We all bear the invisible weight of a story.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap’s audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the U.S. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org