The plane taxied down the runway toward the terminal and came to a stop, waiting for the jetway to connect. Eager passengers leaned forward, hands on the seatbelt clasps, poised to jump up from their seats the moment the familiar bell signaled their freedom, only to be left standing in awkward hunched-over poses, unable to advance for the crowd of standing people in the aisle. Sometimes I find myself amongst the hurry-up-to-wait crowd, moving too early from my seat out of restlessness or boredom more than anything else, not because I’m in such a rush to deplane.
I like to smile in airports, just to put myself in deliberate contrast to the crowds of confused and distracted faces. If you walk around an airport smiling, people wonder what you’re up to. I like to be mindful in an airport, walking at a strong pace but fully aware of each gate and kiosk I pass. Most people don’t like airports, possibly they’re uncomfortable about flying or eager to get where they’re going or else tired of traveling and all they can think about is getting home. I don’t mind airports. I like the buzz of people about to go somewhere, the motion and movement, the collective anticipation of travel, all in one place. There are exceptions, obviously: on difficult travel days with weather or mechanical delays, or long trips with missed connections, then I would not praise an airport so highly. But on most days, most trips, it’s a place I like to be. It means I’m going on a trip, something that suits me fine.
I also like airport bars. Despite their overpriced cocktails and the lingering scent of over-fried food, I like what happens when you push your roll-away up beside the stool and settle in. It’s more festive and friendly than the rows of attached metal chairs in bleak arm-to-arm formations in the waiting area of the gates. You’ve got your TV screens flashing behind the bar and some music playing. The bartenders and waiters have a special camaraderie, bonded together in response, I suppose, to such a transient and temporary clientele. The snippets of their banter heartwarming, their jokes and shared stories well known to each other amidst a sea of unknown, ephemeral stories belonging to strangers on their way to somewhere else.
The smart phone is the worst thing to happen to the airport bar. Back when I first started traveling for business, in the days when we dressed up to travel, the corner seat at an airport bar afforded you interesting people watching and convivial conversation with strangers. True, the occasional bore could chat your ear off with observations and opinions gleaned from his banal life, but more often a friendly moment passed the time quickly, or occasionally even a poignant exchange could leave you thinking deeply and with gratitude about something important in your life. Now most people just nuzzle into their handheld screens, chatting with the rest of the world while ignoring the perfectly nice human being standing just beside them.
It’s true I might take my phone out and give it a look, but if there’s someone nearby, I’ll set it down.
Last week I had two hours to kill in the Phoenix airport, en route to Mexico where I stole a few days with the Fiesta Nazi at her winter home. The mid-week airfare to fly to a job in Texas went from astronomical to reasonable if I stayed over a Saturday night. And Mexico is close to Texas, right? My job behind me and the prospect of three days with a good gal-pal gave me a particularly wide airport smile as I marched to the corner stool at a bar that happened to be adjacent to my gate, right away joking with the bartender who called me sweetie and darlin’ in the first twenty seconds of taking my order.
“Don’t mind me,” she said in response to my teasing. “I’m a bar whore, I say that to all the customers.” Quickly I learned this was true, as we all got the sweetheart treatment when she set the little napkin down in front of us. But I liked her candor about it.
A white-mustached man with a proper cowboy hat took a nearby stool, eyeing my Bloody Mary and pointing to it while he ordered one, too. His phone rang and he plunged into a conversation with what sounded like his wife. The call was interrupted by someone else, and then someone else, and when he finally set the phone down he told the bartender, and me, about his son’s truck accident. Nobody had been hurt, fortunately. The son, miles away from home, as was this man, was trying to sort out the details. It wasn’t that he was talking so loudly, it was the proximity of our seating at the bar. I tried not to mind his business, but eventually I couldn’t help but look in his direction.
He had tears in his eyes. Not the sobbing out of control kind, not even sad tears – there was no grief in them – but tears of concern and tears of helplessness to do anything to console or assist his son, so far away.
He apologized for talking too loudly. I assured him that he had not disturbed me.
I didn’t say anything, not at first. Sometimes silence is what gives people permission to say the thing they really mean to say.
“I love my son and I hate not being able to help him.”
“Ain’t that the truth,” he said, raising his glass to mine.
We kept talking, both of us leaving our phones dark on the bar, and even a few others nearby chimed in with stories about their kids, teenagers or adults, still invoking parental concern. Caring about your children, even if they’re fully grown, even if they drive you mad, is a universal theme.
My flight was called to board, and I wished the man well, and his son, too. I paid my sweetheart bartender, leaving her a big tip for all her exaggerated terms of endearment – I guess that works! – and pulled my bag behind me toward the gate. This time I smiled not because it’s the deliberate thing I do, but because of how that man loved his son so much, and how much I love my girls.