Atlanta. Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, to be specific, with a three-hour layover before my flight to San Antonio.
One of my favorite writers, Alain de Botton, spent a week as a “writer in residence” at London’s Heathrow Airport. And although he’s proven to be able to make Proust and working lives and even architecture interesting, I haven’t been tempted by his resulting book that reported on that week. There’s just nothing interesting to me about the human experience of airports.
Certainly, they’re fascinating machines. An airport like Atlanta brings in close to a thousand passenger flights per day, plus an equal or larger number of freight flights. Let’s figure 200,000 passengers per day, all of whom are coming from and going to different places for different purposes. But really, the closest analog isn’t a human experience at all. An airport isn’t anything but an Amazon.com warehouse and shipping center, with all of us playing the part of cardboard boxes. It’d be more efficient if we just let ourselves be bar-coded and gate-shunted through the building and into our seat; it’s only our desperate clinging to the illusion of free will that makes the machine less speedy.
The human veneer of an airport is as thin as paint. We inhabit the corridors and the first twenty feet on each side, a row of snack bars and magazine shops and loyalty-customer lounges fed by invisible freight corridors on the back. The rest of the machine is where the planes and the luggage and the police and the utilities and the waste stream move along unseen.
The choice between restaurants is as illusory as the choice between airlines or bottled waters. Beer taps, grills and Fryolators can only provide so many alternative facades. I’ve unfortunately been to an Applebee’s, but I’m holding firm to my life goal of never setting foot inside a TGIFriday’s.
The chairs in the gates are just the racks where we’re stored between arrival and departure, only the lack of a fork lift differentiating us from the pallet of fertilizer at Home Depot. We’re prevented from potentially delaying interactions. The chairs are side-by-side so we can’t talk. Wolf Blitzer, the human suppression agent, blares from all sides so that we can’t hear ourselves, much less one another. CNN and Fox News and CNBC are as equal as Aquafina and Fiji and Poland Springs, letting us feel the power of choice while acquiescing to the power of advertising.
I used to have a deal with Nora that I’d bring home a piece of airport trash from all of my trips: a Governator shot glass from Sacramento, a Michelle Obama nail file from DC. But I’ve given up now: it’s the same coffee mug, the same fridge magnet, the same snow globe, the same coin purse, with only the decals to identify their sources.
Airports are the purest distillation of James Howard Kunstler’s Geography of Nowhere; the Atlanta airport is the same as Albany, which is (I guess not so surprisingly) the same as Venice. There are some local history posters along the moving walkways, and I can hear recorded greetings by Tom Menino and Deval Patrick when I go through Logan, but we could replace those with happy chats by the CEOs of McDonalds and Citigroup and be none the wiser.
I would very much like to be given a year to rebuild an American airport, to see if I could make a real urban experience out of it instead of the strip-mall franchise machine that it tends toward. It would be really interesting to have an Albany airport that was reflective of Albany, a place that spoke of the local habits and patterns of the Hudson Valley. Some would be displeased, no doubt, but could it really be worse?