07 January 2007

Essay: Airports

It can hardly be a coincidence that no language on earth has ever produced the expression "As pretty as an airport."
– Douglas Adams

I hate airports.


I hate their architecture, identical in every city no matter what attempts at local color are pasted over it. Metallic, vaulted, sharp-edged ceilings arc over vast expanses of smudged, dusty glass and stainless steel. Below, acre upon acre of scuffed linoleum and gray high-traffic carpeting is scattered with the minor detritus of a million passing people, microscopic crumbs of food, droplets of coffee and soda, threads and lint from parkas and duffel bags and raincoats and Bermuda shorts, fragments of magazines and books and boarding passes. Departure lounges are full of haphazardly distributed seating – a hundred minor variations on linked rows of narrow seats upholstered with greasy, worn black vinyl over sagging plastic foam padding.

I hate the concourses lined with fast food restaurants selling nearly-identical, overpriced prepackaged salads and fruit cups and bottled water and hamburgers and pizza and tacos and Chinese food; indistinguishable newsstands and bookstores proffering the same bestsellers and magazines and books of crossword puzzles; the occasional clothing store selling t-shirts with cheery messages about the home city and the logo of the local football franchise, to be purchased by people already juggling stuffed suitcases; duty-free stores full of liquor and perfumes and candy to be purchased by people already stupefied and sickened by long hours in air conditioning and halogen lighting.

I hate the crowds of people, hurrying towards narrow seats in cramped quarters for long hours of sitting and doing nothing, pushed by bad architecture and harsh halogen lighting to something like the edge of violence, driven by the force of urgent business, long-unseen family, old friendships. Parents argue with their children about who should carry backpacks full of soft toys and portable video games, or try to quiet babies crying desperately for a breath of unprocessed air, a glimpse of natural sunlight; couples clinging to each other much as they might in the desperate moments before the ship goes down and the lifeboats fill; businessmen focused on their cellular telephones and handheld computers and laptops, forcing themselves to believe that there must be purpose in this miserable place; students dressed already for the activities they anticipate at the end of the ordeal – in ski jackets and surfing shorts and hiking boots.

Nobody who has flown more than once boards an airliner for the pleasure of flying; we strap ourselves into the tight seats in the climate-controlled, can-like cabins because we hope, in the end, the destination will be worth the discomfort, the inconvenience, and the anxiety. Airports are in this way the ultimate expression of a society given over to justifying means by their ends – the hours we spend in airports, taking off our shoes and belts and watches and standing still for the security pat-down while agents paw through our luggage; sitting on uncomfortable benches next to anxious, irritable people and staring at harsh Arrival/Departure boards; eating prepared salads and pale cubes of melon and flat, greasy hamburgers – we accept these things because we have decided that they are necessary, if we are to get to wherever it is that we are going.

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