I arrived over three hours early to Miami International for a recent flight back to New York, straight from an early morning business meeting. While each airport has its own identity, there are generic features in all the domestic ones: row on row of those blue or black chair-benches; gender-defying polyester uniforms on all the staff. The commonality is pervasive, and the longer I sit in it, the more anonymous I feel.
I love that column in the New York Times where they interview different professionals about their travel habits, asking them about their least and most favorite airports and their “secret airport vice.” Airports are really the best opportunity to indulge, aren’t they? They’re a transitional moment, a few hours of limbo between where you were and where you’re headed. It’s the summer between high school and college; the two week vacation you take between switching jobs. You have the opportunity to distill yourself down, wiping away any personality traits you developed out of sheer conformity and savoring your unabashed, natural state.
It’s the great reward for passing by the shoeless, stripped down X-Ray check: after they scrutinize your passport photo, confiscate your water bottle, and peer into your toiletries, you’re allowed entry into this airtight bubble of society.
This dual sense of obscurity and safety allows me an awesome sense of freedom. In Miami, my outfit of choice is both uncomfortable and impractical: I’m wearing heels with no hose, leaving me to cringe as I tiptoe barefoot along the security queue that tens of thousands — millions?? — of others have traversed along before me. My fitted pencil skirt makes for an awkward, halfway leg-spreading in the X-Ray machine, prompting the guard to declare, “Female, lockdown!” before intimately feeling up the backs of my legs. So much for business chic.
After 45 minutes in the chilly A/C — and once I feel those societal pressures dropping away — I decide to layer up. I swivel my luggage into the ladies’ stall and dig around for something comfy and all-covering. But I packed this bag with a Miami business trip in mind, and somehow overlooked my giant fleece sweatpants. I settle on a pair of tights: maroon, as it happens. They look nothing short of hideous against my pale grey skirt and navy blue pumps. Then I switch my cute little ¾ sleeve jacket for an over-sized, lime green cardigan. But it’s not quite warm enough, so I delicately smoosh it against my skin in order to shove a smart, black blazer over top.
I consider myself in the tilted mirror: I look like a Skittles commercial trying to bust out of a Banana Republic ad. I’m warm and cozy. I smile.
All my worst habits come prancing to the surface of my psyche whenever I fly. The twisting security queue never fails to ignite that old smoker’s itch in me. While I aimlessly wander the endless, white-tiled hallways it always strikes me that I should get stinking drunk. But tobacco lounges are thankfully archaic at this point, and flying with booze sloshing in my belly never gains me any friends. So I settle for lesser vices, digging into the most inane glossy pink bible I can find and sniffing out the nastiest food I can stomach.
Today’s pick: a plate of orange chicken Kung Pao with deep fried rice and noodles (yes, both, thank you), with an egg roll on the side for an extra bit of crispy grease. I fork it in while I learn 57 new ways to please my man.
For context: I am normally one of those obnoxious hippie / corporate crossovers who adores kale and goes nuts without my spin class. I read the Wall Street Journal on my morning commute and always keep my blackberry within spitting distance. I have a wide selection of cocktail dresses.
But in Airport Land, none of that concerns me. Once my brain has knocked off a couple IQ points and my gut is wrenching, I lean back in devious satisfaction. Glancing around, I spot a guy, about my age, talking on his cell within earshot. He’s gazing out at the darkened tarmac with one hand on his Levi’s.
“I mean I know you have a lot going on, and I don’t mean to just put this on top of it all… but I mean, it has the potential to be a good thing. A really great thing, actually, I think. But I know, of course, it’s probably a bit overwhelming for you right now.”
Another benefit of detaching from your own identity is the righteous sense of entitlement — duty, even — that you feel towards creating other people’s life stories. I quickly assume he is speaking to his good female friend, “best friend” maybe, in his mind at least. They’ve been friends for three years. Her name is probably Katey; he calls her things like “KT” in text messages and “Katydid” when he’s drunk. She is pretty; he’s never seen her without make-up, but he thinks he has.
“Okay, well I’m really glad we had this talk.” He’s absently scratching the back of his neck. “And I know we’ll talk more, of course. You’ll probably be asleep by the time I get in, though, I land in JFK after midnight…”
I can’t believe this guy is on my flight; this sap lives in New York?
“But I’ll shoot you a text anyway, when I get in, just so you know… well I mean, in case you wake up to pee or get a glass of water or something.”
He must live upstate.
He pauses, then let’s out a little laugh; it’s a bit high, caught a bit in the throat. “Okay, no, you’re right, no, no, I’d hate to wake you; I’ll just call you in the morning.”
Scratch that — Jersey, for sure. I consider tapping him on the shoulder, explaining the magic of airport limbo.
“Your fate is in your hands, champ!” I’ll say to him. “Shrug off your old habit of self delusion! Make the decision to grow some iron balls, and go forth in deft avoidance of the friend zone forever more!”
But speaking to another human beyond “JFK, flight 3165” would prematurely bust apart my transitional cocoon. I must float along, wrapped in equal parts New York drab and beachy bright, an unassuming mass in an indeterminate state.
I leave him in his well-worn rut and dig into a short tutorial on how to wear your bangs both “girl hot” and “boy hot,” while I rifle through a box of assorted See’s Candies. I’m such a brat, I take one bite of some coconut thing and literally spit it right back out onto its little pleated paper. I lucked out with this variety pack for the most part, though — I find no less than five caramel- or toffee-filled chocolates to slowly devour. With an hour to go before boarding — and with a thick wad of sweetness melting in my mouth — I let my eyelids flit down into a guiltless, dreamless nap, secure in the knowledge that I’m doing it right.