The hum of the air conditioners do anything but lull me — all they do is remind me of the emptiness of the space I’m currently in, its coldness intended to chill down at least ten times the amount of people in my vicinity.
Screens promoting frequent-flyer products that no one is looking at, announcements no one is listening to disrupting the silence. “See something, say something,” the voice says.
What do I see?
I see zombies. Or as close as humans can get to being zombies. The kid with his laptop, looking, gate to gate to gate, for a power outlet near a bench he can lie on. The old lady with her tote bag, staring mindlessly at the departure screens, counting down the seconds to the minutes to the hours to her plane and to her home to her husband. The one lucky guy who found a bench without a divider he can sleep in. The family of four who prep for a long night between the benches and the gate station and had the presence of mind to bring pillows and blankets. The security guards on the aptly-named graveyard shift, high-fiving the cleaners who go about their “day” undisturbed, perfectly aware that the hustle and bustle that will take place five hours from now will wipe away their work, but prefer the peacefulness of the early hours to the insanity of the normal.
There is nothing normal about an airport after 10 PM. The stores close, the lounges shutter, the world simmers down to a trickle of humanity held together by a skeleton crew of TSA souls, guarding the gates like Cerberus outside the doors to Hades’ domain. Because what is limbo if not an airport after midnight, where people arrive but no one is allowed to pass through to their final destination, at least not until the sun comes up?
It’s been three hours since I got here and another three to go. I walk by the food stands that read “fresh food” and notice that they are fully stacked — meaning the 10 dollar veggie wrap someone will eat in five hours is not as fresh as he or she is led to believe. But do you care where your sandwich comes from after 12 hours of defying gravity? It lends itself to the raison d’être of airports, where even its most frequent of consumers only get to see part of the machinery that keeps it going.
That machinery is on full display now. An army of cleaners, propelled with vacuums and Rubbermaid carts, go through every gate, scrubbing everything and leaving the distinct scent of Pine-Sol in their wake. From the little corner of gate C-15 where I’ve made my shelter for the next few hours I can see, out the window, three small carts loading cargo and meals to planes and concourses. Every so often, I hear beeps and boops and the sounds of an electric motor that remind me, ever so subtly, that while I am not alone — that despite appearances, this place never really does sleep, unlike the distinguished gentleman on the benches of C-17, covered in the suit he’s probably wearing for work in a few hours.
By now, exhaustion is setting in. I feel like I’ve been driving down a dark highway non-stop for hours; my skin feels like a raw nerve. I know that, in a blink of an eye and with no restfulness, this place will be filled with life, like the end of Stephen King’s The Langoliers. Slowly, voices will drown the machines, the air will warm up and this place will spring back to normal, or as normal as limbo can be.
And sure enough, life returns in the form of a 4:15 coming from LAX. Hungry (hangry?) families line up at the opening McDonald’s, drawn by the smell of the (fresh?) Egg McMuffins. Businessmen and women (and the distinguished gentleman from earlier) expertly find their way to the lounge, where free breakfast, comfy chairs and the first of many complimentary drinks await them. And the rest? They all find their way to the nearest escalator, because whether this city is their destination or not, nobody stays at an airport longer than they have to.
I landed here at 11:55pm. It is now 5:25am. Airport is in full swing. Kids yelling in the back, families filing in to the aisles, the clickety-clack of the keyboards and the dull sound of fingers on touchscreens. Cabin door closes. Plane takes off.
It’s much too loud and busy in here.