5 min read

Airport: On the Journey of Strangers

On the Journey of Strangers
Author Collage from Stock Images

Although not a habitué of hotels and airports, I’ve passed through enough of them to reflect, to enjoy their ambience and observe the souls who animate them. So many vacationers, businesspeople, explorers (and those who simply delight in adventure) assemble like pilgrims in the stifling air of flight terminals. Sometimes, I stand there among them, marveling at the rituals of airport life. As strangers, we gather in these transitional spaces, armed with anticipation, shuffling forward in orderly fashion. It often feels like choice has precious little to do with the situation. Quite simply, we are there because ideas about the future tell us we must fly.

Restless, and shifting shoulder bags back and forth, travelers anticipate their respective destinations. At such times, one hears the trailing conversations of strangers with curiosity. Who are these people surrounding me? It remains comforting to know that we are all strangers together, hopeful as we approach our moment of departure. As I wonder about those who linger so close at hand, yet remain distant in odd ways, perhaps they also wonder about me.

A Shared Ordeal

With countless stories in tow, and various reasons for venturing here and there, travelers establish airports as places of intrigue. In the suspended time of waiting, one meets the most engaging people, all bound for their own dreams and places of the future. Whenever faced with the misery of airport life, I try to keep these things in mind. On some levels, this approach helps me to understand myself and my own motivations a bit more clearly.

Languishing at airports, we exhibit more of who we are; base layers of personality tend to emerge in lounges and terminals, as the time of waiting chafes at the heart. The experience transforms us in different ways. As minutes bleed into hours of boredom, some people become more delightful and talkative, chatting about grandchildren and encounters with rude baristas with anyone who will listen, while others retreat into the blue light of their phones, remaining sullen and distant from fellow travelers. Regardless, we must all endure the ordeal, checking our bags, chugging dreadful coffee, and . . . waiting.

From time to time, I have been blessed to learn about my fellow travelers, those patient souls who share the waiting hours with me. Without a doubt, the mystique of strangers becomes apparent in the confines of an airport, as one glimpses secret thoughts and expressive faces passing by, the animated and restless crowd or the pensive loner sitting quietly. I recall two such occasions well.

Author Collage from Stock Images

It was not surprising that the flight was overbooked. We were traveling from Chicago to San Diego midweek, and the airline took full advantage of this timing, eventually bribing passengers to reschedule. It was on this occasion that I fought the onset of boredom secretly, as I often do, by observing others, those who haplessly share my situation. I looked around and quickly spotted a target for my surveillance.

Either by Fate or Happenstance

From a distance, I observed a frantic production manager as she paced the faded carpet and pleaded into her phone. At the point of subdued desperation, she complained that she had no flight for her company of dancers. What would they do? Young and fashionably dressed, the dancers leaped through the lounge — perilously close to the windows — laughed about their colleagues who would have to mount the show without them, and stretched their calf muscles on vacant seats. By chance, I learned how performance artists make the best of airport hours. Engaging as they were, however, someone even more interesting awaited me in a different flight terminal, just a few weeks into the future.

It was a quiet Saturday morning, and the Seattle-Tacoma Airport was barely occupied, for which I felt a sense of relief as I sipped my coffee and entered the waiting area. According to my habit and personal tradition, I looked around to study the faces of strangers, those who were, by fate or happenstance, about to share the events of my morning. Soon, I was nearly startled, not by fear or any sense of unease, but by a feeling of concern, as if a veil of awareness had suddenly fallen over me.

A woman sat before me and captured my attention.

An older African American lady waited alone with a single suitcase, an overnight bag that hinted at a quick trip, perhaps to see grandchildren for the weekend. However, there was something about her demeanor that argued against this notion, her attentive gaze, the way her hands were tensely folded over a Bible placed squarely on her lap. There was something about her that was, at once, overwhelming and softly intangible.

As the place was nearly vacant, I approached and sat respectfully a few seats away, not wishing to seem threatening or rude. I then asked where she was flying, as we were both traveling on Alaska Airlines. Halfway through a smile and a bit of distant sadness, she said that she was heading for Alaska. Alaska? For some reason, I had assumed she was en route to Seattle and not heading for an inhospitable land at the approach of winter. I then asked if she planned to visit family, at which point she smiled even more peacefully than before and lifted the Bible to her chest, a book which had clearly seen as many years and events as its owner. She was not traveling to visit family.

After this, it became a bit awkward, as we waited together, partaking of a strange, shared silence. Did she need anything? I had the distinct impression that she was traveling with all of her possessions, not the least of which was an abiding quietness, which I had no right to disturb. So, we simply departed for our respective destinations with no more to say.

After returning to work, I mentioned the encounter to a colleague, describing the strangeness of the moment and my curiosity about this woman. While typing away on an arrest report, he said, “Yeah.” I decided to press on and receive a few more details about his thoughts on the matter. He then turned and faced me with an attentive expression. I was informed that, “In some traditions, older people decide when it’s time to die and just go off into the wilderness to do it.”

To this day, I can recall the woman and the morning on which we met, and I wonder. Something about the feeling of wanting to help her, even redirect her to another destination, was so palpable as to remain with me long into the future. My colleague could have been correct when he speculated about her intentions. However, I have no evidence to resolve the matter, only suspicion and a hint of sad remembrance. In the end, I knew it was not my place to interfere; wherever this lady was going, with the few belongings she required, it was a private destination.

There are so many dimensions involved with airport life. The suspended time of waiting takes on various shapes and creates its own atmosphere, bemused frustration for the young, and patient departures for the weary and old. In any event, airports chronicle the journey of strangers in compelling ways.