It’s hard to believe that planes and airports once held a romantic place in the heart of our cultural imagination. I think of the iconic ending of Casablanca–Bogart and Bacall’s farewell on the tarmac. That celluloid desperation where lives and choices stand in opposition to the happy ending and underscored the value of sacrifice and memory of love redeemed and resonant. Or maybe it’s the close of Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing with a suitcase of money vanishing into the long stretch of forever of a lonely landing strip at night, hope and plans chasing failure along chain link fences stretching into the growing dark of night.
It’s hard to believe airplanes and airports could inspire such moments when you’re wandering the USAirways terminal in the Philadelphia International Airport, trying to catch the shuttle from Gate B to Gate F, not over doing it because you have at least two hours to explore at hollow void of what is essentially an air conditioned hangover tunnel for a bus with wings.
One of the downsides of flying out of a small airport (such as the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport–as International as a House of Pancakes) is you are always at least one connection from everywhere. In most cases AVP (the airport code of WBS International) is a twenty minute ride on a Buddy Holly special to Philadelphia. Maybe, if you’re lucky, you’ll end up in Charlotte or on the occasion, Detroit (whose airport has a great little sushi joint–seriously). The only real direct flight from AVP is to Florida–a Tropicana special once owned and operated by Hooters Airlines (I can’t even make that up, folks). AVP has four gates, overly vigilant TSA agents, and planes flying out of there which make up a majority of Don Mclean’s lyrical cannon.
That said, the actual AVP airport is fairly nice–there’s a mediation room to service all nondenominational needs and a set of rocking chairs to provide a Cracker Barrell-level of down home comfort as you wait for planes to land.
I don’t really mind flying out of AVP. I do, however, mind the everloving daylights out of the USAirways terminal in Philadelphia. For one of the largest cities on the east coast, you would think the airport would have a modern (if not clean) look to it. The break-up of the USAirway terminals with a shuttle bus is about as convenient as an ER whose X-Ray lab is in another building across the parking lot of the ambulance motor pool. Granted, PHL (Philly’s airport code) has signs all throughout the F terminal about being “under construction” but I’m pretty sure this service work has been contracted out to PennDOT due to its glacial speed and seemingly lack of logic–even the legendary Winchester House made more sense in its layout.
I know I’m sounding a little rantastic here but I am part of that generation where the romance of airports and flying transitioned into the modern bus station it is today. I remember (vaguely) people getting dressed up to fly–your Sunday best was the unspoken code of the sky. Now, in our post-9/11 world, we have gone one exit past “comfortable” to a world of sweatpants and snuggies–yes someone was basically wearing an adult onesy/blanket flying back from Philadelphia. There is a difference between social equity and the lowest common denominator–I’m not trying to sound like the bourgeois here–but for the love of all that is holy, can we have some decency? I think it’s fair to say that the baseline for air travel shouldn’t be what you would wear if you were running out a 7-11 for a late night slurpee. As Patton Oswalt says, “sweatpants are always pulled on over un-deodorized flesh.” Do we not count airports as public? Sweatpants plus small commuter flights equals a whole lot of unhappy.
I think I could look past all of this nonsense if we were at least civil to one another in this terminal. The amount of screaming at airport employees over late flights and missed connections, the pushing and shoving on the moveable walkways, the crying babies, the twelve overcooked french fries slapped down next to your Chilli’s Big Mouth Burger, the debates over carry-on bags the size of small steamer chests, the paranoid observations of travelers who think they’re sky marshals (but are actually just racists), the dead-eyed ennui of gate staff, or the overworked/underpaid baggage handlers all just add to the widening wallowing pit of airport despair. Maybe if we took a minute to acknowledge one another with a little more mindfulness and not be so caught up on destinations and arrivals, there would a little more joy to the whole air travel culture.
I know I’m painting with a broad brush here. As I’m writing this, I can’t help but think of Louis C.K.’s stand up routine about just how ignorant and resentful we’ve become at our own modern inventions–how we have taken such things for granted to such a degree that we are becoming the lump sum of our First World Problems. And I’m no different than any of the other assholes I’m complaining about. I’m as exasperated as the next person standing in baggage claim waiting for bags. In a day of layovers, my fuse can be about as short as anyone elses. I don’t want to be crammed into a tin can next to a complete stranger who is almost sitting on my lap for the duration of a twenty five minute flight back to AVP at night. I try my best to make conversation at least, a quick hello, or maybe a little joke about the “mandatory intimacy” of our surroundings. When you get nothing back from someone though, it’s hard not to make a quick judgement about that person’s character, general attitude towards life, IQ level, and possible interest in one of or all of the following things: NASCAR, Coors Light, Skool, amorous feelings towards livestock. It would be just so easy if we were all wearing ties and Count Basie was being pumped into the cabin. It would be just so easy if I could just accept the fact that the black and white world has long since become a digital HD reality. It would be just so easy if I could be as rational about the world we live in as I am when I’m writing about it days later at the kitchen table with some clarity and mindfulness.
Maybe that’s the point.
Jim Warner is the author of two poetry collections Too Bad It’s Poetry and Social Studies (Paper Kite Press). His poetry has appeared in The North American Review, PANK Magazine, Word Riot, and other journals. Jim received his MFA at Wilkes University. Sometimes he’s cranky, usually he’s just Filipino. He’ll be reading tomorrow night (5/17) as part of the At The Inkwell Spring Reading Series at KGB Bar (85 East 4th Street, NYC). Follow him on Twitter: @whoismisterjim.