Monday, September 30, 2013

 You know what's not fun? Most every airport on earth. You know what is fun? Going to the airport when you're not flying anywhere. Incredibly pointless, but a remarkable thing happens.
  I signed up for this Global Privileged Rich White Guy Pass thru customs program - which if you haven't tried to take advantage of and you are a GPRWG/W you should. It saves hours in line. Eons. And makes you feel like a BAD MOTHERF@@#%ker when you walk by everyone else.
  It's terrible I know.
  But first I had to go to JFK and be interviewed. It took about 5 minutes. The guy looked at me, I apologized for not shaving, gave him my fingerprints, he said it's okay you're a Global White Guy,  congratulations, and out the door.
   And then I walked into it...the melee, the scrum, the maelstrom we all know, the cavalcade of flyers falling back into the real world, friends shouting for them, guards yelling at their friends, drivers holding up the rigeur placards with every family name from Somalia to Somerset, half built concession stands promising to stop taking up space cramming everyone into lines half as wide as a medieval alley with half dazed pilgrims trailing luggage colliding within, coffee lines longer than cab lines, and no more seats arrayed for the weary than your average dentist has.
  And I just smiled.....because I was immune. I was unticketed. I didn't need anything.
   It's incredible how much "flying" is a state of mind. You literally become your own anxious avatar. But now, I felt like I'd died and gone to Germany to work on a Wim Wenders' film. I wandered and listened and smiled. I lowered the temperature of the room I was so calm. I let people cut in front of me at the self serve Dunkin Donuts line, I let a guy take my car service, I let another guy know his kid who was exhausting him was adorable. I was, in short, a banner example of a GPRWG. They should hire people to just show up in airports who aren't flying. Like dog walkers or cat comforters at the shelter they'd make everyone else breath out for just a moment. They'd be stones in the river, chicanes on the track, milk in the tea.
  What a disjunction there is then between one's self and oneself flying. And I fly a lot. I'm used to it, I know the tricks, the short cuts, the uselessness of ever raising your voice to anyone behind a desk who holds your fate in her/his hands, and the importance of wearing a jacket when you approach them - those dreamers of the continental lifestyle, of taking a minute and talking to them about absolutely nothing to do with the flight you're about to miss so that they'll have a second in their crammed and misery laden day of tolerating the absolute lowest in the behavior of desperate, nervous, entitled, spineless air travelers who rush their guns all day long wave after wave - release them from that and they'll perform wonders sometimes.
  Because in an airport so very little goes a long way. A single plant watered and happy in a football field of a hallway. Cheers. One employee doing nothing but greeting people. The TSA lady who moves your bag onto the conveyer belt rather than standing beside the machine, watching you do it and the line slow even more.....I used to despise all flying. The flattening of the landscape. Leaving one suburb, entering a tube, and emerging in another suburb. Hated the plasticization of everything. The terminals, the stores, the floors, the air, the carpets, the planes themselves, the air on the planes, the food when there was food, the coffee, the beer, the seats....eveything seemed to be off-gassing. Everything in the entire industry seemed to be made of some version of the jet fuel it all depends on for life.
  But then there's that moment....when you, amidst all that hydrocarbon death, when you notice the human. Or the animal still in us, beautiful and calm. And the surrounding depravation makes the revelation astonishing. I've burst into tears in airports, stood stunned, wanting to sing, felt like I'd just watched Wall-E for the first time when the little machine man reaches out for the absent hand in Hello Dolly.
   It's out there. Or it's in there, the item of reprieve , even in those horrific cattle shutes called LAX or JFK or whatever roman triplet of evil they nail up next. 
   So if you're going: 
   PHOENIX. Yes, Phoenix believe it or not. First off when you land there notice you're literally crossing over downtown. It's as close as you'll get to the approach to old Hong Kong airport where the feeling was you were about to be delivered to your hotel nose first.
  And once down, wander from terminal to terminal thru those pathetic overheated glassways and you'll almost miss the etchings in the windows themselves. There are scores of them: the structural drawings of just about every plane that's ever landed in Arizona lightly cut into the glass and next to them a poem, and not some facile praise of the industry but actual poems, real writing hovering next to the gossamer lines of these old machines.
  I had a huge layover there once and I read every one of them, thinking of my dad and his teenage love for this new technology, the spare beauty of the original plans, the heat of the sun and the light of the hot desert fixing the designs in my mind.
   MADRID. The roof of the new terminal is held up by the most gorgeous stalks. They filigree into arches, half cathedral groining half bamboo fantasy. It's the best place to have to run thru to catch a connector to Barcelona. A nave of orange and tan flickering over your head as you pant.
   JFK. Of course terminal 5, Saarinen's masterpiece now hidden among the masses of Jetblue warehousing. It's so damn small. You realize how much they underestimated post war travel. How unlike the Railways they planned for scarcity, privilege. But the walk from ticketing to your gate is still the only transformative architectural corridor in American flight. You are cleansed, wiped, you get the Kubrick treatment, the James Turrel feeling for a hundred yards and when you emerge into the seating area you're a modern traveler circa 1959. And then the phones start ringing and the guy has his bags on the seat to his left and his lunch on the seat to his right and you are returned to the puerile present.
  DENVER. Is a mile high mile long misery with the worst food of any major modern airport and God help you if your connection is in a different terminal but....landing and taking off, driving towards it, with its white peaked tee pees lit up before the front range of the Rockies, the rich farmlands rolling out the last of plains to the Mts. Maybe a storm coming in. A sunset.Damn. Purple majesty. USA USA...
  LAGUARDIA (in Memorium) There was once a water taxi. You could leave your apt on Ave B with a bag or two, walk to 14th st, take a right, walk to the East River, pay your 14 bucks and get on a little crapola boat which took you under the Queensboro bridge and the Hell Gate bridge with Manhattan and Brooklyn lighting up the water on either side, be dropped off at an Art Nouveau terminal your grandfather had used and fly home in under an hour.
  And the best part was you could come back and watch everyone waiting for a cab in a line 20 minutes long or haggling with a car service and you'd turn right again and walk toward what looked like a derelict pier. And then enter New York by water at night the three great bridges the Williamsburg the Manhattan and the Brooklyn shimmering before you as you docked.
  KANSAI, OSAKA JAPAN. If you want a religious experience, if you want to feel in an airport the way you felt when you first walked in to Grand Central or Union Station Chicago or whatever town you're from that once had a great railway fly to Japan and don't go thru Tokyo, go thru Osaka. Not only will you eat better and be 30 minutes from Kyoto and not have to take a 130 dollar taxi past 50 foot fences built to prevent aggrieved farmers whose land was taken to build the place from pelting you with cow dung will be able to simply sit in a chair at Kansai and look out the window.
   I can't explain it. It's some architectural voodoo but the view from under the 1/4 mile - 1/2 mile(?) (help me Ginny) canopy and out across the bay to Osaka peninsula is mesmerizing. It's the greatest achievement in wide screen letter box technology you'll ever experience. It hovers, it glows, it holds.....and it's in Japan where you're still dazed from jet lag, culture lag, food euphoria, peace, calm and indescribable civic concern. Your brain will hum with content.....and then like the cherry blossom this too will pass and you'll be in your seat listening to a recorded airline functionary talk about deals on sky mall and would you like a credit card.
  The entrance to Kansai too is astonishing. You walk across a massive raised promenade thru what look like two giant metal boxes. An open air gate to a better modernity.
   BURBANK. If you go to LA just figure out a way to do it thru Burbank. It aint pretty it aint in a good hood it aint big but it's fast and they can get you into your rental car or into a taxi faster than you can believe possible. And it will be the last time anything pleasant involving an automobile happens to you in Southern California.
  VANCOUVER. Best floors. You can wander around looking at the art imbedded in the tiles for hours. And the nice canadians won't swear when you bump into them.
   SFO. Go early. Eat and hang out in the International terminal and then go get on your sad little domestic flight.
   LAX. Almost always a mess but most of the terminals have curated displays of decent art. The first two gates peel off away from the main corridor and in one of them you'll usually find a well hung show. Beats hanging out in the undersized useless frequent flier lounges.
   MIDWAY. Best sandwiches and coffee and the Chicagoans have a gruff sense of humor always makes a layover worth a damn. Get your food and then go sit in the hallway headed toward another gate wing. Quiet, bookstore nearby, WWII fighter hanging over your head in honor of the guy the airport was named after. And think..."Im not in O'Hare, I'm not in O'Hare...."
   LONDON HEATHROW. ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE WITHOUT A FIRST CLASS TICKET. Just chuck it. But taking the subway in to London after you arrive is fun. Not the nightmare of the A train from JFK.
   PULKOVO, ST PETERSBURG RUSSIA. I'm sure it's all changed since I went when it was Leningrad but I hear when you take a cab (which you'll probably have to since the cabbie mafias buy up all the train tickets and pay off the conductors not to let anyone on and you end up paying Tokyo level fares just to get to your London priced hotel room) but I hear along the highway back to Peter's great city they still have the German tanks lined up in the fields to show you how where you're going is still standing.
   well that's as good a place as any to pause..


  1. You are hysterical! Your take on flying is great. Wish we could say more about our Pittsburgh airport other than to say it's pathetic. But like you said they play good music.

  2. Indeed hysterical.

    I totally need a GPRWW pass not for customs (Lord praise the EU - I do not go through customs too often) but TSA.
    The constant almost weekly confrontation with people in front of me at TSA all dressed in metal stud decorated clothes (very envoge) carrying bags full of Fidji Water bottles, liquid mascara and leather sleeved iPads while rushing for the metal detector is pushing my belief in the concept of "BE KIND - NO EXCEPTIONS" constantly to its limits.

    Additional airport notes (I would have dozens of those)

    Heathrow: Common ... it is not THAT bad anymore. Also Terminal 5 has a Wagamama and everything is better after a bowl of ramen.

    SFO: All true, but .. pro tip: NO fountain drinks or tap water. It has significantly more chlorine than the average swimming pool

    Brussels: Bring your hiking boots. With some bad luck the walk to your connecting flight takes an hour and I am not kidding nor are the signs indicating the walking distance from terminal wing to terminal wing.

    Stockholm: Totally wins with the friendliest McD staff in the world. Still grateful for that gentleman who sold me a coffee and explained to me all the weird coins of the Swedish money in my change.

    Philadelphia: Can't be left out since it is my regular transit airport for transatlantic trips. Shockingly dirty bathrooms, greasy food and the best imigration interviews, which all include at some point the question "Why PITTSBURGH?" My favorite one did end with:
    Officer: *stamp* *stamp* in my passport "Enjoy your stay in the USA. Oh and (pointing at my hoodie) ..... BOO PENS!"
    Me: "Ewwwww. Thank you. Oh and BOO FLYERS!"
    I swear it happened!

    Pittsburgh: Heartbreakingly underused. 2.5 more weeks until I can touch Franco Harris' plastic (?) shoulder again. (It is a tradition)

    Favorite airport: the homebase - Munich, Germany. Really big, really modern, really white, really clean, really efficient, maybe a bit boring but just very, very familiar.
    MUC would be wonderful if it would not take longer to get into town than a flight from Munich to Berlin lasts.

    2 hours 45 minutes to go. Pregame nap time (game starts 2 am local time here).


  3. What do you think about London? :-) I think London is the most awesome city in the world! Been there six times, and am thinking about moving there, and studying. :-)

    Haven't been to The States, or that many countries, so I haven't visited that many airports yet. :-)

  4. You should try CHANGI - Singapore..sometimes..another 'exciting' experience you can get ..