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By Allan Wu | 24 Aug 2018

Inspired by a classmate’s work from a creative nonfiction seminar I took last year.

Airports see an average of 10,126,027 people everyday.

There is this mutual, unspoken understanding among the passing eyes, the travelers in the cold, bleach-stained hallways, and those who shift from crowded security lines to crowded waiting areas to crowded airplanes that this is little more than simply a means to some end.

Airports didn’t always feel this way, but lately, they’ve felt like nothing more. On my most recent flight, I filed into the security checkpoint line like any other time, lugging my overstuffed suitcase and with my backpack slung over my shoulder. Stuck among a turbulent sea of people, I realized out of the few places where I felt so close to others yet so distant as well, airports took the cake — maybe second only to the parties where I’ve known more about the names of the drinks served than the actual people there. Moments before the tedium of waiting in line lulled me into a dull daydream, my eyes caught the silhouette of a petite figure moving its arms animatedly. It was a small child. He was probably no older than four or five with long dirty blonde hair, and though we were separated by not more than a couple rooms-lengths away, he seemed to occupy a world vastly different from mine. There was no monotony, no anxiousness, no apathy in his eyes. He took no part in the synchronized symphony of self-absorbed individuals riveted to their handheld screens or the frantic, restless concerto of hurrying airline customers. He was, instead, entranced by a model aircraft in his hands. I imagined how he felt, how airports weren’t a place that induced high blood pressure but must have represented a wonderland of mystique and elation — and thought about how I used to feel that way.

When I was younger, I didn’t fly nearly as often as I do now. Maybe it was due to this or maybe children simply have the uncanny ability to make even the slightest experiences the most awe-inspiring, but the airport was an absolutely crucial moment of any trip, if not more marvelous, more significant than the trip itself. So while I, shamefully, have difficulty recalling even the key details of certain childhood trips and can only amiably nod when my aunts retell these trips with nostalgic delight, I can still remember the joys of my early airport experiences without fail.

One of my earliest flights was one I took with my family to China in my elementary school days. We left early that morning and began our journey at SFO — how we got there, I’m not quite sure. Upon stepping foot on the glossy linoleum tiles of our terminal and struck by the radiant sunshine pouring through the windows, I was certain that if I were to visit Disneyland, which I never had before, it would have felt something like this, and if not Disneyland, heaven, which was a respectably close second. I was greeted with the giant arched metal frames that supported the vaulted white ceiling; the hundreds of people — of all sorts of sizes, shapes, colors — briskly walking and pulling tightly packed suitcases; the sleek, brushed metal and granite overlaid counters; and the indiscernible, atmospheric chatter that felt so distant yet so recognizable. The alienness bore a grandeur and enchanting familiarity to it.

At our gate, my parents sat in the waiting area as my younger brother, who was a toddler the time, and I stared outside and watched planes take off. He would occasionally press his mouth onto the glass, at which my mom would pull him back and explain to him how millions of people had touched this window. This would repeat itself like a whack-a-mole game. As for the planes though, they looked better than what I had seen in books and certainly better than anthropomorphic ones I watched on PBS. I knew the names of some passenger jets like the Boeing 737 or the Airbus A320, but what I was really waiting for was the Boeing 747 — the colossal mother of all passenger jets that also happened to be the one we would be flying in.

My brother and I waited long enough for two nearby gates to board their flights and refill with a fresh wave of passengers. But as my faith in the arrival of this mother ship waned, the behemoth appeared. First as a blip in the sky and then as a figure no bigger than a model I owned at home, it descended — its hulking metallic frame seemingly defying the natural laws of gravity and aerodynamics and reflecting the glorious rays of Californian sunshine. I pressed my face into the window (careful not to touch my mouth on it for Mom would scold me), as if minimizing the negligible space between my eyes and the glass barrier would impact the immense, though decreasing, distance between the landing giant and myself.

In the video games I played, there were often intermediary level between the main ones that were fun but not as exciting, and stimulating but not as enjoyable. The jet bridge felt like one of those — not boring enough for me to completely overlook, nor appealing enough to wholly captivate me. It was worth the wait because while the airport was splendid, the plane itself was a mystical haven. I imagined I felt no different from how Charlie Bucket felt on his tour of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory as he left one fantastical, delightful room to enter another one, only more fantastical and more delightful. I put my hands on anything and everything I could: the fold-up trays, the plane information guide, the movable armrests. It was a playground of toys I had not played with, and there was a tacit promise made between myself and this playground that by the end of the trip, no square inch was to be left unexplored, unsullied by my boyish curiosity. I carefully watched the flight attendant as she explained how to fasten our seatbelts and what to do in case of emergency, sopping her lecture with the utmost attention an elementary school student could give.

After the seatbelt sign dimmed, I stumbled through the aisle, for if the plane was my Moby Dick, I was its Captain Ahab, driven by a monomaniacal obsession to understand it, to control it, to conquer it. Where others saw rows of packed seats and narrow aisles, I saw hidden depths and undiscovered treasures. I wandered into the bathroom and marveled at its compact and efficient design. The toilet was wedged perfectly between the grab bar and sink, which dispensed water only long enough to wash one hand at a time. I wandered towards the front of the plane.

“What brings you here?”

I was greeted by a flight attendant, with her hair in a bun and in what looked like a freshly ironed uniform. She smiled at me, showed me the preparation compartment, and handed me a sticker and a small goodie bag afterwards.

With my recently earned badge of honor adorned across my chest, I stared outside the window, eyeing the glistening metal on the tip of the wing.

The only metal that catches my eye at the airport now are the long, gun-metal shafts of semi-automatic rifles. Pointed towards the ground at an obtuse angle, their plastic and metal-alloy frames rest firmly in the chests of stern faces — military personnel stationed several meters from the TSA line. I’m not sure if they were always there or if this is a recent thing, but if I had to guess, I’d put my money on the latter.

After I’m conveniently selected for a random luggage check, I then mindlessly drift through the information center, the moving walkways, and the waiting areas. I pass the bright, hospital-white lights and the side shops that seem too artificial, too clinical. I use the restroom, and as an announcement about reporting unattended luggage blares, I pull my suitcase closer to me. I walk to the waiting area, sit down, and try to rest. While I can’t, I feel my mind gradually detach…

“Group C may board now.”

I realize group B has already been called and file into line, which some people cut. As I stand at the end of the jet bridge, ready to board the plane, a flight attendant stops me and everyone behind, announcing, “We’re sorry but we’ve reached max capacity in our overhead luggage compartments. All carry-ons will need to be checked in with me now.”

A lady behind me screams, “We paid for this flight! Our luggage stays with us!”

“I’m sorry ma’am but there is simply no way we can get your luggage on board without it being checked-in. As you know, this is a fully booked flight.”

“No, no, no! This flight, we paid for. The luggage stays with us.”

“Ma’am, we can’t—“

I tune the argument out and check my luggage in. I find my window seat, awkwardly stumbling over a seated passenger who doesn’t bother to step out, shove my backpack underneath the chair in front of me, and put my earbuds in. I then slide a sleeping mask over my eyes — but not without catching a tuft of my hair at first — and close my eyes.

I think to myself how times have changed and how airports have changed with the times — or maybe how I have changed with the times. No more are the days where I would eagerly compare SFO to Disneyland or even find myself deluged with youthful enthusiasm at the mere thought of Disneyland. I think of the people around me, those flying to a relative they don’t really even know, to a business trip for a job they don’t actually enjoy, to a home that doesn’t truly feel like home, to a vacation that will inevitably come to a close. This is all just some means to an end, yet also to an end no more exciting, no more enchanting than the dull, cold, and undesired means itself.