A woman beside me nervously looked around the line. We were boarding for Guanajuato, and she checked her ticket again and again. She asked the passengers ahead of us for their boarding group, and then turned to me and asked the same question in English.
We were both in group 3. “But I don’t think they’ve called group three yet.” Her fists clenched and she let out an anxious grimace. She seemed sure that when we approached the boarding agent, our disharmony in the line would cause a major malfunction in airport progress. We would be castigated, double-checked by the TSA, thrown out of George Bush International, or sent directly to Guantanamo for any possible deviation from accepted airport etiquette. Every few seconds she looked around, as though plainclothes feds were milling about in the crowd, just waiting for unwily travellers to step on the wrong side of the queue.
I assured her that we would be all right. This was her first time flying.
As we prepared for Mexican immigration, I helped Christina fill out her customs form and prepared her for the upcoming interview. What would the official ask her, she wondered? Would he prod her motivations? Would he be suspicious of her citizenship? Would she need to find her mother, who was waiting just outside the airport so they could celebrate Mother’s Day, to come in and vouch for their relationship, and maybe provide a blood sample to prove their relation? Would she be suspected of drugs? Orphan smuggling? Terrorism? Unicorn defenestration? Carrying more than 100 ml into the cabin?
Everything she said or did in the airport took on an air of monumental import, a feeling that airports generally try to emphasize. People are stern and hectored and overworked, and their expressions and interactions with the poor wretches who wish to fly display their hatred openly. Security is everywhere, and it is overzealous and fidgety, like someone trained a squad of border collies to guard the airplanes and carry semi-automatics. Chairs are rigid and uncomfortable, food is overpriced and terrible, and people are rushing everywhere, all the time, with the look of panic fixed across their features. Once while I passed through an American airport, an announcement came over the PA system to remind all passengers that even making jokes about terrorism or the president or freedom fries could get you thrown in prison.
And while the ambience of most airports is a distinctly agitated fretfulness, a feeling that things can instantaneously go amiss, things generally work out fine. People get on their airplanes and fly away, and they eat their cubes of pickled chicken simulant, and they rush and rush and get where they’re going. The feeling of panic is always present but rarely necessary, even as it is encouraged and supported, as though it is pumped in through the vents.
I thought back to my own first time in the airport, without adult supervision. I remember the impossibly long lines, the stanchions in great, circuitous labyrinths. I remember every question I was asked: how many bags, were they all packed by me, did they ever leave my sight, did I have anything sharp or liquidy or explodey in my carry-ons? I remember how sweaty my passport felt in my grip, I worried about the expiration date, I worried that I would need to memorize and readily produce every coded digit held within its inky pages. I remember sitting at the gate twiddling my thumbs, and checking with my cousin and our friend if we were at the right gate, and reading my boarding pass dozens of times.
My hands shook when I boarded the plane on my own, I cautiously accepted a beer from the stewardess, expecting to be carded, expecting to me looked down upon for drinking alcohol at 2 in the afternoon. When the arrival cards appeared before me, I took extremely delicate care in recording my information in a pristine, elegant script in perfect 12 point font. I rehearsed for the coming interrogation by the border agents in my head, scripting out possible scenarios and combating each with my wits and with the power of my stalwart honesty. Never before would the bored man at the Dublin airport have heard such frank, open talk from an incoming passenger. I prepared a blood sample, in case anyone needed it.
And I think to the version of me that now drifts through airports on a hazy cloud of indifference. Assured by my lack of narcotics or vials of mad cow disease, comforted by what I know to be the utter indifference felt by most of the staff, I slip through airports like so much mercury. An airport is an enormous, vacuum-sealed arena of tedium and droning sadness, and so long as you do not upset the balance, no one cares to deal with you for any moments longer than is strictly necessary.
As a younger man, the prospect of missing my flight or arousing the suspicion of airport staff petrified me. I imagined myself thrown into the airport brig, which was always cold and charged you heinous amounts of money for food or drink and had full body pat-downs on the regular. I imagined missing my flight and having my whole life crash in front of me, so few were my coping skills for flight-related stress, that I would simply curl up on the grubby carpeting of Pearson International and cry while hugging myself.
There are no more terror sweats. There are no more nerves. I feel like a grizzled veteran, some old farm hand, a dusty traveller who has seen too much road, whose feet are too callused and too black to fret even slightly over a few bumps. People have airport horror stories, but most of them have to do with unending wait-times and absurdly sloth-like, dull workers impeding your orderly, blissful movement through the least-fun part of your trip. The horror comes not from the security or the regimented routines or purported threat that half of the world is secretly plotting to blow up your plane. The only thing to fear in an airport, really, is being forced to spend more time in the airport. Once you realize that, everything seems much less grave.