This is the airport.
Feel it: Slick, breezy, international; a place that wakes you up, gets the blood pumping. A place where people are on the move. Rosy-fingered dawn; awaiting departure. There’s something about the smell of coffee and jet fuel early in the morning ….
There’s something about the entire world-within-a-world of the international airport that sets it off completely and startlingly from its surroundings, something sexy and foreign, something of distant landscapes under azure skies. Like an embassy or other such diplomatic enclosure, the airport exists as an extraterritory of sorts-a territory outside or beyond, though it may also be within-a cosmopolitan corpus separatum in which the traveler enjoys a kind of diplomatic immunity from the world of the trivial and the workaday and the local still visible just beyond the runway, a world that even now seems to recede from view as our time of departure nears. Back there, in that world, people are getting dressed for work, making coffee, contemplating suicide-doing all the same things today that they do everyday, the same things we might be doing if we were not here at the airport, going somewhere else; indeed already somewhere else. The airport is a zone apart: a place of cool, bright light and smooth surfaces where time and space for the traveler are turned inside-out, a portal through which one is effectively as close to the capitals of nations on the other side of the earth as to the next state or province. It is a place of criss-crossing destinies: Neither here nor there but somewhere in-between, the airport is a momentary meeting-point of countless unspoken personal histories that pass as faces in a crowd; the busy intersection of countless possible pasts and possible futures, all coming and going, arriving and departing and returning without end.
San Francisco International Airport: SFO. The airport closest to my Northern California place of residence-though for our purposes here it could just as easily be any major international airport, anywhere in the world-SFO is my most frequent jumping-off place for points elsewhere. Whatever my destination, the return ticket and luggage tags always say SFO. Today SFO is also a place of heightened alert, with signs everywhere of the ways in which air travel in the United States has changed since the events of September 11, 2001: The extra questions at check-in, the long lines for security screening, the more visible presence of armed officers and bomb-sniffing dogs, especially when the Homeland Security terror threat level is raised a step toward the Red end of the scale. The higher the terror threat level goes, the more interesting and challenging air travel becomes.
On any given morning, the departure boards in SFO’s international terminal register flights to Paris, London, Mexico City, Tokyo, Bangkok, Sydney; and it is for departing flights that I am always happiest to be at the airport, even on a day like today with a terror-threat level of Orange. It is here in the departure hall, among the jostling crowds of tourists and visiting scholars and pilgrims and refugees””¢perhaps even the occasional CIA or military intelligence operative en route from one undisclosed location to another””¢that the experience of the romance of air travel begins. Like the automobile and the movie palace, the contemporary international airport is an expression of the romance of living as seen through the eyes of the Twentieth Century, a century that lingers yet like a misty landscape beneath us as we continue our climb into the uncharted skies of the Twenty-First. Featured in countless spy films of the 1960s and ”˜70s, the cinematic mystique of the airport is among my fondest of memories from childhood. As I recall from my occasional experiences of airports and flight as a child, the glamour of air travel was such that one might almost expect to see .007 himself among the crowds at the check-in counters (First-Class of course; shaken not stirred, please).
With all its ultramodern chic, however, the airport can in certain respects be compared to the great temples and cathedrals of centuries past. With its touches of Art Deco and Science-Fiction, its echoes of Classical and Gothic styles as re-envisioned through the eyes of the Jazz Age and the Space Age and the Information Age, the contemporary international airport stands as a cathedral to flight, a monument to the romance of movement itself. Like a Greek temple or Gothic cathedral, the airport is a transcendent space, a place where disparate worlds meet. It is a liminal space, a threshold between here and somewhere else, somewhere far away; a place from which one is whisked off to new landscapes, new experiences, new points-of-view.
The airport today is also a very real crossroads of the Twenty-First-Century world, a place where one is as likely to encounter a group of refugees arriving from Central Africa or Hajj pilgrims en route to Mecca as the mainly white, middle- or upper-class travelers one would have expected to see in decades past-a place of fleeting encounters in which the movement and fluidity of contemporary life may be experienced on a global scale, albeit one through which individuals pass under vastly differing conditions: the missionary, the mail-order bride, the young soldier en route to the front. In this respect the airport may be compared to the great railway stations emblematic of an earlier era in transportation, even to the Ship of Fools or Grand Hotel of fiction with its catalogue of “period” characters masking timeless archetypes, a universe in miniature where each face in the crowd, each pilgrimage into the unknown, contains the distant reflection of one’s own and of the age in which one lives.
At one corner of the international terminal is the airport’s Reflection Room, where those who are about to embark may pause for prayer or contemplation. Entered through a glass door and foyer with the points of the compass spanning out across the floor, the room suggests a chapel or similar sacred space, but without the identifying characteristics of any particular religion, with large windows overlooking the airport ramp as aircraft prepare for departure and comfortably-reclined “pews” of shiny black vinyl and stainless steel. A sign posted at the door announces scheduled devotionals, held in a glass-enclosed section of the room so as not to disturb those who have come seeking silent reflection. Panning the room from the ceiling is the ever-watchful, electronic eye of Homeland Security.
This morning a bearded Muslim man in business attire prays in one private corner of the Reflection Room, a plain white sheet of paper on the floor serving as a miniature prayer mat for his head to touch as he bows toward Mecca, some eight thousand miles away to the east. One marvels at his nerve for daring to perform this simple, innocent ritual before closed-circuit TV cameras in an American airport of our time. A woman sits at a window in the opposite corner of the room, looking out at the distant hills and the open sky, a string of dark red rosary beads in her hand, carry-on baggage piled on the empty seat beside her. The mirror-image of her face in the glass as she gazes at some far-off point on the horizon, together with that of the man praying to Mecca over her shoulder, suggests that both the setting and its occupants might just as easily be those of some wharfside chapel or mosque from centuries past-a place for one last prayer on dry land before setting sail across the vast and perilous sea-or indeed any of the diverse frontier shrines of the ages, designated sanctuary spots at the edge of the unknown. The silence in the Reflection Room, an otherworldly contrast to the bustle of the departure hall outside, is broken only by the low rumble of arriving and departing aircraft.
Having checked in for our flight and passed through the required series of security checks we may now proceed to the departure gate. The air is cool and crisp and alive with possibility, tingling, electrified. Faces pass along the broad concourse, bound for parts unknown, each face a movement in time, a traveling romance, a landscape of memory and desire. The concourse is a sea of faces-coming, going, this way and that-of hands clutching airline tickets and passports and children. The sun rises in the east, over the hills and the bay, the silhouettes of departing and approaching aircraft black against the gold sky of morning. Tiny automobiles move past along a distant freeway, conveying their invisible occupants to work. At this point, however, we are for all intents and purposes no longer here, but in some space between here and there that seems directly plugged-in to everywhere. We have left here behind, and await only our call to board the aircraft that even now appears rolling into the gate, jetway tube extending out from the departure door to meet it.
An undiscovered world lies just at the end of the runway.