Where Everybody Knows Their Flight

Location: Cheers Restaurant, Terminal C, Charlotte International Airport, Charlotte, North Carolina (full name of restaurant appears to be: Meet Me In Cheers Charlotte).
Time: approximately 7:30 am, Sunday.

The airport awakes to the sunlight streaming in the windows overlooking the miles of tarmac1. In many places-- even at 7:30am-- the crushed stone would already be blazing, waves of heat rising off the ground to blur the planes as they coast in and out of the gates. Though the day will eventually warm up2, it is still a mild, breezy dawn, and the airline crews go busily about their tasks. A grassy knoll, long and thin, rises on the horizon. Beyond it, the tail fins of planes can be seen against the clear blue sky: boats sailing on a fuzzy green ocean, the horizon an empty edge. Charlotte International Airport sits on the cusp of the world.

My herd of humanity walks off the plane, down the jetway, and emerges into the terminal, still drowsy with the rumble of the early-morning flight. Around us, other gate doors are flung open, other passengers are released-squinting, all of us, into the sun-and there is now sudden life flowing into former emptiness. As though Charlotte International Airport did not exist until the first passenger stepped foot inside on this morning. We are creating the reality of the airport around us as we walk.

Metal gates are raised at Starbucks, Hudson News, Nathan's Hot Dogs3. Within seconds, the silent halls and airy vestibules are teeming with travelers, and the lines at Burger King and Cinnabon snake around their queue areas five or six times. Children sprint between formica tables and stackable chairs. Luggage is dumped indiscriminately. No one has patience for anyone else which leads to much gnashing of teeth. The spell of the morning, the isolation of the terminal here in its ocean of tarmac with the sails of infinity on the horizon has been lost: Charlotte International Airport is a shopping mall in deepest suburbia on a rainy Saturday afternoon in August, and we are standing in the food court outside the multiplex near the door to the arcade.

I sit just outside the main arena, in the one oasis of serenity provided for travelers like myself-a place welcoming only those not burdened with 3 pre-adolescent children, one doggy cage, and 4 sets of exquisitely unmatched luggage. Meet Me In Cheers Charlotte, in the plainest terms possible, is a bar; there is a bartender at work4, even as it is clear that hangovers from the night before are just barely wearing off. And, like any self-respecting bar, there is smoking. Lots of smoking. In fact, as I take stock of the other hunched, bleary, eye-rubbing patrons5, the single common denominator is the presence of a lit cigarette; regardless of demographic, every single customer of MMICC is clutching a smoke, thankful for the opportunity to start their day the nicotine way6.

I glance at the menu for breakfast and note the curious capitalization choices of the title above MMICC: "Sometimes You wanna go...7" I look around for someone with whom to share this funny little layout lapse, but to no avail: at the tables around me, brows are scrunched, sunglasses are on, there is much massaging of temples. Most people seem hassled. A few seem genuinely fratricidal. A pair of mothers and daughters at a table between me and the television desperately search their bags for a missing something, impressively avoiding burning both their luggage and one another with their matching lit slim 100s. In the gift shop to my left, someone appears to be buying a Meet Me In Cheers Charlotte sweatshirt8. No one looks to be in a position to appreciate the finer points of good graphic design. I keep it to myself.

This seems to be my lot here in the world of international air travel: I am alone in my mirth. There are a lot of people who are provoked to tears of rage, to the rending of garments, to apocalyptic shrieking when it comes to the realities of airlines. All of this confuses me greatly; you see, to me, delays are of no concern. Crappy "snacks" phase me not at all. You'd prefer not to store my guitar in the overhead bin? Fine9. Yes, I am a veritable athlete of the airport endurance sport. My Routine: endless amounts of smiles to flight crew; beating them to the "buh-bye" ; offers to sit in the emergency row; organized trash piles10; patience in boarding; patience in unboarding; politeness at check-in; knowledge of boarding pass procedure; ability to sit on the floor in a corner next to a trash can thus freeing up valuable seat space in terminals for large, unwieldy families; willingness to listen to the in-flight movie using my own headphones; acceptance of Pepsi products if necessary11; never tempted to tamper with the smoke detectors in the lavatories; and always, always buckled in while in my seat. Yet all this and more goes unnoticed, and so I chuckle inwardly at the folly to my left and right and wrap myself up in the snuggly blanket of my own general competence and stability.

I spend my time in airports not concerned with my own hysteria, but rather searching the faces of my fellow man for a hint that there are others like me. I search for those who belong in the airport before the jetway doors open and the crowd courses in. I search for those who would stand next to me at the floor-to-ceiling windows of the Charlotte International Airport and breathe in tandem with those far-off sails as they troll my great Tarmacian Bay. I sit in Meet Me In Cheers Charlotte and watch as the smoke of the disenchanted rolls over the lobby and into the food court: lifting paper hats and filling rubber gloves, disrupting heat lamps and flooding deep fryers, swirling past patriotic t-shirts and enamel spoons and plush toys galore. The cloud is ravenous, it envelops all-all schlock, all kitsch, all shabby, shoddy, shameful detritus of our modernity-and whisks it all away. I chase the cloud with my sunburned eyes as it escapes through the HVAC system and reaches the runway, speeding past the tower at flight velocity and then launching itself into a stratosphere where it will diffuse into the clean, fresh air and lack the power to reform; it will dissipate forever into blissful calming molecules and leave me here in MMICC, my pocket of repose now expanded, to drink my coffee and dream of sailing on a tranquil sea.

- - - - -
1a strange word whose derivation is unclear until researched at Dictionary.com:
tar·mac n.
A tarmacadam road or surface, especially an airport runway.
tar·mac·ad·am n.

A pavement consisting of layers of crushed stone with a tar binder pressed to a smooth surface.

2Playing on a relatively tiny TV strung up in a corner of Meet Me In Cheers Charlotte, the local news informs us that it's going to be a particularly unfortunate day for those who have issues with the ozone layer.

3People stop to eat Nathan's Hot Dogs, even now, in the first breaths of the day. This seems exceedingly strange-I'll go so far as to say disgusting-until I consider that many of these people probably left their point of departure the night before. For all I know, this could be dinner (having never flown out of the United States, the mysteries of time zones are generally lost on me).

4I am confused at this point, not sure how Charlotte International Airport can get away with having an open bar at 7:30am-on a Sunday! below the Mason-Dixon Line!-but I write it off to the same part of my brain where I store duty-free shops, international waters, and time zones. "Great," I think, "gimme a beer."

5most of whom seem to share my inner monologue, beer-wise

6as well as, it seems, thankful not to be crammed into one of those plexiglass boxes I've seen in other airports, where 50 to 60 businessmen and overly-tan middle-aged women huddle woefully around a single ashcan.

7The overcapitalization of "You" adding a nice touch of almost biblical deification to the customer; and/or the lack of capitalization on the final two words pointing strongly towards corporate laziness in general.

8Perhaps most upsetting of all is the gift shop here for the MMICC, sort of a Hard Rock Café-esque selling floor with similar merchandizing strategies. My experience so far has not been so very defining that I feel the need to purchase an embroidered denim jacket or a 24-karat gold commemorative pin, but should the need arise, I suppose it's nice to know the opportunity is there. Meanwhile, an airline captain leans seductively across the glass island counter to engage the salesgirl in conversation as soon as her sale is finished. I wonder if his voice is, you know, captainy.

9(break it and you'll pay, but no, really, go ahead and gate check that thing.)

10pretzel wrapper folded into napkin, napkin wadded into cup, and then, if necessary, cup stowed neatly in "snack" box along with apple core, cutlery, and more plastic wrap (again, napkin-clad to minimize unwadding).

11TWA bastards.

About the author:

whitney pastorek currently resides in Astoria, NY, where she actively opposes the Starbucks coffee chain and occassionally does battle with evildoers from atop her trusty skateboard.