Intimate Strangers: Reading Airport Essays During a Pandemic

June 17, 2021 | 2 books mentioned 6 min read

1.
On a flight from Tijuana to Mexico City, I sat next to a woman who told me in Spanish that she was scared of flying, and grabbed my hand when the plane leapt. When the plane touched down she hugged me.

On a flight from D.C. to San Diego, I sat next to a college student who noticed that I was feverish. When I returned to my seat after throwing up in the lavatory sink, he handed me a fleece blanket monogrammed with his university logo.

On a flight from Boston to Los Angeles, I sat next to a woman who confessed she was flying home to sell the house she’d lived in for decades. Her husband had just died, and she needed to downsize. They were high school sweethearts; he had been her date to the homecoming dance. She tilted her phone screen toward me to show me a photo: it was them at the dance, him in a white jacket and her in a knee-length dress, rounded like a bell. When I glanced up from her phone, I saw her eyes had grown wet.

Why am I telling you about these interactions? Because lately, I’ve been missing airports and airplanes. I don’t just miss them for the adventure they imply; I also miss the casual proximity to strangers these in-between spaces invite. For more than a year we’ve avoided brushing up against others, holding our breath when it becomes necessary to squeeze by someone at the grocery store, turning our head while reaching over them for tortillas. The pandemic has rendered other people’s bodies not just inconvenient but dangerous, suspect.

2.
A few months ago, nostalgic for the days of flying nonchalantly with strangers, I looked up some of my favorite airport essays to re-read. I hoped that they would help me articulate what, exactly, I miss about being crammed up next to the passenger in seat 18B.

I started with Pico Iyer’s 1995 travelogue about the Los Angeles airport, “Where Worlds Collide,” a piece I first read in a college creative writing course. At the time, I was a Californian living in New England, and even Iyer’s dreary descriptions of LAX—“a surprisingly shabby and hollowed-out kind of place”—made me homesick. In order to gather the raw materials for this essay, Iyer haunted LAX for a week, noting its inequalities and inconsistencies, ironies and images. But what interested me most when I returned to the essay was the way he put words to something I hadn’t quite articulated: the heightened attention we experience during travel.

Iyer calls this “an odd kind of twilight zone of consciousness, that weightless limbo of a world in which people are between lives and between selves, almost sleepwalking, not really sure of who or where they are.” This altered consciousness, in my experience, usually takes one of two forms. In the first, we become the sleepwalkers Iyer refers to. We move from security to gate to boarding line to seat in a haze, propelled forward by the surge of other passengers and the loudspeaker’s muffled instructions. Alternatively, this sense of displacement can heighten our attention to our surroundings. In the absence of our daily stimuli—emails on a computer screen, a toddler asking for a snack, a red light at the intersection—our attention is loosed to roam freely.

Travel in general (think of the crowd of tourists pressing toward a sculpture in a museum) and public transportation in particular (think of the subway at rush hour) enforce a proximity to strangers that I don’t experience anywhere else in my life. The displacement of air travel, a “strange statelessness,” means we are confronted with each other in a transparent way. These public spaces afford an anonymous intimacy; I can watch people, press close to them, see them without the scaffolding of job or car or routine. But this noticing has to do with more than just proximity, otherwise I’d miss standing crammed up against other people at the DMV. This state of consciousness also sharpens our awareness of our surroundings. Displaced from our daily environments, our attention zeroes in on novelty. Because of this increased capacity for noticing, we tend to see the bodies around us with more than a passing glance. I remember standing on the Athens metro in late winter and watching a woman’s eyes flick along the passing landscape. The morning light turned her irises gold, the pupils stuttering with the scenery that flashed by in frames through the window.

In the no man’s land of public travel, Iyer writes, “people are at the far edge of themselves in airports, ready to break down or through. You see strangers pouring out their life stories to strangers here, or making new life stories with other strangers.” In other words, the conversations and interactions I’ve shared with seatmates aren’t unusual, because the limbo-like space we share invites us to see each other with a rare kind of attention. Pair that with the intensified emotions we experience while flying (something psychologists chalk up to air pressure, altitude, dehydration, and loss of control), and I begin to understand why airports make us porous to each other.

coverThis porousness makes tenderness possible. It’s why my fraternity seatmate handed me his blanket, why the elderly woman shared her grief, and why I listened. The poet Ross Gay calls this kind of public tenderness “caretaking.” In The Book of Delights—a collection of “essayettes” that chronicles daily delights, sometimes set in airports—he admires the particular kindness that exists between strangers. “In almost every instance of our lives, our social lives, we are, if we pay attention, in the midst of an almost constant, if subtle, caretaking. Holding open doors. Offering elbows at crosswalks. Letting someone else go first. Helping with the heavy bags. Reaching what’s too high, or what’s been dropped.”

3.

coverI like the idea that increased attention plus proximity equals tenderness between strangers, and often it does. But public caretaking is not uncomplicated. In “Layover Story,” from her collection Make It Scream, Make It Burn, Leslie Jamison considers the complexities of sharing spaces with those we don’t know.

During a layover in Houston, Jamison is thrust into proximity with a “difficult woman.” This woman has many needs: she needs help with her bags, help lobbying for an earlier shuttle ride to the airport, help navigating the boarding process with an injured leg. With few other distractions, Jamison watches her. What else is there to pay attention to in a salmon-pink hotel in Houston, in a shuttle bus, in the dull monotony of the airport shuffle from security to gate to boarding to seat? Jamison tries out a few different stories about the woman: that she is implacable, a difficult tourist; then later, that she is a victim, worthy of pity and generosity. The narratives are a way to pass the time and to feel generous. Over the course of the essay, Jamison imposes and then revises these stories: “First she was a tyrant, then a saint, and finally just a tourist, dancing.” The story she is left with is the least interesting of the bunch—woman hurts her leg dancing in Cancun—but it is constructed from acts of attention.

On the flight, Jamison is stuck next to a man who wants to talk. Initially, he bores her. She has already given her attention to the difficult woman and has little left over for a seatmate. But then he surprises her with complexity: a military history in Iraq and a duffel bag full of shells for his daughter, who will offer them as homes to her pet hermit crabs. As they talk, Jamison tries to craft a narrative out of his anecdotes. As with the difficult woman, she fails to get tidy storylines to stick. “I’m trying to run the meaning-making logic over this one too: we have the big and the small; we have more than we can use. But it doesn’t yield; Houston all over again.” Instead she settles for attention: for listening to and seeing the man. She asks questions about the hermit crabs. She is afforded brief glimpses of another person’s world: “His endlessness is something I receive in finite anecdotes: big desert skies, a little girl poking crabs…I forgot, for a moment, that his life—like everyone else’s—holds more than I could ever possibly see.”

This gets at something I love about traveling through public spaces: that it is monotonous and dull and sometimes thrilling, because it occasionally opens a window into other lives and the universes those lives contain. In “Layover Story,” both Jamison’s interactions end in a form of public caretaking. Two seatmates listen to each other. Two passengers travel together from hotel to airport to train station. No one is a martyr and no one is a hero, but—through proximity and an attentive gaze—Jamison catches flashes of other people’s infinitude.

Maybe this is, in the end, why I’ve been reading about airports. In reading, as in traveling, I want to be transported—not physically, but into a deeper engagement with the world and the people around me. Absent of the kind of traveling I’d like to do, reading has been its own kind of portal. Iyer and Jamison shuttle me back into the world of public travel, which can be both boring or luminous depending on my capacity to give attention to strangers. In airports and airplanes we can and do mostly ignore one another, seeing other bodies as inconveniences to be pressed up against or squeezed past in line. But tenderness becomes possible too. “This is how we light the stars, again and again,” writes Jamison, “by showing up with our ordinary, difficult bodies when other ordinary, difficult bodies might need us.”

Image Credit: Pixabay.

is a journalist and essayist whose writing appears in National Geographic, EcoTheo Review, The Sunday Long Read, The Millions, Plough, and has been noted in The Best American Travel Writing anthology. She holds an MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Seattle Pacific University. Say hello at annelisejolley.com.

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