At 6:30 a.m. on a snowy Thursday, BWI is already buzzing and the security lines are long. A young woman in turquoise sneakers with bright pink laces and a white down coat is right behind me in line. She jostles me as I’m tossing my belongings into three gray bins. I quickly stash my gear: my laptop, out of its case, my toiletries in their quart-sized Ziploc bag, my tiny handbag, and my jacket. I’m not moving fast enough for Ms. Turquoise Sneakers, and she starts to reach around in front of me, swinging her single plastic bin, but I quickly close the gap. I shoot out mental darts at her, warnings that say “Don’t mess with me, girlfriend.” She backs off about four inches and I nudge the bins down the metal table to the rollers, then push the first bin onto the conveyor belt and watch it all disappear into the x-ray machine.
I step quickly into to the X-ray body scanner. I hold my arms over my head. My feet are firmly placed within the painted yellow lines on the rubber pad. I pretend to be George Clooney in “Up in the Air,” intent on speeding through the screening process.
This has been the airport drill since 9/11. I remember what it was like before, when I ran into the airport 10 minutes before my flight, jogged to the gate, and breathless, handed over my ticket—a real paper ticket purchased from a travel agent and sent to me through the U.S. mail. All seats on every flight were reserved. There were always window seats available. Dinner was served, or a sandwich, if it was a short flight. I paid cash for a glass of wine or a cocktail, two or three bucks at most. There were no laptops, no mobile phones. Smokers sat back and lit up cigarettes, exhaling smoke that traveled up and down the aisle. Passengers pored over newspapers or read paperback novels. The flight attendants— model-thin, under thirty, all dolled up in short skirts and full makeup— we called stewardesses, and males in that position were so rare that nobody bothered to call them much of anything.
There were cheap student fares on the New York-Boston or Boston-BWI shuttles, $25 each way, easily affordable even on a student’s budget. No reservations, standby for the cheap fares, and there always seemed to be one seat left, so I never planned my trips far in advance. Either I got on, or I waited for the next shuttle. With a novel to read, or a journal to scribble in, I had plenty of time to hang out at the airport. Long distance calls were expensive, so I would wait until I reached my destination to call a friend from a payphone. If my friend didn’t pick up, I called another one, until I found someone willing to fetch me from the airport.
There were small adventures along the way. When flights were delayed, I might hang out and meet a potential romantic partner. I might finish reading a novel, or The New York Times, all four sections, every column. I might write—using a pen and paper!— a sonnet or a four-page letter to a faraway friend reporting on school, job, roommates, and social life. Days and weeks might pass before I heard back from the letter’s recipient. And in the time between the posting of the letter and the response, there was time to wonder, imagine, fantasize, explore the possibilities. Did she sleep with that married guy from work? Did she go on the Pill? Did he break up with the love-the-one-you’re with girlfriend and choose the one who had gone off to Paris for a year ? Did they move to Vermont to start an organic farm?
At the airport, I might doze, sitting on the floor against a pillar, substituting my coat for a comforter, and trust that the airline personnel would rouse me when it came time to board. Sometimes, I missed my flight, and waited for the next one.
Less scheduled, more serendipitous, less structured, freer. Those who are the same age now as I was then, live in an environment tightly orchestrated by Siri, Tivo, Nest, Instagram.
Oh, what they‘re missing.