It was an uncomfortable 65 degrees. It was just cold enough to make me shiver when I was still, but warm enough to make me sweat, when I was walking quickly and dragging a forty-five pound suitcase. Between midnight and four am, JFK airport closes down all the terminals but one. One of the international terminals is left open, and within it the only thing left open is McDonalds. This means that everyone who was too frugal, as I was, to get a hotel is now crowded into this dim open space, trying to get close to the light shining from McDonalds, like moths to flames. These were my first clues that I was in a space, and I was supposed to be moving in and out of it, but not stationary within it.
I had a sixteen-hour layover at the JFK airport, and after an entire summer abroad I had just enough money for a McChicken and small fries, with $1.43 left to spare. There are chairs, tables and a few padded benches filled with sleeping people. I was one of the latecomers, so I had to sit in one of the metal chairs, surrounded by my belongings, nervously scoping out the other people sitting, and enviously eyeing the people asleep on the benches. At this time in my journey I had already read all of the books I had brought with me, I began to scope out where I could get a couple hours of rest before the last two flights of my journey home. The tables were too tall, the chairs too hard, and the people around me too suspicious. That’s what an airport is: a place of suspicion. There are the constant messages to report baggage left unattended and some person calmly saying the security level is orange today, (I don’t think anyone actually knows what that entails, but it sounds frightening). They discourage people from trusting the person across from you, which in turn makes the development of relationships with strangers in airports difficult. By discouraging relationships, they are discouraging attachments, especially emotional ones to this large space.
I finally decided the floor by a store window in a dim corner was the best place to rest, because I would only have to protect one side. I lay on top of my suitcase, hugged my carry-on to my chest, put my passport, wallet and phone in the inner pocket of my zipped jacket, and put my purse under my head. As soon as I lay down I began to shiver, and I would wake myself up every twenty minutes, to check on my belongings. It was uncomfortable, and cold. I gave up after three hours, and dragged my things back to one of the metal chairs, where I put in headphones and observed my surroundings.
The interior of the terminal I was in was sterile. Everything could be summed up as white, metal, or tile. It was a hard and harsh place. It was meant to be. People are not supposed to stay in airports, or feel at home. They are just places of transit. It is from one place to another place, but you are never supposed to stay. Staying in a place that is meant to overturn people every few hours is jarring. You become familiar with the people sitting around you and then ten minutes later they are on their way to another state or country. An airport is designed to move people, and I was not moving. I felt as though I had angered the beast, it was trying everything it could to make me uncomfortable enough to leave. People do not go to an airport just to grab a cup of coffee and hang out with friends. They go there with a purpose, and once one loses their purpose the entire experience becomes even less desirable.
The entire time I was in the terminal I was eagerly awaiting the opening of another terminal. As soon as I was there, I would hurry through security, down the endless hallways, and follow the blue signs, just so I could sit in another waiting room, where I would eagerly await a plane that would only take me to another airport. Each step brought me closer to my ultimate destination, but each step was just as monotonous as the others. Bachelard says, “every great image has an unfathomable oneiric depth to which the personal past adds special color” (38). I strongly dislike airports, but some airports try to distinguish themselves from others and make their inhabitants feel like they are in more of a place than space. An airport in North Carolina has white rocking chairs and potted plants, the one in Memphis has colorful murals on the walls, but in the end they all feel the same. There are shops and restaurants, but those can only provide entertainment for so long. There are TVs on the wall reporting the news, and if a person sits under the same one long enough they can see the same news report four times. After a while all of the airports, terminals, and gates begin to blend together. They have few things to distinguish them, and that is the point. Airline travel has become so homogeneous that by the time you land, you can’t quite remember the color of the seat you were sitting on for five hours.
After being in a space for so long, it is refreshing to be in a place, even if it is a car. It is the familiarity of the interior place that is comforting. It is jarring to spend sixty hours in transit. I knew that I had been travelling for days, but it didn’t feel as though I had moved six inches the entire time. This may be because of the diversity of people in airports, especially the international terminals. There are thirty different languages, hundreds of different accents. After a while it becomes so diversified I was not sure which country I was leaving and which one I was going to. I spent a lot of time wondering where home was for the thousands of people I had never met. I knew I had crossed the ocean and was in a different continent, but for all I was concerned the voice over the speakers telling me to never leave my baggage unattended had just shifted accents from British to American.