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Waiting in Line

The new airport reality means more old-fashioned people-watching.



After several moments of silence, the kid with the backward baseball cap looked at the guy with lures on his hat and a fishing rod in his hand and asked, "So, you goin' fishing?"

We all looked, directly or not, at the fisherman and awaited his response. Would he ignore the kid? Would he go off on him? Were we all, stuck here in what looked like a half-hour wait to get through baggage-check, about to be buried in fishing tales?

"Yep," the guy said, with a wry grin that added, for those paying attention, the words "you dumbass."

"Where ya goin'?"

After another pause that said "Hmm, still talking to me," the guy said, "Alaska."

"Wow! Alaska. What kinda fish they got up there?"

Now too embarrassed to listen, I went back to the usual things we all do waiting in line: look at the ticket counter, look at the line, look outside, look at the cutie, look at the arguing couple, look at my bag, look at the little stand where you fill out ID tags -- anything but get caught looking at each other, which is what we're all really doing.

One guy caught my eye. He was standing with his back arched, his hands on his hips, his forehead toward the ceiling, and his eyes fixed sternly on some faraway place. Every now and then he would look at the line then look away and let out a big sigh. Everything about this guy said "I am angry."

He looked at the agent in the first-class line -- or Silver Wings or Gold Pass or Exalted Flyer or whatever silly thing they're calling first class these days -- and he seemed deeply annoyed that here was an airline employee doing nothing while dozens of airline customers -- including, not incidentally, him -- weren't being helped. So he scanned the area for another airline uniform and waved it over.

"Excuse me, sir," he said, his rage and contempt not well concealed. "Can you explain to me why that man is standing there doing nothing while we are all waiting here?"

"That's our Adored Citizen line, sir" -- or whatever that particular airline calls people who pay hundreds of dollars to check in quickly and get a "free" cocktail onboard.

"I understand that, but all these people are waiting, and that man is doing nothing."

"Yes, sir, but that is our Most Honored Suckers line."

Big sigh. "Yes, but" -- and then I couldn't watch anymore either. I thought to myself, Angry Man needs to fly Southwest. From where we stood, in a long line at one of the major carriers that soon won't exist anymore, I could see the Southwest desk. It had colored streamers up and balloons and happy employees with big hearts on their shirts practically hugging their customers, all of whom were being helped in about 15 seconds. It's an odd, silly little airline -- also one of the few making any money -- and there's nothing I love more than an angry traveler on Southwest. When your typical vein-popping American businessman encounters a pilot who leads the passengers in a safety sing-along, only good things can happen.

My eyes scanned to a tense couple who kept looking from their watches to the line and back to their watches, then to each other, then shaking their heads and looking back at their watches and then the line. Their body language said "I cannot believe this is taking so long!" Apparently, they haven't been to an airport since about September 10, 2001.

I wanted to say to them, "Wait until the next terrorist attack. We'll be a real police state then. And you'll probably be strip-searched to get on the plane -- except that you're both white, so never mind." But I've learned that saying such things to the wrong people can lead to unnecessary trouble. I once sat next to a woman who was obviously very scared of flying and who kept grabbing the armrest of her seat whenever we hit the slightest bit of turbulence. I thought I would help her by saying, "You might as well relax, because if the plane is going to crash, it won't take long, and there's nothing we can do, anyway. A few seconds of terror and it'll all be over." What can I say? That was in my drinking days.

I was almost at the check-in counter, and I could see people struggling with these "express check-in" computers that, like most computers, are supposed to make things easier and don't. There were others at the counter going through their carry-ons looking for their ticket and ID; you wonder what they've been doing in line for the last 30 minutes.

That's when the word "chinook" floated out of the air and into my ears. It's not one you hear a lot; it's the native name for a big (up to 70 pounds) species of salmon. I looked for the fisherman and found him and the backward-cap kid with big grins on their faces, looking at nobody but each other. It turns out the kid loves to fish but has never left his little corner of the world, and the fisherman (as one would suspect, considering he's wearing fishing flies on his hat) loves to talk about all the places he's gone fishing. So the two of them were having a blast; it was the fisherman as wise old teacher, the kid his eager student. And when the kid went to check his bags, they seemed genuinely sad to be parting. I thought they might hug.

It reminded me of three important things: people-watching is about the funnest thing you can do; you should always remain open to the possibilities around you; and I need to get back to Alaska and do some fishing.

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