You’ll Be Selling Popcorn at the Airport

The idea was to get her to fall asleep. Ainsley was tired; we all were. Weather had delayed our flight, the final flight from Cleveland back to Sioux Falls, for at least an hour Ian was content to re-watch Frozen yet another time, whereas Ainsley, at 20 months, wasn’t so easily placated. I got her into the stroller and pushed on.

“Let’s see what’s going on,” I said, and we joined the throng.

I’ve always loved people-watching, and there’s no better place than at the airport. An airport is a unique nexus in human existence, pulling together more disparate people in a more routine fashion than has ever been possible.

Certainly, there have always been travelers’ hubs, great intersections or ports of renown. Before air travel, however, none could boast of flinging its transients so far and so easily. This melting pot of patrons provided me the perfect entertainment for my monotonous round trips.

A cart operator passed us, the vision of a charioteer lording over his metal steed, and slowed to honk at the shuffling masses unaware of his urgency. He was clean-cut with short, spiked hair. Small, dark earlobe gauges swung with the his intermittent progress. Black, rectangular glasses framed his eyes.

As the driver moved on, I heard him say, “My parents… I grew up in the poor part of town.” Then he disappeared with his bounty of travelers, and I pushed my own steady on.

“Well,” I heard a woman say as she removed her smart phone from her ear, “I think I just got *both* days off.” Her voice lifted with excitement, but her distracted male companion simply rummaged through his bag. “Oh, yeah?” he murmured, but it was her turn to show disinterest, and the good news evaporated between them.

I watched a couple of young men decide to purchase a new hiking pack at a sporting goods kiosk. A worker extended a long hook to retrieve the bag from the highest row of merchandise. The sharp store lighting flared around them like a science fiction movie.

I encountered the same family of seven several times. At first the four girls sprawled across a row of seats, brightly colored book bags scattered around and upon them. The children dotted ages from early teenage to infancy, the youngest strapped against mom in a black fabric sling dotted in white figures I couldn’t discern.

Then they were leading each other down the corridor, hand-in-hand-in-hand, like a human daisy-chain. Mom lead them right up to the shortest McDonald’s line. With everyone accounted for, they dropped hands and resumed looking bored and exhausted.

There were other recurring characters. Take the five employees required to manage the gourmet popcorn area. Each worker stood before a different variety: original, cheddar, kettle, chocolate, and cash register. Whenever I passed by, I found each worker stooped over his or her confection, elbows resting atop the counter, chin resting atop hands, waiting. Yet each time their stores of treats appeared more and more depleted, unlike the line at Starbucks.

I watched as a janitor made his way down the concourse, inconveniencing men and women equally at every restroom on the floor. A soldier with a tight but optimistic smile found his gate, then moved to another one, then bought a pizza. A man enjoyed a pasta dish at Wolfgang Puck’s for an hour and change. The family of seven reclaimed their row.

I wonder what people thought of me, a graying, bearded man in his mid-thirties, pushing around a lethargic but alert toddler for an eternity. From time to time, he would stop to peer at the little blondy who would smile back at his sigh. And he would always look straight up as they passed beneath the brachiosaurus skeleton replica.

Eventually I got the text to head back. I can’t count how many miles I walked in that finite space. As I joined my family — and the new friends they’d made in waiting — I bid a silent farewell to the transient friendships I’d made in motion.

People watching at O’Hare taught me something I already knew: everyone is a stereotype from far away. Thankfully, airports bring people closer.