Sojourn in the Atlanta Airport

Plane“The airports the one place you hear everyone’s life story,” one stranger remarked to another stranger before both began to outdo each other in sharing the stories they’d collected that day. These stories, and the stories I heard over a few days of delayed flights, reminded me of hope.

The world is very much a cruel and terrible place. It is divided. There are (and have long been) children dying and the bombs flying. In the 23 hours I spent in the airport, I saw a lot of personal hopelessness turn into selfishness. Everyone wanted to be where they had planned to go. Employees were overworked and exhausted. Storms on Wednesday led to over 3000 cancelled flights from Atlanta.

On Wednesday, I left my apartment at 11:00am. My luggage was thoroughly soaked in the quick walk to the bus stop. Usually, I love weather. I love the way it brings people together, and I like its inconsistency. It remains unpredictable, even in its predictability. We were all subject to the storm on Wednesday, every grounded passenger imprisoned as the rain kept falling and the thunder rattled the large airport windows. We were powerless, so some did the only thing left to do—ask the stranger waiting next to them, “So where are you going?”

Interrupted only by loud clasps of thunder, this beautiful question led to the start of excellent tales. With this question, “where are you going?” I didn’t learn a single person’s name. But I learned their stories. I met an aunt who was going to the wedding of her niece. There were reports of a woman missing her own weeding. I heard the stories of businessmen and women going to and from conferences. The Atlanta soccer team players seemed to be arriving. The Netflix employee, with his branded baggage, was departing.

A former Broadway actress (she spent nine years in NYC but then it became too much for the Midwestern girl) was headed to a festival of plays. She sat beside the Dutchman who was headed to Indiana to surprise his son, his son whom had just welcomed his first baby into the world. “Of all my children, I knew my youngest son,” he always called him that—‘my youngest son’, “would end up in America. English always came so naturally to him. It was like it was, a—a, love connection between my youngest son and America. He worked on the cruise boats and then he moved to Indiana.” The Dutchman travelled over 40 hours to spend a mere two days with his youngest son, because, as he remarked “we haven’t seen each other, in life person, in three years.”

The Dutchman, the Mrs. Broadway, and I sat next to each other sharing stories when we got the email notifications that our gate had changed. My Dutch friend led the way, from B23 to A26 to B29. The large Atlanta airport seemed to burst with weary travelers. We were an overstocked aquarium of people, moving as intently as if we were in the ocean2. Every few minutes, my Dutch friend would look back to see that Mrs. Broadway and I had not been left behind. His new granddaughter is a lucky little girl. I hope he made it to meet her.

On the escalator during this long escapade, Mrs. Broadway saw me fiddling to put my water bottle back in its spot. She lifted my bag and said, “my girl, this is heavy!” She lifted my burden. And so did so many others.

When my third flight was cancelled, the boy who has been changing my own story came to pick me up so that I wouldn’t have to ride Marta alone at midnight.  He drove through the intense storm to the intense airport. He left, I think, as soon as he saw my name on his phone, before I even asked. He had to in order to get there as quickly as he did. Then, the next day as I spent 12 more hours in the airport, he seemed to know exactly when to call to cheer me up in the moments when I began to think I’d never make it to the conference I was already missing. So many other sweet friends sent me messages of hope that I needed to recharge my phone twice1.

My dad rebooked my flight twice for me. He saved me seven hours (not an exaggeration) of standing in line. He answered my every call, even when in the middle of doing so many other things. His long ago subtle lessons also helped me when waiting in line became inevitable. My family was flying back from Ireland a few years ago, and we arrived to a stormy New York City. We slept that night on the hard floor of LaGuardia. At one point, both my sisters, my mom, and I were all crying. Still, he talked to the counter workers with kindness. Three hours into the line, I realized I was still standing strong. A stranger came up to ask me a question, and in that moment, I felt a little bit more like my dad.

More people asked me questions, directly and indirectly. An older wife nudged her husband to get a wheelchair. He said no, but she struggled away to look for him one anyway. His face had gotten paler as we’d stood, and he was clutching his left shoulder. I asked if I could go find him a wheelchair. His quiet reply was tragic, “I’ve never been sick a day in my life. And now this.” He was sitting in a wheelchair twenty minutes later. A woman in front of me had been stuck in the airport so long that she had run out of diapers for her baby. Another young woman’s curses turned to tears when she gave up calling the airline and called a loved one instead. I texted my mom, and she responded, “Keep up the good spirits and the perfect way to do that is to be helpful to others. There are a lot of needs right now!” She’d kept my spirits up all day. And she was right, of course, so I kept listening to stories.

Twenty-five flight changes, delays, and cancellations later, I was in the air. By this point, it was nighttime and the world, cleared of storms, was dark beneath me. But there were lights on. And the lights illuminated stories, beautiful tales with destinations and departures. Beautiful lives.

At the low points, the two days I spent in the airport felt like a waste. I was home, yet unable to go home. I wasn’t where I was supposed to be. Forced to wait, I had no idea what my immediate future held. I went to a lot of gates. I curled up by a lot of windows. I heard a few stories. And because of that, this airport delay will not go down in my story as wasted days. The Story, after all, is so often the cure to hopelessness.

Air Atlanta

Notes:

1-Traveling tip: I came across some brilliant people who brought along a power strip. They could always go up to some of the few outlets and find a place to plug in and charge, plus they often made other strangers pretty happy too!

2-Delay tip: I was reading a book about the Titanic through this whole travelling debacle. I’d recommend reading material on the topic of a slightly related tragedy to put anything in perspective.

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