up in the air

Almost exactly four weeks ago, I returned home from an interstate trip.

My brother-in-law dropped me off at the airport, at a drop-off zone that was usually congested, but that time he had no trouble finding a spot to pull over.

Inside the airport was much the same — at the bag drop kiosks, there was only one other woman. I only passed a handful of people on my way to the lounge.

Boarding was announced about ten minutes earlier than scheduled. At that time, I wasn’t even through security yet, which would make me stress any other day, but not that day. There was no line, no hold up.

I was called aside for the random explosives check (probably everyone was that day).

The man smiled kindly — almost apologetically — as he asked me to stand on the mat, and explained the new distancing requirement. He reached out with the sampling instrument, and as he lightly brushed my clothes and bag, I asked how his day had been. His response: “quiet”, accompanied by another smile — still warm, but with something of sadness in his eyes (or perhaps my novelist mind put it there).

My instinctive response was “that’s good”, but, remembering the situation — the job losses, the uncertain future — I quickly added, “or bad, depending on how you look at it”. I attempted my best sympathetic smile.

He wished me a good day and safe travels, and said something about hoping my family and I stay well. I wished the same to him and his own.

I’d never had such a long conversation with any staff at an airport (and it wasn’t even that long).

In these last (almost) four weeks since coming home, I’ve thought of that interaction now and then, and I’ve wondered if that man still has a job, and whether he and his family are ok.

For a place that is usually bustling and full of people, it was uncanny to see the airport so empty. For a place that is usually too crowded, I never thought I’d feel sad to see it so desolate.

There was no line at the gate by the time I got there. I supposed the few other passengers had already boarded, pleasantly surprised by their quick passage through check-in and security.

I got the impression that the airline staff were being more pleasant and friendly. I wondered if this was a consequence of having more time since they had fewer passengers to manage, or the result of an anxious desire to keep a job precariously close to redundancy.

The passenger seated across the aisle from me (appropriately distanced, of course) seemed especially cordial and polite in his interaction with the flight attendant. You’d be forgiven for thinking the dialogue was extracted from a respectable bar, rather than from a plane. I wondered absently, was he always this pleasant to airline staff, or was he trying to be extra sympathetic?

But it reminded me that alongside the meanness, there is kindness too. For all the racism, panic-buying, and price gouging, there is sympathy, support and, most importantly, a determination to do what is right.

I don’t have any special attachment to airports, but they’ve always seemed like places charged with emotion and full of stories. I don’t even particularly enjoy flying (other than the prospect of uninterrupted hours of reading or, if I’m lucky, a pleasant conversation with a fellow passenger), but the very act of sitting on a plane in the air, looking down at the cities, the landscapes and even the clouds — that fills me with wonder every time.

The stark contrast between what I know and what I saw — I think that’s why this memory still lingers.

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