Taking your shoes off in security, the sweaty crotch grabs and the nekkid scanner were bad enough. But the worst thing about flying post-9/11 was the fact that your family couldn’t meet you at the gate. There was nothing quite like the endorphin rush of seeing your loved ones holding signs and flowers. It made the long trips almost bearable. Now deplaning was slow and almost clinical. You entered a giant stream of humanity, almost like a salmon swimming up choked stream. And then you fought your way to your flight or your car.
The businessman put his jacket on and tried to wrestle his overhead ban out of the overhead bin. It never failed: He was always on an MD-88 and always sat in the back. That meant the long, thin cabin took forever to clear out. He took a breath and tried to center. He had once prayed for patience. God made him a traveling salesman.
“Is this your last stop?” The young girl in her 20′s started up a conversation. He’d have once thought she was flirting with him. But since she was the age of his daughter, he knew better.
“No, I’m going home.”
“Lucky. I am connecting to Palm Beach. I’m visiting my boyfriend for the weekend.”
“He’s a lucky guy.” Usually folks weren’t too chatty at this point. Most were just focused on getting off the plane and on to their connections.
“Anyone here to meet you?”
“No, I’m divorced. My cat is all I have now.” The businessman tried to sound positive, but knew that sounded pathetic. Especially to a young lady who was obviously in love. “But he’s a fine cat. He’ll be glad to see me. Well, as much as cats are glad to see anyone.”
There is an unknown rule in air travel. If you hop up before the captain turns off the seatbelt signs, the ground crew waits forever to open the door. Now, the businessman had no proof of this, but he had seen it enough times to believe it to be true. The line ground to a halt as an older man struggled to make it to his feet and wrestle his bag. Since airlines started charging for luggage (and about everything else except for oxygen), people had gotten more and more brazen about what they packed. The old man obviously packed a piano.
Another deep breath. Patience. Calm. Center. The businessman could see the front of the plane. He was almost off this flu tube — what he called airplanes during flu season. The guy two rows ahead of him had coughed all flight. Someone had yelled, “Cover your mouth Typhoid Larry!”
“Buh bye! Buh bye! Buh bye! Buh bye!” The businessman heard the flight attendant’s traditional farewell speech. The captain stood there, looking all of 20, as he left the plane. Now, up the ramp and into the flow. And then it was home and into the flow.
Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson airport is the busiest airport in the world. As the businessman looked around, he knew why. A thunderstorm had held up flights and now the whole world scrambled down Concourse C. The businessman was 6’2″, so crowds didn’t bother him. But tonight, the airport was a zoo. He stepped over to the side, stretched, checked his cellphone for calls or texts and smiled. He remembered the old days when people would run off the plane and to the pay phones. The lady on the plane probably didn’t even know what a pay phone was.
He felt old. And even though he was surrounded by half of the United States, he was lonely.
A cart full of an elderly church group beeped past. He didn’t envy the driver. He’d rather drive a cab in Atlanta’s rush hour. I-285 was easier than this.
“Awright kitty, here I come.”
He stepped into the stream of people. And quickly was overwhelmed by the crowd of tourists, businessmen and soldiers.
And then it happened.
The stream of people mysteriously parted. And there, standing beneath a beam of a spotlight was a girl he had not seen since college. She was looking down at her phone, trying to text someone and oblivious to the changes the world was about to bring.
Her head popped up. She knew the voice immediately.
They hugged, swapped stories and shaved 20 years off their life right in the middle of the world’s busiest airport. It was love at second sight.
In a sea of random humanity, two people found each other — again.
A lone traveling salesman made his connection. And at the Atlanta airport, his heart arrived safely home.