The fighter pilot is radiant — flagpole sleek, a recruiting poster in boots, a bona fide American stud. He's decked out in his washed-ivy flight suit, lounging in a row of chairs that flank the arrival escalator between the north and south terminals. Unless he happens to catch your gaze, he blends into the Friday-night fray at Hartsfield, a supersonic man reduced to standing by.
He is waiting.
In that way, and in only that way, he is doing what pretty much every other soul streaming into the world's busiest airport is doing or is about to do. See, in the modern jet age, before we step on a plane and, in a blur, get to where we are going, we hurry up and wait. We sit and stand and pace and eat and read and blab on our phones — "I'm at the airport" — and go next to nowhere for a fairly good while. And, if we choose, we have something we supposedly don't have much of anymore: time. Time to look, to see, to watch.
The pilot. There is something about him that most passersby don't know. He is in love. There is a single rose at his side. He is waiting, not for a plane, but for ... someone.
Me, I'm here in search of more curious attractions, oddities, dialogues, things far more subtle than a flat-out handsome — no, a goddamn glowing — F-15 jet jock. I'm here for the shit you no longer notice, or never did.
I am here because the airport, Hartsfield-Jackson International, is the city's front porch. Still, a vast number of the 90 million or so travelers who visit each year never make it through the front door. They linger until their rides show up, having never so much as rung the bell. My plan is to invite myself into their world, to spend 48 hours hanging out on Georgia's most famous welcome mat.
Hartsfield's 1980s-era, ladder-style, midfield-concourse design turned 30 last month. Yet it seems somehow unaged, at once glossy and drab, pumped full of the "aura-sapping artificial lighting" that author Walter Kirn wrote of in his 2001 novel Up in the Air, whose frequent-flying main character becomes so fond of airport interiors that he deems them "familiar, sweet."
"I love the Compass Club lounges in the terminals. ... I love the restaurants and snack nooks near the gates, stacked to their heat lamps with whole wheat mini-pizzas and gourmet caramel rolls."
With more than pleasantries in mind, at 7:45 on a recent Friday evening, I head for the terminal curb. Off to the west, the jet-streaked sky has, on the second night of autumn, downloaded one of those afterburner sunsets that inject the opening night of a weekend with promise.
"Goodbyes" and "hellos" glide together in an unchoreographed NASCAR pit road of departure and arrival. The place is an open-to-all cavern of commerce, of get-you-in get-you-out engineering. Hartsfield is a warehouse of wherever-you're-headeds, with, if you're lucky, same-day shipping. To millions the world over, this colossus is Atlanta.
Inside, I make my way through the presecurity Atrium, scouting out sleeping spots. There's the floor above the Atrium in the main terminal's vaulted midsection, hard carpet outside the Interfaith Chapel. And on the main level there are cushioned chairs.
I hear someone playing a grand piano. It's coming from a restaurant across the Atrium, just past an on-display Kia Sorrento. I order fish tacos and watch the Braves implode against the Nats on the widescreen over the bar.
To my right, a patron who has just sat down wants to know if the beer mugs are frosted.
"Chilled, not frosted," the bartender says.
On my left, another patron strolls up. "Is that all the rum you have?" He gestures to a couple of bottles on the wall. I notice that he is flying AirTran to Denver.
Back on my right, chilled-mug man is drinking unfrosty Heineken. He picks up his cell phone. "I'm off the train," he tells someone who is apparently outside to pick him up, and then lies, "I'm still walking through."
To my left, the rum man is getting way into the skinny piano player, whose nickname is Bronco, as he tinkles out a number that sounds like a melody that would have been right at home on "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood."
"You've got an uncommonly good piano player," the rum man, well-sloshed upon arrival and now slamming Wild Turkey, says to the bartender. "Where's my little hand-held digital recorder when I need it? He's not blazingly technical but he's really creative."
I ask the bartender what it's like working in an airport. Her name is Kimber. Kimber the bartender.
"You got a couple of days?"
As a matter of fact, I do.
"On this side of security," she says, "anything goes. A guy came in here and tried to rob me two years ago. We were about to close and he came in with a gun. I had my hands up. I freaked."
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