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"People will take the trains to these concourses, get off on the platforms and won't know where to go. They won't know to take the escalators up," the older pilot says, before adding, "There's nowhere to go but up."
"It's amazing," the younger one says. "People will stand there and say, 'I'm waiting for the train that's gonna take me to Baggage Claim.' And I'm thinking to myself, 'They all go to Baggage Claim.' What it comes down to, I guess, is that people suspend their sense of direction when they come to the airport. And you can tell occasional travelers from the professionals: the number of bags they have, the number of bags that they have without wheels."
Between chomps on a jumbo burrito, the 35-year-old says, "The airport's an interesting place. You get personalities you wouldn't get ordinarily. Otherwise sane, normal people don't act like themselves. People have a sense of self-importance when they're traveling. 'I'm going someplace, I'm special.' And they expect to be treated as such."
Before I go, I mention how I'm there observing. They tell me to be back around 11 the next morning. That's when an entourage of fashion-model-worthy Asian flight attendants make their entrance.
That, the younger pilot tells me, is a sight to behold.
I'm going on an hour's sleep. I fish a pillow from my suitcase and try to crash at an empty gate on Concourse D. I shut my eyes for half an hour but there's too much bustle: The beep-beep-beep of those carts that ferry old folks to their flights; wafts of cinnamon pretzels, pizzas and pizza-flavored pretzels; the chatter of CNN's airport channel; the grandma in velour sweat pants gobbling yogurt; the Dayton, Ohio-bound woman with her who, when I finally stir, chirps, "Did you have a nice sleep?"
In the afternoon, I roam the concourses, A to E and back again. I check out the exhibit dedicated to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the golden replica of his Nobel medal, the baseball bat his children swung.
I ask a concourse-buggy-golf-cart-beepy-thing driver if I can have a lift, you know, for giggles. I hop on. Then he says he has to verify my boarding pass. I hop off. My boarding pass expired hours ago.
I duck into Delta's Sky Club, where memberships, I'm told, run $500 a year, to which I remark before exiting, "Looks like I'm in the Ground Club."
I watch people board a plane for Beijing and some others head down to Panama City. Panama, not Florida. I ask the gate there if anyone ever confuses the two. No comprende.
I stare at the smokers in the smoking tank on Concourse B, its flight-awaiting inhabitants already in the clouds. A man breezing past says to himself, "Man, that's like the cancer room."
A woman emerges and coughs. Another steps out and hacks.
"It's the smoke vault," I say to a guy in a suit.
"The fucking gas chamber," he says. "Never seen any shit like it."
After dark, I hit Concourse E for the late international departures. At E-1, London-bound passengers are informed their flight has been delayed till after midnight. Their Delta gate agent tries to soothe the English horde. This might be a good time, she says, if "you want to go and get you something to eat."
Some make for the food court, which features a self-playing piano, a midconcourse bar, an upscale foodie palace called One Flew South, a T.G.I. Friday's and a Caribou Coffee, among others. The place glistens like an American Airlines fuselage.
A maintenance man near the bar is on his break. For some reason he has a blue rubber glove on his right hand and no glove on the left. He then becomes the second person today to gush over the Asian flight attendants, the ones from Korean Air.
"When you see our stewardesses it's all kinds, you know, all shapes. Not them," he says. "It's almost like their hair's the same length and the body types are the same, and ain't no ugly ones, either."
He says they wear soft-teal-and-cream-colored uniforms. Professional-looking, he says, "A jacket and a skirt that's right below the knees. They don't be showing a whole lot, but I tell you, it be tight. Tight. It looks good, too."
He says it's like a fashion show sashaying down the concourse. I envision something like that pilot-and-stewardess scene with Leonardo DiCaprio in Catch Me If You Can, where the Pan Am entourage all but glides through the airport, an apparition of cologne and cool.
"Whenever they come by," he says, "I stop what I'm doing and take in the show."
Then he recalls a scene a year or two back. Just across from Caribou Coffee, "an Army guy pulled his pants down and took a dump right there. Everybody saw it. Actually, I didn't see it come out. I saw him squat, but then I couldn't look. They say he was acting crazy, trying to get out of something."
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