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Global crossroad has unique rhythm

I awoke at 8:26 a.m. in a vast, red-carpeted room, surrounded by unattractive paintings. Above my head, a pair of English sparrows chattered as they flew by.

Aside from being sore, filthy, exhausted and bone-cold beneath my corduroy blazer, I felt great. I had made it through my first night in the International Arrivals Terminal at Kennedy International Airport.

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In the new Steven Spielberg movie The Terminal, opening tomorrow, Tom Hanks plays a man from an Eastern European country that is plunged into civil war while he is en route to New York, leaving him a citizen of nowhere. He is stuck for a year in the "International Transit Lounge" at Kennedy, where he learns heart-warming lessons in the limitless goodwill of the average American.

As happens so often, Spielberg stole and cheapened my idea. I have long been fascinated by the cordoned-off world of the modern airport and what I might find there if I was not distracted by having to catch a flight. I packed a notebook and a toothbrush and set out to spend some quantity time at the International Arrivals Terminal.

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Unlike Hanks' character, Viktor Navorski, I did not make out with Catherine Zeta-Jones or assemble a loyal, multiethnic posse of airport-employee pals. But I gleaned something almost as precious: a glimpse into the rhythms of a place that millions pass through but no one ever visits.

There is a reason that most people try to spend little time in airports. At their most innocuous, airports are profoundly neutral environments.

But as the movie suggests, every place, no matter how seemingly antiseptic, has a life of its own. I began to recognize this minutes after the flight I held a ticket for left without me.

To someone passing through, the airport seems pretty uneventful. But if you stick around, you witness the tense calm periodically shattered. That first night, a few minutes after the last flight departed, a frustrated, exhausted woman tried to storm the gates. A guard intercepted her. A shouting match ensued.

After vanquishing the intruder, the guard began walking a fast figure-eight through two metal detectors, setting off beeps in a soothingly annoying pattern. It looked like the behavior of a caged animal pacing off stress.

The shouting incident put the guard and his partner on heightened alert, and they soon noticed me. They cast me out of the secure area and directed me downstairs.

I hung a left instead, and entered a zone of shuttered shops, unpeopled escalators and dim corridors, anchored by Cafe Ritazza, open around the clock to serve the airport's night staff and passengers awaiting early-morning flights.

Upstairs, I found a red-carpet area where bag people stretched out in chairs or on the floor. In the film version of JFK, Viktor builds himself a rather sophisticated bed. In my case, I took my place on the carpet, lulled to sleep by a soft female voice reminding me to keep my luggage beside me at all times.

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At 3:26 a.m., I was enjoying a snooze when I was awakened by a harsh voice and a nudge.

"Hey," a Port Authority police officer was saying. "Hey. Is this your bag?" He pointed to a large white canvas sack. It wasn't.

When I was awakened again at 8:49 a.m., it was neither by sparrows nor cops. I pulled my hat up to see two men with clipboards standing over me.

"Are you OK?" one of them asked. Yes, I said.

"Your phone is out, your money's falling out of your pockets. I don't know if you have a flight later on today, but if you need help we're here. We're called Volunteers of America."

Mortified, I stuffed my phone and my change back in my pants and gathered up my belongings. I had stayed too long.

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As I headed for the sliding doors, no Spielbergian line of well-wishers formed to see me off. But I could practically hear a John Williams symphony behind me as I headed into the dazzling sunlight, blinking in wonder at the outside world, feeling the tug of the home I was leaving behind.

For film events, see Page 41.


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