If I Lived At The Airport

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  • Published on January 30, 2023
  • Last Updated March 17, 2023
  • In Guest Writers

"I’ve always been a bit of a TSA Whisperer. The secret is dazzling accessories (apparently)." Faith Adiele describes the sights and sounds of airport life, from winning over TSA agents to barista robots and art museums.

I have always loved airports. Airline travel not so much, especially with the rise in violence since COVID and charges for everything from seat assignments to carry-on luggage. Give me train travel all day, every day. But there’s something thrilling about the liminal, full-of-possibilities, in-between-ness of the airport, what Alain de Botton calls a “non-place” in his intriguing account of being Writer-in-Residence at one of the world’s largest airports, A Week at the Airport: A Heathrow Diary.

My imaginary history as Airport Writer-in-Residence would begin in Seattle. At fifteen I flew to Mexico City with a school group; at sixteen I flew to Bangkok alone on a Pan Am flight stewarded by an all Black male crew. I had no idea such haughty glamour could exist onboard, and when we deplaned onto the humid tarmac at night, I was hooked. Returning to Sea-Tac felt like landing in the future, with dim lighting and Japanese-speaking robots.

Nowadays I’d set up my Airport Writer desk in one of two places: the futuristic glitz of SFO (San Francisco), where every morning I’d pay a robotic arm in a glass case to make me an espresso, or Oakland — laughable as an “international” airport but only fifteen minutes from home and equally fast to navigate.

Coffee Robot, SFO. Photo courtesy of Faith Adiele.
Coffee Robot, SFO. Photo courtesy of Faith Adiele. Faith Adiele

Even before my imaginary Airport Writer career, I’d developed mad airport skills. I’ve always been a bit of a TSA Whisperer. The secret is dazzling accessories (apparently). In a regional Iowa airport, a beefy TSO sighed audibly as my cherry-red patent-leather knee-high boots trundle by in their gray tub. “Ooo, superhero boots!” he blurted to everyone’s amusement.

In Chicago-O’Hare, my loquacious Nigerian and Pakistani companions debated poetry so hotly they didn’t notice me being diverted from the screening line and into a plexiglass holding tank. They were halfway to the gate before they backtracked to find two TSOs circling me. It turns out the (white male) officer wanted to show me to his (Black female) colleague.

“Look at her earrings!” he exhorted. “I’m looking at the whole thing,” she said, sweeping her palm from head to toe. “The hair, the glasses, the earrings, the shoes.” The poets arrived, crying, “Release our accessorized friend!”

In Pittsburgh, a city I chose after grad school primarily for its airport, a TSO remarked, “Hey, your shoes don’t match!” He yanked my bag off the conveyor belt. “This yours?”

“Yeah..?” I was wearing Composition Book Mary Janes, one shoe marbled black like a cover; the other white with blue lines like notebook paper. “Is wearing allegedly unmatched shoes illegal?”

“Huh?” He was honestly dumbfounded. “Look closely,” I instructed. He crouched at my feet, then grinned. “Oh man, school!” He turned. “Hey guys, look at her shoes!”

Faith wearing Composition Book Mary Janes. Photo courtesy of Faith Adiele.
Faith wearing Composition Book Mary Janes. Photo courtesy of Faith Adiele. Faith Adiele

Post-COVID, my wide-legged Yema athleisure pants with Ethiopian motifs and Amharic alphabets vaulted me to near-Beyoncé status in sleepy Green Bay. The desk clerk squealed, “Ooh, I love your pants!”

“Thanks,” I said, “they’re my travel pants.” The idea resonated. “Yes, travel pants!” She pulled up my boarding pass and whined, “Oh man, you’re connecting onto Paris! And you’re clearly fun. I wish I were going with you.”

Travel pants by Yema, SFO. Photo courtesy of Faith Adiele.
Travel pants by Yema, SFO. Photo courtesy of Faith Adiele. Faith Adiele

Hefting my luggage, the handler said, “Oh miss, I love your glasses.” The first woman gestured, “Look at her pants!” When I lowered my mask, the TSO inspecting my Passport blurted, “Oh wow, you have beautiful lips!” at which point I started to wonder if they were all waitresses moonlighting for tips.

My real coup as imaginary Airport Writer-in-Residence, however, would be to outwit the damn adorable Beagle Brigade. After waiting a full hour for my luggage to be belched from Helsinki onto the carousel, I was sniffed under the bus by a dapper dog in a vest, and Customs snatched my reindeer jerky.

Upon my return from France, a doe-eyed demon profiled me twice. The first time the handler apologized; the second time he insisted I open my bag. “But they sold it to me in Duty- Free!” I wailed, as he confiscated my vacuum-packed truffle sausage. “Do you know how much truffles cost?” Two sets of liquid eyes regarded me sadly.

If I were Writer-in-Residence, I would live in a snug pod and eavesdrop on conversations for my stories. I would have chair massages and visit exhibits like ATL’s Black History, SFO’s Airline Fashion and PHL’s Colored Girls Museum. I would eat exotic cured meats in full view of floppy-eared pups. I would be nowhere and everywhere.

Black history exhibit, ATL. Photo courtesy of Faith Adiele.
Black history exhibit, ATL. Photo courtesy of Faith Adiele. Faith Adiele

Faith Adiele founded the nation’s first writing workshop for travelers of color through VONA. Her award-winning memoir MEETING FAITH routinely makes travel listicles, and her travel media credits include A WORLD OF CALM (HBO-Max), Sleep Stories (CALM app), and MY JOURNEY HOME (PBS). A member of the Black Travel Alliance, she publishes in HERE MAGAZINE, OFF ASSIGNMENT, BEST WOMEN’S TRAVEL WRITING, OPRAH MAGAZINE, ESSENCE, and others. Find her in Oakland, Finland, Nigeria or @meetingfaith.


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