For people-watching, airports are second only to hotel lobbies. In fact, they might even be better, since there is a larger mixture of human oddity at the airport: Businessmen, bratty kids, pasty musicians, and bloodthirsty terrorists all scurry about on their merry way, while I sit in self-righteous judgment of all of them. My vacation begins at the security gate.
When I traveled earlier in the year, there was much indignation about the all-over body scan thing that we all had to pass through. I don't see what the big deal is — I just pretend I am bionic and it is the opener to my television show. On my most recent trip, no one was bitching about the machine, but there was still that same, baffling 4 percent of the population that never got the "no liquids" memo and want to argue about their confiscated Axe Deodorant Body Spray.
Once I am through the gauntlet, my next stop is always a bar — drinking before a flight is really dumb and always makes me sick, but I love to watch other people do it.
Depending on the airport's location, you can count on some local-themed businesses. In Indiana, for example, they have an extensive line of cow-tipping merchandise. Chicago's O'Hare has sausage aplenty. S.F. plays up the foodie thing, so it's not surprising that Vino Volo seems to do a brisk business. The bar is not particularly inviting, with its strip-mall-worthy, sleek sweep of contemporary sophisti-mi-cation, but once I settled in I felt comfy enough.
My sommelier might just have been filling in during his break at TGI Friday's, but he was plucky and personable. I had begun to peruse the "small plates" menu when a booming voice greeted me from a few seats down. "Hellooo my lady!" I looked over to see a large, beaming man with a gap between his front teeth. Next to him was a young kid in a do-rag, smiling sheepishly.
"How-do?" I replied. He then asked me where I was going, where I had been, and if I would give him my phone number. His speech had characteristics of a French-speaking African, and he said he was indeed from Senegal. He also had on a wedding ring. "I have a boyfriend," I replied with a shrug of my shoulders. This information hit him like water off a baobab tree. I have always admired men like that, who cast a wide net and fear no rejection. He jumped right into conversation, principally about the fact that our airline had declared bankruptcy that morning.
I was trying to ascertain his relationship to the younger man; their conversation seemed very familiar, yet they were both talking about themselves as if they were getting to know one another. The African probably makes friends wherever he goes. The kid was an Iraq War veteran, and he was relaying a story about how he got injured when something blew up next to him. Wow, here was a real-live soldier. I don't get many opportunities to talk to them. I see them pass through airports all the time and I want to say something — "Thank you" seems trite.
This guy was doing a lot of talking. He said he had been part of the unit that first broke into Saddam's palace, and that it was "sick." He said the Marines had giant egos and were brainwashed, the Navy was a bunch of pencil-pushers, the Air Force didn't know what real, face-to-face combat was like, and the Army, which was his branch, was full of faceless numbers that meant nothing to their superiors but a bunch of disposable bodies that could be moved around like chess pieces. He seemed to know what he had signed up for, but now that he had been wounded, he was worried what the rest of his life would look like. If you are a veteran, you do not automatically get medical care forever. It stops at some point and you must fend for yourself.
"The USA is very backwards," said the man from Senegal, shaking his head.
"Yuuup," said the kid.
I asked him how soldiers felt about the war, and he said that no one ever talked about stuff like that. Everyone kept their opinions to themselves. Officially, you weren't allowed to have one in the first place. "How do soldiers feel about Obama, as commander in chief?" I asked. He dismissively swept his hand.
"Look, we just show up, do what we are told, then eat something, then go to sleep," he said. "We've been promised too many things that didn't ever come true. I was supposed to go home twice before they kept keeping me there."
I pointed out that everyone is supposed to be home by January. "We will believe that when we see it," he said.
I started to feel a lot like someone who was not about to embark on a carefree vacation, and more like someone forced to come face-to-face with the morbid futility of war. Shee-it. Thank god the African began to talk about the rolling capability on his new suitcase. He demonstrated for us, and we both oohed and ahhed in the same relieved tone. No more Iraq talk. The man was having a hard time finding a place for his iPhone in any of the outside pockets, so I suggested he simply put it in his jacket pocket, where it would probably be safest, and he agreed. Phew. All evidence of the kid's reality had been expunged.
A young woman rolled her own luggage down our line of stools and took a place at the end. "Hello!" boomed the African, all teeth. "Where are you headed today?"