I dumped my bags down with a thud and sat in the exact same seat I'd taken a week before at the Mission Bar and Grill at SFO. A week ago I was heading for Illinois and my high school reunion. Now I was back, starving, and ready to sit quietly and absorb the experience over a burger and a drink.
Airport bars aren't supposed to have any character. They are the economy seats of imbibement, only with first-class prices. Don't get me wrong, though. I love them, not so much for what they are, but for who they serve. Everyone is on the move. On my way out, I had sat with a couple traveling to Hawaii and a businessman with his entire home office set up on the bar. On my return, I was next to a snowboarder on his way to who-knows-where and a man speaking Russian into his cellphone, a Wall Street Journal tucked under his arm.
Despite the word "Mission" in its name, there is nothing inherently San Franciscan whatsoever about the Mission Bar and Grill. (The only airport I've been to that actually seemed like a microcosm of its city was in Jackson Hole, Wyo. The place looks like a hunting lodge, and there are dudes wandering around dressed like Walker, Texas Ranger.)
Still, I was home, and I could feel it. I just wasn't sure if that was good or bad. I have lived here for more than 15 years, carved my niche, slept my way to the top, but now I find myself wondering whether I will stay. Let's face it: To really live here, you have to make some serious money. I am tired of having three jobs and no cushion. The house next to my dad's in Urbana was huge and for sale for $350,000, a pittance by Bay Area standards. The leaves had changed on the trees there, which reminded me that in the Midwest they actually have seasons. Also, on this trip I had exorcised a few ghosts. I wasn't scared of my old home anymore.
I sat and stared at the planes scooting around outside the big window behind the bar. When he dropped me off in Illinois, my dad had explained to me how planes fly. He is a physicist and good with questions like that. Air, you see, is actually pretty heavy and can lift shit. Clouds are even heavier.
"Da! Da! Da!" the Russian said into his phone. I couldn't tell if his "Yes! Yes! Yes!" was in happiness or impatience. I tried not to make eye contact (he coulda been from the Russian Mob, right?).
My burger came and I dug in. All in all, I was feeling really good. If you haven't yet gone to any of your high school reunions, I highly recommend it. You will be thrown back into all those same feelings you had as a kid, only this time you can work through them and find closure. Seriously.
What you assumed was going through people's minds in high school about you may not have been what they were really thinking. You will have a chance to reinvent your awkward teenage persona, hear some nice anecdotes about yourself, and bravely face sworn enemies. Also, there will always be someone drunker than you with a worse job and a shittier relationship. So buck up.
During our physics talks, my dad had blown my mind with another idea, and I couldn't help but connect it to my high school reunion. Over dinner one night, he told me about Werner Heisenberg, a theoretical physicist who was on par, brainwise, with Einstein. He had the good fortune of not being Jewish, so he didn't have to skedaddle out of Germany before World War II. In fact, he stayed around and worked for the Nazis, which has besmirched his reputation, natch. Anyway, while the "good guys" were over here trying to develop the bomb, he was in Deutschland doing the same. Of course, we beat them to it ... but here's the interesting part. Some say that Heisenberg was deliberately slowing down the research to sabotage the Nazis' efforts. No one really knows for sure; perhaps people just want to believe, and are going back and redacting history to suit the "Heisenberg was a Nice Guy, Not a Total Douche" theory.
When I was at my reunion, I looked around the room and saw a lot of douches. But one by one they came over and said hi, and we chatted nicely, and I had to remove them from the ol' asshole file I had created 20 years ago. Perhaps they, too, removed me from their dipshit files. I also was able to take in how much I had meant to other people; how funny they remembered I was, how stylish, how smart. All things that I never felt when I lived there. History was redacted. I could move forward.
Now, strangely, improbably, I feel myself drawn back to Illinois, even though I am here in the best city in the world. Maybe I am like Heisenberg, slowly biding my time, deliberately keeping myself here, broke, struggling, in order to stave off any real progress in my life. Some people have to move away to find themselves. I had to go back home.
I hoisted up my bags and clomped through the terminal, heading to the BART that would take me to my next destination: my home, here.