Life slowly began to seep back into the large, marble-floored airport terminal. Bleary eyed, I looked back up from the printed page of the book in my hands. The zamboni-esque floor vacuums were shuffling away down the hall; the next wave of leather-jacketed, laptop-case sporting, matte-brown shoe shod businessmen was trickling in from the TSA checkpoints.
4:30 am. The rock-n-roll pub next to my gate opened it’s doors… finally, I could get some fries and a cup of Californian airport coffee.
I slipped around the corner into the restaurant and ordered, still tiredly holding Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train. I’d been reading it for the last three hours non-stop… The ‘night life’ in my terminal of LAX airport wasn’t what you’d call vibrant.
The idea for the trip was pretty perfunctory. A few weeks ago I came up with a plot for a locked-room mystery/thriller fusion novel, set in an airport. The fly in the ointment was that I’d never flown commercially…
So my wife and I talked it over. She liked my proposed plot enough to agree it was worth paying for the airfare, destroying my schedule to fit in the flights, and leaving her and my two kids on their own for a few days (something I rarely ever elect to do).
And so there I was, watching the early morning crowd of LAX shuffle into their early morning flights, drinking appallingly weak (bad) coffee, trying to stay awake (I hadn’t slept) with the help of Paula Hawkins’ haunting airport novel.
I’m a firm believer of Vera Caspary’s advice: “To be a writer you need to keep an ear and eye always at the keyhole, without malice.” Following this tip meant I’d been aggressively watching everything and everyone for the last day-and-a half… Interesting, but that much people-watching can start to wear on you after awhile.
I sipped my weak coffee and looked back down to The Girl on the Train as the restaurant’s music-video TV started blaring “Free Bird.” The day before I’d taken the bus out to Santa Monica… Walked the beach for miles, surrounded by runners, cyclists, teens practicing tight-rope walking, bikini-clad girls playing beach volleyball, dope fiends, bums, beach bums, street musicians, street magicians, and seemingly every other kind of the Children of the Sun, constantly playing beneath the palm trees down there in California.
Santa Monica was different than the airports. In Santa Monica I stood out. The guy in dress shoes, jeans, a nice shirt and sport jacket, my portfolio under my arm. My Oregon-ness stood out. I could sense the quick assessments from people I passed… “What’s up with him? Oh, out-of-towner.” But at the airport I was like the rest, keeping to myself, the same by being different.
I finished my coffee and walked back to gate 53B a few minutes early for boarding my flight back to PDX, Portland, Oregon.
Herge’s unequivocal character, Tintin, spent a lot of time in airports. This wasn’t a coincidence. Herge was fascinated by them… For many years he toyed with the idea of constructing a story that took place entirely in an airport, such was his confidence in their dynamic potential. That Idea’s always interested me, and it’s had no little influence on me now that I’m constructing my own ‘airport’ tale.
After spending only a few days in airports— paltry experience, compared to many, I’ll admit— I think I can say I understand what Herge saw in them.
It goes back to the strange sense of fitting by being ‘different’ like all the rest, to the point of disappearing. When everyone’s seated in quiet rows on their plane, or walking through the concourse halls, roller-bags trailing behind them, there’s really no noticeable difference. Travelers moving from point A to point B… businessmen, families. But the minute something incites them to interact— tripping someone with luggage, bumping into someone around a corner— it suddenly becomes apparent how diverse they really are.
That bland businessman? From England. The mundane teenager with the lime-green baseball cap? Traveling back to Germany, with his family. The pleasant looking girl in the pantsuit? Angry… apparently, by the fact she just swore out her phone.
I think it’s the quietness of this diversity that can give the airport such potential for drama. So many stories, so many motivations, so many fears, loves, anxieties, apathies, and judgements, from all around the world, packed tightly together, in polite silence.
Until something happens to make the silence break. For me, the writer, the biggest question is… what’s the “something?” Like I said, on the small scale it could be something as simple as bumping into someone. But on the larger scale…
In the end, Herge said it best to Numa Sadoul in his interview which later became the book, Entretiens avec Herge: “An airport is a centre rich in human possibilities, a meeting point for various nationalities; the whole world is to be found scaled down at an airport! There anything can happen, tragedies, jokes, things exotic, adventure…”