I sold books in Philadelphia International Airport for years. It wasn’t retail hell. It was retail limbo, and a place between places. People visited the airport on their way to a final destination. Often, there were punishing delays. Dazed passengers would ask, “Why me lord?”
Some travelers hopped from jet to jet, hotel to hotel, meeting to meeting, airport bar to airport bar. They led insulated lives even while traveling the world. If they were nice, and didn’t brag too much about “the deal” in China, I’d tell them where to get an authentic cheesesteak from a really opinionated South Philly waitress. Otherwise, I’d send them into the warp, and point to a Tex-Mex franchise owned by corporate HQS and staffed by mumblers.
Maybe Philadelphia International Airport is the future of mankind: a global village operated by corporations and policed by Homeland Security. It’s not so bad. You learn to adjust on the inside. You develop an eye for kiddies who romp like tiger-kittens around their mom as she rests her feet, honeymooners walking side-by-side in a genuine aura of love, and old folks who rise above the herd with transcendental grace. Furthermore, no matter how much main street turns into a corporate mall, there’ll always be subcultures that retain or reinvent true grit. The subcultures may cross racial lines, like they do at the Philly airport where the employees mix like settlers on the old Silk Road from Rome to the far reaches of Asia.
In the meantime, you get flyers in a rush. You get flighty Americans who treat their core identities like lost luggage, just as they treat their personal destinies like a missed jet. It’s not so bad. It’s affects everyone the same regardless of race, religion, creed and all of that. Hyper-capitalism, and not some principles written on paper in Independence Hall, is the the great equalizer.
One thing about working at a book store, is that you’re rooted in a tradition that permits words like “hyper-capitalism.” It wouldn’t be the same selling pretzels from a cart. Like a welder wearing a pink dress at a Mummer’s Parade, place is everything. All that local code is sacrificed by people who live in a real or rote rush. Speed kills character and airport hopping doesn’t help. At its worst, you get Americans who are more than post-racial. They’re post-human. I’m not just talking about coach-class fobs who’re formed by television and taught to buy bling on their way to Disneyland or Vegas. I’m also talking about first-class graduates of Wharton, Fox and other MBA mills across the map. They’re formed by data charts, deadlines and really big deals. It’s something to fear while running a register and automatically saying “thank-you” around the clock.
Time is money and money is time. If you’re born on foreign soil, you can see the loop at a remove. That’s why I always went to the Turk who sold sunglasses next door. I also went to the Bengali who ran the Magic Crayon cart and the Syrian who sold Dramamine. Each shift I’d work my way down Terminal C, from philosopher to philosopher, on my way to the men’s room.
Imagine me, a native-born Yankee asking raw immigrants, “Please, please help me understand. What’s with these people in a rush?”
The answer took its own sweet time. American men usually bond fast while yapping about sports. It’s different talking to a hard-bitten immigrant with a scary backstory. Refugees, especially, don’t warm to a conversation about so-and-so’s 30 million dollar contract. That’s where having experience as an outsider helped. But because this isn’t the place to yap about the borders that I’ve crossed in the night, I’ll just say this, sometimes it’s better to wait until you have something real to offer. It can be as small as a stapler or a pen. Then, you make your move through the white noise and money warp as a pal. You give a bit of yourself, along with a cup of sugar that a neighbor needs in an emergency.
I sold books at the Philly airport for years. More than retail limbo, it was an artificial paradise with muzak, secret-shoppers and bling. That’s why making real friends was important. As you can imagine, airport culture is the culture of no culture until you bond with another human being.