(Illustration by Rob Hendricks)
I am in a line.
It’s crammed with sweaty people, and it snakes from a comfortably air-conditioned indoor area, out the doors and into brutal heat and intense sun. We trudge along the cattle chute, ecstatic to take four steps every 10 minutes, angry at the family in front of us who doesn’t fill the gap immediately. If only the reward at the end of this hourlong wait were “Pirates of the Caribbean,” but no. I am in the actual Caribbean — the airport in Grand Cayman to be precise — on my way home to Richmond. And our reward at the end of this tortuous (and torturous) line is security, where I will have my breasts handled without the benefit of a bottle of wine and Marvin Gaye music.
Beyond that will be an airport terminal so small it reminds me of the Amtrak station on Staples Mill Road, if it were lined with duty-free shops. There are far more people than seats to accommodate us and eventually my family somehow miraculously ends up in the correct line for our connecting flight to Miami, despite there not being a single announcement for boarding. Then we’re directed, sort of, toward our plane among a row of planes and I nervously ask the flight attendant as I board, “Miami?” just to be sure.
“How wonderful it will be to get back to a real airport,” I think, until I reach that “real” airport in Miami, with its 44 million passengers a year and six concourses in three terminals. Yes,everything is modern and mostly clean, and my son wants to stop to look at a hologram woman trying to sell us something, but we must press onward with the throng toward the seventh ring of hell: customs.
As one of hundreds of travelers being herded from a massive, amorphous throng down into yet another cattle chute toward either certain doom or U.S. Customs self-serve kiosks, I feel like all I would need is a dusty robe and a goat to be an extra in a Cecil B. DeMille film.
None of this angers me so much as wears me down — that is, until we begin encountering the lowest form of human scum imaginable: the line jumper. No, really, you go, mother and teenage daughter. Your time, like your handbag, is clearly more valuable than mine.
Now I’ve officially had it. I want to be home. Not home in my house, not home in my own bed. Home in my airport, Richmond International (station code: RIC). “The best little big airport you’ll ever visit,” boasts the airport’s website. It’s the Goldilocks airport — juuuuuust right, with its two terminals, ample for the annual 3 million-plus travelers, but comically alphabetized when we really should just call them “Left” and “Right.” It’s a place where you can still say to someone, “Meet me outside of the airport,” and actually find them. Where you can get a cup of coffee and a muffin in less than 30 minutes! It’s an airport where the airline employees don’t all seem dead inside, perhaps because the travelers they are assisting haven’t been through a soul-sucking journey just to check in.
OK, it’s not perfect. Yes, baggage claim moves at about the same pace as the city itself. No, you can’t actually get there from here (on a direct flight anyway) but these are small considerations for the privilege of having almost zero stress in an airport.
Other than RIC, Charlotte Douglas International is the only airport I like. All others, I aggressively hate. LaGuardia in New York City is crowded, busy, dirty, slow and under perpetual construction. Then there’s the Hotel California of airports — Philadelphia — where you are most certainly assured of being delayed or canceled. And the saddest of all, Newark — more precisely, its commuter terminal, or as I think of it, Cell Block H, from which even the pigeons can’t escape.
Our day of travel had started early that morning in a tropical paradise and we’d been through horrible lines, customs, long layovers and delays just to get to this moment — when the little big skyline of Richmond (to borrow a phrase) comes glittering into view. Within moments, we are on the ground, off the plane and walking along RIC’s gleaming white floors, past families greeting travelers with signs and balloons, to the silent and sterile baggage claim area. Only passengers from our flight are here, but of course, our luggage emerges on the farthest carousel.
“It figures,” I say, with a chuckle and finally take a long breath, casting off the stress of the day. I don’t need my house. I don’t need my bed. I am already home.