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Music for Airports

Photograph of an airplane through a window covered in raindrops
  • By Olivia Laing
  • Issue 3
  • Essential

There was a time when I barely traveled at all, before I fell in love with packing my bags and moving on, before my house got silted up with flight masks and power adaptors, spare mobile phones, currency and subway cards for a city an ocean away from the one I was supposed to inhabit. Had I been scared of flying? Hard to remember. It comes and goes. A bad flight out of Chicago, late at night, slamming up and down through parcels of dead air, the pilot’s face flushed so pink I worried he might be having a heart attack. Was he drunk? He didn’t speak, and the flight attendants gave up patrolling altogether and sat tight, faces immobile, feet tucked in.

I get to the airport early and drift through duty free, looking for the right size bottle of water, ritual one, and then for Terre d’Hermes, ritual two, which started in Athens, on the way back from a misconceived beach trip with a half-on half-off lover. I thought it was the smell I liked: sun-baked earth, green woods, maybe a pool somewhere. A spritz on each wrist, to bury my face in when we’re taxiing, after the final text, the phone turned off. That’s not why you do it, a friend says. It’s a spell to bring you back, a secret pledge, a pact with the earth, although whatever happens you’re coming down somewhere.

Then what? Tomato juice and ice, time going slack, the interminable background roar. I can hear a plane passing now, as I type. What are they doing inside it, slipping their shoes off and watching reruns of Friends, yes to the Coke, yes to the chicken, yes to white wine. Once I nearly died, or thought I might, in a Twin Otter somewhere over southern Ethiopia, sucking in oxygen from a mask. I’d picked up pneumonia in the desert, been sick for days. That airport was a strip of grass in the bush, the kids waving as we lifted away.

If I had to pick, maybe Denver: coming down low over rough fields, some dusted with snow, some marked with the thin circuitous cat’s cradle of a plough. The airport looks like nomad tents, white canopies under the biggest sky I’ve ever seen. Hawk on the city-limits sign, mountains in the distance, almost invisible behind a silver bank of cloud. The stock show on, bull riding at the Coliseum. If your child can hold a chicken nugget, they can hold their own boarding pass, I once heard a flight attendant announce over intercom. Was that Denver? Maybe Atlanta.

It definitely was Denver where I first heard Channel 9, the air-traffic-control channel, which for some reason you can get only aboard United. Hey Denver Center, this is 3529. How’s the weather and the climb ahead? Maybe a few light drops. We’ve had light wave action but we're pretty smooth. All morning, I kept catching stray phrases. Continuous light chop. Foxtrot Zulu Charlie Bravo. Yes sir, can you approve? Yes, we approve. The voices phased in and out, sandwiched in static, Denver Center giving way to Salt Lake City and then to Seattle. As we descended over Portland you could see big snowy mountains rising out of a soup of white cloud. Then down into it and the guy next to me turning candid green eyes, This is the part I don’t like.

At Miami I always get lost, always arrive alone and in the dark, wandering the lighted hallways, looking for the right level to pick up a cab. Warm air, the smell of bougainvillea, vultures on the thermals. JFK, long queues. La Guardia, a panel of glass I’m fond of, reasonable wine. Chicago, margaritas, snow, delay. Portland, the Pendleton shop. Seattle, grunts coming back from Iraq in desert fatigues, a teenaged couple locked together. Logan, free WiFi. Charlotte, rocking chairs and barbeque. Addis Ababa, Heraklion, Dalman, Nice. Amsterdam with a hundred yellow tulips, bought in the market just after dawn. Heathrow, Harrods bags and once Bob Geldof running late, seemingly impervious to his own name being called over the Tannoy, Sir Bob Geldof, Sir Bob Geldof. So yes, I think I do love airports, love the tackle of transit, the shoes off and on, the Are you wearing a bracelet ma’am, the Group 1 boarding, Group 2 boarding, Starbucks pot of grapes, a breakfast burrito. Andy Warhol cow wallpaper at Pittsburgh International, checking in, checking out, rising up, everything breaking apart, the world reduced to flashes, to coloured particles, a dozen Owen Wilsons silently crashing cars on a dozen suspended screens.

Olivia Laing is the author of To the River, The Trip to Echo Spring and, most recently, The Lonely City, a cultural history of urban loneliness. She lives in Cambridge, U.K.

Photo © Peter Fischli & David Weiss, from 800 Views of Airports (Walter König)