In a Manhattan Minute: Stories from Newark
Airports are [metaphorically] lawless places. Your flight’s delayed at 9am? Whiskey with breakfast. Get caught up in rush hour traffic en route to the airport? Cut in front of 200 people through security by only asking the travelers at the end of each row if you can move ahead of them. Sleepy on your redeye back home? Use your backpack as a pillow, jacket as a blanket and stretch out right there on the carpet. (If these examples sound oddly specific, there’s a reason.)
Airports are at once the best places for people watching, and the only location where you can get away with doing whatever less-socially-accepted thing you need to do to get through your travels sanely without being critiqued too harshly. Within reason, of course; if you take up both arm rests, I will judge you.
There is no better way to examine genuine human behavior than to watch what happens when a flight is delayed for over 12 hours. When I’d suggested to Dad that we take a one day trip to Manhattan to reset before school/busy season start back up, I was anticipating that my creative break would simply be shooting a few rolls of film. I didn’t think that I’d gather the majority of my travel anecdotes from sitting stationary. So, while we did also have quite the adventure on our one day trek through the city, in order to convey the full scope of the hilarity of our escapade, I’ve got to start with the trip home.
It all began Wednesday morning. I was still half asleep on the Victorian sofa when my phone buzzed. Apparently, our flight was delayed two hours for routine maintenance and we were now scheduled to depart at 2pm rather than 12. I thought for one glorious second that that meant I could go back to sleep, but no such luck. Since we had to make the epic journey from 191st St. to Newark Airport, Dad wanted to leave early enough to ensure we arrived on time. We walked into the terminal at 9:45am and finally went wheels up after midnight, so I’d say we achieved that goal.
Just as I was firing off the last few frames on my roll of Ilford HP5+, my phone buzzed again. Our flight was now delayed until 5:30pm. Were we still in Manhattan, we could’ve enjoyed a sneaky bonus day walking through the city, or at lease grabbed soup dumplings. But we were at the Secaucus train station, so nothing doing. A little more disappointed this time, I was at least glad I’d inhaled a lox bagel while sitting on the Penn Station floor awaiting our train.
Per usual for our tiny terminal, security was a breeze. And so we settled into my favorite seats at gate 56, though we were scheduled to leave from 55. From the window seats of 56 you can watch the planes depart, enjoy plenty of leg room, and keep relatively to yourself as it’s far enough away from the terminal entrance that few people gravitate there. Clearly, I’ve spent my fair share of time here.
I got to work answering emails and finishing management maintenance tasks that I’d neglected for a bit too long. I thought perhaps this delay was a blessing in disguise.
Slowly, our flight mates arrived at the gate, one-by-one asking what to do about the delay. Some were frustrated. One woman kept repeating that it was utterly ridiculous that a flight could be delayed so long. An elderly gentleman greeted the gate attendants with laughter about the absurdity of the situation, delightedly taking the $8 meal voucher we’d all been placated with. Several people rushed to the counter begging to change their fights, but Allegiant has no partner airlines so it was either sit and wait, or shell out serious cash to Delta.
It’s the parents who fascinate me the most. Those who pack playing cards and those who purchase exorbitantly-priced spare iPad chargers at the airport when a lost one means no more in-flight entertainment. Those who try to keep restless children quiet and those who pack Roomba-like soccer “balls” to pass around the terminal in an effort to blow off steam. Those parents, especially, are the most popular among pre-teens, eagerly-entertained babies and grateful new parents, though less favored among the throngs of businessmen with their sidelong glances.
But, no matter how long anyone tries, no matter how endlessly patient a solo-traveling mother might be, I spy, candy and bribes can only last so long. As the afternoon sunlight melted into a warm golden hour glow blanketing Terminal E in soft yellow, the hero of a mother of three who had kept her clearly-active children reigned in for 10 hours (they’d arrived at 7am!) finally gave up. Right on queue, a middle-aged-saint stepped in, sitting in between the two talkative elementary school kids so the mom could tend to her baby. The older woman was a mother of now-twenty-somethings and knew all too well the danger of layovers for a child’s attention span. Luckily, she came equipped with a phone full of dog photos.
I felt suspended in time. A subject within a portrait of this Newark terminal, captured on film as a vignette to celebrate the beautiful changing light within this place of constant change. I felt like I was outwardly playing the role of “glass half full traveler using this unfortunate amount of spare time to be productive” while inwardly yearning for real food and bed. A vehicle within the overall metaphor.
At some point we made sensible use of our meal vouchers to order $17 sandwiches in the one restaurant in our terminal. They were nondescript at best. I stocked up on snacks to munch on the flight, but ended up eating them all while mindlessly scrolling through Instagram.
And then, at long last, our rescue plane arrived. Our original plane had been taken completely out of commission. So we’d waited for a second one to fly from Florida to Arizona (or something) to Florida again, then up to New Jersey. All that ground covered while we the passengers moved less than 200 meters back and forth to the restroom. But none of us cared. At this point, we were just happy to finally be on our way.
My, were we in for a surprise…