Airports are universes unto themselves, dictated by their own laws of physics and time. Ten minutes through security actually takes five hours, and a five-hour layover really only lasts two beers — yes, beers transmogrify from beverages to measurements of time (the result of a complicated process that Einstein only touches on in his fifth Annus Mirabilis paper). One time I had to spend the night in an airport, fashioning a makeshift bed out of a lobby bench. The next morning I awoke nine years younger yet fifty years more exhausted.
Also, forget about budgeting. All prior concepts of currency and prices die from the radiation of the TSA X-ray machine and metal detectors. Thirteen dollars for a slice of pizza? Don't mind if I do... Eight yen for a bottle of water? I can't convert currencies while dehydrated. Who am I? Rain Man? I'll take two please... Overpricing? Never heard of it... I'm in an airport; the rules are different. I'm different. I'm no longer Normal Truett; I'm Airport Truett.
In the same way that an object's gravity increases with its mass, so an airport's reality-bending attributes worsen with its size
Now, despite these rule differences and the changes in the perception of reality, there is one law that remains consistent between the normal plane of existence and the alternate airport dimension: no smoking. To accommodate for such a law, however, some airports have designated certain rooms for smoking — a gesture that at face value one might perceive to be quite kind, but one would be quite wrong. An equivalent gesture would be one's parents offering "one's" 13-year-old self "one's" own bedroom, separate from "one's" younger brother, EXCEPT said bedroom is actually just the half bath in the back corner of the unfinished basement where dad hangs his fishing waders so the entire room smells of sweat and algae and yes, technically there was a mattress down there but, as the adage goes, one mattress does not a bedroom make, especially a mattress that we only still have because the garbage truck refused it at the curb for three weeks straight. Bedroom my ass.
I digress. I apologize.
Anyway, these airport smoking "rooms," as they're called, consist of metal bench chairs bolted to the floor with deep ashtray wells between them. Ash litters the floor as if it were the streets of Pompeii; the air smells like a crematorium; and if it weren't for the windows, the frigid tiles and glaring fluorescent lights would have you think it were a psychiatric ward. Now, that's not all to say that we smokers are slobs. Even the tidiest person will eventually muss up a place given enough time, and for these smoking rooms, years go by between cleanings — well, airport years at least (roughly 3,500 airport beers).
I remember the first time I saw one of these decrepit rooms. The inhabitants swam inside like anchovies resigned to their fate in a bait bucket while passersby viewed the display through the front's sliding glass door as if the whole thing were an aquarium exhibit. It was a sobering sight, and I nodded my head in somber condolence as I walked by. No one saw me, but that's beside the point. Even still, I counted my blessings not to be trapped in that room and vowed never to set foot in one as long as I lived. Oh, what foolish things we promise in our youth.
Several years later, Airport Truett is waiting out a long layover in Atlanta on a trip back to South Carolina. Normal Truett had traveled to celebrate his brother's college graduation, and now Airport Truett has to pay the price by enduring the ATL time loop. In the same way that an object's gravity increases with its mass, so an airport's reality-bending attributes worsen with its size, and ATL is one of the biggest. It's a city. I once decided to walk to my departure terminal instead of taking the tram, and I almost died of dysentery.
... making the sign of the cross, uttering a Hail Mary, and praying for the souls of those suffering in that hellish cell
So, I'm slogging through ATL on my way to gate B15, I think it was, and in the terminal, just before gate B13, I come to one of those "rooms." After making the sign of the cross, uttering a Hail Mary, and praying for the souls of those suffering in that hellish cell, I shuffle across the front, avoiding eye contact lest I be drawn in myself, and plop into a seat at gate B15. Looking at the time, I realize my flight doesn't leave for another 2 beers, so into my backpack I go in search of an escape, something to pass whatever perception of time the airport is imparting onto my experience. Headphones, Kindle, crossword puzzles, snacks, pipe bag.
Man, a pipe would be great right about now. I would love nothing more than to just sit here and slowly sip the time away and distract myself from this airport alternate reality. If only we could still smoke in airports...
My eyes slowly move in the direction of the "room" just a couple gates down.
No. My eyes snap forward. No no no. You are not going in there. Remember how miserable it seemed? You may want to enjoy a pipe right now, but in a place like that, it certainly wouldn't be what you'd hope. You're better off just waiting it out. "Here, do these crossword puzzles," the proverbial angel on my right shoulder says to me, except he's far more than proverbial. He's perched right under my ear, looking just like me, but smaller. He honestly doesn't appear an angel at all — no halo or wings, just jeans and a white t-shirt — but I know he's one of those shoulder angels. I keep my cool well enough not to draw attention as I nonchalantly check those seated around me, gauging their expressions to determine if what I'm seeing is real. No one bats an eye. Airports, man. Absolute mind games.
Was I really about to enter a secret oasis and escape this manic airport dimension?
The crossword puzzles are resting in my lap now, and Shoulder Angel is proffering me a pen, careful not to stretch out too far lest he lose his balance on my arm. I'm suspicious of his ridiculously eager smile and far-too-white teeth, but I take the pen nonetheless and mutter a disbelieving "thank you." I guess Shoulder Angel accomplished his mission because as soon as I divert my attention to the black and white grid and up and down clues before me, he's gone.
1 Across: Hollow tube; PVC, lead, e.g. Four letters. My eyes instinctively dart to my pipe bag and then to the "room." You've got to be kidding me. Nope. Ookay, moving on. Different clue.
32 Down: ________ tabacum. Nine letters. Nevermind. NEXT.
57 Across: The wood of a mediterranean shrub popular for making smoking pipes. Five letters.
Dark splotches begin to dot the page, running ink and obscuring clues. I realize I'm weeping, but it doesn't register. I can't move; I feel nothing. It's all a dream, right? Airports, man.
"Howdy, partner. Here, use my hanky." The Southern drawl comes from just below my left ear. I turn to see another mini-me, this time dressed in all black: a western-style button down and caiman leather boots. Shoulder Devil's grin is as similarly eager as Shoulder Angel's, but with a mischievous smirk behind it, and he's proffering a miniscule bandana for my tear-laden cheeks.
"I know you wanna try out that smoking room," he says as I try to dry my eyes with a handkerchief barely fit for an Etruscan shrew. "I promise you it ain't as bad as it looks. Swear to God. Scouts' honor." He holds up three fingers and places his other hand over his heart. "In fact," he says, "quite the opposite."
"Those smoking rooms are intentionally designed to look like two-bit pig styes from the outside, but that's only to keep out the riff-raff. You ain't no riff-raff though, now." He points a reassuring finger at me to drive his point home. "And that's why I'm lettin' you in on the secret. Inside that room is a paradise to rival any airport lounge. I'm talkin' open bar, 'horz dorves,' live music, beautiful women, the works." His smirky smile returns. "And yes, you can still smoke your pipe. So c'mon, partner. It ain't even a matter of if you want to check out the smoking room. I'm tellin' ya you should. You won't regret it."
I chance a glance to my opposite shoulder, expecting Shoulder Angel's rebuttal, but that side remains empty. Reaching down to grab my pipe bag, I feel a miniscule pat on my back. "Atta boy," he says. "Keep the hanky," and he's gone with a wink.
Backpack in tow and pipe bag under my arm, I feel myself sliding down the hallway toward the "room," my legs unmoving as the sliding glass entryway appears more to come to me rather than I to it. My heart quickens in anticipation. Could Shoulder Devil have been telling me the truth? Was I really about to enter a secret oasis and escape this manic airport dimension? My hopes begin to grow with thoughts of plush sofas and champagne glasses.
... my eyes snap open, and those antitheses of peacefulness return to bombard my senses
Blinding light and wafts of smoke greet me as the door parts, dashing those hopes and revealing the lie for what it was. Shoulder Devil played me for a fool. Shocker. I'm such an idiot. I'm gonna wring that little dude-ranch leprechaun's neck if he ever shows his face again. I feel my face begin to flush and realize I'm still standing in the entrance. My eyes have yet to adjust to the sterile luminescence, but no amount of squinting can hide the sea of eyes locked on me, the new, disrupting stranger. I self-consciously find an empty seat furthest away from the other occupants and sink into it, my breath slowing as their attention reattunes to smart phones, books, and music.
The open tin of Escudo greets me with tang and spice, and I pack a bowl as methodically as possible, anything to prevent me from noticing my surroundings. The tobacco lit, I close my eyes. This may not be the paradise that was promised, but that's not going to keep me from escaping. I'm no longer in the airport now; I'm free, sitting in a rocking chair on a wraparound porch and watching the sunset. It's cool, but not cold, the autumn colors adding even more brilliance as the sun dips below the wooded horizon. For a second, I forget the hardness of the metal chair I'm sitting in; I ignore the dried, sticky mess of spilled Gatorade that covers the ashtray next to me; I can't hear the teeth-grinding whir of the overhead ventilation system. For a second, it's peaceful.
Back to reality, or at least back to whatever dimension the airport resides in, my eyes snap open, and those antitheses of peacefulness return to bombard my senses.
I notice a different crowd around me, though, than when I first entered, new faces but all similarly occupied as those before, but one face stands out from across the "room." Greg? Is that Greg from work, from Smokingpipes? It can't be. I'm in an airport, so nothing can be believed. Plus, I just spoke to mini versions of myself, so my sanity isn't exactly what one could classify as credible. But then "Greg" makes eye contact with me and smiles in recognition. I smile back. He stands up. He's walking toward me. It is Greg! What are the chances? (No, seriously, I've never been good at probability, so what are the chances of meeting a coworker in a smoking "room" in the Atlanta airport? I'll leave that for the mathematicians and the bookies.)
... what are the chances of meeting a coworker in a smoking "room" in the Atlanta airport?
Turns out Greg is on his way back from the Peterson factory in Dublin, and to prove it, he withdraws a brand new XL315 marked by a personalized stamp. I'll be damned. I offer my Escudo. He accepts, and we enjoy perhaps the best time ever spent in an airport smoking "room," the hours until each of our departures seeming to pass quicker than beers could ever measure.
With a "so long" and a "farewell," we pack up our smoking accoutrements and go our separate ways, my spirit certainly more enlivened. That was the perfect antidote to the dismal dimension that is an airport and the perfect distraction from the tolerated discomfort that is an airport smoking room. Thank you, Greg.
The following day at the office, I make a point to stop by Greg's desk and offer him the rest of the Escudo tin as a token of appreciation for his company and for helping restore my sanity. "Thanks for the tobacco, man," Greg says, "but who the hell is Greg?"