charlotte douglas airport

Charlotte Douglas International Airport is full of messages meant just for you, if only you’d slow down and pay attention.

No time, you say, got to make my connection. But even at a full-on sprint through the soaring, glass-walled atrium, it’s hard to miss the long rows of white rocking chairs and live, indoor-growing Bradford pear trees — which look inexplicably healthier and somehow greener than the ones in your backyard — and impossible to ignore the strains of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” emanating from the grand piano next to the First in Flight Sushi Bar, played by a young man who most certainly was not yet born when Elton John released that record, though he plays with such heart that you feel like you’ve never heard how achingly beautiful the song really is: When are you gonna come down, when are you going to land? Maybe, as you dodge an official airport therapy dog, a Labradoodle in a blue vest that says PET ME, like something out of Alice in Wonderland, you’ll find yourself wishing you could stop for a while, maybe order a smoked salmon sandwich and a glass of pinot grigio at the wine bar — but really, truly, you don’t have time.

It’s not like you even wanted to make this trip. Maybe someone you love is in the hospital, or maybe you’re traveling to a funeral. Maybe you’re coming home from the last vacation you’ll take this year, back to the office tomorrow. Maybe you wish you could hide out here indefinitely, leave your real life unclaimed, rotating on the baggage carousel forever. Certainly, many great thinkers would back you up on this: Not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves (Thoreau). A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving (Lao Tzu). All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware (Martin Buber).

Finally, though, you do what is expected of you, and hurry along to your connecting flight. You don’t seek refuge in the airport chapel (though you do see a brown-robed monk perusing paperbacks in a concourse bookstore) or get drunk and gawk at the mechanical bull in Concourse E. You only have time for a quick dash to the restroom, where you know you’ll encounter the famous, aggressively friendly attendants, with their peppermint candies and mouthwash dispensers and giant glaring tip jars, and their ceaseless patter: Hello, welcome to Charlotte, have a blessed day, thank you, bless you, welcome to Charlotte, thank you. Usually, you find these greetings equal parts intrusive and charming and, given the crowds rushing in and out, easy enough to ignore.

But maybe today, you’ll stumble into a restroom that has only one attendant, who appears to be sleeping standing up, yet still manages to speak her endless looping script, in a tone that suggests she has given up on something, which moves you to blurt, You look about the same way I feel, and to stuff a $10 tip in her jar. And when she opens her eyes and meets yours and says, Thank you, bless you, maybe you’ll experience a flash of humility and enlightenment (which are maybe the same thing) as you realize that this moment would never have occurred in your “real life,” outside the strange limbo of the Charlotte airport, and maybe then you’ll realize that you’ve just made an entirely different kind of connection altogether.

This story was published on

Wendy Brenner is the author of two books of short fiction, and a contributing editor for The Oxford American.