Airports are the proving grounds of our culture, the places where we see what we are, and what we have become.
It doesn’t matter where the airports are in the U.S.—other countries are different—or how large or how small because since nine eleven (I spell it out to make its strangeness visible), we are all under the rule of fear.
Last week in Santa Fe’s charming little airport, where there is so little evidence of the modern world—one ticket counter, one line to go through security, one little snack bar, and bathrooms decorated with old Mexican tiles—I saw our culture plain once again.
The flight to New York was not crowded—who wants to go to a place haunted by blizzards?—and so the group going through the one-line security numbered maybe seventy people.
I was waiting at the machine that gazes at our luggage while a couple ahead of me watched their passports being laboriously and intensively examined. On the other side of the machine, I saw a tall man standing with his gaze averted while a officer ran his hands over his body.
The tall man was from another time. His white hair was cut to lie close to his skull, and he wore suspenders to hold up the pants of his dark suit, a suit he probably bought years ago and wore every day to an office in a big city when suits were required. His beautiful brown leather shoes were polished to a high shine, laced-up—they must have been a pain to take off in order to go through the inspection, or perhaps because he was over seventy-five, he was able to leave them on. This is one of the new ameliorations.
But if he was allowed to leave his shoes on, he was not allowed to escape the most minute physical inspection as the crouching examiner ran his hands over the insides and outsides of his legs, probed at his stomach, searched under his arms. Meanwhile the gentleman—for clearly he was a gentleman—stared over the head of his searcher as though in deep meditation, his mouth set, his expression purposefully bland, as though he was alone.
Not satisfied with his initial probing, the examiner then brought in a drug-sniffing wand of some kind and a special powder which he spread on the gentleman’s palms before applying the wand.
Common sense might have told the examiner that a seventy-five-year-old man in a suit, shirt, suspenders, tie and laced up leather shoes was unlikely to be carrying drugs or concealing bombs in his underwear.
Common sense does not apply to airport scrutiny.
As I watched this ridiculous and humiliating examination—humiliating to me as a member of the human race—I noticed the other half of what was clearly a couple, one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen, sitting watching her husband.
She was as beautifully dressed as he was and of approximately the same age, her white hair carefully coiffed, her city suit bought for occasions that no longer exist—lunches at the Harvard Club with her future in-laws, baptismal celebrations after the ceremony at St. Thomas; but the fact that the occasions are gone does not mean that she had lost her sense of occasion.
She was watching what was happening to her husband, but with the same absence of expression. Simply watching.
Once the examination was over, the gentleman was allowed to put on his jacket and recover his luggage. Then he went to sit beside his wife.
Now came the real proof of distinction: neither of them said a word. With the same set, bland expressions with which they had as though together moved through the examination, they simply waited, in silence, to board their plane.
As I passed them, I wanted to murmur, “What an impertinence!” but realized that any comment would be disrespectful of their disciplined calm.
Perhaps the examination had not been an impertinence to a pair able to bring their detachment to other indignities: the illnesses of old age, the breezy disrespect of medical people, the insulting questions of lawyers and insurance salesmen—the dreadful consequence of our absolutely necessary loss of faith in hierarchy.
Once, they had been at the top of that old pyramid. Once, they could have expected, and counted on, a certain ritualized respect, especially as they attained old age.
Now, they have only the armor of their detachment.
Perhaps it is enough.