“Musicians, eh?” says the lady pushed into my elbow.
She nods at the stack of guitar cases propped against the bar wall. A collection of backpacks is piled into a pyramid nearby as if recently dropped from a Red Cross mercy mission, their meshed outer pockets betraying the scuffed headphones and tangled phone chargers of a band on the road.
“Yes ma’am,” I say, without making eye contact. I scan the crowded joint, trying to get the waiter’s attention.
It is 7am, Gladstones bar in terminal 3, LAX. I calculate enough time for one more large Sam Adams, (Maker’s sidecar, only 3 bucks more!), and still have enough time to attempt a fortunate bowel movement before boarding.
“Oh, I can tell, you guys.” She takes another slug off her martini, 3 olives and dirty. (Make it Bombay Sapphire, only 4 more dollars!)
She’s had 3 since we’ve been here, and is now shaking an empty glass toward our bartender: international distress call of the thirsty.
She smiles to herself, and I know a confession is coming.
“I’ve had my wild days too, let me tell you.” but here she rolls her eyes as if to dismiss any chance of embellishment.
She looks to be in her 50’s like us, but wearing the sensible footwear and layered clothing of the experienced business traveler.
We’re all packed in there, the airport bar, members of different tribes thrown together out of primal necessity.
Let’s get a few drinks in us after enduring the TSA rape, before another tedious flight.
The business lady sits to my left so close I can feel a Blackberry vibrate from the purse in her lap.
To Alf’s starboard side a rotund insurance rep from Farmers is explaining Term life over shots of Fireball.
I look across the bar where Ant and Kimm are comforting a frail gray lady, on her way to Des Moines for her son’s funeral.
She sips at her sherry and sighs yet again: Him and that goddamn motorcycle!
But that’s how it is at the airport bar.
Where else can you come at 6 am and find the room packed with drinkers, thirsty as the Friday night crowd on 4th street?
Strangers all, drawn to the oasis within the wilds of the airport, carry-on bags at their feet, laptops opened on sticky bar tops, asking strangers across the bar if they happen to know the WiFi code?
Where else would you come at this gray hour for a 22oz Pacifico, (Why not add a shooter of Patron? $5 !) and gladly pay the 14 bucks for the privilege.
Where else will you catch us in a goddamn TGIF, and happy about it?
For airports have become not the sleek hubs of yesteryear, where you would relax in anticipation of a classy adventure.
No, they have become frightening places.
People roam the halls with a look of terror in their eyes, many shoeless and half dressed after the Security checkpoint trauma.
They clutch at their waistbands, lest their beltless trousers fall to the floor, completing their shame.
But there is one place, brother, that the wounded can come in to lick their wounds, not to mention the salt rimmed glasses of 18 dollar bloodys (3 bucks extra, make it with premium vodka!)
We’ve been to a lot of these airport bars, the swanky champers and oyster bars of Heathrow, where the lemon wedge comes in its own fishnet stocking.
The zinc covered bar at Brussels International, where they still chop the head off of the foamy lagers with a wooden spatula.
The Redding airport houses its own charming Chinese restaurant and lounge up the rickety staircase.
There, you can put in an advance order for drinks and greasy appetizers to be waiting for you when you return for the flight home in 3 days time.
Mr. Chow: No problem, you guys crazy!
Oh, we’ve scanned the internet for these flights, months before.
Sacrificing an extra hour of sleep or enduring a stopover in goddamned Atlanta for a fare just 35 dollars cheaper.
And yet here we are, playing that sucker bet of bars.
We’ll have the breakfast Nachos, double the size of the beers and of course take the side shot, who wouldn’t?
And when we get the bill, for now the plane requests our presence by name for final boarding, we don’t bat an eyelash at the bill, a neat 225 with tip!
And for all their unique charms, it is the same travelers in each one:
Honeymooners, as drunk on romance as the prospect of 2 weeks off of work before returning to a life of ever-decreasing returns.
The rumpled outside sale rep, ordering another round of premium doubles and a to-go order of buffalo wings, old Hooper in the travel expense department be damned–I earned this!
You have the 6am drunks, thrilled to be out in public and sharing respectable space with other humans. They’d be downing vodka at this hour anyway, but usually in the solitary guilt of their bathrooms, so this is a fuckin party!
Here’s the rare bird, the guy who stops at the airport bar on the way home, just willing the journey to last a few minutes more over a ten dollar shot of Southern Comfort. (make it a double, 5 dollars, why not?)
He savors the delicious taste of solitude a few moments more, just one more drink before returning to a house filled with whining teenagers.
And then the truly terrified flyers, usually not regular drinkers here, that wash Jager shots down with Jameson buckets, praying for God to rob them of consciousness before the jet engines start their terrifying roar toward inevitable disaster.
And it is here humanity is together, at last, at peace.
Like Lions and zebras lounging about the same watering hole in Zambia, each too sated with water-filled bellies to think of attack or flight.
We’re gathered to lap up the local waters and good-naturedly endure the soliloquies of fellow traveler.
And it isn’t long into martini number 4 when business lady leans in even closer and confesses to once “being” with Stephen Pearcy from Ratt one scandalous night.
She rolls her eyes and shakes her head slowly at the memory of a night at the Forum Club, 3 decades ago, when the world and its promise still lay before her, unspoiled.
And she will not go into further details, thank you.
She raises empty glass to the skies once again, the skies we will soon be hurtling through, each of us going in an opposite direction.