(First written in 2010, a reflection on the traveling season.)
Are riff-raff runways in America’s future? I’ll bet you didn’t know that Europe has had them for years, at least since the fall of the Berlin Wall nearly 30 years ago,
I’ve flown through most every major European hub, Heathrow and Gatwick in London, Amsterdam, Zurich, Frankfurt, Munich, DeGaulle in Paris, Vienna…always headed for points east. Each has its own peculiar charm (or lack thereof) and its own ambiance, but clearly their design is intended to keep the more olive-skinned, dressed-down Valdemars and over-painted Ellie Mae’s from rubbing elbows with the blondies from Dusseldorf waiting for a flight to Madrid. After all, no one in Dusseldorf would go to Skopje unless he absolutely had to.
Instead, there is a single terminal for all those points east (read “dark points”) while der sonnenkinder traffic arrive and depart in other terminals amidst their own.
The funny thing is that I don’t think the Europeans even notice it, or would admit it is planned. “Eezz normal” (stress on the second syllable) as they say in Moscow…to separate people by class in this way. Of the bunch, DeGaulle, Gatwick and Vienna stand out most in my memory, but for varying reasons. While every “plane station” has a riff-raff terminal, it’s said deGaulle even has riff-raff runways, although I actually doubt it. But after three hours in a well lit beautiful concourse, inhabited exclusively with dingy-clad east Europeans, feisty Asians and non-francophone Africans (I checked their departures) we are taken down to a bus, which drives around for twenty-thirty minutes and empties us on a parking strip that is visible to the terminal only with binoculars, where our aircraft is parked, and we board like an old DC-3 at National in 1960, only no Pall Mall to crush out before climbing the stairs. Then we taxi across several perfectly functioning runways to one headed in an entirely different angle than the others, amidst tall trees. I felt like the Mississippi State basketball team trying to sneak out of the state in order to play Loyola in 1963. While almost everyone is traveling to Philadelphia or New York, there are always a few headed to Pottstown.
At least I can now say that I have sneaked out of France at least once, and have checked that off my bucket list.
Gatwick, on the other hand, expresses British society to a tee. Its riff-raff terminal is for an entirely different set of Englishmen, sallow east Europeans a mere second thought. It has an enormous concourse, with a great pub upstairs, the tellies running futball and cricket, non-stop. Shops abound, selling carry home boxes of Bells Whiskey, T-shirts, souvenirs like you’d find in Gatlinburg, matching ‘Is and ‘Er bathroom signs, but a congenial atmosphere, with women who look like Andy Capp’s wife Flo, down to the rolled-down stockings and headscarf, who sit around quaffing on a pint and knitting booties while chatting w’ ‘er friend. I am quite certain that on the weekend of cup matches on the Continent, this is where all the revelers, in their club scarves are herded. What a show that must be.
I spent eight hours there once awaiting a flight to Estonia. But on the return flight, headed back to Washington, I was guided into a different great hall where men with bowlers and umbrella’s stood around and pretty young ladies with bared cleavage and microphones were hawking jewelry and Pimms Cup (a grand drink) and several brands of fine single malt scotches. Across the ceiling wafted the music of Handel and Elgar. I’ve never wanted so badly to light up a huge Cohiba in my life…available in a humidor right next to the brandy stand, which I never entered for fear of running into any one one of a number of your elected officials spending your hard earned tax dollars on twenty dollar shots. It was the sort of place they’d hang out.
But Vienna was always my favorite. And I love Austrian Airlines as well. The riff-raff terminal there is dimly lit, which reminded me of the Kievsky Rail Station in Moscow in the winter of ’91, which in turn reminded me of the railway scene in Zhivago, thousands of people sitting around on their luggage in a grand hall that still bore some of the architectural remnants of the old Tsars. In DeGaulle they won’t let you sleep in the terminal overnight, and designed the seats to make that impossible anyway, forcing you to take a room about the size of a Best Western toilet for 100 Euros. But in Vienna everyone sleeps if they want. Some layovers are twenty hours. So, their seats are designed for supine slumber, cushiony and soft, and at 5 AM the waiting rooms look like someone had piled up old clothes from the attic on the seats. So I’m guessing Austrian Air runs the best low-cost airfares in the east, for even by Bulgarian standards you see a class of men and women in Vienna terminals you rarely see in the other capitols; bent-over old Albanian ladies with bowed backs and head scarves, who look more like they would be scrubbing the steps outside a ministry building than “flying in a chair in the sky”, grey-haired old men with walking sticks and what we used to call pre-commie tweeds, which once upon a time you could only find at Goodwill in America. (“Can I see something in a seedy?”). This type still exists…and I thank God for it…dignity in hand-me-downs can always be found near riff-raff runways.
Vienna had a 1948 “Third Man” look and feel to it. When I lived in Cincinnati and had a logistics line to my business, I often shipped out of the Greyhound Bus Station, which is why I know how inner city gang-bangers behave when on totally unfamiliar turf. Riff-raff terminals look much like that, no one knowing anyone else in totally foreign surroundings, furtive glances right and left. Of all the airport personnel who have addressed this very frightening “first time flying” adventure for east Europeans, Vienna does it best, so is my favorite.
Why I write this now is to remind you who it is, by their nature, that is race- and class-conscious. Government. Those basketball players in Mississippi had wanted, for years, to be able to play against the nation’s best, including black kids, but their state government wouldn’t allow it. So they had to sneak, even break the law, to do it, against the governor and the state’s politicians. Did I mention they were Democrats?
Like all of you I’ve been to airports all over the United States. Unlike many of you, though, I’ve also been through an awful lot of foreign departure terminals in the US; Atlanta, DC, New York, LA, Chicago and San Fran. Like the Greyhound and Trailways Station of yesteryear when that was the least expensive way to travel for most Americans, and rail stations before them, America’s air terminals have always been classless… and for over a generation now, raceless.
But it’s starting to change. In America, the rich have always been able to stay apart from the hoi polloi on their own, with limos and private jets. In airports they have special club places they can go and lounge. Sort of like a sky box at a Jets game. Only now their limos can shut down everyone else’s access to everyone else. When Michelle O decides to go shopping in New York, they shut down blocks of access for ordinary citizens. But she’s government, OK, royalty. She sure doesn’t mind. Did I mention she is a Democrat and Democrats never mind? The Clintons didn’t either. But the Reagans and Bushes did mind, and Donald Trump in Paris minded, avoiding any imposition on the public for all but the most necessary of public events. Did I mention they were all thoughtful Republicans? They kept raising the goal post, the Democrats keeps lowering it.
But when DiCaprio can cause hundreds of ticket holders to miss one of the most historic soccer matches in years, just so his plane can land, things are going a little too far and it’s time for us to re-connect the dots. Dicaprio is a g-d limousine liberal Democrat.
OK, I know that was South Africa, the very corruptible South Africa, where Harry Reid may yet take his final refuge from justice, but the degree of excess in class separation in America is already beginning to be noticeable.
Can what Europe has now actually happen in America?
You bet it can. In fact, one the Dem’s seize Congress again, look for the ball to start rolling, although it would take a bureaucratic half-generation for it all to fall into place.
Look for Dogpatch Air in a terminal coming near you, if this Trump experiment of returning us to social consciousness of the Founders, should fail.