Air traffic

Don't listen to the pundits, pollsters or politicians. If you want to take the pulse of the American populace, go sit in an airport for a few hours.

That's right, an airport. I've spent a lot of time in airports in recent years, and I'm here to tell you, everything you want to know you can hear right there in the crowded corridors and boring boarding areas. That's because everyone in the place is yakking on a cell phone.

You needn't strain to eavesdrop on these one-sided conversations. Most cell phone users seem to believe the following maxim: The smaller the phone, the louder you must talk.

From my airport visits, I've learned that the American people are extremely interested in:

--Business and the economy. Everywhere you turn, people are conducting business on their cell phones. They speak in a strange argot about arcane products, but they all seem to be desperately selling something. The shakier the economy, the louder and more desperate they become.

One sweaty businessman sounded as if he said, "Tell them we'll deliver 350 eunuchs." That pricked up my ears. Then, as I listened further, I realized he was saying units, not eunuchs. Units of what? I never determined. Perhaps units of eunuchs.

--Their own place in the world. Most airport phone conversations begin like this: "Hey. I'm at the airport." This is said with a certain smug satisfaction, as if the person on the other end of the line harbored some hope that the plane wouldn't make it safely to the ground, and the caller is pleased to disappoint.

--Their own convenience. The second most-popular topic after "I'm at the airport" is the traveler's struggle to get this far. Delayed flights, missed connections, lost luggage and $7 sandwiches all dominate these conversations. From the epic retellings of these travails, you'd think we travelers were being forced to tow that 747 through the skies ourselves. The truth is that we're simply required to sit still, either on a plane or in an airport. But we manage to inflate the experience so that every blip in the schedule is an "ordeal" worthy of the Iditarod.

--The weather. We love talking about the weather, wherever we are. During one springtime trip, I was trying to read when a guy sat down next to me, dialed up his phone, and reported that he was at the airport. Then he said, "It was snowing in Denver! Can you believe it? This time of year?"

He went on like that for, oh, four hours. Just when I was thinking I'd have to stick a carry-on bag down his throat, he hung up. Then he immediately placed another call. Apparently the person he called was hard of hearing because he repeated every line thusly:

"It was snowing in Denver!"


"Can you believe it?"

"CAN you BELIEVE it?"

I closed my book and moved to a different gate. Better to miss my flight than to risk yet another manslaughter charge.

Every conversation I overheard was some variation on the above categories. No one discussed the world's problems. No one made plans for the future (beyond when they should be picked up at the airport). No one was saving the world.

Not a single person mentioned terrorism or any resultant fear of flying.

Airports are full of the same chitchat as the rest of the country -- the weather, creature comforts, making a buck. That's what we care about.

If you want to see for yourself, go out to the airport, get yourself a $7 sandwich, sit down and listen.

Trust me. It's one "ordeal" you shouldn't miss.

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