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  • Out of the Nonplace, Into My Car

    "Non-place or nonplace is a neologism coined by the French anthropologist Marc Augé to refer to anthropological spaces of transience where the human beings remain anonymous and that do not hold enough significance to be regarded as 'places'."


    This past Monday I picked my boyfriend Larry up from the airport. On the drive there, I was thinking how when he had recently done me the same favor, he managed to time it so perfectly, he had pulled up to my terminal right as I was walking out the doors. My timing would not be quite so impeccable, as it was certain he’d either be waiting for me for a few minutes, or I’d be circling around while he waited for his bags to arrive.

    I turned up the song playing in my car (“Mood” by The Internet) and told myself the timing would be fine enough. I started thinking, as I often do, about the film “When Harry Met Sally,” which has ingrained in my brain the notion that taking someone to or from the airport only happens at the beginning of a relationship. Note this exchange:

    Harry Burns: You take someone to the airport, it’s clearly the beginning of the relationship. That’s why I have never taken anyone to the airport at the beginning of a relationship.

    Sally Albright: Why?

    Harry Burns: Because eventually things move on and you don’t take someone to the airport and I never wanted anyone to say to me, How come you never take me to the airport anymore?

    Sally Albright: It’s amazing. You look like a normal person but actually you are the angel of death.

    We can also thank Harry and Sally for reminding us that [heterosexual] men and women can never truly be friends, “because the sex part always gets in the way.” While I still stubbornly insist that’s not true, Harry Burns has clearly gotten in my head.

    I got to Larry’s terminal shortly after he had walked out, as luck would have it, right as Thundercat’s “Friend Zone (Ross from Friends Remix)” was ending on my mix. This was exactly what I wanted, as the next song is “oranges in winter” by Bassti  and it was exactly the right blend of chill and drama for pulling away from the airport. One minute and 25 seconds of it. Start talking, and you miss it.

    As much as you’re supposed to hate the chore of picking someone up from the airport, I was delighted to do so — and not only because you could technically say I was returning the favor, as he’s picked me up on more than one occasion after my travels. It just felt good. I liken it to the warm feeling I get when I give my cats a treat of wet food, and they wind their fuzzy bodies around my legs in anticipation, their purring heightened to a low motor. Why not go the extra mile to show a person, or a cat, that they are special? (In this scenario, the wet food equals a ride in my Ford Focus and dry food equals taking the CTA home from the airport, in case this is going too far off the runway.)

    So imagine my continued delight when I opened this week’s New York Times Magazine and the “Letter of Recommendation” essay is called “Rides to the Airport” by Jacqueline Kantor — and she’s discussing exactly this! Including, thank goodness, a reference to “When Harry Met Sally,” and excluding, thank goodness, a weird analogy to an airport ride and feeding your cats. She notes that while Harry’s notion “isn’t wrong,” still, “Airport rides carry more weight when they’re done on the basis of an intimacy that burns long instead of fast.”

    Ms. Kantor apparently lives in New Orleans, and I can only hope that, should I get to travel there again, we will become fast friends and she will give me a ride to the airport when it’s time for me to return home. I love the way she likens this form of intimacy and closeness to “lying on the couch in contented silence” — which I am currently doing with my cat, Peaches, but am quite likely to do with a human man named Larry again soon enough.

    As Ms. Kantor writes:

    “The airport is an example of what the French anthropologist Marc Augé called “nonplaces” — locations where humans are decidedly transient. (I imagine the people are marked by numbers: a receipt in a grocery store; a boarding pass in an airport.) In a nonplace, you can feel either irrevocably alone or intensely independent. You are the only person concerned with your identity. Settling in next to someone in the car after being submerged in the anonymity of a nonplace brings a return to sense of self as acute as coming up for air.”

    “Irrevocably alone or intensely independent.” Yes. Most often I get a quiet thrill out of walking fast through an airport alone. I felt that intense thrill of independence most acutely this summer at the San Jose airport, as I hoisted my duffel bag onto my shoulders and headed outside to wait for the Lyft that would take me to a weekend yoga retreat. I would barely speak for the next three days, and it was both anxiety-inducing and freeing.

    Perhaps it takes knowing you can be in comfortable silence with yourself (and/or your cat) before you can truly enjoy that thrill with another person. In my case, when Larry got in my passenger seat on Monday evening, he looked at me and I looked at him and I had never seen him more clearly.

    “Wait, what was that beat?” he asked, immediately distracted by the music. “I know this.”

    We drove back into the city, out of the nonplace.