Sunday morning sunlight pours through the floor-to-ceiling windows at Bergstrom International Airport in Austin, Texas. In the chairs beside Gate 15, a man with a white mustache and khaki ball cap embroidered with “THE ALAMO” stares at planes taxiing the runway. Next to him, a buttery woman in a purple sweat suit rummages through her carry-on bag while speaking to him. When she gives up searching, he speaks to her. They don’t hear each other.
Five seats to their right sits a woman in a green dress just young enough to be their daughter. Brow furrowed, eyes shut, lips pursed, she listens to her white earbuds as if they are whispering where to find her soul.
Nearer the windows, a man wearing red-laced Nikes violently chomps his gum as he types on his phone, or plays Candy Crush. Across the aisle, a photo of Paul Rudd stares up from the cover of a recent GQ issue at its well-manicured male owner. They eye each other jealously.
A less jealous man in a black tee that depicts a map of Dayton, Ohio, sips coffee and watches people. He missed check-in for his layover to Dallas by eight minutes, but he doesn’t much mind, he tells people, because he’ll just catch the next. Seven hours later he’ll still be waiting. So will his family back home.
TSA, the Great Equalizer
He sits in the calm after the storm, on the safe side of security, the sane side of TSA. An hour earlier, he walked through the concourse watching mothers make children cry, newlyweds smooch in line, a Hong Kong-bound Texan line-jump an elderly couple, and a trinity of nuns chastely rolling their luggage behind them.
Most people rushed through the airport as though fleeing. TSA caught them all. Together, perfect strangers stripped, apologized, and marched toward the great equalizer. A balding agent waved his fingers at a young lady. She walked into his body scanner. The agent told her to turn profile, clutch the pendant on her gold-chain necklace, and raise her arms. Then he told her to smile. She did, and he laughed. The Dayton man, next in line, stood barefoot on the tiles the woman’s feet had left warm, and slightly sticky. The agent waved him through.
Now, by Gate 15, the Alamo couple and gum crusher relocate, and the soul-searcher trades the whispers of her earbuds for those of Stephen King. It is 8:33 and time for breakfast.
Pizza for Breakfast
This side of TSA, Canaan’s fruits loom large, but their cost is great. Chicago-style stuffed pizza promises more fill for the money than an egg-and-sausage croissant. A girl pulls a fresh pie from an oven and fails to slice it evenly. This, her third try today, disappoints her. She promises her only customer her largest slice, which doubles as the oiliest. As its own lubricant, the $6 triangle requires no drink. Its heat and flavor satisfy.
Another customer walks up. His slice will be smaller, and he won’t get the beer he ordered. The embarrassed girl says Austin doesn’t serve beer before noon (much less 9 a.m.) on Sundays.
Other wishful drinkers occupy the bar seats at Ray Benson’s Roadhouse, which serves virgin orange and tomato juice during prohibition, but no food except celery. Partners with Texas-sized appetites walk a few hundred feet to The Salt Lick, where a whole brisket, to go, costs $69. Everyone there is smiling.
Pardners with New Jersey-sized wallets head to Ray’s Salt Lick Taco Bar for $4 pulled beef on a sand-dollar tortilla, or to Ray’s Chuck Wagon, whose cheapest fare is a $2.70 soft pretzel, plus $0.90 for cheese. Ray’s employee insists on the cheese and says she won’t charge for it, because can’t nobody enjoy a pretzel without cheese. She’s no dummy: Her full tip jar gains a dollar.
On the Road at Last
Leaving Ray’s dynastic oasis before the prohibition repeal seems a worthy goal. But a man must eat (again) somewhere. By 1:30 p.m., the bartenders at Earl Campbell’s Sports Bar have recovered from the 12:01 rush. A waitress addresses every male customer as babe, except one, who oozes marital fidelity. A buffalo chicken sandwich costs $11.95. It arrives in 90 seconds and tastes like a 3,000 percent markup on ingredients.
Aboard American Airlines flight 1414, a pilot rides coach in seat 34C. He watches the emergency instructional video on a screen mounted behind 33C’s headrest, setting his jaw and concentrating as though he has never viewed the tape. Maybe he hasn’t. As the plane takes off, and as it lands, he looks past his seatmates and out the window. His walk toward the cockpit and exit ramp spurs female flight attendants to thank him for flying with them. They ask if he is free to go home yet, and pity him when he says he first must fly to New York.
The attendants say nothing to the Dayton man who exits behind the pilot, and they seem not to notice his parting expression of thanks as he begins to notice Dallas.