How To Not Drink At The Airport

When Hell is TSA, other people, and chain bars

Image: David Rutledge

Easy. Once you zip through security, just walk past all the chain bars and don’t stop till you reach the multiplex where a $20 ticket buys you all-day access to a bunch of first-run movies. You can watch just one, or wander from theater to theater (quietly, please!) catching bits and pieces of each. Or just plant yourself in the Trailer Room for a while and watch previews.

Once you’ve left the multiplex, you can swing by the Puppy Zone, or curl up in a big armchair, or — for fearful flyers — have a drop-in hypnotherapy session. By then, it should be time to pop onto your plane, stretch out, and relax, blissfully sober.

Oh, wait. I lost touch with reality for a second there, didn’t I? Sorry.

Let’s see. You could get your shoes shined? That should keep you busy for a few minutes. Maybe bring lots of shoes, get them all shined. Also…magazines?

Look, I get it. I’m at the airport right now — which is to say, I’m in a state of maniacal hostility. I hate the people who held up the check-in line while they rejiggered the contents of three suitcases to avoid paying a bag fee. I hate the TSA agent who called my sleeveless cardigan “outerwear” and made me take it off. I hate the the guy sitting across from me, who just called three different people and laboriously explained to each one the route he drove to get here. I hate that the boarding area smells like onions. An adorable baby girl just stumbled past me in flowered leggings, beaming, and you know what, I don’t much care for her either.

Why does the airport turn me into such a horrible person, ungrateful for the miracle of flight and the privilege of air travel? (Because right now I hate both of those things too.) Well, maybe it’s because I’m an introvert and airports are a lot for us. They’re loud. Your plans can be upended in an instant with no real explanation. There’s no privacy. Total strangers can tell you to take your clothes off, even though sleeveless is not outerwear. I never got very drunk in airport bars, because spending a whole flight waiting in line to pee again and again is not how I roll. But I was still drawn to them because they offered a place to be, a space of my own to claim for an hour outside of the over-stimulation of the terminal. There was conversation if I wanted it, eavesdropping if I didn’t — and usually enough of what I called “real” drinkers, red-faced and stolid, to reassure me my own habit was totally normal behavior.

So my trick now is to claim that space somewhere else, and this is why when I have extra time to kill, you will find me in the desolate corner of an empty gate, possibly quite far from my own. With my coffee and laptop and nine pounds of magazines and no one else around, I can almost believe I’m hanging out at home on a hard, ugly 1960s couch that perhaps I inherited from a beloved aunt and haven’t had the heart to get rid of yet, because I once lied and told her I loved it and now that she’s gone — too soon — I’m trying to learn to love it for real. For the sake of Aunt Beth or whatever she’s called, who died too young from some sort of disease or condition.

You could do this too, if it’s the stimulation and uncertainty of the airport that rattles your nerves. (I’ve never traveled through an airport with those little pod hotel rooms you can rent by the hour, but that’s an option too.)

But what if you don’t just need the illusion of aloneness, like me? What if your aloneness is the problem, and the lights of the SportsBall Grille or Malarkey O’Flannery’s are calling to you? Well, try this. Find a paging station, and ask them to say these words: “Paging Bill W. to gate B17.” (Only please use your actual location or it won’t work.) This page acts as a bat signal to people in recovery — A.A. specifically, though I doubt you’ll be asked to prove your bona fides — that you need to talk to someone, and soon. With any luck, one of those people will be near enough to come and find you and help you to not walk into that bar.

I have never paged Bill W. in an airport, but I know people who have, and it’s an astoundingly beautiful concept. You say “I need help,” and a stranger comes and helps you. With your feelings. Really, the idea should be extended so you could pick up the phone and say, “I am scared to fly at Gate B17,” or “I’m on my way to visit my mother who drives me crazy at Gate B17,” and another traveler would snap their fingers and say “Oh, I got this one” and head your way. You could try it. Who knows? But I do know the alcoholics have got your back. Call them.

Previously: How to Not Drink At a Wedding, How to Not Drink at a Show