Class, Food, and the Mysteries of the Terminal
My stomach screams as I realize that I haven’t eaten since I’ve arrived in Texas. In the middle of a grease-stained food court I come across a small Dickey’s BBQ outlet. Here is something far more tangible than the geopolitical abstraction that had taken up my attention earlier in the day: damn good food. Soon, lush piles of oak-stained brisket lay in front of me. My eyes water: the cuts melt in my mouth, their salt-red tanginess dancing on the tip of my tongue.
After this gastronomic joy, I meander around the terminal observing the denizens of DFW, quietly noting their diversity, the complexity of their micro-routines and roundabout conversations. In one corner stands a group of businessmen, all slacks and blazers, discussing the social grandeur of the wealthy families of Dallas, who possess obscene amounts of money that even these corporate warriors will never be able to sniff. Class-envy surges across their faces as they discuss which family “hit” on what oil field. You wonder if they are able to frame the value of their lives in any other way but a financial one. You hope that careers spent in the trenches of corporate America have given them something other than sheer materialistic ambition, but you fear not.
On a nearby bench a young married couple try to calm their two young children, who are maybe three and five years of age. The children roll around, climb chairs, lunge for their mother’s purse, drop food on the ground, juke out of the way of fellow travelers, and bob up and down when they are told to sit in place. The children oscillate in an oddly dichotomous pattern: at times they cling to their parents warmly, at others they reject their disciplinary warnings outright. The little ones are docile and defiant, cuddly and rebellious, seemingly all at once. They clearly take great joy in testing their parent’s abilities to tame them.
As the children roll around in front of me, I wonder to myself: Is this what parenting is? An endless process of containment, discipline, feeding, cuddling, and exhortation? A series of physical and emotional negotiations with young beings who are both eager to explore the world and yet easily bruised by it? As the parents work to prepare their children for the no doubt impossibly long flight ahead, I try to understand what impels people to have children. Is this relentless cacophony, rehearsed day after day by this young couple, as pleasurable as prevailing social ideology tells us? Where is the joy to be found in all of this noise and worry? Is it in the observation of one’s own offspring discovering the world? Is it in the ability to shape the values and beliefs of young people new to this terrible society of ours?
Or are people compelled to have children for far more sinister, if largely unconscious, reasons? Do people do it to make up for their own failures, so they can look into their child’s eyes and see within them justification for their own meandering lives: “Look, I bore a child, I gave the world this being, I used my time on this earth wisely!” When bourgeois consumerism comes to seem as empty as we all know it is, is the only way people come to terms with the fundamental vapidity of their lives by producing offspring? What drives them to do so if not this desire to find meaning?
I walk away from the parents, the clanging screams of the children too much for my senses, and move more deeply into the terminal. A myriad of social figures flash before me: aged Texas seniors, all cowboy hats and coiffed white hair, their candy-sweet accents sounding as if they came from a different, more polite, less complicated world than this one; slacked DFW employees in full work-mode, oblivious to the passengers they see day after day; young undergrads wearing Texas A&M and Longhorns shirts, all taut cheekbones and muscled arms, the glorious youth of their lives before them; and professor types clacking away on their laptops, unaware they are even in Texas, waiting to transfer to New York or Boston or some other wildly more “sophisticated” part of the country.
I walk slowly, leisurely, around the terminals, taking it all in. Babies cry, businessmen gloat, flight attendants whir by, stressed people complain about delays and itineraries and missed connections: fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, leaders, students, soldiers, criminals, and samaritans all of them. The terminal has become not just a way station for me, a zero-space one passes through, but an endless panorama, a febrile dance of human life, alive and urgently playing out in front of me.
The hours slip by, new figures emerging to take the place of departed ones, each person providing a store-house of experience to decode. I am so enwrapped in observation that I barely notice that night has begun to fall. Indeed, before I know it the terminal thins out, the last of the day’s flights beginning to depart.
A hush comes over the crystalline space. Soon, there is no one left but myself and the late-night cleaning crews, men and women of Latin American origin who stoically mop up after the middle and upper class travelers have blown through for the day. Eventually even the cleaning crews disperse and I am alone, the drama of the day having receded completely.
There is now nothing but cool glass, burnished floors, monitors absent of viewers. There is nothing for me to do but create a bed in the corner of the concourse and try to get as much sleep as I can. I bunch my backpack against a wall, propping it up with weary vigor. I feel like asking the terminal gods to dim the lights for me but, alas, I receive no reply. The incandescent beams continue to shine.
Though I long to sleep in my own bed, a silly smile sweeps across my face. I haven’t begrudged my day here, not for a second. I take one last look at the silent hall. DFW- tacky box of greasy food courts, uncomfortable lounge chairs, and relentless Americana, with a dash of patriotic war baiting to boot- you truly are something.
I must thank you. For within you is found, day after day, the chaos, beauty, inequality, selfishness, and mystery of human life, each person’s transient time here a marker of their own fleeting existence, passing from one point to another, colliding and overlapping, so many dense social and ideological forces pressing down upon them moment after moment. They are alive and present, their complexity available for us to decode, if only we are observant enough to embrace the challenge.
Mark McConaghy is a doctoral candidate in the East Asian Studies Department at The University of Toronto. He studies political economy, aesthetics, and the dynamics of historical change in the 20th century.