I am in transit. No one knows me here. The corridors are long and brightly lit, guarded by frowning agents at crowded checkpoints who put me on the defensive with their eyes. All around me are signs in a global, symbolic language that relies on stick figures and arrows. I’m hungry, but I don’t know for which meal. Is it late? Is it early? Irrelevant. It’s now. I feel estranged and suspended, as if in a dream, but I am also anonymous and free, gliding smoothly on a moving walkway toward yet another sliding door.
Wherever you’re going in the world these days, you have to pass through limbo on the way. You have to pass through those places that aren’t quite places—taxi lines, duty-free shops, shuttle buses, concierge desks, baggage carousels—that exist at the boundaries between “here” and “there.” They can be invisible, these spots, and easy to disregard as you rush on, but they have evolved in recent years into a complex automated ecosystem that’s worthy of attention and admiration. A proliferation of shops and restaurants masks the hard edges of these feats of infrastructure, these marvels of streamlined engineering. A computerized kiosk dispenses your ticket, an electronic scanner reads your passport, a miniature printer spits out your baggage labels. You are a stream of data, not just a person. From the moment you set off on your journey, your movements are tracked, your payments processed, your customer profile updated and filed.
They are disorienting, these placeless places, but after a while you feel at home in them. You start to adapt to their protocols, their culture. Cards with magnetic stripes are a big part of things. You, the secretly distrusted traveler, are continually proving your identity, pushing against some vague presumption of guilt in an environment thick with regulations and monitored by people you’ll never meet. The key is remaining inconspicuous. The key is raising no alarms. You feel like a spy or a smuggler, you can’t help it, and in your luggage are many zippered pockets concealing various critical supplies. Documents. Devices. Wads of currency. It is important to think ahead because, once you get here, it’s hard to think at all. Follow the arrows. Remove your belt and shoes.
There is, if you pay attention to these transition zones—if you view them as destinations in their own right, not merely bridges to something up ahead—a mysterious sense of erasure in the air, a feeling of having been preceded by busy hands whose job is to cleanse each space that you step into of the auras of those who went before you. The guest who checked out of the room you’re checking in to is impossible for you to picture, as you will be to the guest who follows you. Still, on occasion, you stumble across traces of your ghostly counterparts: a half-finished puzzle in an in-flight magazine; an odd, foreign coin in the top drawer of a nightstand; a pair of dark glasses in the glove box of a rental car. These clues remind you that the in-between world is teeming with personal and social drama and is neither soulless nor sterile, as some might assert. The emotional energies here are under the surface, carefully channeled by systems and machines, but their presence creates a charged vibrational field that you can tune in to if you know the wavelength.
I’ve always been drawn to scenes of dislocation, and the frontiers between everywhere and nowhere. As a kid in the early 1970s, I used to go with a pal from my small town to visit the Minneapolis–St. Paul Airport. In that innocent era of low security, you could enter the terminals without a ticket and sit in a glass- walled observation gallery that overlooked the runways. The taxiing planes and the tiny human figures that stood on the tarmac directing and unloading them were joined in a highly choreographed dance whose significance seemed elusive yet enormous. Here, in this realm of systems and machines where people seemed secondary and slightly faceless, I perceived the architecture of change itself. Every drama needs a stage, and the function of this stage was to keep things moving, to speed the flow of materials and beings that underlies the course of history. I wanted to join that flow someday, to let it carry me away—away from myself and out into the world.
I wanted to be something I couldn’t name yet.
A passenger. A traveler. A spy. One step behind you, wherever you may be.