When I’m here in my own city, making the best of my mundane workaday world, I sometimes go to bars. When I’m visiting a different city, be it for important work or a frivolous vacation, I sometimes go to bars. When I’m en route from one of those places to another, well … even then, I sometimes go to bars.
The latter mostly happens in airports. I rarely travel by car, bus, train, boat, rickshaw or jetpack. Rarely. In fact, in my admittedly limited experience, most train stations, bus stations, marinas, ports and late-model automobiles don’t even include bars, which should not be overlooked as one possible reason their popularity as alternative modes of long-distance transport consistently takes a back seat to air travel.
(It may be worth mentioning that I once got obscenely drunk on a ferry to Victoria, B.C., while playing Rummy and downing B-52’s with a high-school crush. I never slept with her, but when we got to the island we sat in vibrating massage chairs together, which — if you’ve ever tried it, I’m sure you’ll agree — is probably the next best thing. Even so, I would absolutely get drunk on a ferry again given the opportunity, so score one point for watercraft. Well played, boats.)
Incidentally, one of the nice things about airport bars is that the chances of “hooking up” are infinitesimal. Most people who belly up to an airport bar are just killing time until their flight boards. Sure, you might strike up a conversation with them, and you might even hit it off. But I’ve spent hundreds of hours sipping (or, in some cases, gulping) whiskey in various airport establishments around the world and I’ve never once heard one of those conversations end with the line, “So … your city or mine?”
Invariably, you’ll go your way and your fleeting friend will go theirs. As a result, despite the typically cheesy decor and generic names that reek desperately of some Midwest marketing focus group, airport bars are surprisingly unpretentious. Their barstools tend to fill up with people who genuinely appreciate a good beer or a fine cocktail and, at least in that sense, they often remind me of my favorite bars both at home and abroad. While trendy nightspots shower publicly in their immediacy, drawing mirror-kissing trendspotters with fruity novelty drinks, the humble airport bar — like any serious watering hole — knows what it’s there for. It’s not a dance club. It’s not a catwalk. It’s just a bar.
One of my few quibbles with airport bars is that they’re not open 24 hours, and nearly all are closed when you need them most — during that painful layover in the wee hours while waiting for the red-eye home. Here in my town, the airport bars close down between 9 and 11 p.m. and don’t re-open until 7 a.m. I do a lot of early-morning travel, and generally rely on a quick drink to supply the fortitude for tolerating my fellow passengers. As such, the minutes between 6:55 and 7:00 tend to take their sweet time passing by, allowing for the type of self-reflection that once prompted me to tweet, “The only thing more depressing than last call is first call.”
You take the bad with the good, though. The best airport bar I’ve ever visited was in the United Airlines first-class lounge in Beijing, China, which was a serve-yourself open bar that had recently been re-stocked with a fresh bottle of green-label Johnnie Walker and plenty of ice. I won’t lie: As I worked my way through the first half of its contents, I found myself for the first time in my life honestly hoping that my flight would be delayed. Sure, it was free Scotch Whisky — the good stuff, too — but my mindset then was more or less the same as it is in every airport bar: “Hey, I’m not driving.”
Comedian Greg Giraldo has a hilarious routine about getting drunk at the airport that includes the line, “Do you have any idea how wasted you have to be for someone to say, ‘Sir, you’re just too drunk to sit in a seat’?”
And that’s really the bottom line, isn’t it? Ultimately, air travel — for all its technological marvel and modern convenience — is excruciatingly dull at best. If everything goes perfectly — boarding is quick and efficient, departure is on-time, the pilot has a deft touch and your cabin mates are without exception polite and considerate — your day amounts to sitting quietly in a seat, doing absolutely nothing for hours on end.
Might as well have a nice buzz.