It had been an exhausting weekend. I got up Thursday at 3 a.m. to catch a morning flight to Boston. Then for three solid days I listened to presentations and talked with scholars at a conference. And finally the long flight home. When I stumbled off of the plane Sunday night in Little Rock, my legs were aching from the cramped quarters and my fingers were numb from grading essays on that plastic desk that folds down onto your lap. I hadn’t had anything to eat since breakfast except for a bag of the smallest pretzels I’ve ever seen. I offered one of them to an ant I saw crawling on the plane. He swallowed it whole and then asked, “Is that all?”
Anyway, by the time I arrived in Little Rock I was barely conscious. I may have fallen asleep on the escalator down from the terminal, but I woke up to a surreal sight. The first floor of the airport was alive with people. Not with people printing out boarding passes and removing their shoes, but people socializing in front of the coffee shop. There was music, and it seemed awfully loud. Halfway to the luggage carrel I realized there was a band performing. A live band. At the airport. I looked around for movie cameras, thinking I might be in the middle of a romantic comedy.
Since when did the airport become a gig for musicians? I can just imagine the phone call from their agent:
Agent: Okay fellows, I can get you the Lowenstein wedding in Jacksonville on Friday, a Saturday open-mike night at Juanita’s, and then you’ll play baggage claim at the airport. The pay is $40 and a small sack of pretzels.
Now that I think of it, this is brilliant. There are more than 5,000 public airports inthe country. It may be the greatest untapped musical circuit out there. Hop off the plane, play a set, pass the hat, and then get right back on board to Cincinnati. Airports need more hip music anyway. Most of them pipe too many easy-listening tunes over the loudspeakers. In Atlanta I strolled down the moving sidewalks to Sheena Easton’s “Morning Train.” It did not help my spirits as I was trying to get from Concourse B to Concourse E, which is roughly the same distance as from Memphis to Tupelo.
But what if there were live music? Musicians set up in the subway all the time. You may remember the story of famed violinist Joshua Bell, who once took a $3.5 million Stradivarius and played Bach incognito for 45 minutes in the Washington, D.C. metro station. Sadly, only six people stopped to listen, and Bell made a paltry $32 in tips, even though his concerts regularly sell out for $100 per seat. It was a social experiment to see if people were too busy to stop and notice beauty in their midst. They were.
But a live band at baggage claim is genius. People are already standing around, badly in need of cheering up. Some will discover their suitcase has been lost. Others will find their luggage mangled beyond repair. Some guy might even tear his fingernail trying to lift a suitcase filled with way too many books that he shouldn’t have purchased since he doesn’t have time to read them and doesn’t really have the money but just can’t ever pass up books at a conference.
I don’t know anyone in particular who that might have happened to on Sunday. I’m just laying out hypothetical scenarios to describe why people would need cheering up from a live band. After all, it worked on the “Titanic.”
I must say you can see some amazing sights at a baggage claim. On Sunday I watched a white-haired woman who was barely five feet tall as she wrestled a giant black suitcase two feet taller than she was. I stood by, torn between chivalry and curiosity, as this sheer display of girl power unfolded. Appropriately, the live band provided theme music that helped to dramatize the moment as this tiny Delilah tamed her Samsonite.
So maybe airport bands are the future of music. As I hefted my bags out of the carousel and started to amble off in search of Car Lot C, I couldn’t have been more tired. But behind me I heard the band strike up a little George Gershwin with “Someone to watch over me.” And I felt better. I walked out of the airport with a little more spring in my step. I’m just glad they weren’t playing that Tony Bennett favorite — “I Left My Bags in San Francisco . . .”