Coming back into the US for what … the 15th time … 20th?… the cross-Atlantic trip has become a long commute now, nine hours from flat to a New York hotel door, five magazines, three movies, two tin-foiled meals, out of Heathrow terminal five, opened last year already looking second-rate and provincial, a Dulles knock-off, kind of pre-dilapidated — to JFK, less an airport, than a collection of malls where planes land.

The repeated return can be more revealing than a single trip, like a mash-up of modernities. Things most noted: the UK’s consumerism is grudging, they’ve never really taken to it (the Europeans, save the Germans, have never taken to it all), there will be shops, there will be many shops, but there is still an idea that your desires should be reasonable, for sandwiches, or drinks or the like.

Land in JFK, and with an eight-hour layover, the place is desire-world. American consumerism now works on the principle that your every desire should have its own specific locus in a brand and a chain. Want a yoghurt shake? There’s a chain for that. Gadget doo-dads, there’s a brand. Cuban sandwiches? They have their own store. And on and on. In the UK, the British Rail cafe principle survives privatisation — Pret a Manger may as well have been established by the Attlee government, for the attitude of its servers. In Jamba Juice, they are trained to give you the feel that they would literally die, expire like Pharaoh’s slaves, were their brand to die.

What else is different? In the US, it’s all HD now. The screens everywhere, blurting CNN or whatever. Standard definition is now a thing of the old world. The enormous black mirrors, hung from each wall, now pump out a vision that gleams and shines more real than real, incipiently 3D, a world you can just dive into. Politeness of course, talkativity. The tube journey to Heathrow was sepulchral in its silence, meditative, the lifts up-and-down, the studied management of private space. Soon as you get to JFK, the empty moments of transfer become a party. Coming out of the terminal, the lift to the air-train freezes at terminal level, someone’s backpack jammed in the door’s electric eye. Someone jokes: “we’ve been bad”: everyone laughs, the backpack is steered in, the door closes, but has cancelled the journey. “Well this is good,” someone says. “You want to push it, brother?” says someone to someone.

The experience is less than a minute, but barriers have been broken, a membrane extended, an air-community established. The lift shudders and starts, and there is silence once more, and then the doors open at departure and we scatter to our various lives. None of us will ever knowingly meet again. This is the intensity of the airport, not merely that the encounters are vestigial and fleeting, but also that aeroplane travel is either utterly routine, a few movies and pointless drills about lifejackets — or lethal, a journey to seconds, minutes of certain death. Yes, yes, airport writing is crap, the lowest of the low, but I am coming around to the notion that the airport is the single, intense experience of modernity that remains.

I mean that not in the sense of the recent book Aeropolis –– a book that suggests that modern cities will be reformed around the airport, to utopian purposes — but in the sense that the divisions of contemporary global capitalism are at their barest at the airport. The place is a pure division between those who are on the move, vectoral as we said in the late ’80s, and those who are resolutely stranded, whether at security screening, overpriced pizza outlet, or duty-free store.

Far from being super-modern, the airport is medieval — those on the move, to the next airport, are thin, everyone’s sharper, they’re more focused, stabbing at screen-machines with their fingers, juiced on coffee or more. Those serving are shorter, fatter, lumpier, uniformed, and often as not bearing their names on their breasts, like a scarlet letter. They live near the airport, a place that airport users don’t even think of as a place, just a floating teleport zone with, in the states, sushi-cocktail bars with universal phone rechargers. Eighty per cent of this travel is useless business busyness, and future generations will marvel at it, as we do at pilgrimages and the grand tour — ritual futility, in the service of a higher meaning.

But the point of travel, arguably, is the ritual performance of class at the airport, where stress and tiredness gives you licence to yell at underlings — who, in their turn, have the licence to deploy under-class resentment and resistance, that slowing at the security counter, that forgotten order at the pointless mid-western Crab Shack franchise, while you watch CNN and realise that 40% of the audience of this pioneering cable news network are people eating too much waiting for their plane.

Jaysus, it’s 10 minutes to the first debate and I haven’t made it out of the airport yet, textually speaking. But that is the case really, outside of the airport, everything is a disappointment, a diminution of energy on the inverse square law. Hitting DIA, the most sprawling airport in the world at 1am, it is still as light like Versailles, its four concourses, each an airport in itself, rotating like a galaxy in dark matter.

An African man, in a pinstripe of the ’50s, approaches me asks: “I want to get out of the airport.” “This way,” I say, gesturing him to the terminal train I’m going to, but he can’t understand, and wanders off. God knows he may still be there, washing his smalls in the men’s room sink, eating at Cinnabon on almond croissant scraps.God, the debate is a few hours away and I’m still at the airport. Spiritually speaking. Next to me on the plane was an American-Somalian woman, shy, in headscarf, but with a mid-west lilt. She’d flown out from Ohio to Dubai, had no idea how far London was from New York. She was a little shy, but eager to talk. Her life story was no doubt amazing, but after 10 minutes I was bored, wanting to get back to a repeat viewing of Moonrise Kingdom, itself a repeat viewing of every movie Wes Anderson has ever made.

The taxi tracks out of DIA, we go literally for 20 minutes and are still in the airport’s outskirts, ghostly car parks lit with no presence. The cab driver is Indian, wants to talk about everything but the election. At the motel, the tired clerk wants to give me a 10-minute tour of city via a map — and talk about everything but the election. Around there’s 15 different fast-food outlets lit up at midnight, but nowhere to get a newspaper — not that that matters any more. In the room, the plasma dominates, the vision is HD, the smell of stale tobacco in a non-smoking room pervades. The choice is a shouty match on cable TV, sitcom reruns, and a series of ads that vie between new medical treatments, and legal compensation for last year’s medical treatments.

During the 2008 campaign, the hot ad was for a branded version of the pill named Yaz, which had a grad student-girly cartoonish selling point, and theme song (“edge of glory’). Now the hot ad is for law firms promising to rep you if Yaz or three other identikit drugs have killed your daughter/wife/sister, or rendered you infertile and on you go.

Thus the seasons turn like leaves. As midnight comes, and the cable stations start to feature the latest pseudo-scandal — a “shock” video of Obama from 2007, saying that Bush short-changed New Orleans on Katrina relief because, implicitly, the city was black. The video had already aired in 2007, it didn’t say much, and it had occurred before the 2008 election — apart from that it was a real zinger.

Morning of the debate day, the Right — in the form of Fox News — were already walking away from it, no doubt under instruction from the party grandees, who had realised it was a desperate measure from the psycho side of the Right, headed by Tucker Carlson, a right-wing maven, ably summed up by Jon Stewart — “you’re a 32-year-old man who wears a bow tie: it’s theatre” — and sundry loonies. You go out for a late burger at the diner across the road, i.e. four lane freeway. The waiters are so tired they can barely stand. You could buy a shirt from China at Walmart for less than a cup of soup costs here. They will not venture an opinion on politics even in the car park, where they smoke beside the air-conditioning unit.

Back at the room, you watch a Seinfeld rerun and eat your half-sandwich.

Peter Fray

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