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  • Writer's pictureWILLIAM HAZEL

Going Through Customs in Atlanta

Updated: Jun 15

A woman was yelling. Not screaming. Not talking loudly. Yelling. Hers was a strong voice.

Lines three and four. I got it. We had US Passports and should be getting into lines three or four. As far as I could notice, they weren’t numbered. They probably were, but in the stress of the moment, I couldn’t see numbers. But I could count left to right and, thankfully, other folks with US Passports were already moving into the lines I was certain were three and four. A small group of better dressed travelers went striding into the first line, but I trusted my instinct to move with the travel shabby mass down the lines the woman was screaming about. I’m sorry, yelling. She was yelling. It sounded almost like screaming as we got closer, but I’m sticking with my interpretation of her intimidating boom as yelling.

They weren’t quite lines, but narrow pathways dictated by the dozens and dozens of plastic poles connected with a narrow fabric barrier. They became lines when we caught up to the hundreds of fellow adventurers brought to a halt in the theme park style switchbacks in what suddenly felt like the queue that would never move.

We had just spent more than nine hours, M and I, crossing the Atlantic west to east, shoehorned in a Boeing 767 with over 200 ticket holders and crew. Our time endured sharing strange tasting chow and taking turns pissing in a closet half the size of a reasonable confessional. We boarded the machine in Barcelona, BCN in airport talk. There was a sign when we boarded. A quiet man held up the sign. Written in three languages. With great fortune, we could read one of them. We stood with the quiet man and our fellow explorers in an extended period of quiet, and then boarded. Quietly.

On the other side of ocean came ATL, Atlanta. And a woman was yelling. In one language.

The tension began on the aircraft a long 30 minutes before. Our 160 ton machine had transitioned heavily from the sky to land, a high-speed reverse thrust accompanied with belt tightening brakes to the given taxiway to give way to the next 160 tons air traffic controllers carefully timed 90 seconds behind. Our fast taxi slowed to naught as Ground Control had obviously told our Major Tom to stop. A full stop. There can be 1000 aircraft moving through ATL on a given day, and sometimes you must wait your turn.

With few exceptions, all on board thought we had arrived. A collective metal unclicking gave way to plastic latches unpinning as all rushed into the overheads to haul oversized stuff into clingy hands. A flight attendant stopped herself from yelling, grabbing instead for the microphone-phone. As her breathless impatience filled the intercom, a passenger yelled from far behind us about not being anywhere near the gate and it all became unfunny.

Tom's voice came next. He didn’t tell us to sit our asses back down, but the calming, clearing tone of the captain's slow sounding vowels had that unmistakable sit our asses back down sound.

And then, in the terminal, a woman wearing blue and a badge was yelling.

Lines three and four meant we could get our passports stamped. In the steps following, at last, there was a sign: Baggage Claim. With a big arrow. A woman was yelling we should follow the sign with the big arrow.

At ATL, you claim your bag, then run it to another drop-off point. It isn’t claiming, exactly. There’s never anyone checking that the bags we’re dragging from the clanking carousel do belong to us. There was another woman, however, in blue and a badge, directing us to deposit our bags for another carousel disappearing into the land of domestic connection.

She was yelling.

Security came next. Though we were deep in the entrails of ATL, we were no longer officially in the airport. In the country, yes. In the airport, no. Making our homebound sky-bus meant going back through security. A sprawling array of Disneyized double-backs kept us in longer lines, as we joined all the international passengers wearing the same jet-lagged frowns. Two women circled the area giving instructions for how to get through security. One focused on a no water bottle message, the other commanding ID’s and empty pockets.

They were both yelling.

Judging by the crowd size, six for seven arriving flights were in the mix and most of us had water bottles we needed to ditch.

There was one trash can.

It had already mountained a plastic bottle peak, the added containers avalanched onto the floor. Clear of security, large down escalators allowed entrance to the domestic terminals.

They were broken.

A woman was yelling the escalators were broken. We eyeballed long and thought longer about shuffling down the broken escalators, but the woman was also yelling not to walk down the broken escalators.

We couldn’t find the stairs. No one could find the stairs.

But there were elevators, so we stood in a makeshift line to get a ride down. We had no idea if we were supposed to take the elevators, as no one was yelling about the elevators. People kept pushing the down button, but it wouldn’t light up. The doors opened anyway, and as our collective body musk soaked the metal box with wanderlust, it felt a great victory to have a chance to make our next flight.

We hopped onto the ATL plane train instead of running a 5K to our gate. I’m not certain ATL calls it the plane train, but that’s what we call the train that takes us to the plane. We all hung on as it accelerated from zero to what felt 100 mph in under a second. If you’ve been on it, you know what I mean. If you haven’t, once the doors close, grab a handle.

A flight attendant crew hung on next to us. A tall fellow with hair buzzed neat groveled he already needed more coffee. His fellow crewmember asked if they could just skip this one and quipped, she’d slip into either a hot bath or espresso martini. I curled my tongue holding the next word everyone left unspoken.

At the gate we learned they were our connection crew.

And so we went through customs in Atlanta. The most pleasant part of our transition was provided by the officer who stamped our passports, nestled within his glass convertible booth. A handsome man with a confident chin, amicably stretched a soft sided grin, and offered appropriate summation of the entire affair.

“Welcome home.”

1. Cover design by Author. Photo by Luke Littlefield, Unsplash.

2. Photo by Lukas Souza, Unsplash.

3. Photo by Markus Winkler, Unsplash

4. Photo by CovertKit, Unsplash

© Copyright William Hazel, 2023

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