Dispatches: Where I’m Coming From

When I was little, I used to go to JFK airport a lot. I would pass through on my way to and from Pakistan, or we would drive the four hundred miles from Buffalo to pick up my grandparents or various siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends of the family.  Among Pakistanis, letting a relation arrive unmet at the airport is not done.  It’s an expression of filial duty and the strength of extended family bonds to drive for seven hours personally to escort your parents or grandparents or older sister from New York, the great gateway, back to your house or some other relative’s house.  So I ended up there frequently, and I loved it.

Back then, as now, Pakistan International Airlines flights came into and departed from Terminal 4, known as the International Arrivals Building.  However, it was an older IAB, now destroyed, that I knew and loved.  When JFK was first built, replacing Idlewild as New York City’s, and thus the country’s, primary international airport, the idea was to let each major European and American airline build their own terminal.  Thus a sort of competition occurred in which British Airways, American Airlines, etc. hired architects and took it upon themselves to demonstrate the modernist flair of their brand identities by the design of their flagship terminals.  The most famous of these, of course, was Eero Saarinen’s TWA terminal, a beautiful concrete structure reminiscent of an insect’s compound eye, with a cantilevered overhang that seems to hover in flight.  (That terminal has now been taken over by JetBlue airways, whose management already painted the striking raw concrete of Terminal 6 an ugly glossy white, but I digress.)

Terminal 4, however, was reserved for the many airlines of the world that would be using JFK but who weren’t large enough to need an entire building.  These carriers were mostly from Asia, South America, and Africa: Egypt Air, PIA, Varig, etc.  For them, the designers of the airport hired Skidmore, Owings and Merrell, the great mid-century American corporate-modernist firm, to build the International Arrivals Building.  Utilitarian in layout, the IAB used two long two-story corridors to house the ticket and check-in counters of the individual airlines, with a rectangular central structure through which all arriving passengers incame.  Instead of competing with the perpetually shifting tableaux of humanity that resided within it, the architecture faded into the background, its square enormity framing the action humbly, like the simple black frame around a gelatin silver print.

The great hall, square and with a balcony overlooking its main space, was a nonstop riot of second and third-world peoples hugging, jostling, exclaiming, blearily treading, and generally searching for whoever was going to shepherd them to the subway, the taxi, the Dodge, the new home, the old home.  I remember very clearly arriving as a ten-year-old from a summer spent with my older brother in Karachi and Islamabad, getting lost in a crowd of white-robe clad Africans, unable to see anything above these tall, slender people.  For a while I listened to their conversations (perhaps in Swahili? French?), and then, from behind me, my younger sister and cousin, waiting to receive us, karate-chopped me on the back by way of welcome, excitedly telling me all about our new parakeet, E.T.  Later, when I would pass through the terminal on my way to London (I used to fly Air India there, because it was cheap, and was the last airline to allow smoking), I would stand on the second floor balcony and watch the scenes of hello taking place on the floor below.  I had my own such scenes too, picking out my girlfriend’s head amongst the crowds from above, and then hurriedly descending into the fray, losing her all over again, then being found by her while looking the other way.  Abbas and I would sometimes wait for people in the bar on the eastern side, where they had a pool table and an encouragingly squalid atmosphere, like the cocktail bar next to the Port Authority’s bowling alley.  I went back before it was demolished, armed with a superwideangle lens, to document the place, but they wouldn’t let me in.

Recent writing about airports, by people like Pico Iyer, celebrate its symbolic relation to our postmodern condition, the Rushdie-like sense of everything’s connection to everything else.  Everywhere infects here, and here leaks into everywhere, in the form of these dusty traveler-viruses, and the airport is the one place where you see the anomie caused by the meaningless of it all, or, alternately, a kind of rampant giddiness in its blurring of identities.  I don’t think that’s quite right.  Or at least, I never felt that way there.  To me, the scene at JFK always reminded me of a touching collectivism, a faith in extended ties and of a certain dogged kind of loyalty that was so different to the atomized individualism of my young suburban life.  It was a mingling.  And yet it wasn’t the same thing as the potentially suffocating extended family life in Karachi, where privacy is unimaginable.  Terminal 4 was melancholic but heartening all at once, and, most importantly, rather than symbolizing placelessness or globalism, always seemed to me very specifically New York, and particularly its role as the liminal space between America and the world.

The new Terminal 4, by contrast, is very much a glib, postmodern, placeless place.  A bland wing-shaped immensity, roughly isomorphic with Stansted or Dulles, it even has signage designed by the Dutch-based design team that did Heathrow and Schipol’s yellow markers, the same typeface and everything.  There’s no particular sense of where you are in the world.  Worst of all, despite having probably quadruple the square footage of the old place, in the new terminal passengers arrive into a smallish area on the ground floor, with no sense of that the architects ever considered the place passengers first gaze at New York and the U.S.  Even those waiting only see half the arrivants, as they have to choose one of two forks as they exit, the only notable feature in the linear progress out of the airport being a large yellow question mark erected above the information desk.  That question mark might as well stand for the sensation the space produces: where am I?  Without grandeur, you are just arriving at an anonymous node of global circulation, reminiscent of a luxurious version of Rem Koolhaas’s ‘junkspace.’

The old International Arrival Building’s architecture was very New York.  The large cubic space, with its high ceiling, framed the people like the grid of the city, highlighting their colors by its comparative drabness and lack of architectural hubris.  Not that it was badly designed – to the contrary, was a solid and imposing structure, and looked like no other place.  You knew it was JFK.  It also provided a suitably grand but functional setting for one’s arrival to the country, the chaotic bricolage it contained becoming a metaphor for the city’s true identity: the home of those from elsewhere.  By providing a balcony from which to view the secular pilgrimage of disembarkation, immigration and emigration, the airport dramatized and made visible the social. Being there was to be a part of the social, to witness and be a part of a scene.  For me, growing up without feeling native to either Buffalo or Pakistan, that scene was like home: more than anywhere else, where I’m from.


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