Sleepless in San Diego, a holiday story


When you’re sleeping, there is a point at which the sounds you hear around you start to become part of your dreams. When you’re lying down in a public place, not sleeping deeply enough to be dreaming, the sounds become part of your actual consciousness.

Also, when you’re asleep, time moves at its own pace, sometimes wildly fast. When you’re not asleep, time moves at the maximum rate of 60 seconds per minute. Sometimes much slower.

The following are some field notes from sleeping on the floor at an airport.

The scene

As part of my mileage run, my flight home involved a six hour layover in San Diego. While normally I don’t mind layovers, this one happened to be between the hours of midnight and 6AM.

A six hour layover doesn’t net you the ability to sleep for six hours. For starters, if you’re going to find a bed to sleep in, you need to leave the terminal and commute to wherever it is you’re staying. And then in the “morning” you need to commute back and go through security again. Even given this particular airport’s proximity to downtown, I figured that I would have a maximum of four hours in a room. Not worth it.

So when I arrived, I was in for a short night that was likely to be very long.

The gate area was being remodeled (no carpet on the floor, and workers looking about to do noisy things), so I asked a gate agent where I could go and not be in the way or bothered.

Not the most inviting place for some shut-eye.
Not the most inviting place for some shut-eye.

She suggested that I hang out by the baggage office. She even added, oddly, “when I’ve been here overnight, that’s where I’ve stayed,” making me wonder why an airline employee would need to sleep in the terminal.

I wasn’t alone in my attempt to turn the airport into a hotel. A small family had taken up residence behind the baggage cart dispenser. I rued not getting there sooner, as that would have been a perfect place to ensure I was out of the way. As it was, I found a spot nearby against the wall.

A floor with a view.
A floor with a view.

Metal Man

As I hunkered down in my little makeshift home, experimenting with lying down and closing my eyes, I gradually realized that the overhead music had gone a little “avant”. It sounded a bit like progressive metal, but played on a solo guitar, crunching away in a flattened key.

And it turns out that this is exactly what was happening; some guy had set up his guitar and amplifier right in the baggage claim area, and was rocking out by himself.

I was 40% annoyed and 60% perplexed: What was he doing there? Why? Was he part of the airport cultural program? Sometimes airports hire musicians to give the airport a bit of flair. Was he paid to do the night shift? Or did he just like the acoustics of a room punctuated by the metal clanging of the baggage claim belt? Did he actually commute to the airport to do this? Would he be here tomorrow?

Santa Radio

Gradually, his interpretation of Yngwie or whatever faded away, and my ears were able to detect what had been underneath: Christmas music.

I had prepared for many contingencies, but this wasn’t one of them.

I don’t mean to be tiresome, but I really really really dislike Christmas music. There’s something about the exceedingly schmaltzy nature of the music (if I’m allowed to use a Yiddish term) combined with the ubiquity of the same dozen or so songs and the slightly menacing be-jolly-or-else artifice. It all makes for a fraught experience. I tend to avoid retail establishments from Thanksgiving to New Years, and the music is part of why.

And yet here it was, realized in wordless smooth jazz. All the hits: White Christmas, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, Silver Bells, all in a perpetual loop. Just loud enough to be heard through my earplugs. For hours. It was a kind of living hell.

Ironically, it was Metal Man who eventually came to my rescue. At one point, I was startled by a crunching power chord, which drowned out the Christmas jazz, and I realized that he was about to play another set. I have never been more grateful to a stranger playing metal music in an airport before.

Do I come here often?

As I laid there very much not sleeping (a side-sleeper and a hard floor don’t go together) I got to thinking about those who do this more often.

I have been fortunate to have never been out on the street. I have slept in places I wish I hadn’t, but this was always due to travels, where a certain measure of discomfort and unexpectedness is expected.

And yet, I know that there are many people whose normal lives contain that same instability. They never return from their travels, because there is no home to return to.

So while I can’t claim to know what it’s like to truly be homeless, but the long night it made me think about how much one is handicapped by it. What was a realization to me was just how much mental energy is taken up by the process of finding a place to hang your head. Having to make decisions saps ones energy in general, but wondering about safety and security is an added stress. I had only a single bag, and was laying on it, but I still wondered if someone would come by and unzip a compartment while I wasn’t aware.

When I “awoke”, or rather when my alarm told me to stop trying to sleep, I didn’t feel good. My hips hurt, my feet were freezing, and I felt like I had never actually rested at all. I certainly never entered REM sleep. What would the effect be on someone after days and days of this? And additionally, what if this person were sleeping outside, under a bridge, exposed to the elements?

It felt like that there was a certain level of self-perpetuation: when one is homeless, it’s that much harder to have the energy to do something about it. That feels deeply unfair.

Our finite energy

We all realize that our time is finite, but we often forget that our energy is finite as well. We can gain and lose energy in certain ways and from certain experiences, but energy still isn’t an endlessly renewable resource. When we spend time around people who sap our energy, that is energy that we can’t get back. When we have trying life experiences, they force us to use energy that we would otherwise have had for other things.

You are not homeless, most likely. Be grateful for that. But no matter where your station is, this life can be trying, and we need all the energy we can get.

So be kind. Be helpful to those who need it. Give energy instead of taking it.

And remember that everyone has something to offer you. Even a metal guitarist, who saved me from hearing another hour of Christmas music. Now that’s a mitzvah.


Ever onward.
Ever onward.

Happy holidays to you, whatever you feel like celebrating.

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