National Airport

First two, then three sluggish men line up, one behind the other, in the Delta Express line that is not expressing anybody anywhere. They sink down in nests of light bags. One gloomily fiddles with his shoelaces; another stares inward. It is so still their breathing can be heard.

It is 5:20 a.m. Friday. No one behind the Delta ticket counter. A sign says:

Hours of Operation 6:00 AM-9:30 PM

Suddenly mountains of luggage are wheeled to the counter. Creaking wheels, laughter. One rangy man pushes the dolly. His chubby friend keeps the bags from toppling down.

Floating behind in a cloud of activity are the two men's families. Small boys in red and green dart about excitedly. One Latina mother in a blue sweater with babe in arms sits down on a scale at the counter. She smiles. She is young and beautiful. Her rounder friend climbs over another scale, peers behind the counter in search of a pen to write out luggage tags.

The two men push the dolly to the counter and begin to unload it. Each great bag is placed on a scale, its weight noted. The fathers negotiate who will claim which so the sums paid will be nearly even.

The two women look happily around, chatting back and forth in Spanish from their seats on adjoining scales. The rounder woman begins to paint her nails with sensuous, long strokes. She is rapt as the nails turn deep maroon. With like intensity, her son punches the soft notes of a handheld computer game.

Uneasily, travelers who have been accumulating behind them in the orderly Delta Express line shuffle and clear their throats. They seem collectively dismayed. The counter has been invaded and colonized. Will the clerks sort through the chaos? Will primacy in line be respected? Will the line-standers who obey the rule of law be forced to assert their claims over the interlopers?

More Spanish speakers, each with a pyramid of household goods strapped into boxes and weathered suitcases, arrive. Eyeing the now-long line compared with the domestic arrangements in front of the counter, they also pile their bags up front and stand about with a friendly, proprietary air, watching other families, holding themselves open to conversation. One man in dark glasses pulls out a two-way radio and talks with quiet concentration. A tot in bright sweater, woven skirt, and knitted cap is transfixed by the excitement. Her parents, who have lined faces and large, capable hands, carry their possessions in black plastic garbage bags. A porter walks crabwise through the scattered bags, looking skeptically at the families and their squatters' city built of luggage.

At quarter to 6, a half-dozen ticket clerks march to stations behind the counter. They do not glance at the disorder in front of them. They do not shoo the mothers off the scales or issue warnings. They are in a parallel universe. They look only at their computers and speak only to each other.

But, as if a bell had rung, all children gather into their family constellations. The front-of-counter colonizers melt gently back against the barrier ropes. It dawns on passengers who have clung to places in line that the exact sequence in which they arrived will be respected by the free spirits. As if they held place cards, the passengers step up to the counter in perfect order, one by one. And the clerks impassively send them off to All Points South. --Judith Larsen

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