Bartender Dean Morris shares a smile and a mean Cosmo at P.F. Chang’s in the Detroit Metropolitan Airport. (Portland Phoenix/Natalie Ladd)
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As a rule, the public does not look forward to eating at the airport.

Travelers are a captive audience limited by the location of a terminal, how much time they have to kill, how willing they are to overpay, and by the amount of cumbersome stuff they’re carrying. The experience becomes a necessity, reducing airport dining to an element at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Exceptions are also the rule, but one needs to be a frequent flyer or have a long layover to qualify. Still, trapped travelers are in the majority and while their problems are first-world issues, they’re still legitimately stressful.

Lucy Anderson of Palm Beach is a 29-year-old mother of a restless toddler who went to Chicago to see her in-laws. When we met in the checkout line of a souvenir/snack/magazine shop at Palm Beach International, it was apparent she needed help. Mesmerized by a rack of colorful shot glasses, the toddler shook off his mother and headed toward them with lightning speed. Unable to keep his hands away, one whack caused a rolling cascade of the little glass troublemakers.

Anderson had to choose between getting out of line to grab him before he went any further, or staying in line to pay for a banana, a yogurt and a bag of almonds.

“Go ahead,” I said. “I’ll hold your place.”

While she gathered her sobbing son, and attracted judgmental employee glares rather than assistance, the line moved quickly. I found myself paying $32 for my half-off used book and Anderson’s lunch. We sat for a few minutes while they got settled, she reimbursed me, and sighed.

“Airports used to be fun,” Anderson said. “My husband and I would have a few drinks and it felt so different than being at a bar at home. So grown up and almost mysterious. He’d talk with a fake accent to the bartender, which is funny because he has a thick Tennessee drawl. I’m sure they always knew.”

Dean Morris, my bartender pal at P.F. Chang’s in the Delta terminal at Detroit Metropolitan Airport, said people definitely put on airs, but so does the staff.

“There’s a woman at the last place I worked who used to tell customers she was in medical school,” he said, laughing. “A lot of BS goes on when you work on the ‘outs,’ but not like inside an airport. I’m not saying everybody does it, but I’ve never seen anyone, anywhere make tips like she did. People are just more gullible for some reason.”

Although it’s against company policy to talk about wage structure, Morris tossed me a bone.

He said he works for a large corporate feeder, and he and his co-workers are union employees, which is fitting for the Motor City. Full time is 30 hours, made up of four or five shifts, all of which are bid on and assigned by seniority. After working a calendar year, employees can switch jobs for other company airport venues without losing their seniority. Benefits are top notch, making positions within his company’s airport eatery highly desirable, but rarely available.

 “There’s a woman here named Angie and I swear, she’s like 80,” Morris said. “I’ve got over 12 years and I’m not going to complain about the benefits of seniority, but Angie is a danger to herself and the rest of us. I won’t even talk about watching her on the new (point of sale) system. But I’ll tell you, she has a following of regulars. They know it’ll take a while to get their drinks, but she’s like their family in a place filled with revolving strangers.

“I don’t know for sure,” my friend said, “but as much as I like working here, I don’t think I’d enjoy traveling a lot. Airports can be crazy.”

Next Week: Airport Restaurant Month (really) and bringing it all back home.

Natalie Ladd is a Portland restaurant veteran, freelance writer and connoisseur of all things Bruce Springsteen. She loves Boston sports, chewy red wine and has never sampled a cheese she didn’t like. She can be reached at [email protected].

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