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Weekend at Hartsfield

A half-naked man. Two honeymoons. A 48-hour journey to nowhere.

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"Ohhhh!" an old lady headed to Minneapolis gushes. "LOOK at that SUN!"

It is a rare brush with nature in a hermetically sealed habitat.

Having spent the night cocooned in the terminal, perhaps I am overly moved by the scene. That or the fact that I am seeing it for the kick-ass low price of $19.70. A $1 Spirit Airlines fare plus $18.70 in fees seems worth the hassle of clearing security and gaining admission to a free-to-roam weekend tour of all the airport has to offer.

My flight to Myrtle Beach will leave without me, but I head to the gate anyway. The undertaking feels almost illegal, a security breach of, at very least, jaywalking proportions. Then again, I see no rules that say passengers must board their flights or exit the airport if they do not. It is a contingency the TSA (Transportation Security Administration) has apparently not foreseen: A passenger who never becomes a passenger, one who is hair-brained enough to blow a weekend roaming this between-runways Riviera.

I'm at D-9 well ahead of the plane. I notice another guy who's over-early for the flight. He's in a shirt and tie and slacks, downing a Cinnabon roll, using his suitcase for a table. He eats with a plastic knife and fork. He is very neat. The breakfast stickiness never touches him or his way-nice-for-Saturday threads. Nearby is a bearded man reading an Oprah-approved paperback by Carson McCullers. The gate agent from another airline is asking the attendants at ours, kidding (I think), "Do y'all have any Vicodin, anything good like that?" The counter clerk is announcing to the on-time Minnesota-bound passengers that "the general boarding process" will soon begin.

"The general boarding process?" I muse, and then to Mr. Cinnabon, "You gotta love airports."

"Man, you know, you can't live without 'em," he says. "But it's nerve-wracking sometimes."

In the row of seats by the check-in counter, Cocoa the white poodle stirs. She wants to go for a walk, and does, toward me. She pops over, slurps on my hand, and I pet her on the head before she skitters off.

"You ready for your medicine?" Cocoa's owner asks her.

I can't resist. "Medicine?"

"Yeah," the woman replies. "My vet just tells me to get her children's Benadryl, the little soft-melt tablets. That'll put her right to sleep."

A few minutes later, Cocoa's owner tucks her into a carrying cage, and, as the flight is "pre-boarding," leaves Cocoa at the gate. By the time she returns, the gate announcement comes that "all zones, seats and rows" are boarding.

The woman is carrying a squirt-top bottle of Evian. She takes a sip then lets Cocoa out to lick some before taking another drink herself. Ick. "That's all you get," she tells the pup, which by now looks half stoned but then refuses to go quietly back into the collapsible carry-all.

When the woman tries to zip it shut, Cocoa's head pops out, then her paws. Think of trying to stuff a ferret into an accordion. It's high comedy — if you're not already on the plane, waiting, wondering why you're still sitting there.

The next plane, the plane I have a ticket for, arrives at D-9 a short while later. As my departure time comes and goes and I am not on board, I wonder if they'll call my name over the speakers. They don't. The plane edges back from the Jetway and crawls toward the runway. Four would-be passengers sprint to the desk. "Jesus!" a man huffs.

I watch the plane taxi south out over I-285. As it rises over the airport Sheraton and banks into a U-turn toward the coast, I feel left behind. Lonely.

In the bowels of the airport, underground trains whisk passengers through a more-than-mile-long tunnel.

This morning, the ride from Concourse E to Baggage Claim takes six and a half minutes. On foot, at a brisk pace and without setting foot on the moving sidewalks, the journey takes a little over three times that. (I hiked it. Twice.)

There are photo murals at the stops: Atlanta scenes, landmarks, personalities. At the Concourse C depot, if you peek out the train window at the tunnel wall you can glimpse a close-up of perhaps the city's most famous "C" (aside from, say, Coke) — Chipper Jones.

Later, I sit down in the Concourse E food court. Two regional-jet pilots are eating lunch. One is 43, the other 35. They're airport connoisseurs.

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