The Most Romantic Job I’ve Ever Had
We fall in love and then we spend the rest of our lives and careers recapturing what it felt like.
Gondolier or florist, wedding planner or poet. Dancer, restaurateur, sommelier: those are some of the professions that typically come to mind when one thinks of a romantic job. But romance can be found in some unlikely places — even an airport.
While in college, I also worked at the international airport in my hometown of Stuttgart, Germany, where I loaded and unloaded baggage onto and off of planes. It was my first real job and the kind of work that one wouldn’t typically label “romantic,” because it was physically intense and often monotonous. Nevertheless, that first job still serves as a spark that inspires me whenever I feel the heat of romance is gone from my day-to-day work.
Romance at work? I don’t mean to encourage anyone to start flirting with their colleagues. Rather, my airport job made me realize that meaning, that all-consuming passion of a new relationship, can be found at work. Furthermore, it’s not necessarily linked to what you do but to why and howyou do it. Meaning is a vector, it stems from the motion toward something potentially meaningful, something greater than yourself that transcends the here and now and sheer practicality. In my case, it was the longing for the world “out there”; the possibility of another life. That’s why I loved airports — these both utopian and dystopian places — and the seemingly mundane job out on the tarmac, as part of the in-field crew. I became a man in a no-man’s land.
On a typical day, planes arrived from Ankara, Frankfurt, Tel Aviv, Zurich, Paris, and New York. A shuttle bus transported my colleagues and me, with our ear protectors and gloves, bulky jackets in the winter and shorts in the summer, onto the tarmac. I was a part of the inner life of the mesmerizing logistical clockwork of civil aviation, and while killing time between missions in the crew room was dull, the time out on the tarmac flew by. No single day was ever like another. There were delays, thunder storms, sick passengers, snow storms — even the light that flooded the runway felt different from one day to the next.
My job was to place the wooden brakes under the planes’ wheels after they had parked at the gate, to unload the luggage from the planes “bellies,” and to lift each bag from the cart onto the baggage claim or vice versa. Planes taxied right towards me as I stood with the wooden brakes under the gate gangway, and I trusted that they would eventually stop right in front of me. I touched the aircraft, at spots that had been taboo for me as a passenger, and I even crawled into its interior, sitting there like Jonah inside the whale. I still have a tender feeling for planes, and whenever I board one, I give it a quick “pat on the back” to ensure an invisible, symbolic bond before I entrust it with my life.
Once we had removed the bags from the depths of a plane that had just arrived, we moved them to the inside of the terminal, the dark chambers of the airport machine. I could sense the angst, exhaustion, and impatience of the passengers on the other side of the wall that separated us as we put their belongings on the baggage claim. Each of the bags was a container of another life, a box of memories. Some smelled really bad, others were radiant with fragrance. Some had traveled far, others not so much. The outside of each piece of luggage had scars, and sometimes it hinted at those of their owners. The bags were tokens of mystery. Every traveler carries a secret with them. What was it? The shirts folded and well-arranged (“must be a connection flight”) or unfolded and messy (“coming home”). A wedding dress. A shirt with the line “I got engaged in the Hollywood Hills” printed on it. Underwear next to a novel by Joan Didion, CDs, a teddy bear, rumpled khakis, letters, a baguette, and shells. An urn full of ashes. My imagination went wild. I tried to picture the faces that belonged to the names and conjure up their bios. The baggage claim became a guessing game. Where did they come from? Where did they go? Why this trip? Who was waiting for them at their final destination, “on the other side,” back home?
The magic of the early days
If we use the term “romantic” to describe a desire for adventure, drama, and the unexpected; as the thrill of the unknown; the delight of being carried away; the intensity of longing; the purity of aspiration; in short, the experiences that engage our full emotional, intellectual, and spiritual selves, then we typically have them at the beginning of, in our private lives, a relationship or a journey; and in our work lives: at the beginning of a career or a job.
There is magic in the early days. Our heart is in it. Passion rides high, and we feel that work is a high-stakes game “where we make or break ourselves,” as the writer David Whyte once put it.
But we have a hard time maintaining this sentiment throughout our tenures and careers, unless we become serial entrepreneurs and replicate the magic of the “first love” again and again. Many of us get their hearts broken in jobs that they truly love, and then they settle with jobs that they like, with friendship instead of devotion, handshakes instead of heartbeat. Many of us start as romantics and end as cynics. We want more but put up with less as pragmatism and deadening routine creep into our high-flying ideals and profound sentiments. We find it hard to keep our flame alight in the long stretch of the “middle” — between the lightness of our first one hundred days and the depth we might enjoy once we reach the stage of mastery. We fall in love and then we spend the rest of our lives and careers recapturing what it felt like.
A desire for everything
Today I no longer move bags, I move information, increasingly in the cloud. As a knowledge worker at a design firm my tasks are more abstract, and even when I say “hands-on” I don’t really mean it. Once in a while I feel bored, discouraged, or even disconnected from my work, detached and cruising at a comfortable altitude. I don’t know where the information is coming from or where it is going. I’m browsing and sifting instead of heavy lifting, and I long for something that makes me feel more grounded. I am no longer a baggage handler, I am now an air traffic controller of sorts. I see data points flicker on my computer screen, but I lost touch with what inspired me to do this work in the first place. I wonder why I’m doing what I’m doing.
Whenever these thoughts plague me, I remind myself of my first job at the airport. Whenever I struggle to see the big picture — the ultimate goal of my organization or my professional destination — I go find it in the details. I remind myself that I wasn’t just moving bags; I was and I am moving containers of memories; I was and I am moving stories of other lives, hinting at the possibility of another life. And then I’m feeling it again, that wanderlust that I felt when I was young: that desire for everything.
And I move myself, too, these days, from city to city, continent to continent, more often than my mind and body can fathom. Being aboard a plane has remained an intense experience, even after I racked up more than half a million miles on business trips all over the globe. Inflight, we are all names and seat numbers, captives and free spirits, unfazed and unrestrained by any of the mundane sorrows that usually ground us. We complain that the “romance has gone” and flying has become such a drag, but then if we look outside the window as we ascend into a heightened state of consciousness, we feel a rush of oxytocin. Anything is possible “up in the air,” no dream big enough, no ambition unwarranted. We may be lost souls but not losers. We rise above, with our spirits lifted, and when we touch down, we feel rejuvenated, and yet older and wiser. For a few minutes or even hours of beautiful confusion, we struggle to catch up with the image of ourselves that we project into the world, and it takes us some time to fit our identity again.
The perfume of my first love
My passion for flying extends the in-flight experience. I follow flights on Flight Tracker for hours, and I’m probably the only person on earth who enjoyed watching the spectacularly unsuccessful TV series Pan Am a few years ago. My favorite birthday gift, as my wife found out quickly after we started dating, is plane-spotting, so she takes me near the airport every year. She claims not to be an airplane buff, but she actually discovered the perfect plane-spotting spots for me: the lobby of the Marriott hotel right by the San Francisco airport and the In’N’Out at LAX, which is so close to the runway that the wings of the planes appear to touch the roof of the building. I have fond memories of the smell of kerosene. It is the perfume of my first love.
And when I stand at the baggage claim impatiently waiting for my luggage I no longer think of the passengers and their dreams and desires, neatly or not so neatly packed into boxes that get thrown around by strangers. I think of the workers on the other side of the wall, tucked inside the maw of the building and what they might be thinking when they touch my bruised bag. And then when it finally ejects from the dark, I grab it and take a taxi home, and every time it feels like a new beginning.
Instead of making good impressions and managing our personal brands, I propose we focus more on collecting totems of meaning in our careers, capturing and bottling the original spirit of our work and drawing from it when our job becomes too predictable and too much business-as-usual. No matter at what stage of our careers, our jobs, or our projects we are, we will be fulfilled if we can fill the things around us with meaning. We will feel the romance again if we allow ourselves to romanticize. On the tarmac or the office desk, the baggage claim or the computer terminal, our imagination is our greatest asset.