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Reagan National is a pretty nice airport.

Unless you’re flying Northwest. Because then you’re stuck in Terminal A, a great heaving pancreas of despair that looks like a crumbling Communist dream of the future—-a little bit of Gdansk on the Potomac.

There’s a Starbucks, sure, but it’s before security, and these days you can’t take your cup of coffee through. Once you’ve been patted down by the admittedly cool air-jet thingy, you’re stuck in a land where the normal rules of commerce don’t apply. Bottles of water cost two bucks (so much for the “Always a Fair Price” guarantee on the airport’s posters); two slices of gummy pizza will cost you five more. Don’t even ask about the Nantucket Nectars or the pens at the newsstand. You can’t afford ’em.

And like Vasa, the brand of water you only see at airports, the businesses inside the secure section are the sort of quasi-chains that seem like they could never survive on the outside—-Euro Cafe, Annie’s Deli, Fabulously Fresh.

Last Friday night, a group of Japanese people got off a plane from Minneapolis, and as they were passing the Hudson News, some—-including a woman in a shirt that said FUNNY BUNNY SLOPE—-giggled about something written in Japanese on a commemorative cherry-blossom shirt. The P.A. wasn’t working, so ticket attendants had to jump in front of gates and shout that they were only boarding the exit row passengers, and could everybody else just hang tight. It was a perfect way to leave the hot, crowded terminal—-standing around, your carry-on hurting your back, straining to hear whether your row had been called yet. It’s not often that entering a jetway feels like moving up in the world.

Photograph by Scott Robinson