The Personal Blog of Stephen Sekula

On Crowds Three Years After a Pandemic Is Declared

It has been a long time since I was crammed in a big unpleasant crowd of people.

Let’s take stock of the last three years. My last major international trip was at the very beginning of March 2020. Outbound from Dallas to CERN, the planes were semi-normal (more masking than was typical back then) and Heathrow was Heathrow (also with elevated masking). Just a week later, returning through Madrid, the airport felt abandoned and the plane half-empty. It was eerie, and this was still just before most international travel was totally shut down.

Months of isolation and lockdown followed, even in North Texas. Teaching was virtual through spring of 2021. I returning to in-person teaching in the fall of 2021, masked in the classroom. Even in a room of 60 students, it didn’t feel crowded. There was space to move. People wore face coverings, as widespread and frequent vaccination for COVID-19 was still a relative novelty.

My first international trip, which was coincidentally also my first airplane trip since March 2020, was in May of 2022. That was short, just to Toronto and back a few days later. By then, things felt more normal but still travel was not easy due to the strains the pandemic placed on airlines and airports.

So, last week was my first “major” international trip, from Toronto to Los Angeles for the UCLA Dark Matter conference. The 14th such gathering, this year’s conference was a re-incarnation of the biennial gathering. There had not been one since before the pandemic (in 2018). It used to be in even years, but now is shifted to odd years to avoid losing too much more time before gatherings.

The UCLA north campus, near the physics and astronomy building.

The conference itself was fine. I did not mind at all being in a large lecture hall with physicists, conversing in the hallways or over dinner. I had a grand time with friends, old and new, at a nearby Mexican restaurant.

But … oh … LAX airport. I had been warned about LAX. Many years ago, on her return trip from the South Pole, Jodi called me from LAX. It was morning. She had slept overnight in the airport waiting for her next day’s connecting flight. The airport was sad and empty, very close to Christmas. In the background of that phone call, loud holiday music blasted over tinny speakers. Jodi was miserable and half-deaf, wishing the airport would just switch off the noise engine and let passengers enjoy silence. LAX seemed to be practicing the art of torture: sleep deprivation through sound.

And so we found ourselves crammed in a roundabout end of the terminal, waiting for our plane to Toronto. Several gates encircled the edges of the smaller space. There were more people to board the planes than places to put them. People crammed, standing room only, chattering away. A tinny speaker, clearly parked at its maximum gain, blared periodically as a gate attendant screamed into her microphone, “NOW BOARDING GROUP A … THAT’S ‘A’ AS IN ‘AWESOME’ … <INDECIPHERABLE GARBLED SPEAKING> … NOW BOARDING GROUP A!”

I don’t get migraines, and I had a migraine. I don’t get claustrophobic, and I felt trapped in a mass of human beings all pressing to get to a flight for which they are not yet in the right boarding group. The art of blocking people who need to board was in full effect, standing about like statues drained of attention span by mobile devices or general disregard for their fellow humans.


It got hot. It got cramped. It got downright unpleasant.

It was LAX.

It wasn’t the closeness, per se, that got to me; it was the stress, the disregard, the chaos and the noise, combined with the extreme closeness, that got to me. I have to ride shoulder-to-shoulder in a mine cage to go to the underground lab where I work, and that doesn’t bother me at all. This … this was different.

It was LAX.

It was a relief to board our flight and get into the air. I’ve never been so happy getting on a plane in my life, except perhaps during that one awful experience in Moscow in 2006. I still have never forgiven Delta Airlines for that … and I never will.

Not all airports are as bad as that experience at LAX. Today I sit in the pleasant Toronto-City airport, waiting for a flight to Boston. I have a beautiful view of the Toronto skyline, including the CN Tower. I have a glass of wine. There are people sitting about at this airport cafe at all the little tables nearby, chattering away. It’s pleasant. I am at ease.

Because this is not LAX 3 years after a pandemic, with all the unpleasantness of that particular airport amplified by the disregard of one person for the next.