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On the Scene As Taylor Swift Serenades Passengers and TSA Employees at JFK Airport

Early yesterday evening, standing outside a nondescript door in JFK’s Terminal 5 — somewhere behind which Taylor Swift prepped for her special "surprise" airport concert by the JetBlue gates — one employee of the airline revealed to another that he had been picked to fly Swift across the country on a charter flight after the show. "Who did you blow to get that [job]?" asked his jealous co-worker. They were surrounded by hundreds of others who may or may not have been thinking about fellatio: Fans jammed the hallway of the JetBlue gates, so eager to see her that passengers trying to actually fly somewhere had to push their way through to get to their gates. For all the relationship woes that she pours into her lyrics, Swift didn't have as much baggage as this audience.

The crowd by the stage was sizable — easily 500 people, many of whom had no idea Swift was coming until they showed up at the airport. One woman, Sheila, was supposed to board just as the concert began, but her flight was delayed three hours. She called her granddaughters to brag that she’d be seeing Swift, but they were too busy on the field-hockey field to pick up.

She was more interested in Swift’s music than Stuart, a middle-aged guy eating alone at Deep Blue, Terminal 5’s sushi restaurant. Until he walked into the airport and saw her poster, Stuart said he didn’t even know Swift was blonde. Regardless, he was still planning to go watch the concert when it starts: “Someone once told me she’s pretty good-looking, so I’ll go take a look.”

Others flew in just for the show, figuring plane tickets were cheaper than the black market for Swift’s regular concert tickets. True, but most concerts don’t get delayed because of fog. One family that flew in from Tampa to see her had arrived at JFK in the morning, left the airport to enjoy a day in the city, and came back to find their post-show flight home canceled; as a result, their access back into the terminal was revoked, and an hour before the show, they were left stranded outside the security check-in. They weren't sure which was more disappointing: being stuck in New York, or being stuck outside the concert.

Moments before Swift was due onstage, commerce in the airport basically came to a halt. Shopkeepers lined their stores’ thresholds, smartphones at the ready. Burly baggage handlers still wearing their orange reflective vests came upstairs to watch. Over the PA system, a layman’s voice said, “This will serve as a gate-change announcement,” like a practical joke. And then, a little after 6:30, the nondescript doors opened, and Swift descended. She was escorted past Deep Blue, Borders, and the nondescript gadget shop onto the stage. Once the crowd saw her red polka-dot dress, they screamed in a way that usually summons Homeland Security.

She opened with 2009’s “You Belong With Me” and then, apparently surprised to see us, she said, “Well, hello New York.” Everybody screamed, even though there were likely more people here from out of town than from the boroughs. “I’m very happy to be bringing some music to the airport,” she continues, “What do you think?” The crowd thought that it was time for more screaming.

Most of the people in the terminal’s lobby were now collected around the stage. But a few stragglers held the line. One man in a fitted gray suit tapped away at his MacBook Pro as a preschooler wearing shiny velour pants stood on the table, rapt with attention. Her mom tried to talk to her but she didn't move, even to shoo her mother away.

Swift rounded out her five-song set with “Back to December,” “Love Story,” “Speak Now,” and “Mine.” The acoustics were poor, with her voice drowned out by the bass, but it's hard to retrofit a 55,000-square-foot lobby as a concert venue. More disappointing, though, was that she sang the lyric “I was a flight risk with a fear of falling” without acknowledging the situational irony.

And then, less than 30 minutes after she took the stage, she was done. She left as her band plays the outro to “Mine,” and hurried, head down, back to that nondescript door. She had a flight to catch from a lucky employee.

Photo: Chadwick Matlin