Feb19 Collecting Air

As a kid, I spent a lot of time traveling alone on airplanes.

I was born in England and moved to the United States when I was 12 years old after my parents split up. Like a pingpong ball being lobbed across the ocean in slow motion, I bounced back-and-forth internationally several times a year between my family. Two weeks here, two months there, and then back again.

During one flight, an older man — probably in his early 60s — sat down next to me. He looked at me, nodded, and took a deep familiar breath as we settled in for the 8 hours we would share together at 35,000 feet. His skin was creased and worn, and his white wavy hair looked like it was sculpted from clay. As he looked over at me, he smiled and the wrinkles around his lips settled into a shape that seemed comfortable and familiar to him. I knew immediately he was kind and we began talking.

I told him the story of my young life so far. About my decision to move to America with my Father. About my plan to become an artist when I grew up. And about Amanda, a girl I had recently kissed. He listened attentively to everything. And then it was his turn.

He told me that his work required him to travel, a lot. That he wasn’t a rich man, but he was happy. And then he told me that he collected air.

“Did you just say you collect air?” I asked with the curiosity of a 12-year-old.

“Yes, that’s right,” he responded. “Air.”

He said his wife had to stay home and take care of the family while he set out on his vocational journeys. Early in their marriage, as he stepped out the door, suitcase in hand, heading to France for business trip, his wife gave him a kiss goodbye, said, “I love you,” and then joked, “Bring me back some of Paris.”

So, he did just that.

He told me that while walking around a Parisian market one afternoon he saw an old empty glass vial that was about 3 inches tall. He immediately purchased it, took the cork out of the top, and then held it in the air for a few seconds while the market-stall women looked at him inquisitively. He then stuffed the cork back in the top, said thank you, and walked away. Later, back in his hotel room, he taped a piece of paper to the bottle that read: Paris.

When he got home, he gave his wife the glass vial and said, “Here you go dear, I brought you back some of Paris. This is some Parisian air.”

Thus began a trend. Wherever he would go for work, he would bring back some local air for his wife. Before long, he had given her dozens of these little vials filled with San Francisco, New York City, Taiwan, London, Valdez and Cape Town. Each one made her happier than the last, he told me.

I remember looking out of the window and thinking to myself, “Hmmm, I should do that. I should collect air too.” As that particular thought swirled around in my head, the man tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Don’t collect air, collect something that makes sense for you.”

Over the years I tried doing just that. I attempted to collect matchbooks, buttons, stamps and coins. I even tried collecting yellow rubber ducks — at one point, amassing hundreds of them. But nothing really stuck; it always felt like I was collecting for the sake of collecting. And eventually, I gave up.

Then, earlier this year, I was coming back from a work-related trip in Germany and I sat down on the plane next to a man in his mid 40s who told me an all too familiar story: He traveled for work while his wife stayed home with the kids, he wasn’t rich, but he was happy. And then he told me that he collected sand.

“Sand?” I asked. “Did you just say you collect sand?”

“Yes, that’s right,” he responded. “Sand.” He went on to me his seven-year-old son was obsessed with the beach and had asked his father to bring back sand beaches from around the world while he was on his work-related trips. So far, the man told me with a proud smile, he had collected eight or nine vials of sand for his son. He said they were all proudly displayed in the child’s bedroom window.

The man looked at me and asked, “Do you collect anything?”

At first I didn’t know how to respond, I hadn’t thought about it in some time. And then I instinctively told him that I actually collect stories —about people, or events, or places, or companies, or moments in time. That I collect these stories and keep them as words and photos. That sometimes I keep the stories for myself, but mostly I share them with others: in articles in The New York Times, in my books, and online.

I turned and looked out of the plane window for a while as we zipped above the clouds at 35,000 feet, and thought about what I had just said, then I looked back at the man and said, “I guess you could say I collect air.”

36 Responses to Collecting Air

  1. Awesome piece, Nick. Very fresh.

  2. Ulysses says:

    Really enjoyed reading that, thanks.

  3. Sam Luciano says:


  4. mike james says:

    Great story; i often collect sand on my travels.

  5. tina says:

    i collect water…i have several bottles(usually Gatorade bottles, weird i know)from the beaches of Florida, Virginia Beach and now i have one from the Mississippi River…..

  6. A. Furtado says:

    Genius. Love this and all your articles!

  7. IS says:

    Sweet but not too sentimental… :-)

  8. Jessica says:

    Lovely :). Read this as I sit in an airport waiting for my next flight. I have traveled quite a lot in this past year – and I have been wondering if or how I should collect anything… I love the sentiment of bringing back something from all these travels… Maybe I will try air for a bit :)

  9. luz maría says:

    Nice article,I really enjoyed it.

  10. Michael C. says:

    Great story Nick. Thanks for sharing it!

  11. lovely story. thanks for sharing.
    you ever see the Sell Air VC Pitch http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wyrFWbGiGOc

  12. Breanna says:

    I think this is the sweetest thing I’ve ever read. I don’t think I’m being too gushy over this, right?(:

  13. Bee says:

    That was really nice, thanks. I enjoyed reading this very much. You kept my interest right to the very end.

  14. Pingback: Collecting stories | digiphile

  15. Marina says:

    I like this story and also ur posts on FB!

  16. Kirtan Patel says:

    This story was made for http://cowbird.com

  17. Deepti says:

    I lived this story. rather moving

  18. Bernd says:

    Hi Nick
    You tell great stories.
    Check all the pictures you made-
    You collect moods, it’s that simple.

  19. David says:

    Great story, great writing. Love it when you update your blog. Keep ’em coming.

  20. nieham says:

    Our thoughts as the birds fly …

    Either take it and live with it or fly someone else benefit

  21. Beautiful and amazing ending. Nick Bilton, you are a poet.

  22. subhrajyoti says:


    What an article to read at the crack of dawn!

  23. sara says:

    It’s realty nice to read this, well if i did collect something,..Then,for myself i collect memories and for others.. i always like to pick up stones of each country or place i did visit and give each one the stone that match with it :)

  24. Julian Green says:

    I really enjoyed this. I keep starting to collect different things – sand from the banks of the Rhine, postcards, matches. Now I have to work out what presents to bring back for my family. Beautiful photos maybe.

  25. jordan says:

    Awesome story. I just picked up your book and i am really enjoying it.

  26. Kathryn says:

    This is beautiful. Everyday I write a few words about my daughter (now 4) – what she did/said/wanted/dreamed/drew.. its treasure.

  27. Sid says:

    I have the habit of collecting stones, and after reading this article I think I will collect them more often! Awesome piece, Nick!

  28. Morning Star says:

    Loved this story. I myself have just discovered that I have been collecting a whole lot of 50’s Americana because at about that time my little brother died and changed my family structure forever and in an attempt to hold on to it I started to collect. To no avail and now I am giving lots away to those I love and really consider these gifts to be a little part of me. Thank you for sharing your stories with us all. I see them as a little bit of you. I may never know you personally but I will know you in words. Morning Star/*

  29. Marlowe says:

    What a wonderful story. For the longest time I, myself, had been collecting rocks and stones (nothing too fancy) from places I’ve travelled or asked of my friends to collect on their travels. Most of the time I got the usual inquisitive or confused stare, but for me it was a physical and emotional gift from all over the world. What a joy it brings to look at my collection at see the world all at once.

  30. Marci McCue says:

    I read that piece like I was a child again. Wanting to put meaning to it all. The only think I know is that in our lives today, we don’t collect dust. …Thanks for the moment of quiet you just gave me.

  31. Pingback: Winding Down | Awake & Asleep

  32. Endang says:

    lovely story.. unpredicted ending..

  33. Jeff Goins says:

    Great story, Nick! I found you via Medium. Your new book sounds interesting. I’ll be sure to check it out.

  34. Cindy says:

    Lovely Nick just lovely.

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