It's like the movie "The Terminal," only it's real.
A man has been living in the Vancouver airport since Aug. 17 — at the airport's invitation.
"I can't leave. I'm stuck here," Jaeger Mah explained to an airport volunteer who invited him to a party outside the airport Nov. 3. Since the party happens to fall on the last of Mah's 80 days at the airport, he added, "Perhaps I could come after midnight." Mah, 29, embarked on his unusual sojourn as the winner of a contest sponsored by the airport to mark its 80th year.
The airport invited anyone willing to live there to submit a video application, and five of the 160 entries were posted online for a public vote. Mah, an entrepreneur with a video company and a background in entertainment marketing, dubbed himself "the Anderson Cooper of YVR" and won with 4,128 votes out of thousands cast.
The gig doesn't involve anything close to the discomfort suffered by passengers who've tried to nap in airport seating during a layover. Mah spends his nights at the airport hotel — though he admits to occasional naps in secret terminal spots — and he's got no complaints about the food, either. He's figured out which VIP lounges will feed him and which have the best snacks.
"I'm not sleeping on the benches," Mah says, "but I'm meeting some incredible people."
As he strolls through the terminals in a Hawaiian shirt, shorts and worn hiking boots, it's clear he's become a fixture. Employees wave or shout hello. One stops him at the bottom of the escalators by the domestic baggage carousels and asks why he didn't show up for samosa snacks one day. "I forgot," he says sheepishly with a boyish grin. All is forgiven.
Airport spokeswoman Rebecca Catley says the goal of the project is to show people what happens behind the check-in counters and security screenings at a big airport.
"A lot of people don't realize what goes on at an airport," she says. "We get a lot of requests for behind-the-scenes tours. We can't do that from a security perspective."
That's where Mah comes in. Armed with a digital video camera, he documents the airport's stories and posts them online. "My process consists of Facebook, tweets and blogs," he said. "You're constantly engaging with your fans. You have to give them what they want to see. I'm pimping myself out big time."
For his 14-hour days as contest winner and late nights spent editing video, he is being paid a per diem rate and a $15,000 fee. "I want to devote my life to telling stories," he says. "You could call it some kind of journalism."
Mah's adventure brings to mind the 2004 film "The Terminal" where Tom Hanks' character found himself stranded at New York's JFK airport, denied entry to the U.S. but unable to return to his revolution-bound country. The film may have been inspired by the real-life drama of Mehran Karimi Nasseri, an Iranian expat who could not gain entry to other countries and spent years at France's Charles de Gaulle International Airport. Unlike either Hanks' character or Nasseri, Mah's stay has a definite end date.
Still, he says, there were nay-sayers. "People said 'Don't do it,'" he chuckles. "My dad said, 'If you want to do it, do it.'"
When The Associated Press caught up with Mah on Day 64, he was touring the airport's wildlife control operations. Standing at the edge of a runway with planes taking off, wildlife officer Nick de Jongh taught Mah about the various guns and noisemakers used to scare birds away from planes. Hoisting a pump-action shotgun to his shoulder, Mah fired off a round. And grinned. As the wildlife truck rolled past landing jets, Mah got a tweet from a follower who saw pictures of him in the old airport sheriff's cells he described as like being at Alcatraz.
"What are you doing in jail?" the tweet said. Mah laughed. He's spent nights loading fresh produce into the holds of Europe-bound 747s, helped sling baggage, and hung out in the control tower, which he describes as like being inside a video game. He sat in on a cockpit pre-flight check with Air Canada pilots, then watched the door close and sank back into a wheelchair on the skybridge as the plane pushed back against a "brilliant sunrise."
Mah's social life has not stopped completely: His girlfriend brings him goodies and sometimes takes his laundry, and he takes the occasional night off for drinks and dancing at The Flying Beaver Pub next to the airport's float-plane base. But he does admit to getting lonely.
"I haven't seen my friends in about a month," he says. Catley says Mah has brought the airport community together. "I think he's going to miss this place," she says. "He's leaving a whole new set of friends."
Edith Balslev, the airport volunteer who invited him to the Nov. 3 party, hopes he'll stay in touch when he's done. "I think he's wonderful," she says.