December 30, 2011 § 6 Comments
Packed in our carry-on bag is a tile grinder and a microscope.
What devices of mass destruction might they resemble when viewed on the ghostly black-and-white TSA screen?
We take off shoes, empty pockets. We enter the new futuristic scanning tube one at a time and stand, arms raised. It takes a good twenty minutes to move fifty feet, but our carry-on luggage makes it through; we must be entering the national transportation system at one of its soft spots–or else the screener is an out-of-work biologist who knows a microscope when he sees one.
Either way, we’re in.
An airport. We could be anywhere in the developed world, where every airport is a cool, almost clinical space.
Lots of chrome. Lots of easy-wipe surfaces, everything stripped down as if the entire enterprise were a polished tube travelers are meant to pass through with as little friction as possible.
We sit at the gate, boarding passes ready. Although designed for flow, an airport is also built to temporarily warehouse human inventory until it can be shipped to its destination.
Other forms of travel may still involve sturdy shoes, water dripping off a canoe paddle, a paper map, choices. Air travelers are little more than cargo.
But we are balky packages, wired for complaint, and for blatant disregard of the airport’s intended flow. We don’t always read or follow signs.
Today, with passenger numbers at an annual high the system will be tested. We are all traveling with just one purpose. Christmas. And we are all dragging too much, each of us hoping that our own personal too-much will fit in the overhead compartments.
No surprise, today’s is a full flight. We pray for modestly sized butts in the adjacent seats. As I squeeze into 5D I’m reminded of the space allotted a laying hen, which is something less than one square foot.
The passengers around me collectively ignore the flight attendant’s safety dance, their eyes glazing in preparation for sleeping in the upright and locked position. But I watch because I can see two flight attendants doing the ritualized moves, as synchronized as a pair of ice dancers. In tandem they demonstrate the operation of the seatbelt buckle, information long-ago encoded in human DNA.
As they dance, a disembodied voice warns us to turn off electronic devices and store smaller items beneath the seat in front of us, going on to say, “If you are in the bulkhead seat there is no seat in front of you, so please do not try to store your smaller items under the seat in front of you.”
The jet engines roar and the wheels grumble toward our assigned runway. None of us know the number of that runway, or care. We are as incurious as the small items stored under the seats in front of us.
I drink a complementary ginger ale. Doze. Seventy miles out of Charlotte we begin our descent.
Charlotte is a blast of cold air as we walk down the steps in the bright sunlight. Not bothering to look at the tag, I grab my gate-checked bag, which does not look like other bags, at least not exactly. Mine has a white scuff mark on one corner.
Freed from the plane, those of us not needing special assistance behave like electrons, jetting along, repelling each other just enough to avoid collision.
We stop momentarily to check the glowing boards to confirm our next gate because “gate changes are frequent.”
They tell someone at the other end to defrost supper.
They talk business, reminding themselves that they are important, in fact vital to some critical enterprise elsewhere.
For me the cell phone has done away with the one charm of airport life, the sense that I’ve stepped outside the space-time continuum. I used to believe that the rest of the world could be vaporized and the airport would go right on peddling Cinnabon’s, making announcements about blowing up unattended luggage, beeping the less able to their gates on golf carts.
The concourses roll by, along with the scent of cinnamon and hotdogs. We are hoofing it to Concourse C. The rug is worn in places, confirming that although we flicker along fast we still have weight and mass. We do exist.
As a writer I’m depressed to see that as always, just a handful of titles are being read. It is a rare traveler who did not get the message, this Christmas we are reading “The Help.”
We board a second flight. This time when the flight attendants dance I join those who do not watch. I drink a second complementary ginger ale.
We fly in over the gray winter landscape of Baltimore/DC our plane’s shadow out-running the tiny cars on the highway below.
We assiduously follow the signs to baggage claim passing gates where people sit on the floor, read board books to children in strollers, check the departure time for a flight that goes to the place we just left. Florida.
And now we are out at the curb, checked bag reclaimed, carrying a tile grinder and a microscope.
Delivered like a shipment of baloney or paper towels, we head toward Christmas.
Note: On the return trip Ray was singled out for additional screening. While he was standing in the tube, arms raised, the screener had detected “five anomalies.” Don’t be alarmed. Ray was thoroughly patted down. America is safe from the wad of paper towels in his pocket.