Sunday, April 08, 2007

Modern air travel is the greatest contemporary threat to the human soul

April 2, 2007. My flight is at 6:05 pm.

I arrive at Heathrow Tube Station at 4:35 pm. My Travelcard has £3 remaining on it, plus the £3 deposit for getting the card in the first place. £6 is $12. I want my $12. I ask the information and change counter if I can return my card to him and he points toward the enormous line at the ticket booths. I want my $12. I get in line.

4:36 pm and the line has not moved. All of these people have just arrived in London and are going into the city. I'm the only one who has a flight to catch by a certain time. I want my $12.

4:37 pm and the line has not moved. I try to read my book, but I just keep stopping to look at the clock face, cold and unmoving. I want my $12.

4:38 pm and the line has not moved. I crane my neck to see what kind of public transport transaction could possibly take 3 minutes. I see an elderly gentleman behind the counter's glass trying to explain something to a seemingly un-understanding woman clutching a bag. I want my $12.

4:39 pm and the line has not moved. I resolve that if the line does not move by 4:40 pm, I will give up on my $12.

4:40 pm and the line has not moved. I give up on my $12.

I speed toward my terminal, down the people-mover, hopeful that the combined force of my legs and this conveyor belt can carry me through in time. With every stride, my bag slams down against my left shoulder. My backpack strap slides uselessly off my left shoulder and slams in time with the luggage bag on the right. My shoulders throb in rhythm with my steps. I arrive at the ticketing area and whisper "thank God" to a deity I don't believe in because the American Airlines counter is close by.

It's 4:45 pm. My flight is at 6:05 pm. I arrive at the American Airlines line and find it's long. So long I don't know if I can make it. I find an American Airlines employee and ask if I'll make it through in time. He replies by humorlessly asking why I arrived so late in the first place. I have no good answer so I weakly reply, "Not by chance, I can assure you." He says to get in line and promises that "if things get desperate," he'll pull me out. I get in line and pass a sign that says "flights close for departure 30 minutes before takeoff." 5:35 pm, I think. That's plenty of time.

At 5:05 pm, the voice comes over the loudspeaker, informing us all that flight 155 to Boston is now closed. I open my mouth to let out a stream of curses but see children under 10 on either side of me and think better of it. I allow myself a slightly too-loud "what the hell" and politely ask a neighbor to mind my bags while I investigate further.

I find an employee and start explaining to him my situation. He cuts me off at the part about the employee promising to pull me out of line. "What employee was that?" he asks. I look around. The first employee is nowhere to be found. As I scan the area, the new employee breaks back in. "Well what are you standing around for, then? Get your bags!"

The counter agent takes my passport and ticket. One. He reviews my bags and notes that I have a large bag, a backpack, and a boxed hookah from Morocco in hand. Which 2 will I be checking, he wants to know. Just the 1, thanks. I won't make it through security, he tells me. I note that my backpack and box together are well under the size limit for carry-on luggage...perhaps he has some duct tape with which I could stick them together. He asks again which one I'll be checking. I give up the hookah and run upstairs toward the departures area.

I approach the security area and a woman asks for my passport and boarding pass. Two. I pass through the metal detector and the guard standing by examines my passport and boarding pass. Three.

The x-ray operator pulls my bag for further inspection. I glance at the time. 5:20 pm. My flight boards in -- I check my boarding pass -- now. I stand by as the screener goes through every single someone else's bag. I have to wait my turn. I ask an idle guard if perhaps they'd be available to screen by bag, as my flight is boarding now. He assures me I'll be fine and goes back to looking blankly in the opposite direction at nothing at all.

The luggage screener pokes through my bag, swabbing around, looking for something in particular. And there it is: my Moroccan Coca-Cola with the glass bottle and the Arabic label. "A real shame too," he laments. "It's a lovely souvenir." As he holds it over the trash can and readies to drop it in, I manage to convince him to pour out the contents and let me keep the bottle. I collect my things and exit the security area, muttering to myself about how I'm an idiot for forgetting the (totally pointless) rule about carrying on liquids. I pass a counter where the attendant checks my passport and boarding pass. Four.

I race toward my gate, which seems impossibly far away. I run down the people-mover and get caught behind a group of twenty-somethings who are standing still, chatting. Who the hell stands on a people-mover when they are young, able-bodied, and have no luggage, I think to myself. I glare at them as I shimmy past.

I arrive at Gate 21 and find another line. My chest heaves and my hair sticks sweatily to my forehead. As I step in, I ask a young American-looking guy if this is the line for gate 21. "Yeah, for Boston," he answers cheerily. "You look like you just went through what I did. You have a connecting flight?"

"No," I reply. "I'm just an idiot."

A few spots ahead of the American is a primly-dressed middle-aged woman with a young child, perhaps 8 years old. The girl pouts and whines. "But I don't wanna go to sleep."

"Sure you do," answers the mother.

"But I'm nooooot tiiiiiired," the girl protests.

"Sure you are," says mom.

The girl buries her head in her mother's hip and twists and contorts around. "I'm nooooooot."

The mother is unmoved and looks forward, out over her daughter's head, seemingly speaking to the air. "You will be."

I reach the front of the line and find a desk blocking the entrance to a waiting room. As I approach, I pass a large, unattended stack of matches and lighters, any one of which I could easily pocket without anyone noticing. The woman at the desk checks my passport and boarding pass. Five. I take 3 steps into the room and reach a roped off area between me and the air bridge, with another woman standing by. She asks for my passport and boarding pass. Six. I cross the room, taking about 20 steps to the entrance to the air bridge, where a third woman stands by to check my passport and boarding pass. Seven.

As she checks the pass, I ask, "How far do you suppose it is between here and the first desk over there?" She stares at me blankly. I go on. "What, maybe 20 yards?"

Her blank stare continues. "I really don't know sir."

I take one last look at the desk, and say, "Oh. Okay. Thanks." I move into the air bridge. Where I promptly encounter...another line. I think I feel my shoulder tic. I pace my way to the front and reach a flight attendant, who examines my boarding pass. Eight.

As I start down the aisle, I look to my right. The pouty girl is in the first row of first class, settling comfortably into an enormous leather chair that could hold 3 of her.

I shamble my way to my seat in the second-to-last row. I drop my backpack, sit down, and retrieve my book. I try to open it, but my hands are shaking. I maneuver toward the dog-eared page, but the book bounces around uselessly in my trembling fingers, finally falling to my feet. I lean forward and rest my chin on my hands, trying to steady them. I stare at my reflection in the screen installed in the seat back in front of me. My fingertips shift and tap. My cheek tics. My eye twitches. My face is there, but distorted in the darkened screen, the eyes shifted and hollow and empty. My cheek tics again. To anyone around me, I look like a crazy person. In this moment, I am a crazy person. I slide my hands over my face, letting my hair wisp down between my fingers. I gasp for air. I choke and tremble and gasp for air and I pray for the catharsis of tears that won't come and no one asks me if I'm okay.


Mars said...

*giggle* you poor boy *giggle*

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