United Shuttle Flight #2023

The dust of exploded beliefs may make a fine sunset.

— Geoffrey Madan

The day begins inauspiciously. Then gets worse.

Due to bad weather in San Francisco, all United Shuttle flights out of LAX are either canceled or delayed. My own flight is pushed back two hours, frantic bad karma at the check-in gate, angry passengers, harried and indifferent United gate attendants, and black clouds rolling in from somewhere beyond Palos Verdes. So I'm stuck in LA, but not in LA, for any large American airport is a city unto itself, with its own cadences and secrets and police force, and ringed with Airport Sheratons and Holiday Inns serving up complimentary continental breakfasts in the lobby between the fire extinguisher and the supply closet.

I wander around the airport watching, waiting, watching some more. At the California Pizza Kitchen there's a line. I've had my share of cold pizza for breakfast, but it's 9:00 a.m. and they're already queuing up for freshly baked cheese and meat product pie. One's inclination is to be alarmed, but who knows what clocks these people are on? Some have no doubt just flown in from Auckland or Buenos Aires, and they want lunch, dinner, something to stick to their ribs before climbing aboard another tin can bound for Portland, Detroit, Montreal. I watch two women use paper napkins to pat up excess grease from their individual pepperoni pizzas, then shake generous amounts of parmesan cheese on top. Shortening in, shortening out. Welcome to America.

Airports are their own universe, a strange reality of fluorescent lighting and monotone loudspeaker voices stumbling over the wonderful melting pot of names: “Akbar Muhammad, Gwenyth Rodriquez, Ho-Chi Jones.” And then the fast food places, the bars with televisions blaring, the rows of quiet temporary lockers and newspaper stands and shoeshiners with rags at the ready, all these airport fixtures standing like smooth steady rocks in the middle of this rushing river of humanity, the blissed-out, frantic, nonchalant, bored, angry, frightened faces of the crash and sweat of people.

There are the students in their school sweatshirts and lugging backpacks full of powerbars, class notes and marijuana. They self-importantly hold their textbooks and well-worn pages of “Wuthering Heights” aloft, so that we the ignorant unwashed masses can see their bourgeois pretensions.

There are the bewildered slowly disintegrating families, father and mother not talking, kids playing and occasionally screaming and clutching Gameboys, and everyone from poppa to the 2-year-old now and then sticking a hungry hand into the industrial-sized sacks of potato chips and boxes of red vines. Quarts of soda if the salt makes you thirsty.

Then come the harried business people, a forlorn group of posers and cheap hustlers of which I admit to sometimes belonging. They talk on their cell phones, huddle in twos and threes to discuss strategies to service the client, hammer out value propositions, regurgitate the doublespeak they heard the news announcer gush this morning about productivity curves and ROIs. They talk about the fastest way from the airport to the business park, to downtown, to the hotel for the pre-conference conference, about the best steakhouse in Tampa. Some are in business suits with gaudy oversized school rings and shrinking chins. Many are in casual work costumes, which is another way to say low-brow el slobbo: khakis and t-shirts and ski parkas, and the brands of their overlords marking their nylon bags and denim shirts: more.com, techwizards.com, icentury.com, willingslave.net… so you can see they're movers and shakers, they're going places, making money, returning calls, reprioritizing and dying the whole time… because the name of the game is hustle, hustle from rented car and taxi trunk to airline gate to meeting to freeway on-ramp. Hustle through school through marriage through fourteen jobs and eight European sedans. Hustling, hurrying, scratching, clawing with the juiced heart attack psychosis of a pyramid scheme collapsing into itself, no time to see the trees, pluck the flower, or run drunk and naked through the suburban cul-de-sac night, but arming themselves with mutual fund advice and power point slides and then charging straight ahead into the chasm on a hope and a prayer and a lie. Like Gallipoli, only slower.

By Gate 83, which is servicing a flight to Portland, I feel a surge of contempt: for them, for the discarded newspapers, for the sad ugliness of modern public spaces. Which is to say, for myself in the miserable position of squeezing out a fast buck by selling out a little more each day. Or does it only feel like that?

But by Gate 87 I am fortified by the sight of a hundred Australian school children in godawful grape-colored sweatshirts. They don't look like convicts: humming and sparking with blood and ideas, teasing, testing the patience of their chaperones. They're alive, and happy to be so, unburdened by the sentence of self-awareness, and the cheap air-conditioned corridor is brightened immeasurably.

To the bookstand/convenience store I go to buy a stack of consumer-porn magazines and wait out the delay, and soon enough I am on board. The flight is full, with more than half the people pulling on those ugly little suitcases with rollers that are convenient and fit perfectly in the overhead compartments, but actually are more apt for the deck of the über-destroyer Bismarck rather than a plane. But owning one signifies you are a traveler, part of the club. Myself, I'm tired of convenience and speed, and newer better cheaper. The world can't afford it.

Soon we are above the agony of houses and freeways and banking firmly north, to San Francisco. I thumb through pages of glossy magazines dedicated to lawn furniture and Triple A prospects, the flight attendant bringing drinks and three peanuts in cellophane wrapper. Forty-five minutes later the pilot comes on like the voice of god to say we're in a holding pattern above San Francisco, and an hour later we still are, and getting more nervous by the second due to zero visibility and serious turbulence. Finally the pilot says we've been cleared to land and that we'll be at the gate in 12 minutes.

We begin our descent. Only to have the plane slam downwards, then sideways and viciously down again. Gasps and then a painful silence before we are violently jerked to the left, and still outside surrounded by impenetrable gray wetness. Eyes close. Silence. Again we plunge seemingly out of control for a long second and then shakily stabilize. The man in front of me says to his companion, “This is one of the worst I've been in.” We descend as if through the jaws of hell itself, battered and tossed, lunging without warning down, left, left again, the plane shaking, shivering with the cruel breath of nature's fury. The cabin is deathly silent save for a small child sobbing and vomiting. Pellets of rain smash against the windows.

Then we are above the runway, and apparently trying to land. A man shouts “We're going too fast!” and I look out to see the concrete runways of SFO rushing up in sickening speed. Nevertheless the plane continues to lurch downwards, like a duck with a broken wingtip, and now the gasps and worried sound of whispers getting louder, and we slip lower in the sky only to feel the entire plane, every bolt and misplaced luggage tag, shudder against gravity, with awful vengeance, and then the engines blasting into full throttle and turning us sharply up and faster now screaming over the terminals and tormented shouts of “what happened?” and “jesus christ” and “oh god oh god oh god.”

The pilot says nothing and the plane heads south, and the talk among passengers is that we will, with any luck, land at San Jose instead. More turbulence and then a slow bank to the left and then we can feel another descent coming on. Remarkably this one goes somewhat smoothly. Fifteen minutes later we land to cheers and the sound of the child still throwing up into a bag.

Oddly, there is none of the usual rush to leave the plane. We savor the fact that we're on land again when just a few minutes before we weren't sure. Still the pilot hasn't spoken. We shuffle out slowly, as if into a new world.

Inside SFO it's chaos, long lines, all the same people I saw at LAX have beat me here. It's ugly and cramped and stale. A whiny voice screeches over the PA, and never has an airport been so beautiful.

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