Small Thoughts on Long Distances
Thursday has unofficially become “essay day,” when I post a new or revised essay. Here’s one I wrote in February about airline travel. Hope you enjoy it.
Small Thoughts on Long Distances
Everyone says that air travel is a nightmare, and with good reason. No other form of transportation offers so many opportunities to be humiliated, so many chances to judge and be judged by the smallest details.
It starts with removing your shoes. A natural act at home, but one that becomes fraught with questions in an airport. Do my feet smell? Is that a hole in my sock? Has it been too long since my last pedicure? The purpose of shoe removal-to ensure that we don’t let fidgety, shifty terrorists onboard-leads to shifty, fidgety passengers distracted about the state of their feet.
As you remove your shoes before God and the TSA, you sense the hostile thoughts of people waiting in line behind you. You know these thoughts because you had them, just before you were called up to the x-ray machine. Who brings two laptops with them? How could that person forget they had a huge bottle of shampoo? You see people looking at your shoes. Judging them. I hope those lace-up boots have a zipper somewhere. Who wears three-inch stilettos at an airport? This guy couldn’t untie his shoes before he put his bag on the belt? The subsequent hopping, untying and awkwardness has caught the attention of retailers, who now sell “airport shoes” designed to save time and spare ridicule. Until you get off the plane, that is. Then they seem like a waste of money.
Of course, you’re not done yet; there’s still metal detection screening. In America, you’re presented with a security Sophie’s choice: do you get felt up by one stranger or do you let a roomful of them see that you haven’t quite lost those holiday pounds? If the metal detector buzzes, you get to show a crowd how much change there is in your pocket, whether your belt is really needed to hold up your pants, and if all those “silver” bracelets are real.
After the humiliation of security screening, I like reward myself by buying my more embarrassing favorite things: fashion magazines, candy by the bagful, and tawdry mystery novels that I disown upon landing. You might even see me at a Panda Express; airline food is so awful that I’ll happily eat crappy Chinese food before boarding.
Ah, boarding. If you think the feudal system is dead, watch the priority seating calls on a long flight. First-class passengers float through an anxious crowd, wondering if their cookies will be served warm. Then business class strides through the herd, certain that no one will stuff a steamer trunk above their seats. The remaining passengers are left with a plebian wish list: no crying babies, no smelly food, and hopes of snagging an empty aisle seat after takeoff.
Airplane travel has become a nightmare for a number of reasons: routes expanded, prices dropped and service waned. And at some point, somewhere between complaining about baggage limits and begging for an extra cup of water, we forgot something: air travel is magical. We can go from one side of the world to another in less than 24 hours. And we’re in the air, like birds! I have no idea how tons of steel and plastic and increasingly larger people can stay in the air for hours at a time, but I’m in awe of the person who figured it out.
Especially when things go wrong. My husband and I were travelling to his grandfather’s funeral in a commuter plane when the pilot made an announcement. The landing gears were stuck, and the runway was too short for the landing in our destination city. He wanted to go back to our departure airport and he thought there was enough fuel to do so. We were advised to review the safety landing instructions.
Our stewardess handled the situation with uncommon grace. After regretfully informing us that there was no alcohol on the plane, she told the eighteen passengers to consider landing with our heads between our knees. I looked at my husband, thought of our steel cage crashing on the ground, and told him I loved him. I then whispered my shameful thought: “I can’t believe the last thing I read might be Glamour Magazine.”
“It won’t be,” he said, and he was right. We landed safely and shook the pilot’s hand afterward. After the funeral, on our return home, we went through the TSA gauntlet only to discover that our flight had just been delayed for two hours for the ever-mysterious “mechanical reasons.” We shook our heads at the incompetence, and I went in search of Reeses Pieces and a copy of the New Yorker to go along with my Vogue. If I was going to die in a plane crash, I wanted to look classy.
Written February 1, 2011. Revised October 6, 2011.