Monday, February 13, 2012

hats, white gloves, and handbags

My mom is celebrating her 70th birthday later this week, but the festivities have begun. My sisters, their families, and I took her to dinner. It was a surprise. Well, I was the surprise. My immediate family lives in Northern California and I live in New York City, so I flew in for a few days to participate in the celebration.

When I fly, I fly direct because connections -- especially during wintertime -- are especially tricky. You never know if you'll get off the ground in New York, get out of Chicago, or be able to land in San Francisco with the weather being so screwy. Money is tight, so I had to book a connection.

I miss the days of glamorous air travel. The days when you actually dressed up to go to the airport: hats, white gloves, and handbags; suits, ties, and polished shoes. Leisurely walks to the gate, kind and cheerful gate agents. Stewards and stewardesses who smiled, shook your hand, and seemed to really, really, really mean it when they said they were happy you were on their flight.

Those days were waning when I was young, but I did get to experience them. That's when Pan Am was actually still in operation and not a retro TV show or kitschy items to buy at flea markets. That's when disaster movies like "Airport '75" ran through your head when you buckled your seat belt. When people marveled at the luxury of air travel, replete with beverages in real glasses, real meals on real plates with real metal flatware. It was a special event to fly in the air, to pass over the Gods on Mount Olympus.

Fast forward to recent years, where air travel is akin to waiting in the Port Authority Bus Terminal for the 195 to Rutherford, New Jersey. This is not a glamorous event. It's a long series of lines, a conundrum of people, lots of screaming and poorly behaved children, rude service, and a cattle call of "hurry up and wait" to get on, in a seat, and go. It's just plain gross.

After a leisurely morning, I left for Newark and arrived at the airport $75 lighter in my wallet. From front door to gate, it took 40 minutes, including getting through security. Breezy! That's kind of glamorous.

I paid $9 extra to be in boarding "group 1" so that I could be the first to shove my small duffel bag in an overhead bin. The small, two row plane (not a fan of those) wouldn't fit it and my bag had to given to the "valet". That sounds glamorous, but it's just a fancy term for "give it to the guy on the jet way and then, upon arrival, wait in line with 30 other people who had to do the same thing in order to pick it up." No real time savings there. And, I guess I really just paid $9 for no reason. That's glamorous!

I had the two-seat row to myself and since it was a quiet flight with little turbulence, I slept until Chicago. That's kind of glamorous.

Here's where the glamour stops. I arrived in Chicago and had just enough time to get my bag from the "valet," go to the restroom, and quickly eat a little lunch. I ate McDonald's. It's my air travel treat. Two cheese burgers, fries, and a coke. It's a perfect match for the unglamorous experience of air travel. If I must endure the trashy delight of air travel, I might as well go full-tilt.

The flight from Chicago to San Francisco was full. Full flights are like being on a hot, crowded bus with chickens, goats, lots of screaming babies, and loud and egotistical business people drinking and talking too loud.

I prefer the window seat. In the window seat you are in your own little universe. You can turn your back towards the row, look out over the world, and wish that you were anywhere but this NJ Transit Bus in the sky. You can control the window screen. If you want it up ... it's up. If you want it down ... it's down. You aren't interrupted by others' bladders. It's easy to send the non-verbal "do not talk to me" cue from the window seat. I am NOT a plane talker.

I despise the middle seat, and that's where I sat on this flight. An older woman was in the window seat reading when I boarded (Oh good ... she doesn't want to talk!) and a fidgety, middle-aged, track suit wearing man was in the aisle seat.

I settled in, buckled up, placed my journal and book in the seat pocket in front of me, and promptly closed my eyes. Mr. Fidget says, "Are you headed home?" all smiles and eager to become best friends for the next 4.5 hours.

"No. Well, sort of. I grew up in the bay area. I am heading there to see my family."

"Oh that's great. My wife is sitting in the next row. We got separated, but we're next to each other. She's wonderful. We have two daughters. They are with some close friends. We're going to visit her parents in Marin. We're in (someplace I can't remember) in Minnesota, near Minneapolis."

Fuck. Shut up. Please stop talking. I close my eyes. He closes his mouth. Waitaminit. A wife and kids? I could swear you are gay, Mr Fidget. You and Uncle Arthur both. No fooling me. I bet you went to one of those "conversion camps" and are saved from the gayness inside. And, yes, your knee has touched mine one too many times in this brief encounter, so now I have both of my legs leaning closer to Old Reader on my right. 

Oh God. Please don't test my abilities to not say what I am thinking. I promise I will not get angry on the subway from now on. Please.

They announce they have to de-ice the plane. The lady next to me looks at me, worried.
"Better to do it than not," I say.
"True," she replies and then puts her nose back in her book.
I like her. A lot.

Mr. Fidget proceeds to pull out food. He has tons of food with him. A salad, crackers, a bag of sliced apples, two bottles of water, a cup of ice, and a baggies filled with mini bottles of vodka. It was as if he were embarking on an epic journey and needed to bring provisions. Granted, I had a baggie of red grapes, so I am a believer in bringing something to eat, since you have no idea how long you may be trapped on the bus.
"I travel a lot and hate it when people have stinky food. Don't you hate that?"
 "Yes. Poached salmon is especially bad."

"I got a salad that doesn't smell. Can you smell it?"

"No. I can't smell it."
Please God, please, do not let us get delayed on the tarmac due to weather. Please do not let us sit here for hours on end. I promise I will be a good man. I will pray every night. I will give change to the homeless. I will volunteer at a retirement home. I won't talk like Marlee Matlin just for laughs. Please. Please. Please. Or ... please smite this man with muteness. Either / or. I'm easy.

We take off. He chats with the person in the seat across the aisle from him, who is his <ahem> wife. They engage the woman in her row's middle seat. They seem happy as clams to chit chat. I sleep. I wake up. I keep my eyes closed even though I am awake. Turbulence. My fake sleep is spoiled.

He keeps ordering orange juice to make personalized screwdrivers with his mini bottles. The flight attendant says that he can't do that and that she will not serve him anymore orange juice. I like her. I like her a lot.

He breaks out a bagel ... with lox. Mmm ... poached salmon. Nice smell.

Maybe now he thinks I am an asshole since I mentioned that before and he won't talk to me.

His wife and her middle seat companion get up to join the restroom line.
"Don't you think it's funny how women always have to go to the restroom together," he asks. "What do they do together there anyway?"
"I really don't know," I sigh. "Gossip. Touch up their make-up."
"Talk about their men, that's what they do!" he remarks while the faint smell of screwdriver and locks waft towards my face.
"Men don't go to the bathroom together. We have strict rules about that. If there are three urinals, guys will choose one on the left or one the right and then choose the stall before going to the center one. And if someones at the center one and the others are available, I go right for the stall."
I am sure you do. I bet you're a toilet talker, mister. Please just shut up. Just shut up.
"Speaking of that, I should use the restroom, if you'll excuse me," I say as a way to hopefully find some peace and quiet from Mr. Fidget now Mr. Drunk.
I make my way up the aisle, take my place in line, and watch "Toy Story 3" on some child's DVD player. Then I hear this voice behind me.
"I always hate sitting in the back because people wait in line for the bathroom and look over your shoulder."
Oh my God. Really?! Are you fucking kidding me?

I say nothing. I wait in line in silence. I pee, wash my hands, wipe out the sink with my paper towel, and take a deep breath. I return to my seat and close my eyes and force myself to sleep.

While in this half sleep, I think about being a little kid and being walked to the gate by my parents. Walking on the tarmac and climbing stairs to get into the plane. Waving goodbye while being escorted to my seat by a stewardess.

Once, coming home from a trip to Southern California, my Aunt Joyce gave me a hand-me-down suit and tie from my cousin Steven. My shoes were polished. I was about seven or eight years old. I felt so grown up. I sat next to a couple of girls who were probably 12 or 13. We had Coca-Cola on ice in glasses. During this flight I concocted this story that I was in Los Angeles auditioning for a TV pilot. I felt so grown up and glamorous and mature. This is what flying was all about. Dressing up, being pampered, being grown up and independent, having dreams as lofty as the clouds the plane passed through.

I wake from this vision of sugar plums to the announcement that we have 45 minutes to landing. Mr. Drunk proceeds to show me pictures on his iphone: his kids, sunsets at the lake house, a trip to Hawaii. I give in and say polite things about the photographs, which are actually quite pretty, after all. I see pictures of his cat. We talk about our pets. He asks me if the murals in Coit Tower are worth going to see. I say absolutely.

We land. The old woman next to me, who has been staring out the window, turns to me and speaks.
"We are far from San Francisco. I thought we'd land in town."
And for a split second I saw the wonder and glamour of air travel. The excitement of visiting new places, the fascination with being high in the air and safely coming back to ground, the opportunities that must exist on the other side of the terminal, out in this new world. And for a split second, I saw her in a hat, and her white gloves clutched her handbag.


  1. love this essay of many essays to come which will be a book. i love that you don't mention what town you are actually landing in. i myself always say i am from san francisco it is much more glamerous, mostly because if you don't say san francisco they won't know what you are talking about. in this situation, i myself would be sadistic instead of as kind as your new york state of mind. i would smile and mess with him by asking questions that will reveal things he does not want to talk about. because then he will leave me alone, or he will come out of the closet right there in front of everyone.

    1. and i would smile politely at him, perhaps asking if i can have some vodka.