Tuesday, November 29, 2005

"Mr. Barbicane Takes A Trip" Chapter Eighteen

The eighty some odd passengers who walked through the jet way with Mr. Barbicane when their flight arrived at Pittsburgh International Airport arrived at an empty terminal. For a moment some of them had disturbing thoughts similar to Mr. Barbicane’s when he thought he was alone of the airplane. At this time of night the terminal was quite and unpeopled, as if something had happened to the Earth’s population while the MD-87 was in the air. But with these thoughts came the mechanical complaint of a small industrial floor cleaning machine which could be seen in the distance, ridden by a coveralled worker, polishing the concourse floor. The world had not disappeared.

Mr. Barbicane put his bag on the floor, extended the convenient handle and moved with his fellow travelers toward the internal light rail system that connected the arrival and departure gates of the airport to its central terminal. Having completed his flight, Mr. Barbicane was still a passenger, still someone being efficiently moved from point to point. He was someone for whom plans had been made and contingencies considered.

They moved together, loosely but of one mind, from the departure area into a dead-end space with black glass doors to either side. There they waited, watching the red readout numbers of the digital display set up over the obsidian doors, counting down the seconds to the arrival of the next shuttle train.

As the numbers dropped below ten there was a billowing roar from the other side of the doors that began to tremble at the fluctuations in air pressure contained in the tunnel beyond. A moment later a substantial bulk snaked its way into the station and filled the space behind the doors. The doors of the station and the doors of the subway car beyond opened simultaneously and Mr. Barbicane and the others stepped into a car that was cleaner than any subway car he’d ever seen before. Polished and shinning, it was clean the way transportation systems are clean only if they’re never asked to serve the general public, but instead make two mile runs at airports to demonstrate the practicality and dependability of modern light rail…as long as you don’t ask too much of it.

Once all the passengers from the flight were on the car there was a “bing-bong” sound and the doors slid closed. A moment and the car was jerked back into the tunnel. Mr. Barbicane, who was standing, took hold of a gleaming metal pole in which he would see is distended reflection.

During the walk from the plane through the terminal to the shuttle stop and now on board the shuttle, no one spoke. Mr. Barbicane had heard no voice since the “bye-bye” of the cabin attendant with the plum colored lip-stick as he stepped off the plane and onto the jet way. They had come so far together and yet had nothing to say to each other. Mr. Barbicane smiled at his reflection in the pole. How pleasant it was to travel with people who minded their own business and asked nothing of you.

If Mr. Barbicane had a dream it was to one day cross the United States of America by commercial transportation, changing planes three, perhaps even four times, and speak to no one, expect in an official capacity. To only talk to uniformed people, from sea to shining sea.

The ride through the dark tunnel of what was officially known as the airport’s “People Mover” took less than two minutes then the doors of the car, and corresponding black glass doors of the terminal station opened and the group silently, politely moved into a larger, emptier space. This was the central ticketing and check in area of the Pittsburgh International Airport. It was built on two levels, the lower with access to curbside check in, parking and rental car offices and containing the baggage carrousels, the upper level with various food and other services, all closed at this time of the morning, security and ticket counters and, ahead of them, beyond the core cut in the floor for the metal loops of the escalators, three sets of wide glass doors leading to the feature of this airport Mr. Barbicane was most anxious to experience.

The people who had been on the plane with him started to peel off for the rental car desks and baggage claim, out to the curb to meet their ride or find a cab or climb onto another shuttle to the long term parking. But Mr. Barbicane pressed on, stepping around the escalators and approaching the glass doors which sensed his approach and opened ahead of him.

Beyond the open doors he saw it: The moving walkway.

Is there anything more futuristic than a moving walkway? Futuristic in the sense of not actually relating to the future, just as being moderne has nothing to do with being modern.

Stretching out from the doors to the terminal was a completely functioning moving walkway that “whisks” people along to the short term parking and the Hyatt Regency Hotel. How many forms of transportation can honestly claim to “whisk” people?

Mr. Barbicane crossed the carpeted space leading to the entrance of the walkway and paused before stepping from the metal plate leading to the rubber conveyer belt endlessly unrolling toward the horizon. He took a step and planted one foot on the rubber belt and committed to taking the next step. While his other foot was in the air the belt started pulling Mr. Barbicane and his rolling suitcase forward. He put his feet together and walked no further. He was motionless, yet in motion. Remarkable.

In this fashion Mr. Barbicane was carried along at a speed of approximately 4.8 miles per hour over the inner roadway in front of the central passenger terminal, through the short term parking lot and over a second roadway, traveling perhaps three-quarters of a mile before he saw signage ahead for the Hyatt, like a freeway exit.

Mr. Barbicane took hold of the handrail and found that it was moving at a slightly faster rate than that of the walkway. Looking at his hand he saw that it was advancing ahead of him, stretching out, as if of its own volition. He found this mildly disturbing and took his hand from the rail just as he reached the end of that portion of the walkway and stepped off, coming to a stop directly in front of the entrance to the hotel.

He had arrived at his hotel at the end of a continuous construct of artificial environments. Mr. Barbicane had not been exposed to the air or the sky since he climbed onboard the first plane so many hours ago in Burbank. Since then he had been in what was essentially a sealed tube of transportation that had delivered him to the automatic doors of the hotel which opened to welcome him, ready to keep him safe from the world a little while longer.

The transition from moving walkway to hotel lobby was seamless. This was a hotel for travelers, not tourists. From the outside it was brown stone with one sign above the top floor identifying its purpose and identity. There was no grand marquee, no door man, no sweeping foyer. Only the simple, slightly downward slopping ramp between potted plants leading to the cheerful lobby that looked like a thousand other lobbies; warm wood, comfortable chairs, a wall given over to a flat metal sculpture shimmering with falling water, and a reception desk behind which stood an amazingly young man with straw colored hair and a blazer with the Hyatt logo over his heart and a name tag identifying him as Dave.

Dave smiled at Mr. Barbicane and welcomed him to the Hyatt Regency Pittsburgh.


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