Tuesday, November 29, 2005

"Mr. Barbicane Takes A Trip" Chapter Eleven

While the senior cabin attendant took the opportunity to be the first to welcome Mr. Barbicane and the other passengers to the Dallas-Ft. Worth area and remind them that this was a particularly expansive airport and therefore it would take the pilot considerable time to reach the gate and until that time, until the moment when the nose of the plane was tucked into place and the segmented corridor of the jet way was secured and the canopy folded over the top of the aircraft and the door was about to be open, Mr. Barbicane and his fellow travelers were asked, no, stronger than asked, requested, for their own safety, to stay seated with their seatbelts in place, while this mixture of welcome and warning came through the public address speakers, bringing with it the additional caveat that even once the aircraft had stopped and the light had been turned off and all would be free to stand and reclaim their luggage, even then care should be taken in opening overhead compartment in which items may have shifted during flight, Mr. Barbicane continued to look out his window.

Out there the lights of the various airplanes, luggage tractors, security vehicles, gas trucks, the lights of the runways themselves, were echoed by vertical smears in the wet pavement of the taxiway. Beyond the airport he could see the horizon compressing, squeezing down against the Earth as the thunderstorm he’d just passed through closed in on the airport. There were stuttering eruptions of white light within the clouds and the thin strikes of lightning that actually managed to escape the storm and lance down were impossibly bright, and seemed, at this distance, no thicker than the width of the cut on the side of Mr. Barbicane’s index finger.

While he had arrived, he had not arrived at his final destination so the immunity of his status as traveler was undiminished. He was a citizen of Airportia with all the rights and privileges associated with that status. He could move with absolute freedom within in the airport, having already passed security and having no plans to go outside the warmth of the secure sections of the terminal. Coffee and a snack were waiting for him. A small, albeit overpriced, package of band-aids was waiting for him, untold magazines and the great tidal surge of his fellow citizens working their way from one coded door to the next, going from arrival to departing, going from A-36 to C-19. Moving not from place to place, but from one set of coordinates to another set. Navigating the polished floors and flat carpeted landscape, usually covered by a roof which seems not attached to the building, but floating above it, letting light in at the sides.

Few things in life pleased Mr. Barbicane more than walking with his bag from one gate to another in an airport in a city he would see only in pleasant pictures affixed to the walls of the corridors he transversed. These pictures were meant to communicate the wonders of the particular city, how it was a place of industry and entertainment, commerce and relaxation, that the place was both modern yet rooted in the solid tradition of history. There was usually a night photo of the cityscape with its tall buildings punctured by lights. There was always a photograph of two people, a man and a woman, the man in a suit and tie, the woman in a red dress, seated at a table in a restaurant with a candle set between them, the candle flame caught in some sort of filter that split its light along two axis like the traditional depiction of the ornament on the top of a Christmas tree. In this photo the woman is always holding a glass of wine and she is always laughing. There would also be a photo of a meeting taking place during daylight in one of the skyscrapers depicted in the night shot. In that photo a group of people, both men and women, people of all ethic backgrounds, none of them old, sat at a long table placed against floor to ceiling windows overlooking the city while one of their number stood by a chart on an easel and pointed at positive information on a graph. There would be photographs of families with children engaged in some of the many recreational opportunities afforded within easy reach of the places of commerce. Sometimes these recreational opportunities were of an outdoor, natural sort. Sometimes they indicated that a large amusement complex was located near by.

While the intent of these photographs was to differentiate the glories of one city from another, Mr. Barbicane took great comfort in their uniformity. They wanted him to know that America had ceased to be a threatening amalgam of difference and conflicting opinion. It was now a place of coherent thought, directed toward industry and pleasure. What particular regional difference there might be had been contained and focused, made familiar and safe. He had never seen any of the cities he saw depicted in these murals that graced the hallways of Airportia. Perhaps they were all the same city. Perhaps they were no city at all. Perhaps the models in the photographs were selected for their attractive looks and ability to communicate comfort and were photographed without knowing where it was their faces were being used or to what civic purpose, photographed in some general location that could be made to look like different cities, subtly different cities, always familiar in their subtly difference.

Some might consider this blandness and take offense. Mr. Barbicane did not. He saw it as a restful leveling off of America, a smoothing of differences. They represented less an actual city and more of the ideal of a city. A traveler who never crossed the security line, never claimed his or her baggage and took a cab into the heart of the place, there to do business or seek pleasure, would look at these pictures and take away the reassuring knowledge or at least the reassuring believe that somewhere the difficulties of American cities had been resolved and citizens lived in harmony. There was the potential of happiness anywhere because happiness had been attained here…wherever here might be. Such a traveler might leave the airport of the city he never visited with a sense of nostalgia, possibly longing for the things seen only in the large, bright photographs, usually in the form of tremendous transparencies illuminated from behind. He would remember what he didn’t see and, perhaps, in time, forget that he hadn’t actually seen them. They would then move from the memory of seeing a photograph to the memory of the thing photographed. As one ages, it becomes increasingly difficult to tell the difference between the two, and the value of being able to make such a distinction is arguable at best.

A man in a yellow rain slicker with a hood and pants of the same water repellant material came into Mr. Barbicane’s view as the plane turned down the wide alley between two terminal fingers. The man held a flashlight in each hand, the end of which was extended by a plastic cylinder that glowed an imperative red. He used these two frozen torches to direct the aircraft into a second turn which left it facing the terminal finger. Gestures were made with the flashlights as the airplane slowed then stopped. The guardian angel then approached the plane and was lost from Mr. Barbicane’s sight. The last he saw of him he was ducking down to walk under the belly of the machine.

There was a bump as the jet way nuzzled the forward cabin door. Then the pilot turned off the FASTEN SEATBELT light and Mr. Barbicane lifted the face of the buckle to release the apparatus that had held him as he flew.


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