Tuesday, November 29, 2005

"Mr. Barbicane Takes A Trip" Chapter One

Mr. Barbicane liked travel. Not going places, but traveling; being in motion, being between this place and another place. Suspended. Occupied with the tasks of travel.

He liked packing. Buying small “travel” size items in the drugstore. Arranging to stop the mail and the newspapers. Adjusting timers on lights in different rooms of his house so that it would appear not only that the house was occupied, but that the occupant had an elaborate schedule of moving from one room to another, turning on some lights, turning other lights off. Making sure that the last light left burning was the one in his bedroom in order to give the impression to anyone watching the house that the owner had retired for the evening and was, perhaps, reading in bed for a while before going to sleep. He set the timer for that light to go off at one a.m. The things most people hate about travel were the things that gave him the most pleasure.

He liked airports. The civic motion of the places, the need to have certain documents in order to be able to proceed from point A to point B. He liked pulling a suitcase along endless terminal corridors, past repetitions of the same franchise food and drink storefronts; like a stretch of hermetically sealed completely artificial main street. Others recoiled from this processed experience, from this pretend life. He did not. He took comfort in it. It made no demands of him.

He liked airplanes. He was in childlike awe of the technology. He had limitless respect for the people who were able to maintain and control these remarkable machines. He enjoyed the consistent service of cabin attendants and strove to make their job as easy as he could. Others complained about the quality of food and drink while flying, but he did not. He simply marveled at the very concept of sitting in a relatively comfortable chair and eating hot food while hurtling through the sky, suspended by the Bernoulli Principal; a scientific given he didn’t understand and couldn’t articulate, but believed in completely. He liked the power of the engines. He liked the beads of moisture occasionally trapped between the double pained porthole glass. He liked the smell of jet fuel and the colorful crowds of parked cars in the parking lots swooped over upon arrival and departure.

He liked hotels. Convenient hotels. Practical places with practical furnishings contained by practical, useful architecture. What others thought bland and predictable, he found comforting and uniform. He liked the generically welcoming lobbies, especially the ones with fountains. He like the orderly transaction of checking in and going to the elevators. He liked walking down hotel corridors, anonymous spaces decorated to feel like someone’s home, but never looking like any home anyone’s ever seen. He liked the large mirrors that always face the elevators on the individual floors. He liked the groaning complaint of the ice machine locked in its lonely room at the end of each corridor.

He liked hotel rooms. Simple, logical boxes containing anything a traveler might want or need during his brief stay. He liked the many telephones, more than a single person might need, but all at your disposal. He liked the glowing digits of the clock radios. He liked the faux-headboards always bolted to the wall and not the bed frame. He liked the televisions that were usually hidden in amoires above the mini-bars. He did not like mini-bars, but found their existence in no way reduced his pleasure of the overall hotel room experience. He liked the sealed windows, especially when they overlooked parking lots, and the controls of the heating and air conditioning systems either mounted to the wall, or hidden behind a small metal door in a unit built under the window. He liked card keys, rectangles of plastic you slide into a slot above the door handle which resulted in a small prick of green light to let you know you were expected and would be welcomed by the empty room beyond the door.

He liked renting a car. The idea of a large corporation finding you substantially trustworthy and able that they would entrust several thousand dollars of their machinery to your care in a world full of collision and catastrophe. He liked the plastic key-fob with the company’s logo and car’s information all there, dangling below the ignition as you drove unfamiliar roads and listened to unfamiliar radio voices. He enjoyed discovering the tricks and secrets of different dashboards. What combination of taps and slides worked the windows and vents. He like the different mechanical tapping sounds different turn signal indicators make. Always sounding mechanical and not electronic. As if there was a real clockwork device of some sort creating the noise by physically tapping two pieces of metal or plastic together. All around you in the cockpit of the modern automobile there are tones and beeps and sighs and voices, there are glowing screens crawling with information, numbers flickering up and down as you increase speed or change CDs. But the turn signal indicator noise always sounds organic amid all these synthetic warnings and confirmations. A click. Like the small metal cricket toys he remembered as a child.

Two pieces of metal, forged together, one painted like a cricket or a frog, the other stiff and flat. You pushed the undecorated piece until it snapped, the hollow of the other piece amplifying the sound. Click. Then you release the metal and it snaps back to its original position. Clack. Was it really something you could consider a toy? It was certainly a noise maker, but was it a toy? What was supposed to be so amusing about the manufacture of this one, rather this pair of sounds?

And why had the automobile industry decided that everything else about the driving experience should be dragged into the future, but this one element, this one sound would never change? Tick-tock. Tick-tock. Tick-tock. Then, upon completion of the turn and the righting of the wheel, that other thunk of the turn signal clunking back to its neutral position. This they decided to hold on to. He was glad they had, but he still wondered why. And he wondered how the sound itself was produced. By what agency or device, tucked in among the diodes and displays.

Destination was of no concern. Neither was the purpose of the trip. The solace, the relief, the pleasure came from being in that flux state, that not there, not here, but somewhere between the two. Motion lifted his spirits. It made him feel safe, untouchable. He was no more or less important than the traveler in front of him on the line to remove their shoes or the traveler behind him, the one complaining about the additional security.

He liked the additional security. He liked the double checking of documents, the additional searches, the additional questions, the need to prepare himself for the metal detector and the random attention of the bored looking security personnel. What was irritation to others, was another chance to cope for him.

He liked putting his change and wallet and wrist watch and sometimes his belt in the small tray and sending it through the x-ray machine. He liked even more the retrieval of those personal items on the other side of the metal detectors. He stood at the end of the conveyor, reclaimed his possessions, each one now a prize to be savored; the watch back on the wrist, the wallet back in the pocket, the change and keys in another pocket. With the reinstatement of each item his satisfaction would grow.

Travel made demands, immediate demands that had to be dealt with. Challenges to respond to and rise above, filling his life with a multitude of tiny victories which must eventually add up to a triumph. The nature of that triumph had not been revealed to him. All he knew was that each petty task accomplished brought him nearer a summit tantalizingly obscured by boiling clouds.

And in the meantime, there was the accomplishment of travel. A real accomplishment measurable by boarding passes announcing the miles transversed and hotel bill print outs detailing each meal and phone call, each night. Life made tangible.

In that bubble of movement he felt more alive than when he was still and surrounded by his possessions. In the wave that was travel there was nothing to prove. It was all about movement, about the lateral gravity that pulls you from place to place. In this transitional condition, he felt he was free of the responsibility to control his life, and he could see the physical manifestations of that liberating surrender all around him. It was peaceful. He was not a failure. He became buoyant, drifting above the process. Patient, practical, compliant, cooperative, good-natured, he did nothing to impede the travel of others or the important work of those who facilitated his movements. No one could say a bad word about him. No one would even remember he had been among them.


Post a Comment

<< Home