Tuesday, November 29, 2005

"Mr. Barbicane Takes A Trip" Chapter Three

A lesser man might have been crippled by this experience. He might turn away, frightened or chastised or bitter, swearing never again to put himself in a position where fate might again play with him so cruelly. But Mr. Barbicane did not declare such a repudiation. The experience had tempered his passion, but did not diminished it. It certainly served to increase his gratitude and his understanding of what a blessing the true status of passenger was. It helped him monitor his emotions as he went through the process, kept him from peaking too early.

The most negative thing was that gap, that space before boarding in which there was nothing to do but wait to see if the starts would align, as they did with much more regularity than not, and permit him the change he sought, the transformation that renewed his heart and lightened his load through life.

It was important to remain calm, to step back, to focus on level breathing, to avoid looking at clocks, to go to a calm, inner place, there to await the moment when an amplified voice, usually female, summoned him to the door, summoned him not by name, but by a range of row numbers; announcing that he was going to be permitted to proceed.

This is what Mr. Barbicane did as he waited. He also filled the minutes by thinking about the journey that was ahead of him. The trip would take him through an airport he knew to an airport he did not. Yes, it was to be a connecting flight.

While many travelers dislike the idea of connecting flights, the concept of multiple take-offs and landings, of boarding, de-boarding, moving through another airport and repeating the check-in and boarding process, Mr. Barbicane did not. To him, a connecting flight was an opportunity for added passenger experience. Sometimes he thought about the time spent at an intermediate airport between connecting flights might be the best, the purest, most transcendental part of being a passenger.

It certainly was the ultimate in suspension; to be somewhere that had nothing to do with where you were going except as a place to be passed through. It wasn’t as if you were even visiting a different city because you never really got to see the city. You were at the airport. You were outside of the city the airport serviced. You were in that wonderfully sealed, ever familiar geography of Airportia. What bliss.

We would land and take-off from the Dallas-Ft. Worth International Airport, the second largest in the nation, which was actually spread over more than eighteen thousand acres of the cities of Euless, Grapevine, Irving and Coppell, Texas. DFW, as it is officially abbreviated, consists of five north-south parallel runways and two diagonal runways, four terminals with a total of one hundred and thirty-seven aircraft boarding gates. It was a beautiful complex of moving sidewalks, swift trams, and an endless selection of hand-held food and drink. He would be one of more than fifty-nine million people who would pass through the place, taking up momentary citizenship in one of the capsulated fiefdoms that make up the nation of Airportia. One of fifty-nine million transitioning through this airport alone. The number made with woozy with comfortable anonymity.

He would spend a scheduled hour and forty minutes at DFW, changing planes, which could mean walking a few yards between two adjacent gates, or perhaps having to take a tram from one end of the busy metropolis to the other. Then he would be pulled into the sky again, on his way to a place he’d never been. A place the very name of which called to him now: Pittsburgh. He had never been to Pittsburgh. He had heard remarkable things about the airport there and had great hopes for the place.

Activity was increasing at the ticket counter guarding the door that lead to the tarmac; more people checking in, confirming their seats, preparing to depart.

One might assume Mr. Barbicane was a great observer of his fellow travelers. One would be wrong. Frankly, they were of no interest to him and for the most part he offered them the temporary social invisibility he wanted for himself. They were a blur to him, an essentially uniform collection of interchangeable types as generic as the people you see clustered around the drawings of buildings in architectural renderings, figures added to give the building perspective and indicate it was inhabitable and welcoming to the general population.

Now a dozen of them were strung out in a line at the counter. Men, women, children, all different and yet all the same in their need or desire to leave this place and go somewhere else. He looked at them, trying to bring them into focus, but found this difficult. He could see the space in vivid detail; the corners of the counter, the red of the lights articulating the flight number and status, the perpendiculars of tense-bar stanchions keeping his fellow travelers in line, but he couldn’t coordinate any information about the people. They were broken up into mosaic details; bags, hats, shoes, hands with ticket folders, hands with wallets, empty hands, the sides of heads, ears, bellies, cylindrical body shapes, bodies with the silhouettes of gently turned piano legs. But he was having trouble coordinating the details of any one person. He couldn’t keep this head with the appropriate shoulders, above the supporting torso, atop the associated legs. Trying to bring their faces into clarity was even more difficult. The faces broke down as well, into noses and eyes and lips, like the elements of children’s book where you flip through the possibilities trying to produce the funniest and most grotesque combination.

He looked away.

There was a cart by the door that led to the tarmac. When he checked in at the counter the girl in the crisp blue uniform told him that it was an experiment in service on shorter flights. As passengers passed through the door, they were to select an insulated paper bag from the cart which was refrigerated. Each bag contained a sandwich, a cheese and cracker snack, an apple, a chocolate chip cookie and a napkin. In flight service would consist of beverages only. The girl then informed Mr. Barbicane that he could take a bag if he wanted to, but since he would be sitting in one of the small aircraft’s first class seats, a full meal would be provided.

He decided that when the moment came, he would take a bag lunch for himself. He could keep it and it could serve as his dinner or late night snack when he arrived in Pittsburgh. He liked the self-contained convenience of the thing. That and the fact that it was free.

The time for boarding would soon be upon him. He stood up, took hold of his bag and made one last visit to the men’s room before returning to the departure area to stand near the door and await the announcement that it was time to board the aircraft.

The girl who had rechecked him for the flight and informed him of the bag lunch service picked up the handset of a phone hidden under the lip of the counter, punched in a code to give her access to the immediate area’s public address system and told the waiting people the flight was ready for them. She then explained how the passengers would be segregated to better facilitate boarding. Older people, people traveling with small children and people who for unstated reasons felt they needed extra time to find their seats were encouraged to board the plane at this time. Then first class passengers and passengers with an elevated status due to the amount of travel they did on this particular airline would be invited to step outside. Mr. Barbicane was part of this group. Others would be permitted access to the plane based on their seat location.

There were only a handful of people who fit the specifications of the first group so it was all of perhaps two minutes before the group containing Mr. Barbicane was invited to step forward.

He did so, boarding pass in hand, the space between his status as unremarkable person and passenger was now measurable in feet. Another pretty girl examined his boarding pass and returned it with the wish that he should have an enjoyable and rewarding journey. He thanked her, took a bag lunch from the cart near the door, then stepped out into the morning sun blasting the tarmac.


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