Tuesday, November 29, 2005

"Mr. Barbicane Takes A Trip" Chapter Two

This particular trip began well in that it began at the Burbank Airport which he much preferred to the larger Los Angeles International Airport. Certainly the Burbank Airport was closer to his home and allowed him to leave much later and park at a much more reasonable rate closer to the airport, but central to the pleasure of flying out of Burbank is that it was one of the few remaining facilities that, because of its history of more than seventy-five years of service, it was built at ground level. This meant that passengers had to walk outside of the terminal, cross the tarmac and actually climb a set of stairs to reach the cabin door of their aircraft.

This ritual of leaving a building to enter a plane is something most associate with those distant days before the “jet-way,” the flexible hallway that snakes from the departure area to the open hatch so that you begin your flight by walking through a fluorescent chute that feeds you toward the plane like animals on their way to market. A herd of travelers.

But at Burbank, you walk out into the weather, and climb the stairs like countless diplomats and movie stars in countless news photographs. You move with The Beatles and Marilyn Monroe. Reaching the top of the stairs there is the often irresistible urge to turn and wave once more for the cameras, or at least the coveralled workers on the baggage tractors.

This ghost of air travel past pleased Mr. Barbicane. It was a small symbol, but a potent one and meant that the trip would be well begun.

He had arrived early…he always arrived early…made his way from ticket counter to security to men’s room to newspaper stand to departure area where he checked in again, showing his boarding pass to the ticket agent who smiled and agreed with him that he was all set, then he sat in one of several chairs bolted together and secured to the floor near the door that would open to the tarmac and the aircraft beyond. He sat with his one practically packed and dimensionally acceptable carry-on bag and waited. Waited for that moment of transition when he would officially become a passenger.

These moments before the transformation left him feeling vulnerable and somewhat anxious. Arguably he was already a passenger. He had made a reservation, paid for his ticket, passed through the security check point which was clearly labeled at the point beyond which only PASSENGERS WITH BOARDING PASSES were permitted to go. Yet there was always the possibility that something might deny him that final transcedency of status. There might be mechanical difficulties or scheduling problems that could result in the cancellation of the flight.

The thought of this stoked his anxiety. He was reminded of a grim night begun at this very airport a few years earlier. He had arrived on time and gone through the process of search and inspection. But he was still merely a customer and not a passenger. To become a true passenger, one must slip the surly bonds of earth and escape into the sky, sever all ties with a terrestrial identity and move into the clouds like a watchful angel.

On the night in question he was denied that ascendancy. His short flight from Burbank to San Francisco was at first delayed because of weather and “traffic.” This was common with San Francisco so there was no initial concern. But as the evening and the waiting stretched on he became increasingly skeptical of his ability to leave. This churned his mind in a most distressful fashion. The degree of that distress was in itself distressful and served to increase his apprehension. Apprehension had spilled over into something like desperation when the announcement finally came that the flight had been canceled.

The airline regretted this unfortunate event. Their representative, a young woman named Connie, acknowledged the inconvenience this might create among the waiting people and, on behalf of her employer, took full responsibility for the situation. In an effort to make amends, passengers would be rebooked and complimentary travel vouchers supplied. But they weren’t passengers. And now they would not be passengers.

He took the voucher and new boarding pass for a flight the next day from the lovely hand of young Connie, a woman of perhaps twenty-eight years. He watched her peach colored lips form the words of apology but heard nothing of what she said. She could not be heard over the turmoil of his mind.

So close to that elevated station, that condition of motion, he was now turned away at the very gates of Valhalla, cast out of the terminal into the thick Burbank heat, forced back into that earthly status he had dearly hoped to escape.

What followed was one of the most miserable nights of his existence as he had to reverse the order of the steps that had brought him to the brink of happiness. The shuttle bus to the long term parking lot, the walk from the bus to the car, then the exit from the lot which included the challenging look from the lot attendant when the parking ticket was processed and the shameful truth that his “long term” parking had lasted less than three hours appeared accusingly on the screen. Then home to a house that had gotten on without him, that had been programmed to exist in his absence and now was forced to receive him, take him back. He felt like an invader. Like a housebreaker. Some fetishistic interloper who went into other people’s homes, used their toothbrushes, slept in their beds, pretended to belong.

He thought the night would never end. At the first light of dawn he left the house, shrinking away from his now accusatory windows, to return to the airport hours before his rescheduled flight. But the rituals that so calmed him the day before only served to agitate him; he knew that no matter how deeply into the process of benediction he managed to get, it could all be taken away from him.

He had done nothing to deserve the previous expulsion and there was nothing he could have done to prevent it. While powerlessness was one of the things he strived for by becoming a passenger, this inability to achieve passenger-ness through no fault of his own left him shaken, as if he’d never considered how arbitrary life could be.

The repeated gestures of that morning did nothing to calm him. His mouth was filled with a tense, acrid, bile sort of taste as he waited to board. And when the plane finally pushed back, finally lumbered onto the taxi way, finally reached the end of the runway, finally charged forward, angled up and left the earth, he unlashed his seatbelt the moment the captain gave him permission and rushed to the phone booth sized bathroom and threw-up into the brushed metal of the toilet, squeezed by terrible crushing waves of nausea that produced little more than viscous strings of yellow mucus that were pulled into the belly of the aircraft by a swirl of blue liquid.

The ghost of that experience never left him. It arrived like the distant warning of an impending headache during that suddenly stressful period between checking in and boarding. It was the reminder that the gift of flight could be revoked without courtesy or explanation. The realization that his desire to leave was not a strong enough force in itself to achieve escape. There were forces at work. Forces that cared nothing for his needs or worthiness.


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