Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Plane Ride.

Travel by plane happens infrequently enough for me that I still view it as sort of special. I like to wander an airport, people-watch, and then burrow into a window seat and zone out. I like the sense of being stateless, in transition, for a moment.

Today's journey is to Chattanooga for a conference, and I am a little harried after getting through security and realizing that boarding has begun for the flight. I'm wearing my warm-weather flight uniform: jeggings and a lightweight t-shirt with flip-flops. The sexiest part of this outfit is my compression stockings, which I've been required to wear for air travel ever since getting a DVT three years ago.

The stockings are black and toeless, so they extend past the bottom of my pant leg and end just at my toes, beneath the thong sandals. I am fully aware that this looks terrible, and part of me enjoys a certain defiance in looking so terrible. I mean, eff you. I HAD A CLOT, and so now everyone must suffer vicariously, by having to look at my compression stockings. Enjoy, TSA! Anyway, who cares? It's an airport. I imagine this is the rationale employed by so many American air travelers who are clearly wearing pajamas.

My day is lunch-free so far and it is 1:30 p.m. I permit myself the financial and ecological extravagance of a smartwater and "touch of sea salt" popcorn for all of $9 before making my way to the gate, or what seemed to be the gate until it became apparent that it was just a place for people to mill around and listen to announcements directing them to a series of "doors" one level down.

My flight is boarding from Door 4, a mysterious place below the actual gate assigned to my flight. I take an escalator down, pass a series of doors, and toddle up to the Door 4 line, aware that I am flying on a regional jet and will have to gate-check my bag while pretending to myself that maybe I will not end up on a regional jet and thus not have to gate-check my bag. It's a little game I like to play with myself, one I always lose.

Anyway, amidst all the confusion, I realize at the same time as the ticket agent that I am carrying two carry-ons with my roller bag, which is obviously unacceptable, so I become one of those lame people who has to step aside to consolidate my bags because I am too dumb to know The Deal when you fly, which is that the airlines prefer that you travel with no possessions at all, or alternatively with all of your things stashed in something the size of a violin case.

My bag full of flight reading is a cheery cloth tote that was designed to be a library bag for a child, a fact I learned only after purchasing it for myself, but one that did not faze me because the bag is still essentially fulfilling its purpose. I shove the cloth tote into my oversize purse, and the ticket agent and I both smile at each other and nod to cement the fiction that I now have only one carryon. She scans my ticket and does not take my roller bag. Maybe I am winning. (Of course I am not winning.)

What is behind Door number 4? Not the plane. Disorientingly, it is a sidewalk with a bus parked in front of it. With no signage and no other passengers to follow, I board the bus and hope that these people are all going to Chattanooga and not to, say, New Delhi, or worse, a rental car facility. My roller bag goes on a luggage rack and I sit on a black vinyl seat just big enough to hold two children or one and a half adults, and watch through the window as the next person in line emerges into the sunlight, blinking and confused. She looks around and then at the bus, like, "Really? This?" and an airport staffer standing off to the side looks at her and nods like, "Yeah, that."

I take the opportunity to call Sir Uncmo and detail my journey thus far. "Yeah so you have to take an escalator that is like a portal to another world. And then I went to something called Door Number 4 and now I'm on this bus. Have you ever had to do that?"

"Um, not since 1979," he says.

"Yeah and it's not even the cool elevating Star Wars bus like at Dulles. It's just, like, a school bus."

I realize I am being kind of a jerk, like Lydia on Breaking Bad demanding stevia and chamomile in a roadside diner. I mean, I'm flying US Airways to Chattanooga, coach. What do I want, hot towels and a handheld conveyance to my throne? It is obvious that plenty of people do this all the time. I just happen to be more accustomed to the AirTrain revolution of the past two decades.

Eventually the bus takes us over to the plane, where everyone troops onto the tarmac, leaving our roller bags in a tidy, forlorn group before we ascend the tiny stairs up to the plane. The whole situation throws me off. For a boarding process like this, I expect to be either a) in a chain of islands or b) in 1976, when I flew for the first time, by myself, at age 4, and actually did get something like a handheld conveyance to my throne (see below).

I remember exactly two things about that United flight. One, I got a set of wings, which was cool, even though it was not entirely clear to me why I would get a special gift just for boarding a vehicle, but who was I to object. Two, I was seated at the very front next to a member of the military — Navy, I think, wearing whites and a cap — and was forced to ask him to open my peanuts during the flight because my little hands could not pry them open, hard as I tried. I remember that this was a daunting request because this man was facing straight ahead and clearly not interested in conversing with someone of my stature. He wordlessly took the peanuts from me, opened them, and handed them back to me with a perfectly straight face. I said thank you and just felt relief that I could have my freakin' peanuts.

On the Chattanooga plane, I fold myself under the space in front of my seat and try to deconstruct my fictional single carryon. My seatmate arrives and I step out to let her in. Then the guy behind her starts to barrel forward as if I am not even there, as if I will magically disappear from the aisle so that he can get to his seat. I swivel to my side and try to avoid being run over. "If I could just — be allowed to — get back — then you can —" Annoyed. Discombobulated. Passive-aggressive. Part of the problem.

The plane feels minuscule and banks a bouncy hard right before stabilizing after takeoff. I am not sure whether my "ahhh God" is just in my head or audible. I exhale and try to quell a sense of panic. Normally I am not a nervous flyer, but these regional jets really test one's faith, especially during a government shutdown that affects the FAA and air traffic control.

It is about at cruising altitude that I realize there is a Big Editor from the Magazine of the organization that I work for just one seat in front of me. Probably there the whole time, observing all of the fails that I assumed had been forgiven by airport anonymity. Drat. I try to erase him from my mind.

Seeing that they are using bigger plastic cups for this beverage service—larger than one would expect a plane of this size to be able to carry—I ask for a Coke Zero, which is what I order when feeling a bit more low-self-esteem than usual. Something about the name and the fact that it tastes more carcinogenic and Tab-like than Diet Coke, my usual go-to.

Did I mention that this trip is for an environmental conference?

The large $5 bag of popcorn that I bought takes about as long as cruising altitude to consume, so I consider it well worth the price. I'm on the aisle and my seatmate has kept the window shutter closed. It's a regional jet with no screens that still has NO SMOKING stenciled over the tray table. Popcorn is a welcome diversion, along with the last fourth of an issue of Food and Wine and the last fourth of Questlove's memoir.

The plane lands and I feel more thankful than usual for being still alive. We step onto the tarmac, collect bags from an unceremonious pile, and march along painted stripes that show us the way to Chattanooga. But part of me is still on that tarmac in '76, when flying was still mysterious.

Music: "After Light"