Monday, May 23, 2011

Air America

Yesterday afternoon, I took The Woman to the airport to fly back to Chicago. She wasn't happy about it. There were tornadoes in Missouri, and thunderstorms ran northward from there most of the way to Chicago and even eastward. She was changing planes in Detroit, which meant both of the planes were small. The first was a 2+2, which meant that many of her fellow travelers would be thinking they could cram their oversized carry-on wheeled suitcases into the overhead bin, but they wouldn't be able to. There would be cries of outrage, stalled lines as the flight attendants tried to maneuver the passengers into handing over their suitcases so they could be put in the hold, and surely a late departure.

She was right. The plane was just late enough leaving to ensure that she couldn't catch the earlier flight from Detroit, so she'd have to wait a couple of hours for her scheduled booking. When she got to the gate, the flight wasn't even listed. On the big board, it was already set to leave two hours later than scheduled. Over the next hours, that departure was pushed back and back, as the airline waited for its plane to leave Omaha and fly into the teeth of the storms.

Airports are netherworlds. They are quite literally neither here nor there. Philadelphia Airport is listed on most maps as being not in Philadelphia, not even in Pennsylvania, but in New Jersey. Chicago's O'hare Airport is many miles from the city proper; to keep its tax revenues, the older Mayor Daley had annexed a strip of land, making an out-of-synch dumb-bell of urbanism that had only its manifest corruption to declare its urbanity. International visitors coming in to Washington, DC find themselves hours from the city, in a lush, humid Southern landscape.

Detroit airport is older. Built originally in the '20s, it has undergone a number of renovations, most recently around 2000, just at the point it was clear that Detroit was going under but before the politicians had to cede the city to entropy and decay. That upgrade had the effect of making the airport a not-site; it was reorganized as a "hub" port for Delta Airlines, a place where people got off one plane to get on another, without ever going near the city itself.

And the design of the new version was equivalently placeless. It looked, and looks, like every other hub airport-- with long subterranean walkways enlivened by light sculptures, a streamline-style tramway mimicking the monorails at Disney Land and Disney World, and Mies-like chairs at the gates, directed not at the windows and the hubbub of taxiing aircraft, fueling trucks, catering vehicles, baggage trams, and headsetted attendants with bright green and orange jumpsuits and vests, but front-to-front so you look at your disgruntled, overweight, overpacked fellow passengers as they spill ketchup on their shirts and brush the crumbs of pastry off their suitcoats and onto the floor.

The lighting, too, is sickly and surreal. During the day, the greenish fluorescents in the ceiling contest weakly with the filtered blue blare from the high windows; at night, there is some attempt at a more gracious evening or night-time quality, but it fails. You are left with not enough light to read the paper, too much light to sleep.

The flight left, not at 8:15 but close to midnight. There was an urgent bustle at the gate, with the attendants verging on rude as they pushed the passengers onto the plane in time to fly out through some brief window of permission not spoken of by anyone. The plane taxied fast, turned, and gunned forward, lifted quickly between two high ominous thunderheads flashing lightning from cloud to cloud and cloud to ground.

This plane was smaller-- a 2+1, so there was no pretense of overhead compartments or carry-on rollerbags. Everything went below. Volatile, responsive to the weather outside and hypersensitive to the pilots' small adjustments, this plane danced the way a schizophrenic does: all possible movements, no discernible rhythm or order.

There was lightning all the way and no one got out of their seats, not even the flight attendant. They dropped toward O'Hare through a band of violent storms. Then they were down. It was after midnight but the airport was strangely crowded, packed with people moving erratically, unsure of their destinations, their futures, their pasts. The taxi-line was very long, and the stragglers were outside in the rain, shuffling forward toward the half-protection of the taxi stand far distant.

At 2 am. or so, I got her message. She was home.

By air-miles, the distance between the farm and Chicago O'Hare is just a little less than the distance from Warsaw to London, just under half the distance from Tokyo to Beijing. From above, on a sunny afternoon, the flight begins with the spectacle of the Catskills and the Hudson River, and ends with the industrial sublime of the western edge of Lake Michigan, from the exploding chimneys of the steel mills in Gary, Indiana, past the dense cluster of highrises and the visible traces of Burnham's Plan of Chicago, northward to the dense greenery of the wealthiest suburbs in America-- Winnetka, Kenilworth, Highland Park, Lake Forest. In between, the orderly rectangles of large-scale factory farms demarcate the old grid of Thomas Jefferson's Northwest Ordinance of 1785, which divided the region into plots of a square mile; from the air, you can see the roadways marking the blind, linear thrust westward, and the whole of the landscape looks like a sheet of graph paper upon which a child has scribbled the erratic and disorderly inconveniences of topography: river, hill, valley, ridge.

But it isn't always a sunny afternoon, and the reassuring promise of an orderly schedule, a timely leap from place to place, efficient, technocratic, and bland, hesitates and stutters, and the rupture of the system shows itself, just before you slide down through it into uncertainty.

We believed the land was made for us; it was our right and our destiny to declare dominion over the earth and all that dwelt thereon: great grasslands, sweeps of bison, small bands of native peoples with their settlements and trading paths, the irregular markings made by the snakes and the complex calculus of the hawks rising and dropping to take their prey who run, crazy, erratic, hopeless, from their talons.

We are above all that.

What is left of it cannot be seen from above, where the video screen drops down and the jerky gestures of a primetime tv comedy rerun begins, and you hear the canned laughter tinny in your seatmate's earphones. Crammed into the seat, crammed into the schedule, you have been promised that your surrender of opportunity and its dangers at the Security Gate will give you certainty in return, that your job is secure, your cubicle safe, your family immune from outbreak, your life mapped as certainly as the grid you'd see below if your seat wasn't a middle seat and your aisle wasn't directly over the wing, where the drone of the engines drowns out even the routine announcements from the flight deck that everything is, indeed, just as it should be.

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