Blessed, blessed motel room. Charmless, threadbare, shopworn, and loud with engine noise and raucous smokers on the stoop, I am grateful to be here rather than on another plane.
What was to be a four hour trip from Manchester, NH to Charleston, SC for work turned into an epic, three plane, 14 hour ordeal beginning when the pilot on the first flight began uttering unwelcome phrases such as “situation” and “forced to lower altitude” and “not enough fuel to get to Charlotte.” That’s how I ended up stuck in Norfolk Virginia. Then backwards to DC, and then finally to Charleston, where I had long since missed the work presentation I was supposed to give.
By the third flight, knowing I had missed my appointment, I no longer had the will to do anything. I sat there, with a book in my hands, and some sort of southern debutante in the seat beside me, and I stared out the window. Much as today has soured me on flying ever again, I still cannot fathom how some people, like my debutante, pull down the window shade and focus entirely on the grim insides of the plane. The window is the only good thing about a plane. Outside of a plane is the only good thing about a plane.
Today, a fierce weather front was tearing across the east, causing at least some of my delays. It made for spectacular sky watching. On the third flight, we rose up through the low cloudbank of the storms and up into brilliant sunlight. Through a thin layer of clouds, I could see the upperside of the rainclouds below us, like a false landscape, canyoned and fissured and white as a snowfield. Beneath that, occasional glimpses of the landscape itself, brooding under the rains. It was only a brief little while that I could see that, before a scrim of gray drew over everything and in close to the window.
During my various flights and long exiles in three airports, I was fretting and gnawing my lip over missing the meeting for which I had come all this way in the first place. Waiting for my cell phone to charge at a weird black monolith built for that purpose, I took out a book. Surrounded by the charger monolith, and by people crying and yelling about missed flights amidst the ignored miracle of giant metal planes launching into the sky right outside, I was feeling oppressed by the first world, and struggling to maintain my composure. The book, a real, physical book, was The Island of the Colorblind by Oliver Sacks. My mind strayed from the text over and over before I finally settled down and came to the last pages to find this:
“Like the cycads, the horseshoe crabs are rugged models, great survivors which have endured. When he saw the giant tortoises of the Galapagos, Melville wrote, ‘These mystic creatures…affected me in a manner not easy to unfold. They seemed newly crawled forth from beneath the foundations of the world…The great feeling inspired by these creatures was that of age—dateless, indefinite endurance.’”
My flyspeck human life and its little tribulations and flight delays, are, I know, insignificant. On a geologic timescale, they are imperceptible, and even in the course of my life, this day will not really stand out in memory. I stood by the cell phone monolith for a while, staring vacantly, trying hard to place a familiar looking man who had spoken kindly to me earlier (turns out, he merely looked like Gary Oldman playing Shelly Runyon in the 2000 film The Contender. I’m sure you’ve heard of it).
I was striving to keep my long timescale in mind, my zen imperturbability, when they began boarding. “Zone 5, your bags will not fit in the overhead bins. Your bags will have to be checked and you can claim them at the baggage carousel.” I saw a young, thin, blonde woman in a maxi dress and jean jacket approach the gate with two gigantic carryon bags. She was in Zone 2, but her unlucky friend was Zone 5, fated to stand at the baggage carousel in Charleston. Maxi Dress wheeled her friend’s bag and her own to the gate agent. He glanced quickly at the bags and said, “Traveling alone today, Miss?” She wavered, sneaked a look at her friend, said “Yes.” The gate agent leaned in, and in a derisive, confidential whisper said, “Young lady, this is for the future. OK? You hear me? I won’t charge you the $25 for this second big bag. But you can’t do this in the future. OK?” She looked confused, uncertain whether he was onto her or not. Then, he leaned in again and said, “Let me spare you the trouble of carrying these and just check them both for you. You can wait for them at the carousel. Have a nice day.” Her jaw was working and she narrowed her eyes, but stalked off down the tunnel. And I brightly hopped up to the agent with my small bag, entirely dislocated from the deep timescale, and entirely delighted, for one malicious moment, that the universe had punished some poor woman just trying to help out a friend. This is the slow unraveling of our moral fiber when flight delays tug on one loose strand.