Thursday, December 24, 2009

Phoenix airport at night

            I missed my connection.
            I really didn’t miss it; I missed it because my flight arrived an hour behind schedule, which happened because of something else which happened because of something else. There are no more flights to the Bay Area until 0725 tomorrow morning, and it is 10 p.m.
            I have ascertained all of this because I am savvy. I successfully found a US Air customer service kiosk and—surprise!—yelling is not the best way to get things done at such a place. I am always surprised by how surprised people are that their flights don’t go exactly the way they expect them to. It’s like betting on all the high seeds in the NCAA tournament; even though it should, by all means, happen, it never does.
            At the customer service desk I talked to a woman who looked uncannily like my grandmother, if she were ten years younger and had blonde hair instead of grey. I spoke frankly and respectfully and was responded to in kind, which is something I do not think they are used to. I spoke with my parents on their phone, and she seemed to find it refreshing that I didn’t share my father’s attitudes towards my difficulties. The truth is that I find it refreshing about myself; when recently asked what I liked about myself, I had to say that I like that I tend not to give meaning to meaningless events or things. In this case, this means not insisting that my case was special and I just have to be on this next plane and the airline industry is in a conspiracy with the Illuminati to prevent me from getting home. My decade-younger grandmother printed me a new boarding pass, $30 worth of vouchers for the flight (how am I going to spend $30 on an hour-and-a-half flight in the morning?), and told me I was “very mature for my age.” I really think that it’s just that most kids my age are not very mature for their age, but this could be wrong. Though this metaphor could be inappropriate, it struck me as sublime at the time: this experience was a lot like my doubts about school. A lot of people in authority told me that I was great and was going to go far and even that I was beyond my years, but I was still stuck, just like I’m stuck sleeping at Gate A4 in Phoenix tonight.
            If there is such thing as liminal space, surely the airport is an example. It’s a place of mingling, where tourists from Japan rub elbows with American businessmen and crying children. No one owns the airport, really; airports are sterile and full of only the most carefully preconstructed notions of culture, like People and gift shops selling the hats of the local sports franchises. Sometimes there is a token store dedicated to local culture, but commoditization renders it impotent or at least dilutes it. The store across from me—Indigenous—sells mostly hand-crafted jewelry made on Indian reservations in Arizona, and this is a good thing. I support Native American jewelry, on the whole, as a concept. But I’m quite sure this is a huge market for them (tourists, and, more generally, non-Natives) and as such their target audience has shifted from internal to external. They make jewelry not because that is what they have done for centuries but because it is how they get the money to feed their children. Moreover, these days literally a sizable chunk of the world’s population is alienated from the U.S., and so ethnic minorities tend to hide their ‘otherness’ for fear of the ‘random’ checks that become routine to some. I have a friend who is a Punjabi Sikh; this means he wears a turban and has a beard. Even though Sikhs have pretty much never done anything wrong, he’s random-checked every time. Does that keep us safe? I really have no idea. It feels wrong, but I can’t objectively know because I can’t experience both realities.
            Everyone is equal in an airport; what that means in practicality is that no one cares about anyone. Notably, this changes once you get on the plane, in which case you have something in common with someone (a destination, at the least) and therefore have a topic of conversation. Inside the airport, though, no one looks anyone in the eye. It could be one in the morning and I could start doing shirtless calisthenics in the terminal and people who were thoroughly concerned would pretend I was not there. Try it sometime, I guess. Businessmen are the funniest. There was a stereotypical upper-middle class guy across from me, doing the Blackberry dance who absolutely would not look up even though I was staring at the seat next to him like Harry Potter was sitting there with Hedwig. Just to test this theory, I started air-drumming to Pearl Jam’s ‘Dissident.’ No reaction.
            A woman in uniform passes by, and it comes to mind that stewardesses are the most paradoxical creatures. For one thing, they all seem to be the same ages (either 35 or 50; it’s like they come in waves). I also swear that I get the same ones all the time. This could be the truth; I almost always fly US Air (I don’t know why), but I don’t think I fly often enough for this to be the case. I think that it is because it must take a particular breed of person to become a stewardess. Their job is vaguely matronly, but it’s paradoxical in that they are the definitive authority figures for hours at a time on a flight but they spend a lot of that time serving others. They’re simultaneously authoritative and subservient. I think that a lot of stewardesses do consciously propagate the stewardess-as-sexpot myth. A lot of them are vaguely attractive, in a way that mostly works if you don’t actually look at them but rather at the way they carry themselves. This must be a devastating way to live your life, because I’m quite sure there is a lot of disconnect between that myth and reality.
            Strangely enough, I just had an unreasonable hankering to listen to the Stereophonics’ ‘Maybe Tomorrow,’ which I now realize contains the principal lyric ‘Maybe tomorrow/I’ll find my way home,’ which is exactly what I hope happens to me. Music in airports is an interesting topic. I guess a lot of places use Brian Eno-inspired Muzak, but the sole redeeming quality of this sort of music seems to be that one doesn’t realize that it is playing. What does that say about our society, that in one of our most shared locales we play entirely sterile music that can’t possibly offend anyone because it’s designed to be forgettable?
            A lot of videogames have a feature like this (in fact, this basically characterizes why people like Grand Theft Auto), but in GoldenEye for N64 you used to be able to run around and keep playing even after you failed a mission. ‘Abort Mission’ would flash in red in the middle of the screen, but this was really often a very liberating experience. Since you’d already screwed up it was a no-lose situation, and you could experiment with things in ways you’d be too scared to do while you could still fail the mission. What I’m trying to say is that I often wish life were like this—I think a lot of us do—and I particularly wish this were true right now. I basically did fail the mission, having missed my connecting flight and getting stuck here all night, but I could still get sent to jail or something.
            I am definitely getting tired. Not only did that last paragraph make very little sense, but I keep having flashbacks—the kind where you start to address someone who isn’t there. Finally, the designs on the floor are flat out ridiculous. I want to know who came up with this… it’s a hypnotic mix of concentric circles and plane-shapes flying in every direction. I wonder if there is some sort of symbolism going on with the circles. At this point, to me they symbolize why I need to go to sleep: because if I am awake much longer these circles will turn into eyes and I don’t want to be around for that. 
            After speaking with some people, I wonder if there is something wrong with me. I’m essentially unconcerned about this, and my attitude doesn’t seem to be normal. Everyone else is full of advice and worries: sleep with your shoes on, use your laptop as a pillow, put your wallet in your pants (not just in a pocket, but in your pants). I’m just worried about whether I’ll wake up on time tomorrow morning (cell phone battery as dead as Kurt Cobain). Though I’ve been assured I will wake up due to the morning hustle and bustle (or that I won’t sleep at all), I am definitely worried about this.  To this end, I wrote on a paper towel requisitioned from a bathroom, “PLEASE Wake Me Up at 06:00 A.M. Thanks!” (Also: why hasn’t “Hey Hey, My My” been on a Guitar Hero game?)
            Why are all the damn lights on? There is no one here. There are no flights landing. CNN is playing everywhere and I want to kill Larry King (who, I’ve realized, has switched to more contemporary glasses in a conspicuous effort to stay current). US Air is now serving Oslo, Tel Aviv, and Birmingham, and I will be reminded of this 8941 times before I can fall asleep. I would right now if I could.
            There are an extreme number of cleaners in this airport. Speaking of specialization of labor, there are vacuumers, sweepers, and polishers (that I am aware of), as well as cleaning people particular to each restaurant. Working in an airport must be a real suck on someone’s zeal for life; I think I would rather be a taxi driver than have just about any job involved with airlines. Despite all my overbearing pessimism, I think there is a shadow of romance left in the airport. Men at payphones calling their loyal (or not-so-loyal) beloveds. People go places, I assume, because they think the grass is greener on the other side of America. Whether or not it is or isn’t probably isn’t as important as the fact that people still have hope.

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