Saturday, November 7, 2009

Into the Great Wide Open

I am on a trip to Washington D.C. for the American Studies Association annual meeting.

At the New Orleans airport, drinking a Naked juice and waiting for my flight to board. It will be the first time I’ve flown on an Embraer 170 regional jet, and I wonder: what will happen? What new sensations will I have, unfamiliar to my Airbus and Boeing mind? Settling into my seat, I hear a new noise: the armrest that divides the two seats slams down—no thin rubber shock absorber—making a jolting POP as metal hits metal. That seems low-tech. Then: I’m in a ‘window seat’ without a window. 9A and 9F, apparently, are absent windows even though they are, technically, ‘window seats’. Are these bad omens?

The plane taxis, and I hear familiar lurching and whirring sounds. At the end of the runway, the engines rev to maximum thrust, we go down the runway, and we are in the air. Everything is fine, a takeoff like normal—if taking off at well over 100 miles per hour and rocketing into the sky can be called ‘normal’.

A little turbulence, but otherwise an uneventful flight, made doubly uneventful because of my windowless window seat. So, instead of looking out at the lights of towns below (because I can't), I work on an article I’m trying to finish.

The plane lands with the traditional BUMP-bump. We taxi to the gate. I see Washington Dulles out the window, getting closer: it is long and sleek, a little concrete wave blinking with lights, thank you Eero Saarinen. But we taxi past it—way way past it. We arrive at our gate, at which point I think I must have gotten disoriented and that we must have circled around. But no: we are in a separate concourse. I only learn this, though, after tromping down a very gradual decline, a carpeted hillside, following the signs that say BAGGAGE CLAIM to the point where I have to board a gigantic, wide bus. This bus, which is called a "transit lounge" by an announcement overhead, looks like it’s out of Star Wars. We wait until it is jam-packed with passengers and their constantly tipping-over roller-bags, at which point it pulls away from the concourse and roves toward the terminal building, sounding eerily like it has jet engines.

Then, a long taxi ride to my hotel. My taxi driver visits Michigan every summer, so we have that to talk about. I ask him if he has ever visited the Sleeping Bear Sand Dunes; he tells me about he prefers to drink vodka in a motel pool near St. Ignace.

Dropped off at the hotel, you find yourself turned from an I to a you. You find yourself too tired to find exciting food down the block, and so you end up in the hotel restaurant, eating a “Cheddar Steak Burger” and drinking enormous glasses of an Argentinean cabernet sauvignon. You find yourself tapping your feet absurdly along to Tom Petty. You find that you know the words, culled from 15 years ago or more. You find yourself missing your mate, and your cats. You find yourself thinking, what a strange plane event.