Sunday, September 19, 2010

Cell Phone Lot

I first saw the sign about a year after the storm. I thought it indicated a place where you might go to buy, sell, or recycle old cellphones. I was in a rush on my way to a job interview at Loyola University, where I now teach, so I couldn’t pull over to investigate. But on the way back out of town, I turned into the lot and discovered that it affords a tremendous view of the airport. You can see the tower clearly, even on a foggy day, and the planes come in only a couple of hundred feet above your car before they land on the north-south runway.

The airport was first called Moisant Field after John Moisant, an aviation pioneer who died in a crash on the airfield at age 37. (The day before he died, Moisant raced his monoplane against a Packard and lost.) In 1962, the airport was renamed New Orleans International Airport, and in 2001, it was renamed again to Louis Armstrong International Airport. Second only to Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport at 11 feet below sea level, Louis Amstrong is 4 feet above the water line.

Essentially across the street from the airport is the cell phone lot. Located at the corner of Airline Drive and Hollandey Street, the lot is a large trapazoidal patch of cement, roughly 200’ x 300’, circumscribed by a chain-link fence. No one seems to patrol the lot which, I believe, is because the airport doesn’t really need one. The cell phone lot was introduced into many airports a few years after 9/11 when you could no longer park curbside and had to endlessly circle arrivals and various airport roadways until your party popped out the doors of baggage claim. George Bush Intercontinental in Houston has a cell phone lot of more than 1000 car spaces, though the lot is called the “Passenger Pickup Waiting Lot.” La Guardia in New York has no such lot and instead hundreds of cars park on the shoulders of roadways or get in line for the mile-long crawl to baggage claim. Whether an airport has a cell phone lot or not seems to depend not on need but on available space. In New Orleans, the airport is only a 20 to 30 minute ride from downtown, and there’s really not that much car traffic in and out of arrivals. But obviously there was space, so in fall 2006 the sign went up.

What I do in the lot might be called ostensibly “aircraft spotting.” But the term doesn’t fit, for example, Wikipedia’s definition:

Aircraft spotting or plane spotting is the observation and logging of the registration numbers of aircraft: gliders, powered aircraft, balloons, airships, helicopters, and microlights. The purpose of this is unknown.

I observe, yes, but I don’t log information, per se, and that last sentence implies that what I do is ominous or incriminating; for the “unknown” is always a threat to someone.

I try to avoid the lot during late morning and early evening when it fills with taxis, most of whose drivers seem to be there to chat with one another. I would guess that some of the taxi drivers recognize me and wonder if I’m casing the airport in order one day to shoot down a plane with a shoulder-rocket.

One time a taxi driver pulled up parallel to my car. He rolled down his passenger’s side window and yelled “Good morning!”

I don’t know if he had seen me before in the lot and wondered why I am frequently there, or if he was simply bored. He was the cheery sort, and we talked—or rather yelled back and forth—a while about the weather, which is always a more serious conversation here than in other cities. He finally asked who I was waiting for.

“My wife.”

“Where’s she coming from?”

“New York.”

I thought it a bit odd that he was taking an interest in my wife’s travel itinerary. Then he began telling me about his wife and two kids back in Egypt—how he’d moved to New Orleans ten years ago, and now had a nice little house (“with backyard and two-car garage”) in Mississippi.

“You drive in from Gulfport with your taxi?”

“Steady airport fares all day long.”

He talked more about his family. His wife had been ill, on and off, back in Alexandria, but he couldn’t return home. It seemed he’d made his peace with having two homes—one here in the present, and one there in the past: He hadn’t been back to Egypt since he left.

“My son and daughter are now teenagers.” He said it without any desire for sympathy.

But I couldn’t help thinking to myself: What in hell do I ever have to complain about? And what am I doing out here at the fucking airport anyway?

I was about to start the car.

He reached up for something in his sun visor: a photo of his kids.

I reciprocated by taking out my cellphone which had a photo of my son holding his Fischer-Price airplane in the bathtub.

“Do you know the game ‘airplane’?” I said.

I explained that over and over I used to watch my wife play airplane with our baby son, pushing him up with her feet against his torso, and how I was always too worried about his getting hurt to do it myself.

He nodded, and handed the phone back to me.

“Of course,” I said, “our son loved playing airplane, especially when my wife intentionally crashed the plane—him—onto the bed. That’s the whole point of the game.”

He said something, but I continued: “One night, we were playing in his room, and he picked up that Fischer-Price airplane.” I motioned to it on the phone. “He cradled it, and then began rocking it in his arms singing Rock-a-bye baby, in the all honesty, at that moment, I don’t know whether I felt more tenderness for him or for the plane.”

I expected him to think I was a total lunatic, but he just smiled. He probably didn’t know the lullaby.

He said something about his wife, but I couldn’t understand him over the roar of an incoming plane. I began to feel a bit guilty about lying, so I told him I wasn’t actually waiting for my wife, but that I liked to watch the planes take off and land. And then that sounded a little juvenile, so I told him about my fear.

He said that he’d been on a plane only once, and didn’t really know if he had a fear of flying. Then, with his thumb, he pointed up to the sky.

But I didn’t see or hear a plane.

“There’s an African legend,” he said, thumb still midair, “that says long ago the sky used to be closer to us—so close you could reach up and touch it. But then, at mealtime people began using the sky as a napkin. The gods moved it higher and higher and finally out of reach.”

It didn’t make me feel any better. But it was a good story, one that I’ve repeated in the classroom whenever my students are having a hard time understanding why I believe myths and legends are still important, or why I am afraid to fly.