I am in the air. Below meNew Jersey, civilization that didn't know where to go or what to name itself, New York's maid; New York, a forest of towers filled with Trumps and Boeskies, concrete-spined Godzilla from a jet window at ten thousand feet over Newark; Chicago, an orange grid, symmetrical, pulsing with power, reaches out as if to swallow Lake Michigan. Louisville looks sleepy and small after riding the spinal column of the Western World. But it looks good like that, a better than average mix of elegant and ugly, and I sail over my own house a couple thousand feet up and express some serious concern to myself about the machine's capacity to get us back down to Earth in one piece. If God would had intended men to fly, she wouldn't have created O'Hare.
I don't like hanging onto airplanes with my finger nails. I don't like that "I know this is statistically safer than a car but if this thing gives out it's going to be bad" sort of feeling. Anyone who's not afraid of flying is crazy or numb to the possibilities, or really doesn't give a shit, and I don't fall into any of those categories. I am held away from my Earth, a planet I've grown quite fond of, by a shuddering mass of aluminum that seems to want to shake itself apart. There are clouds below us full of rain and birds and all manner of natural thingsI prefer to be under them. Below the clouds, rain, and birds there is solid ground with streets and sidewalks, houses and farms, fast-food sprawl of endless shopping centers, lakes and ponds, deep forests and hills. Courage is not so much a matter of being immune to fear, because no one is, but in coping with it effectively. I'd probably be coping with it better if they'd let me smoke a cigarette.
There's a matter of perspectivethe things of Earth look so much smaller. The Earth itself looks smaller, but very scarred with the things we've done to it. I'm not really wild about having my world made so small. I know that my world is uncomfortably smallI have to share it with the Donald Trumps and George Bushes so that I know that it's much smaller than I'd like it to bebut I don't need to be confronted with that while strapped into a quivering chunk of aluminum foil five miles up in the air.
We must write of airports as others once wrote of harbors and train stations. I prefer the tourist-pretty reconstructions of old harbors to the tooth-grinding seriousness of most major airports. Everything says threat. I have to empty my pockets into a plastic bowl to assure the guards that I have no bombs or grenade launchers camouflaged among my car keys. I have to show little slips of paper to pass certain points. On the airplane, there are seat belts and emergency oxygen masks, their presence only made necessary by the promise of impending disaster. The airport is a great alchemist's alembic, transmuting wait-ers to fliers, fliers to wait-ers, calms to hysterics, hysterics to calms, and I already bring enough anxiety to it all to keep a self-respecting paranoid paralyzed with fear for a lifetime. There's never a convenient time to die, but this one would be particularly messyno, the plane will simply have to stay up in the air, even if it runs out of gas. This just isn't my time. A shot of Tennessee corn whiskey helps to bolster this magical perspective. The steward brings me something that once was a steak, long ago, before I even arrived at the airport, before we sat for an hour on the tarmac waiting for a fuel gauge in the jet to be repaired. The pilot says in his bored-space-cowboy voice, "Sorry, folks, but the FAA insists that we fix these things before we go into the air." This will be the only moment of the decade in which I will be happy to have paid my taxes last year.
People on the airplanes try to look into the windows of the concourse to see those friends or family who brought them to the airport and those in the concourse windows try to see the soon-to-be-departed peering out of the port hole windows of the aircraft. This is an odd little ritual we play out, peculiar not for its sensitivities but for its futility. It's usually impossible to see or be seen from an airplane. Passenger planes aren't built for visibility. We could have huge windows in them, but we really don't want to confront that much of the open sky at once or see lightning race overhead in panavision when we're aloft. That's why those little tiny peep-hole windows are put in passenger planes. Our sense of security is enhanced when we have the plane wrapped completely around us, separating us from the triumph of science happening just on the other side of that thin aircraft skin.
Americans didn't invent the lay-over, but we've bought it to the current state of the art. Chicago O'Hare is the archetype: a thousand lumbering behemoths, nose to tail sitting for hours below a sky equally crowded; the holding patterns above Lake Michigan with the plane at a 30 degree bank with other planes darting past the windows above and below; frenzied dashes from the arrival gate to the departure gate in the next county; and and lazy, impatient hours spent in mediocre restraurants that charge way too much for their meager offerings. I worry about my luggage a lot, not that it was all that valuable except that it holds my electric razor and most of my favorite clothes. Something has to get screwed up in the mechanical swarm of the tarmac. I wonder if I will ever see my suitcase again. Miraculously, the suitcase finds its way back to Louisville.