The big day at last. I cut my hair (off), put on my straw traveling hat and drove myself to work with my luggage, including the huge hard-sided thing once purchased for a long trip to Germany. It was the “smallest” suitcase I had that would fit everything I needed for the New Orleans trip; I didn’t technically “need” all of that space, but, since I had the space, I filled it, naturally. This is human or at least American nature. Just look at our suburbs.
I reviewed my data work and couldn’t find any more problems, and, in the last minutes before Kevin arrived to give me a lift to the airport, I managed to turn in the tables of results that have been something of a Holy Grail in their elusiveness until now. This was a nice high point to hit before leaving on vacation.
I had tried to check in for my flight online, but the Air Tran system didn’t like me, so I had to wait in line in the airport. I checked my bag with a surly, tight-lipped clerk who neglected to tell me what gate I was heading for. When I glanced at my boarding passes to find out, I read the gate for my Atlanta connection by mistake and ended up waiting in the wrong line, only to be ridiculed by a TSA agent and directed to the right one. I found myself thinking that the security lines didn’t seem as long as they sometimes do, only to realize that “seems” is the operative word. Unless I miss my guess, the actual screening checkpoints have been moved further into the concourse, leaving a larger no-man’s land for the line to snake back and forth through before it has to spill into the side hallways. So just an optical illusion. Meanwhile, as we waited and shuffled patiently along, a large crowd of people who were running late for flights was allowed into line ahead of us. An irate man behind me must never have been late for anything in his life, because he was huffing and snorting indignantly in the universal mating cry of the self-righteous, looking for validation from another of his kind. “Guess next time I’ll be disorganized and get here late and then just jump in line… Hey! There’s a line here!” In his mind, these people need to be punished or they’ll never learn to be as good a citizen as he is. These people.
Once through security, I saw that I had about a half hour to kill before boarding and stopped for a beer at one of the concourse bars. There were no seats, so I found myself standing around near the bar but really in the traffic lanes of the concourse, sipping my beer and watching the people. Two small girls walking by grew silent when they saw me. Maybe it was the straw hat. Over by my gate, I sit down to make a few notes and can’t help but jot down some of the conversation between a portly middle-aged middle-American type, his neck spilling over the back of his collar, and a primly dressed black man I take for an African or Caribbean islander, due to the unfashionableness of his gold-rimmed aviator frames and close-cut suit.
The white man talks and the black man listens, and it goes something like this: “He’s a liberal Republican, which isn’t a bad thing to be… Mistakes were made, but mistakes have always been made… I don’t know what the answer is… I’m not a prude, but I just don’t want that picture put in my head… The problem is that a lot of people on both sides are talking out of their asses… I can’t say I’m a conservative all the way down the line, I mean, I have a wife and daughters… I’m independent, I could vote for whoever I want to… We need intellectual thought more than anything right now, but we just have idiots instead.”
Our pilot seemed to be feeling his oats. He began to accelerate for take-off before completing his turn onto the runway, throwing everyone to the right as if in a car taking a corner at speed, and then, once we bounced aloft, it seemed to me that we climbed at a much steeper angle than usual. Once we gained some altitude, we spent almost a full minute making a tight turn to the south, banked at least 25 degrees from horizontal the whole time. This was a little unnerving at first, but, since I had time to get used to it, I found myself enjoying the view (I was on the downward tilting side).
Once we were at a cruising altitude, with no more ground to look at, I cracked open my new Cormac McCarthy book, No Country for Old Men. I’d started this on Monday night and had found it such fast going that I had to put it aside through force of will to make sure I’d have a good portion left for the flight. One of the reviewers’ glosses on the back calls it “McCarthy’s most accessible book,” and this seems accurate. I haven’t read everything by the guy, but – for what I have read – I’ve usually needed to keep a dictionary close to hand, preferably one detailed enough to offer fifth and sixth level definitions for words, since his usage tends to rely on obscure, archaic meanings, which is sometimes enjoyable and other times feels like he’s bonking you over the head with his vocabulary. But this book is simply written and wound tight with tension and dread, and the subject seems perfect for McCarthy, a real poet of violence and the bad things men do. The book might even answer my father’s criticism of McCarthy, which is that he never seems to write about likeable characters. He’s largely right: the first three McCarthy books I read featured an incestuous relationship between the main characters (and the tastes of one of them may eventually have turned to corpses, although it’s been a while and my memory is dim on this), a drunken wastrel living on a houseboat, and a homicidal (and possibly supernatural) polymathic man wandering and killing in the American desert of the early 1800s. In No Country…, there is more likeability, although, with the end in sight, I am beginning to fear that there may not be much in the way of catharsis, since McCarthy likes to paint the world as a random place where the scales of justice might be balanced in the end but it’s just luck if they are and nothing that we mere mortals should count on. Catharsis is important to my father, who currently claims to have to force himself to keep watching the HBO series Deadwood, which he isn’t really enjoying anymore but can’t abandon until he sees some particularly vile character meet an appropriately vile end. My father, a rule-of-law man through and through, would rather see this end delivered by a man from the government with a rope, but he tells me that a knife in the belly would be acceptable, too, if that’s what it takes. This is my father’s sense of cosmic/dramatic justice speaking, of course; as a practical matter, he’s a hardcore anti-death penalty advocate dating back to the 1950s, when he joined the unsuccessful efforts to petition against the execution of Caryl Chessman.
I was so absorbed in McCarthy that I didn’t even look out the window next to me for almost the first hour and a half of the flight. When I did I found myself gazing at a dramatic snowfield of clouds, the ripples and moguls cast in relief, sidelit by the setting sun. There was a thin, flat layer of clouds with a storm head bursting through it, looking for all the world like the contents of some mad scientist’s beaker, frozen in mid-bubble. We banked and made another turn and I could see off of the edge of the flat plain of clouds, as if from an observation platform at the edge of a cliff, with yet more foamy storm heads ranged in the distance like mountain peaks.
On the ground, as we pulled into the gate, three dozen cell phones sang their various start-up songs, like a tinny little orchestra announcing our arrival, the clack of unbuckling seatbelts providing a counterpoint. Detailed updates were delivered. “Yeah, they’re letting people out, but we’re all the way at the back, so it’s going to be a while.” We are an inquisitive species, I guess: create the possibility of knowing this kind of information, and you have created the need. Air Tran has the most cramped airplanes I’ve ever flow on; in the window seat, if I had stood, I would have had had to bend almost double, so I waited and watched out the window until the aisle cleared out. A ground-crew member at the next plane over was trying to drag a fuel hose into position and was having some trouble. While I watched, he adjusted his grip on the fixture at the end of the hose and hurled the full weight of his body backward, trying to get the hose to move the last few inches needed to make the connection. The fixture tore out of the hose and he staggered backwards before dashing the fixture to the ground, obviously swearing out loud. Just the kind of professionalism you like to see as you are about to board a connecting flight. Can I please get on that guy’s plane?
In Atlanta, waiting for my connecting flight, I went into a newsstand for a bottle of water. The clerk warned me that she had no other coins but nickels, in a tone that suggested she believed I might actually decide against making my purchase. “So as long as you’re okay with a lot of nickels…” I cut her off and ask for aspirin, so she knew I meant business. I think my headache may have come from chugging that 16 ounce beer before takeoff. You see, kids, there are no shortcuts. You can face the takeoff terrrors head-on or not, but there is always a price to be paid. I’ll still take the beer, though.
[I’m typing this in our hotel room and daylight is burning, so I’ll just transcribe some unprocessed notes to get you up to the moment.]
9 p.m. – Louis Armstrong International Airport. “We’re jazzed you’re here.” Indeed, real jazz is playing over the loudspeakers, in between the recurring advisories that “the threat level is orange.” Whatever that means. Safer than red, more dangerous than green, blue and yellow. Glad we have that figured out.
Can’t find baggage carousel. Was so buried in my book I don’t recognize anyone from my flight.
Long cab ride into town. Road signs evoke Lucinda Williams lyrics (“I”m going to go to Slidell and look for my joy…”) The ominous Superdome, monument to our nation’s shame. First glimpses of the French Quarter’s narrow streets and iron balconies. Every third car seems to be police, and a gang of them loitering on the corner near the hotel. A uniformed bell hop takes our bags and puts them on a cart. Hotel seems nicer than any I’ve stayed in recently. Real glass water glasses. Waffle-knit bathrobes on hangers in the bathroom. Balcony, third floor so we can see across the rooftops and get a breeze. We order pasta delivered from Angeli’s; it comes in the little buckets Chinese food comes in. I walk down to the bar for some beers, first asking the bartender if I can take them up to the room.
“Honey, you’re in New Orleans. Put ’em in a plastic cup and you can walk right outside with them.”