Friday, July 17, 2015

Now Boarding Zone Four

I'm sitting in a hotel room on a Friday night in Florida, the torrential downpour that my flight beat by three hours rattling against the metal of the suicide-proof windows and defeating my hopes of trying out the outdoor pool after hours. The current forecast is for thunderstorms until just after I leave Monday morning. The lobby has free popcorn, however, so I have that going for me.

The hotel is in a 55-and-over gated community built around golf courses and on top of numerous historical lies involving the civil war. This senior citizen wasteland is notorious for acts of public debauchery - such as golf-cart quickies and Viagra parties - and the real-estate mogul who created this miniature elderly Disneyland is supposedly under investigation for tax evasion. My GPS dragged me through a cul-de-sac labyrinth of manicured lawns and sun porches for fifteen minutes to get to the hotel, during which speed-demon golf-cart racers nearly clipped the rental car twice, and a cliche elderly woman - complete with head below the steering wheel - mounted the curb trying to turn into a parking lot and diverted traffic through a shopping plaza complete with golf pro outlet and hearing aide repair. Exactly what I need after eight hours of air travel and an hour-long introduction to the Florida Expressway.

(While writing the above paragraph, I Googled cul-de-sac to see if it required hyphens, and discovered that there was a serial killer of Nigerian descent dubbed the "cul-de-sac killer" due to his penchant for killing elderly people on quiet suburban streets. It reminded me of the poet I bumped heads with at the hippie school where I got my BFA, who argued that there were no documented cases of black serial killers, and that serial murder was solely a white male enterprise. My argument was that criminal justice may still be influenced by institutionalized racism, but murder has always been equal opportunity. Which proves not only that I was right about the serial killer thing, but that there is an undeniable futility in debating crime statistics with somebody who writes poems about whales.)

Whenever I fly to southern states, the racial disparity never fails to shock me. Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, you name it. The vast majority of travelers are white, but the workers of shit jobs at the airports are always black. I have yet to purchase a bottle of water or a breakfast sandwich from a white person. In Charlotte, while legging it to my connecting flight, I passed a shoeshine bench with three seats. I didn't even think shoeshine stations existed anymore, but there it was, like some ghostly remnant of the depression era haunting a modern airport to remind us that there's still a class structure to be maintained so we can pay people shit wages to do personal chores we're too good to do for ourselves. All three chairs were filled by white men in their twenties or thirties, no suits or briefcases. I think one of them was wearing work boots. The three young women working on their shoes/boots/whatever were all black. There's a racial divide in that image that this country is still doing its best to pretend doesn't exist.

Speaking of racial inequality, the Charlotte airport is the first airport I've been in with a bathroom attendant, complete with tip jar and tray of meats. Another antiquated career path. The cigarette girls must have been on break when I walked through the terminal. I'm half expecting there to be an elevator operator at the hotel, bellboy cap tipped jauntily to one side. Of course, the bathroom attendant is black as well. As I'm waiting for a stall to open, he nods at me and says, "You look like The Dude." I beg your pardon? "The Dude, from Big Lebowski. You look just like him." I'm thinking that I bear a closer resemblance to Walter than Jeff Bridges' titular character, but don't bother attempting to correct him or seek clarification. He hands me some paper towels after I wash my hands, and I take the time to slip a couple of singles into his jar. I don't take a mint.

There was a guy with his teenage daughter in the Allentown airport waiting for the same flight. They sat opposite me. Her slumped in the airport bench seat wearing a pair of daisy duke shorts and a midriff, tanned legs splayed wide open as she plays on her tablet or kindle or nook or whatever. Him striking up conversations with random strangers about where they're going or how they got to the airport. Me trying my best to pretend I don't notice either of them, reading a nineties horror novel that I just two chapters ago realized I've already read. The gate keeper is halfway through calling groups to board the plane when the father decides it's my turn to converse with.

"What group did they just call?" I'm not sure, probably zone two or three, I didn't catch it. "Man, I remember when they just used to say 'the plane is here, get on.' How many different groups are there?" I don't tell him he's right. Between the four boarding "Zones" and all of the different Priority, Premier, Advantage, Gold, and other special classifications, it feels like it would take just as long for them to call us each by name. After all, what fun would it be overpaying for glorified public transit without assigning enough arbitrary class distinctions to help remind us that some people are just better than others. I guess First Class and Coach wasn't enough, or maybe they're just bitter over not being able to call it Second or Third Class anymore because that was a bit too blatant. The funniest part is when they call for the Gold or Advantage Members to board using the "Premiere Ramp," but it's the same ten-foot stretch of carpet that everybody else crosses over to board the plane as well. Calling it different just adds to the special feeling, I guess. The funny becomes sad when they actually have a separate red carpet for the Special ones, and after they've boarded the gate keeper will block it off so the lesser passengers don't use the same carpet. My distastefor an d bewilderment at this practice is not bitterness because I'm usually in Zone Four.

I don't tell the man that I agree with him, but he decides that a conversation has still started. "What seat are you in?" I answer without thinking, reflex more than anything. Not that it's any of his business. It isn't exactly privileged information, either. I could have lied to him, but to what end? So I could snicker at him when he passed me in my assigned seat later and realized that he had been duped? Anyway, I tell him my seat number. He shakes his head in response. "We bought our tickets yesterday, and we couldn't get seats next to each other." He's trying to find out if I'll be sitting next to his daughter. He should probably be more concerned about who she is sitting across from.

Last year a kid ended up sitting next to me, separated from his parents on the other side of the aisle. The kid was about nine or ten, I think, and they didn't bother introducing themselves to me or anything before abandoning him between me and the window for a three-hour flight. It seemed weird for them not to try and size up the large man who would be obscuring any visibility of their child for the entire flight. I remember him turning to me during takeoff and saying that this was the best part of flying, and me responding that this was actually the most terrifying part of flying, because takeoffs and landings are usually when something goes wrong. I wasn't trying to scare the kid, and he didn't react to what I said, but there's a part of me that hopes that our conversation resulted in some delayed night terrors that would convince his parents to shake hands with the next stranger they stick him next to on a plane.

My impulse is to be annoyed by the father as he continues to talk about his delayed travel arrangements, but who am I to begrudge him the polite familiarity that I've complained that public places seem to lack these days. I've often wondered why nobody talks to the other people standing around them waiting to board when there's a good chance that they will be sitting with one another for the next few hours, sharing drinks and armrests in the most communal activity they will participate in outside of shopping on Black Friday. We should all be asking each other for seat numbers while the airline whittles us into manageable caste system so they know who to give the free pretzels to first.

Still raining. The lady at the front desk said they put free cookies out in the evening. I wonder of there are any left.