The Tunnel: Toby on Air Travel

(Exerpted from Foreign Matter.)

I hate to travel.

I do like to be there, mind you, in Kenya or Martinique or wherever, taking it easy, gargling the rum punch, snoozing in the sun. But getting there, no matter what they say, is another matter. And once I am there, nothing short of falling temperatures and monsoon rain can move me on. Hard to sleep with all that drumming on the roof.
Oh, I admit there’s a certain drama to boarding an airplane where the snowplows are at work and getting off where the palm trees are swaying in the evening breeze, as if the stagehands had wheeled out new scenery. Sort of exciting. If only it were that simple.
The brutal fact is that in order to get from one place to another at this phase of the technological march, you must bow your head and shuffle into the tunnel.
What is the tunnel?
It begins when you telephone for a taxi. Already your stomach sinks. Your bags are loaded and you are driven along expressways to a place at the edge of the city where the planes stand in profile in the wavy air and the smell awakens long-buried racial memories of nausea in the back of your throat. I get airsick on elevators.
You can’t find a porter to deal with your bags; you search out a trolley and push them around looking for your counter, which will frequently be indicated by a tiny plastic shingle beneath a large and misleading sign.
Ideally, you will arrive late enough that the mass of your fellow travelers will already have been processed, and early enough that your seat will not have been resold. Otherwise you will line up among people whose competitive instincts are unmatched outside corporate board rooms, and inch forward with other trolleys nipping at your ankles, staking claims to square inches of territory and prepared for unpleasant confrontations if they are not recognized.
If there is a hell, it means standing in line forever and ever and ever.
You proceed to the departure area where your hand luggage is X-rayed and you are frisked with a promising-looking instrument that squeals at the change in your pockets. Depending what country you’re in, you line up for an exit visa and are frisked again for illegal currency. If any is found, you sit in a glass-walled office explaining your unfamiliarity with the rules of the place, and do much to oil the machinery by handing over the money in question and not asking for a receipt.
Your flight is delayed. You browse in the duty-free shops. You leaf through a magazine. You discover that you have nothing to talk about with your companion. You go to the bathroom and stare at your face under fluorescent light, one of my favorite ways to contemplate mortality. You try to sleep, but the Muzak is interrupted by announcements so shrill they would jerk you alert if you’d taken half a bottle of Seconal.
As departure time approaches, the atmosphere of anxiety and endurance intensifies in what is called “the lounge.” A misconstrued announcement or a stray gesture by the ground hostess can stampede the herd towards the glass doors, eager for the best seats on the bus. Especially sadistic airlines sponsor a game known as “free-seating” on the plane, whereby passengers are not issued particular seats but shaken, as it were, in the dice cup.
Of course even seat assignment can undo you. Faint sentiments of claustrophobia prompt you to choose one on the aisle. Just as you have strapped in and are dozing off, a fat person with a plaintive child in tow pauses meaningfully beside you. The stewardess addresses you with professional obliqueness, such as to say, “Are you sitting here, sir?” to which I usually reply, “No, I only appear to be sitting here. Actually I’m levitating about a quarter of an inch above the seat. I keep the altitude down to avoid drawing a crowd.”
Meanwhile, the fat person, unwilling to wait for the aisle to clear so you can rise and make way, is straddling you and struggling past. The effect is of the sudden inflation of a collision air bag. Distressed by the spectacle, perhaps, the child bawls.
You feign sleep but cannot fade out before takeoff because of an irrational suspicion that remaining awake can keep you from dying. As the plane rumbles towards the requisite ground speed, your mind flits to your flight insurance. If you are a productive member of society each of your limbs is covered by one of your credit companies for amounts roughly proportionate to their dollar value, so don’t worry.
Airborne, you fall asleep during the safety demonstration, your life jacket being of limited use anyway if you are crossing Asia or something. But no sooner are you dropping off, if you’ll pardon the expression, than the passenger in front of you suddenly snaps his backrest so solidly into your knees that, but for having neglected to unbuckle, you would be ejected upwards from your seat.
Give up trying to sleep for the moment. Soon they feed you. With the precision of a military parade, you and all your little buddies chow down while jugs of steaming coffee hover precariously over your head. Then you mop your chops with the chemical hanky and lean back with your plastic toothpick, ready, finally, to nod out.
No. The plane falters as if it were dropping out of the sky, and your senses cannot detect a leveling off. You check the kangaroo pouch for an airsick bag. If you are in the bathroom, you stagger and urinate on everything. You are warned with cheerful bravado to buckle up as if nothing really serious were happening.
You call for a glass of water to wash down your Dramamine pill, anticipating with pleasure the sleep inducing side effects. You are too far under the surface to hear the landing announcement, and the stewardess, piqued that you have ignored her instructions, straightens your seat back sharply without consulting you, propelling your forehead against the seat-back in front of you and initiating a chain reaction that straightens at one yank all the seat-backs in your file.
Now you can witness descent. It may involve several trips around the city of your destination, and can be especially dramatic if the pilot pulls up just before touchdown and circles again. Keeps you awake.
Then the crisis: the ground is speeding by outside the window and you ease towards it until you hit and the plane rocks forward onto the landing gear. The passengers burst into applause at the prospect of further life. It is a moment for which even the Muzak has held its breath.
For several minutes you lurch towards the terminal. Then the rush to stretch the legs and unlock overhead belongings. Coats swing in your face. The smell of exhaust seeps in.
The aisle is jammed, and you stand hunchback under the baggage compartment waiting for something unspecified to happen so you can leave. Three or four mavericks sit suavely on until the aisles clear as if their underwear weren’t strangling them. At the door the stewardess says a bright good-bye. You humor her and go down and stand in the bus.
When you have swayed along some devious route across the tarmac, an identical piece of terrain from Bombay to Bogotá, and been poured out with your fellows before a terminal building, you troop inside and stand in line for immigration. Another glimpse of the afterlife. Inch forward and kick the bag, inch forward and kick the bag.
You compete for a trolley on which to pile your luggage. If you are traveling with a woman, you may need two. (Sorry.) You push through customs, whose policy is not to harass the income, force your way through a crowd of greeters who look at you disappointedly, and stand in line to wait for a taxi.
Or, if you are making a connection, and provided your plane is on time, it all begins again.
Of course the above applies only if you travel with the horde, as has usually befitted my means. If you go first-class some of the line-ups are shorter and they try to keep you drunk.
I await the day when it will be possible to have myself frozen and shipped as cargo. If my mistress would cough up a little more money I could be sedated and arrive at the airport in an ambulance; a team of white-clad attendants would lift me out on a stretcher and place me directly on the plane, a plasma bottle swinging above me, and I would be brought to only when I had reached the safety of my hotel room. It’s the nearest thing possible to being carried on a divan.
The tunnel. I wish there were some lesson in it.
(Exerpted from Foreign Matter.)

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