Saturday, July 30, 2011

No snow globes!

You heard me, no snow globes! This, according to several emphatic signs beside the security line at New York’s Laguardia airport. Seriously, at this point in the evolution of air travel, no snow globes was apparently the one thing the authorities most wanted us travelers to know.

When you think about it, you can kind of see their point, I guess. Because an evil person could, conceivably, fill a snow globe with acid or something flammable or explosive or what have you. And considering that possibility, the snow-globe ban will no doubt be the career highlight of some TSA employee-idea-box-enthusiast who potentially saved us all from the potentially inevitably-named Snow Globe Bomber.

Still, I say if they’re going to make people give up snow globes at Laguardia, they may as well just outlaw them altogether. Because who buys those snow globes on sale in Times Square, with the tiny Statues of Liberties amid the floating plastic shavings? Tourists do. And what do they do with them? They fly home with them. Do they pack them in checked bags? Are you kidding? A breakable orb full of water? Have you watched them load baggage from a window seat? No, they carry the snow globes on. Hence, the security-line snow-globe problem. Basically the signs said: Let’s not even discuss this, people. If you are entering the security line with a snow globe, turn back.

And yet, notable as the snow-globe ban was, its advent wasn’t the most noteworthy aspect of my trip from New York to Mississippi. The recipient of that honor would be a tie between the Ancient Flight Attendant and the Inspiring Bionic Guy.

I saw the former (the AFA) in the departure lounge at Laguardia: A wobbly old lady dressed, oddly, in a red Delta flight attendant’s dress and black high heels. I wondered: Why she is dressed up like that? Like, is it some kind of joke? Or maybe they’re going to film a humorous Betty White-type video about the World’s Oldest Flight Attendant as some sort of Delta Airlines promo, as a follow up to the in-flight safety video with the hot-babe flight attendant that ended up going viral, to the point that people (me and my friend Avin, anyway) not only watched the in-flight safety video on the plane (a first), but reviewed it repeatedly on our computers at home?

Then I thought, No, maybe the AFA had been a stewardess for, like, 40 years, and she had connections, so when she had to move into an assisted living place and, I don’t know, just… somehow, someone said, Yeah, let her fly in the getup one last time or something. Because it was her dying wish.

I’d have to say she was doing pretty good in those heels for being – and I’m not exaggerating – at least 80 years old, while pulling two roll-ons. What was a little distressing was the way she stared out the gate area window at the jet, almost as if it (or she) was some kind of ghost, like this was a movie about a flight attendant who got to go back and fly one more time, and that particular jet was where the most important event of her life took place, or something. You might also say she stared at the jet the way a very old Labrador retriever with cataracts stares at a bird flying by, while sitting on the porch.

She was a bit stooped and it looked like she may in fact have suffered a small stroke at some point. Her neck was stiff and twisted a little, and one eye was open more than the other. Admittedly, I could not take my eyes off of her. I heard the ticket agent whisper to one of the other flight attendants, “How old is she?” but unfortunately I couldn’t hear the answer.

Then we got on the plane and not only did she turn out to be an actual flight attendant, she was ours! Perhaps Delta couldn’t force her to retire for legal reasons, or called her back up at her former pay grade, and was therefore saving money. There were lots of possibilities. But as I watched her stiffly mime the safety procedures, I thought: The gods smiled on you, lady. Because you no doubt originally got your job (which was called being a stewardess back then) because you were young and pretty, and you stuck with it, and then, lo and behold, just about the time you stopped being young and pretty the world stopped requiring you to be young and pretty. Stewardesses were now flight attendants, and they could be old and homely and even guys. This due to a lawsuit, I think. Now look at you – you’re ancient, and you’re still here! The stories you could tell. About changing air travel, for example.

I did observe her drop a cup full of ice and it took a long time for her to clean it up, and I saw one passenger roll his eyes when she had to ask him to repeat something, twice, which actually made him seem like an asshole, because, you know what -- everyone gets old, unless they die young, and is that what have in mind to do, mister?

The woman seated next to me, who kept asking me to get things out of her carryon bag in the overhead, noted that the AFA was very stern, like a 3rd grade teacher. For example, when a woman got up to use the restroom just before take-off, the ASA (who, by this point, I’d been able to identify from her badge as “Shirley”) snapped, “Ma’am!” and jabbed her finger in the direction of the woman’s seat. The woman sat back down.

Even though she was elderly and a bit stern, was it not kind of amazing that she was still there? Even if she had to hold on to the beverage cart like it was a walker when we hit some minor turbulence? I studied her every time she came by. I noticed that her eyes unexpectedly glimmered now and then, and that, overall, she was quite efficient and nice. Her hair was faded blonde – she didn’t color it, though I’m guessing she’d had a lift here and there, and her makeup was surprisingly current. But what was most important was that she was pushing a beverage cart in high heels at 30,000 feet, at 80, through whatever meteorological eventualities might present themselves, and meanwhile asking us if we wanted some hot coffee. Although, she wasn't exactly obsequious. When someone asked for a cup of water she said, with some authority, “I can’t get you anything else right now because I want to get this coffee out while it’s hot.” After which she concentrated as she poured the coffee; I noticed her tongue moved forward and rested against the back of her top teeth as she did this. True, you should not ask her for anything else right now, but she was doing OK.

I thought to myself, Good for you, Shirley. One day you’ll drop dead midflight, or at the very least, ride in the Delta van straight from the tarmac to the nursing home. I’d love to hear what you have to say about the history of air travel. Because think about it, if Shirley was 80 and had started young, she could have been flying since circa 1950 (on prop planes! Back when people smoked on planes, and could carry on snow globes and perhaps pocket knives). And from the look on her face when someone asked for Splenda instead of sugar, I'd say there’s a good chance that if anyone in management suggested it was time for her to retire, her answer would be, “Like hell it is.”

Eventually, as we approached Memphis, Shirley disappeared into the back of the plane, strapped herself in for another landing, and we never saw her again.

So it was an interesting day of air travel, if you’re into the macabre. And if all you wanted was something Readers Digest-y and inspirational, it turned out we had something for you, too. As we waited at the gate in the Memphis airport, I saw a very handsome young guy wearing a Morehouse t-shirt, waiting to board a flight to Jackson, who was obviously an athlete, and who, I only noticed after watching him for a few minutes, had one mechanical leg. It was when he got up to walk around. Whoa. Missing leg.

Yet, what was most noteworthy was that it was quite beautiful to observe him just walking around, because it was like he didn’t even know one of his legs was missing. It was no doubt more beautiful to observe than it would have been if he had just been a very handsome young athlete, proving the value of humanity while walking on two good legs. Because never once did he falter. The way he moved was a product of strength and grace inside. You could take away one of his legs and it didn’t mean that much, really, didn’t change what really mattered. He had perfect balance.

I remembered how horrified I was when they discovered a tumor on my right leg, and I thought, What if I lose my leg and I can’t run anymore? Could I go on? Everything turned out OK, but the idea of losing a leg was absolutely terrifying. Now here was this happy, handsome guy, in short pants and Nikes, not at all self-conscious about his mechanical leg, and not at all hindered by it, either. I saw him grab the handle of a woman’s roll-on when it tipped over, and later, carrying his separate “sports leg” – with a spring on the bottom, rather than a shoe mount – onto the plane, joking about the fact that the plane was small and at six-two he was going to suffer from the lack of leg room.

“Lack of leg room,” I thought. And I was kind of in awe of him, too.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Passing through

I knew I’d passed a milestone when I intentionally ran into a woman on the street. It was on 8th Avenue, in Chelsea. She was wearing an orange dress. I saw her coming, and I ran right into her. At that moment I realized I’d moved from the infatuation phase of my life in New York, during which I was gaga over the teeming mass of humanity on the streets, to the relationship phase, during which I began making adjustments to my viewpoint and my behavior, such as by maintaining a collision course with a perfect stranger.

Back when I visited New York City only infrequently, friends would often ask what I planned to do while I was in town. Would I go to a Broadway play? Visit the Metropolitan Museum? My answer was always the same: I planned to walk the streets. In a city of eight million, where you encounter representatives of every age and economic class and almost every culture on Earth, what could be more interesting than that parade of changing faces? Going to Starbucks was like a time-lapse trip around the world.

Walking has always been my favorite thing to do in big cities, and few lend themselves to it better than New York, which, in addition to its unparalleled diversity, is relatively flat and laid out on a manageable grid. I’ve walked a hundred blocks across Manhattan without getting bored. Blisters I got, but never bored.

Now that I spend more time in New York, I’ve come to see beyond the cultural mosaic of the crowds to their essential and remarkable mechanics. Pedestrian traffic on the city’s sidewalks, especially during rush hour, is like a million very subtle improvisational dance routines taking place in proximity to each other, the common theme being the avoidance of contact or personal disruption. It’s a different kind of motion, falling midway between, say, ballet and a rugby scrum. It feels almost choreographed, though choreography is contrived and, by definition, about design. There is no script, and no master plan, for the communal footwork on 8th Avenue at 5 p.m. It's just about what works, given the unplanned variations inherent in the barely controlled, mass distribution of people.

At its best the movement of crowds in New York (and perhaps most big cities) is spontaneous and honest, and in its way is more remarkable than the stylized choreography you see on a Broadway stage, or perhaps glimpse through the window of the studio across the way, where a group of dancers are practicing their hip swivels, kicks, sudden head-tilts and fist-thrusts. The results can be exhilarating: To see a huge, dense crowd of people up ahead, moving in all directions, to walk right into it, feel it part around you, but only so much, as you adapt to its rhythm and flow, making almost imperceptible corrections that enable you to move through unhindered, and to not hinder it. I’ve gone out of my way to pass through Grand Central Station during rush hour just to experience it.

It's mostly a series of tiny dodges. Almost without thinking, everyone reads the movements of those around them, at short range, and makes their own moves accordingly. No one is shy about darting in front of anyone else, the unwritten rule being only that, preferably, you do so without causing anyone to appreciably slow down, or to stop. People do break the rule, obviously, just as people run red lights, but overall the resulting crowd movement is sublimely efficient, which gives an unexpected sense of purpose and order to an otherwise bewildering universe.

The pacing tends to remain fairly uniform, aside from the occasional, notable aberrations, such as can be observed along the aerial, linear park known as the High Line, in which people walk in single file above the city streets, at a decidedly slow, un-New York City gait (which, particularly when viewed from the street below, makes it appear is if they were ascending to the afterlife). There are the occasional languorous lovers, forgiven in advance for impeding the flow of the sidewalks, and perhaps an intrepid old person with a cane. I also once came upon a blind man with a seeing-eye dog who had stopped, midway through a temporary sidewalk construction zone, due to the confusing sensory perceptions brought on by nearby jack hammers, which prompted one of those stereotypically callous New Yorkers to stop and guide him, gently, by his elbow, to the more manageable environs of the familiar sidewalk up ahead. But for the most part, aside from traffic, the only meaningful obstructions you routinely encounter are the clutches of tourists, ignorant in their bliss, and the evil, rogue pedestrians, such as the woman in the orange dress, who steadfastly follow their own matrix, at the expense of the rest.

I saw the woman in the orange dress approaching as I was going with the flow along 8th Avenue, late in the day. She materialized from a storefront doorway, and even glimpsed peripherally, was identifiable as a contra, moving toward me with unyielding focus, clearly intent that I would take full responsibility for avoiding the forceful intersection of our paths. For some reason, at this particular juncture, I decided not to give in. It was not about being polite, about arriving at the same point as someone else, and stepping aside. This was about sheer, unadulterated aggression. Perhaps you have to experience it to understand, but there are people who will walk in a beeline in your direction, without giving an inch, and attempt to bulldoze through as if you weren’t even there. She was one of them. Such people refuse to alter their gait or angle even incrementally to accommodate the fact that others are already under way, in a crowd.

In this case, my refusal to submit meant that the woman and I collided, after which she snapped, “Ex-CUSE me!” (in the command, not the apology mode), as if I had rudely run into her, which in her mind I had, and which, arguably, I had, in the sense that I had knowingly allowed her to run into me. Unlike the hapless, oblivious tourists who clog Times Square, such people are vile. They are utterly selfish. They’re the ones who cause wars.

In my current New York City state, in which I spend a lot of time in the city but don’t actually live there, I saw the woman in the orange dress as running counter to everything that is beautiful, true and graceful about the flow of human beings on the streets. I also see her as something of a warning about what potentially can go wrong in a crowd, and in the human race as a whole. She was a single errant, negative electron, capable of upsetting the physiology of the whole, and as such, served as a useful reminder that even when things go smoothly, life isn’t exactly a Bollywood musical. Despite the appearance of order, terrible disorder waits in the wings.

Compared with such selfishness and aggression, the other primary source of street disorder in New York City – the tourists -- seem tame, but they are also insipid, and I, like actual New Yorkers, am impatient with them. I have come to avoid Times Square, the tourist epicenter in New York, because, despite its stunning visuals, the flow is constantly disrupted by out-of-towners who are utterly oblivious to the moving mass of the city, who amble into the human currents and stop, then stand there looking around, or at each other, unaware of their immediate surroundings or of their role in the outcome of things. These people, unlike the woman in the orange dress, have no aim. They’re temporarily blinded by the lights, and block everyone else’s path.

And yet: I was once one of them! As much as I now enjoy running interference through a rush-hour crowd, I once very much enjoyed wandering aimlessly through Times Square, gazing up at the buildings and the dazzling lights, mindless of the hurried, harried New Yorkers who were, at that moment, parting around me, as if I were a boulder in mid-stream. If I thought of them at all, I scoffed at their jaded impatience in the face of such dazzling beauty. Now, I look back at the old me and wonder: Where are the streets of New York taking me? If Times Square no longer personifies the vibrancy of the city, and instead represents the annoying disruption of its beguiling syncopation, where is this process headed? At what point will I lose sight of the humanity of the streets? Given my itinerant status, I don’t think I ever will. I suspect I’ll remain in a state of arrested development, somewhere between a hapless tourist and a jaded New Yorker, which, from my current vantage point, doesn’t seem like a bad place to be.

(I can't take credit for this photo of Grand Central Station -- I just pulled it off the internet.)