(Abandon all Hope, Ye who Enter– Dante Alighieri)
We were booked on Southwest Airlines, which offers direct flights from San Diego to Baltimore. The flight east takes under five hours. Easy.
My wife checked us in and we got positions A31 and A32, which meant we would be among the first people to board the plane and choose good seats. The most coveted ones are in the first row and by the emergency exit doors. There are two rows by the emergency doors, and one has only two seats on each side. We grabbed the ones on the right, and felt in the driving seat, so to speak.
Once the plane was full, with carry-ons stowed, bags crammed under seats and belts buckled, came the first announcement from the captain. “It’s time to take off, but the luggage loading crew is slightly behind. I’m sure you don’t want to arrive in Baltimore without your luggage, so I hope you will understand our delay. We’ll keep you posted and we’ll leave very soon.” The captain’s voice was quite jovial and the passengers reacted to the message with total indifference.
The next announcement came a few minutes later. “A little bad news,” the jovial voice said. “Our computer is experiencing a glitch. It’s the one that records the passengers on board, and for some reason it won’t transfer the info automatically. So we have to enter the names by hand, and I’m told this might take a while. So bear with us, please, and thank you for your patience.”
As if we had a choice of going somewhere. No reaction from the passengers, maybe they didn’t hear the announcement or simply didn’t care. I reasoned: Say 200 of us on the plane, at least two names per passenger — mine has three — and how many letters per average name? I got lost in my own calculation and guessed we would be delayed for at least one hour. I had another thought, quickly abandoned: If the plane’s computer is shooting blanks, could this affect us when we are in the air?
I looked around. The woman seated one row ahead of me opened her laptop and started watching Home and Garden TV. The man across the aisle was following the news on his Blackberry. The man behind him powered up his tablet. A spreadsheet flicked on the screen, too small for me to make out the writing. Further ahead there was a young woman holding a reader and a man who took his laptop out from his bag, logged on to the plane WiFi, and selected a movie. Next to me, my wife was reading Time, the only person I could see not using a battery.
I succumbed to my iPhone and began my usual time killing routine: Spider, FreeCell, Solitaire and Sudoku, in that order, all at the expert level. I played each game twice and when I was done, my eyes were watering. “Look at what people are doing,” I said to my wife who interrupted her reading. “What? Everyone’s on their electronic devices. And notice how their clothes match their screens. That man with the spreadsheet is in a business suit, the middle aged woman watching Home and Garden TV is wearing a flowery blouse that’s a little too tight on her, and the person listening to CNN is wearing a polo and khakis.”
I pulled out my Kindle, flipped to my novel and quickly got bored. My defense? It was what I’d call a difficult read — the first chapter of American Pastoral by Philip Roth.
Finally, another announcement came and we took off. Nobody blinked. As predicted, my wristwatch showed a delay of one hour — no biggie in absolute terms, but, added to the time of our flight, quite a difference.
The attendant came through with the snacks: Oreos and apple juice for the HGTV lady, chips and Sprite for the CNN guy. Two cokes and one bag of pretzels later, I went to the bathroom. I make a point of always visiting the bathroom during a flight: it breaks the monotony. Behind me was a mom with her two-year-old. My polite upbringing emboldened me to let her use the facility first, but I didn’t. Heck, we were in this together.
We flew through some turbulence, then I dozed off, then I did another Sudoku. I managed to finish the first 40-page chapter of my novel and noticed that my wife was now reading her Kindle.
Years ago air travel used to be glamorous. Now airports look and feel like bus terminals. The airplane seats are too narrow, it’s too crowded, service is minimal and the helpless, hurried passengers are blasé. Restrooms are too tight for the traveler whose BMI is over 30. The price of tickets has been essentially the same for the last forty years, in spite of the rising cost of fuel and the time value of money. In forty years, Philip Roth’s Newark had gone from being an industrious middle class city “where they manufactured everything,” to “the car-theft capital of the world.” Furthermore, since he wrote American Pastoral, life in that city has continued to change. The great Philip Roth is now dead and Cory Booker, the former mayor of Newark, who claims to have rejuvenated the place, is running for President.
As we eased off into the sixth hour of our journey, I pondered at the irony of the airline computer malfunction causing our excessive screen time and frenetic low battery warnings.
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