“The world thus appears as a complicated tissue of events, in which connections of different kinds alternate or overlap or combine and thereby determine the texture of the whole.” (Heisenberg, Physics and Philosophy, 1963)
When you walk through the Northwest Airlines Terminal in Detroit, you enter the Tunnel of Light. The long passageway between concourses is illuminated in myriad cascades of colored lights dancing through the spectrum ( or chakra colors if you’re from Asheville). Ethereal music accompanies travelers on the moving sidewalk as they glide, scurry and saunter in silhouette, like characters in a Milan Kundera novel, in both directions. Ahead of you is an archway with escalators moving into the brightly lit terminals. Is it the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel or the white light that apparently greets each of us on our transition into the afterlife? Neither. The escalators deposit you in the glaring light of fast food restaurants, departure gates and slouching guards of the Department of Homeland Security. Nevertheless, my companions and I joke about the possibility that indeed, we are dead and entering the “bardo”, the Tibetan term for the transitional place the soul visits on its trip to eternity.
My companions and I are heading to Rochester for a workshop. We have a long layover, there are complicated connections from Asheville to Rochester, but we are in good spirits. Even after our flight is cancelled and we face another 5 hours in the airport, we make the best of it. Regina and I go for a “power walk” around the entire terminal. We window shop at stores like The Pampered Pet, where you can buy a fur lined condo for your cat ( would that be like wearing shoes made out of your brother?). I resist the lure of a massage at the Oxygen Spa, instead purchasing the book Secrets of A Millionaire Mind. The book offers a series of declarations, like “I am changing my financial blueprint.” After each declaration, you point your finger to your forehead and declare, “I have a millionaire mind.” The bookstore offers a deal, buy the book and if you return it within six months, you get 50% of the purchase price back. Millionaires probably don’t think about things like that. A millionaire would have gone for the massage. As we lie on the floor at the gate doing yoga stretches and Feldenkrais exercises, Betty muses on whether someone could really live in an airport the way Tom Hanks did in the movie The Terminal. We perish the thought and are relieved when we finally board for Rochester.
The return trip has another long layover in Detroit. With our new millionaire minds, we splurge on a Japanese dinner. One of us voices the unspeakable, “Let’s hope this flight isn’t cancelled as well.” Cancel the thought that the flight is cancelled! When we return, the monitor at our gate is blank. I run to the airport screens. There it is – Flight 864 to Asheville, CANCELLED. “Rebooking is at gate 21,” an imperious woman tells me at Gate 15. As we approach Gate 21, our hearts sink. The line snakes out into the concourse. We get behind a stocky, Slavic looking man and I ask, “Is this the cancellation line for Asheville?” He smiles, and in a thick Russian accent that speaks of endless years on line says, “It is the cancellation line to everywhere.”
Nothing moves for the next hour as more travelers arrive. Burlington, Elmira, Oklahoma City – we are all going nowhere. You read about us in the morning paper over coffee, “Thousands of passengers stranded as “Rising Gas Prices force Cancelled Flights”, “Northwest files for Chapter 11, cancels 50% of flights”. At the front of the line, livid passengers are trying to demand their money back from shellshocked employees who stare blankly into space. Betty shrugs and says, “Well, at least I’m not getting rescued from my roof by the Coast Guard.” Yes, yes, we all agree, things could be so much worse. I recall an NPR piece where they interviewed children evacuated from New Orleans. The reporter asks, “What has the experience been like for you?”
“We’re having so much fun! First there was all this water coming in and we had to sit on the roof of our house. Then these men put us in boats and we got to ride through the streets. Then we got to sleep in the SuperDome! And there were so many people to meet. And we got sandwiches and bottles of water. And now, we get to go to live in Colorado!”
“Do you know anything about Colorado?”
“Oh yes, I know it’s beautiful!”
As we are herded to yet another line, we get giddy. We take on the attitude of the children, reframing our misadventure.
“And we got to spend ALL DAY in this big airport with lots of stores, even a MacDonalds. And there was this tunnel with lights and music and people could go on this moving sidewalk. And then they cancelled our flight again, and I got to talk to a man from Russia!”
They’re putting us up at the Romulus Marriot. When I call my husband, he admonishes me to watch out for Klingons. As the rag tag travelers stumble yet again through The Tunnel of Light towards Ground Transportation, a man bound for Allentown engages me in conversation. “I just came from Green Bay. Guess I won’t get to work on time tomorrow, I’m a dentist you see. But my son works with me, he can just work harder tomorrow. And then next week, I do this same trip.”
“Are you some kind of dental consultant that you have to travel to Green Bay so much?” I ask.
“Oh, no, this is for fun.”
“You fly to Green Bay for fun?”
“I go hunting.”
“Wow. You fly to Wisconsin to hunt. What do you hunt?”
“Small birds. Grouse. Woodcock. You know what a woodcock is?”
(A bizarre memory surfaces. I’m 9 years old and my cousins have been hunting. They’ve arrived at our house with a bag of woodcock. My mother has prepared them and we all sit at the table. My father announces that the way to eat woodcock is by draping a cloth over your head to envelope the plate so that you quaff the odor of the small bird sitting there. That’s how they ate it in the French Court. We are all sitting at the table looking like we are inhaling Vicks VapoRub. The bird tastes like dirt. I wonder when my Dad was in a French Court and why he never told me he played tennis.)
“Yes, I know what woodcock is,” I stifle my laughter.
At 6 AM, we are back in the airport, now routed through Newark for a connecting flight to Asheville. We board and take off on time. I’m excited. I might make it back to teach my one o’clock class. As the plane descends, Regina jokes, “Well, it would be funny if they don’t let us land for some reason.” Suddenly, the plane banks and begins circling.
“Well, ladies and gentlemen, you may have noticed that we’ve on a holding pattern. Apparently visibility in Newark is less than a mile and so no one is landing or taking off. We’ll be going nowhere for a while.” A half hour later: “Well, ladies and gentlemen, our fuel situation will not allow us to stay up here any longer. We are being re-routed to JFK. We’ll keep you posted.”
In David Cronenberg’s movie eXistenZ, players in a virtual reality game interact with characters who respond to specific cues. If the proper cue is not given, or if it is not time for them to enter the game, they stand in a holding pattern until the proper words trigger their involvement. I ponder the possibility that I am suddenly a non-playing character in someone else’s game. Something has put me on hold.
We do end up in Newark, but we miss our connection and were now unwilling guests of the Continental Terminal. “And then we missed our flight and we got to ride in this really cool train that rode up in the sky to another terminal! And the man at the Continental desk was so nice – he fixed all our tickets so we could sit together. And we got to go through the security thing again. And the conveyor belt got stuck and this lady’s computer fell off the belt. That was really funny. And this airport had better stores and a zillion restaurants and we got all our food for free because the airline gave us vouchers!”
Who would have thought that Continental Airport would feel like home? The corridors welcome me. “Hello Jersey Girl. Hang around.” I start calling old friends. Almost make a lunch date before I remember, wait, I don’t live in NJ. I live in Asheville. Don’t I? Or do I live in an airport? As we approach our gate we duck into the ladies’ room. I head for “my stall” the stall that always seemed open when I’ve been in this terminal. When I realize I have a habitual toilet stall in an airport ladies’ room I haven’t visited in years, I force myself to choose another. If I am in someone’s virtual reality game, I’m not going to follow the program.
We stop for coffee and tea at Seattle’s Best Coffee. We are happy we’re not having coffee at Starbucks. Our little Twilight Zone world has over 5 cafes to choose from. We pick a little table “outdoors.” There are plastic boxwood hedges that separate us from the transients. I hand Betty her Frappucino, except that here they call it a JavaKula with a little TM after it. Her eyes get big. “Wow! Look at all that whipped cream!” She sips, going into child mode. “Oh, boy, it tastes just like I imagined it.” Regina pulls out her extra long tea bag. “Wow! Look at this amazing tea bag! I’ve never seen anything like it!” We all concur. Life is becoming wondrous. I lean my elbow on the boxwood as we drink in the canned air. We smile at each other, fellow travelers on a road to an unknown destination.
We have all the time in the world. So we go shopping. We wander into the Metropolitan Museum Store. It becomes very important for me to buy my husband Ron some hieroglyphic rubber stamps since I never buy him presents. And after all, now I have a millionaire mind! Regina is ecstatic over a computer mousepad that is designed like a mini-Boukharian rug. But then…“$20! No way I’m paying $20 for that. I don’t need a mousepad.”
“But think of how happy you’ll be each time you look at it.”
“It is really great isn’t it.”
“I never use my computer at home anymore.”
“So take it to work!”
“Pshaw! I can’t do that!”
“Why not?” we chorus.
“It’s ridiculous. $20 for a mousepad. I’d happily pay $10. Even $15. But $20. No way.” She puts it down.
After she leaves the store, my millionaire mind buys it for her. The look on her face when I hand it to her is worth more than $20.
“What do you think the lesson is in all of this?” asked Betty.
“Maybe it was some way to connect the three of us,” commented Regina. We had barely known each other before this trip, by now we were so close we considered forming a band.
“You don’t think it’s just a random universe?” I ask, half joking.
“Only if you don’t know how to find meaning!” retorts Regina.
We are silent, each pondering our personal interpretation of this bizarre confluence of odd connections. The airport has started to feel like home. Do we have to leave? I could get a job in the Border’s Bookstore. “We would just need to find a shower,” agrees Betty. “We could sleep in the Meditation Room, “ adds Regina. “Maybe I could join the Admiral’s Club,” I muse. We stare out at the tarmac from our bubble. Did we ever live anywhere else? Suddenly we look up, startled to see the gate empty. We’ve gotten so comfortable in our new life that we hadn’t heard the boarding announcement. We lead our wheelies, like well behaved pets, down one final corridor.
The sculptor and philosopher Henri Tracoll once pointed out that in airports, “…we are in total utopia….Utopia means literally ‘nowhere.’ We are nowhere. And what is extraordinary when one travels is to find oneself in one airport or another and in the end it is always the same: whether it is Tokyo, Heathrow or Kennedy Airport one is always in the same airport, connected by shuttle from one building to another….I am nowhere and at the same time I am somewhere, and this somewhere is always me.”
As the plane takes off, we are all certain that something has changed. The holding pattern has released. We’re finally going somewhere. Or maybe we’ve been there all along.