Traveling in America

For the first time in four years, I decided to fly across America to see the family in Los Angeles for the Thanksgiving holiday. I was very much looking forward to a quick and easy sojourn to California as escape from an unusually dismal, stressful few weeks for me. Moreover, with the constant apparitions of In-N-Out, my dog, the 134 Freeway and Mexican food in my head, I really needed to get home, if just for a couple short days.

For someone my age, I’m quite a seasoned traveler. I’ve spent a considerable part of my life in airports and on airplanes. When I think of home, I think of the Au Bon Pain in the airport in Santiago, Chile, where I’ve had to spend the night several times. I find a certain familiar comfort in an airport bookstore or in a dark cavernous Boeing cabin in the middle of the night on a 15-hour flight. While normal people may dream of season tickets for their favorite sports team, I long for first-class upgrades and the chance to spend quality time in the Red Carpet Club. When I was a kid, I wasn’t interested in trading baseball cards, I wanted to trade passports:

“Germany, eh? I’ve seen that one already. Everyone’s got one.”

“Oh, yea! I bet you haven’t seen this?”

“Wow?Mauritania. You are so cool!”

Anyway, what should’ve been an easy walk in the park ? a quick cross-country flight ? was neither easy nor quick this time. Rather, it was a journey of odd encounters, a diverse comedy of errors, as I tried to get from one end of America to the other.

I decided to go home at the last minute and all my mother could manage to get was a flight on the morning of Thanksgiving on Southwest Airlines. I have nothing against Southwest Airlines; many of their staff at Burbank Airport had known me by name as I’d probably flown with them literally several hundred times when I was shuffled back-and-forth between my father in Los Angeles and my mother in San Francisco throughout my high school years ? but that’s a 50-minute, 385-mile journey. This would be a 3,000-mile, six-hour trek. Southwest, I thought, was like Pacific Bell, they’re only a local provider; they don’t do long distance. I was wrong.

By Wednesday, I discovered that there would be no one on campus that I knew with a car to take me to the airport Thanksgiving morning. So, I ended up having to take a car-service at four in the morning. It was the only time anyone could take me. After shelling out $90, I got to Albany airport at about 5:15 a.m., almost seven hours before my flight.

Unable to check in for several hours, I passed the time reading my American Art textbook, walking outside to smoke, and falling asleep in uncomfortable positions on faux-Scandinavian chairs. After I finally was permitted to go to the ticket counter, I was asked to check in my one bag. I politely refused, saying that I’d traveled with it as a carry-on many times before, including on Southwest Airlines, and that it easily fit in the overhead compartment bin. The airline representative insisted and after he gave a cursory, effective glance to the national guardsmen behind me, I quickly conceded to his demand as two tall camouflaged men holding very large guns gently walked by.

I then made my way to my gate. On the way, I picked up a cappuccino and sat down with a copy of the Times overlooking the all-to-familiar, calming vista of an asphalt runway, planes and tentacle-like jet-ways. A while later, a short, confused elderly couple approached me. They spoke very little English. Holding their tickets in hand, they pointed to them asking, “Where? Where?” I looked at their tickets and realized they were on my flight. I pointed them to the general direction of our gate and tried to explain to them that they had to be there an hour ahead of time to get their very own Southwest Airlines plastic-first-come-first-serve-cattle-herding boarding passes.

When I finally finished the paper and arrived at the gate to wait in line, they spotted me and joined me. They asked me what they had to do when they got to the counter. Feeling props would bridge our linguistic barrier, I got out my ticket and my California ID, pointing to them and said “You need your ticket and your identification card.” Thinking I was with the INS or something, they quickly handed me their “papers” and political asylum identity cards. I looked over them, learned they were Tibetan refugees, thanked them and handed them back their ID’s, playing along as if I were someone official.

They ended up sitting next to me on the flight, where I drew for them a detailed map of the Oakland airport (their final destination) and wrote down exhaustive instructions of what they had to do once they got to Las Vegas ? the destination of the first leg of my flight to LA ? to make their connection. I just now realize that they probably weren’t able to read my scribbled English instructions, which took up all three of our cocktail napkins.

“Tibetan political refugees in upstate New York?” I kept thinking. “God, I love this country.”

When I arrived at Burbank Airport, I discovered I’d lost my luggage. I immediately suspected that the mean, nasty man in Albany who made me check it in the first place was somehow responsible. Resigned to my passive anger, I was comforted by the group of Argentines with whom I was soon due to eat turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and apple pie.

After being promised my luggage would be home the next morning, it arrived later that afternoon. Realizing I felt dirty once I saw my bag again, I immediately scoured through it to get my cologne and toothbrush. All I could find was the top of the cologne bottle. My cologne and toothbrush were gone. They’d been stolen. Armani cologne, I can understand. But a used toothbrush? Now, that’s weird.

My angst only grew when I saw later that day that my father had affixed, not one, but two American flag stickers to his sleek European car. And they weren’t those normal flags at attention; no, of course they had to be those hideous waving flag decals.

“My dad’s putting stickers on his car? What has the world come to?” I thought, “Oh, the tackiness of it all?”

I’d been in LA for less than 48 hours before I was back at Burbank Airport to fly back to Williams. This time, I made sure I carried on my bag. Someone had stolen my damn toothbrush, so I wasn’t going to let camouflage or M16s intimidate me this time. I did, though, check in a case of assorted wines my father had bought for me to take back to school. Airport employees had to verify each bottle, putting them into the light to make sure they weren’t biological warfare agents from Bordeaux or something equally threatening.

Again, I had to make a connection in Las Vegas where I had about an hour between the two flights. We were soon told that a “serious security breach in Seattle” would postpone our flight several hours. (The “serious” breach that effectively shut down West Coast airports for several hours on one of the busiest travel days of the year consisted of a single airport employee accidentally tripping over the plug to a metal detector). Luckily, my flight from Las Vegas was delayed as well, but I would barely make the connection, with about a 10-minute window. Upon arriving to Las Vegas, a woman who was scheduled to be on the Albany flight as well and I made our way to our gate as quickly as possible. Of course with my luck, our gate was at the other side of the airport.

On our way, we found ourselves frantically running through rows of slot machines and down a long empty hall, about to miss our flight. All of the sudden, the man walking slowly in front of us collapsed. We abruptly stopped and asked him what the matter was. Short of breath and clenching his chest, he said he was okay. We didn’t believe him. We hysterically looked for someone in some sort of uniform to come to his assistance. Finally, we found two nice, chipper Southwest Airlines employees and got them to take care of what appeared to be a heart attack victim in our midst. We ended up being the last two people on the plane.

Finally onboard, I sat between two white women, one young, one old. The young one had headphones on the entire time and was watching movies off a tiny, hand-held chic-looking Sony device. I still have no clue what kind of machine it was, but she must’ve watched five different movies. In between naps, I kept on peeking trying to see what exactly this miniature futuristic apparatus was. I was a little too obvious and she clearly was not amused.

Meanwhile, in a Texan drawl, the older woman kept on asking me about the book I was reading. When she realized that the author was a (gasp) homosexual, she accused me of being a cultural elitist. I then accused her of being a bigot, and our conversation promptly ended. An hour later, my sleepy head tilted to the side and with drool on my chin my head swiftly hit her shoulder, immediately waking her up.

“Ugh. Mmmmf!,” she said to me, giving me a look of utter disgust.

I think I’m concluding that America is a bizarre place. I mean, in what other country could one have such an experience just crossing from one side to another? Where else could annoying old Texan women and airports with slot machines peacefully coexist with stranded Tibetan political refugees and cappuccinos? This is the country that invented the pooper-scooper, the life-size dinosaur rest-stop and proudly boasts the world’s largest woven basket and artificial cow, among others ? who does such a thing?

This Thanksgiving, I noticed that from Williamstown to Pasadena, Americans are a dysfunctional, screwed-up, yet entertaining family. There are no two ways around it; both in times of war and peace, this is one odd country.