Today marks the 26th time I have left my home at 4:30AM embarking on the Route to the Orient. Over the course of all these trips I have seen many odd and wonderful things and experienced the absolute highs and lows of international travel. I’m not speaking of my experiences with cultures and sights and food, no, I’m only talking about what happens in that 7000 mile hermetically sealed tunnel that extends from my gravelly driveway in the Rio Grande Valley to the marble clad lobby of my apartment building in Dalian, China. The quilt of my memories is sewn with tales of delays, security, immigration, lounges, weather, and lost luggage. It extends from the depths of spending countless hours trapped with uncommunicative co-workers to the apex of seeing a snow clad Mt. Fuji on an obscenely clear day from a business class window. But mostly, it’s about my fellow travelers. And today has been especially rich.
I started my trip as I always do – a fast shower followed by an even faster breakfast of yogurt, sausage, juice and prescription meds. Teddy the Dog wandered in and always looked at us as though we’re confused. On these days he doesn’t venture off his bed in our room until it is completely clear that we’re up and serious about being so. We all know that the animals we live with have their little internal clocks, set tightly to the feeding schedule. I can only guess what’s rattling through his brain when we’re scurrying about a full 2 hours before his breakfast.
The drive to town is always the same this time of day - a few night owls or early birds leaving or heading to some job with absurd working hours. It’s always fast and rarely presents even the tiniest distraction outside perhaps of a bored Bernalillo County Sheriff sitting in a driveway waiting for someone to break the ridiculously low speed limit on that street. Today, no sheriffs and no traffic and no tour buses disgorging hordes of tourists at the airport - the roads were empty and my check-in was fast. I always keep a running tab on my time and as I left the baggage check gates I was standing at a mere 25 minutes since leaving home.
It was all going to plan until I hit security. The boarding pass check was fast and friendly – there was no line and there were four agents sitting there with nothing to do. I picked the guy on the far right and had a nice 30 second conversation with him about how terrible and humanizing it is to have to get up and be somewhere by 5AM. While we were chatting I noticed the first of today’s interesting subjects standing towards the back of the security area rummaging through her bag, no doubt looking for identification. We’re going to call her “Homeless Annie Hall” because she was dressed in a very rumpled version of the look epitomized by Diane Keaton in that movie of so long ago. Probably in my age bracket, she must have had on 5 or 6 dresses of various lengths and patterns creating a disconcerting system of overlapping and cascading layers. I wondered if wearing all your vacation clothes was a faster way to travel – no waiting for bags on the carousel and no chance of losing them on route. Black porkpie hat up top, a gray shawl that had undoubtedly done some time as an afghan on the back of a settee and a man’s maroon necktie out front, she completed this sartorial sundae with a pair of black leather clogs and gray athletic socks pulled up tight. She had a small backpack over one shoulder and a plastic shopping bag from Hudson’s Department store over the opposite arm. Stunned, I said adieu to the agent and headed for the conveyors.
The security gates were also devoid of people so banking on my luck I chose the far right option again, not so much because of position but because the full body scanner was closed; they are just too slow. The first sign of trouble came when the agent on the far side of the metal detector jammed his palm into my chest and told me to stay where I was until my bag went into the x-ray machine. No problem there, it wasn’t going in because the belt wasn’t moving and I wouldn’t have thought much about it had he not been so fierce. I stood and waited until it began to move but just as I stepped forward, it stopped. He repeated himself as if I had forgotten the instructions in the last 30 seconds. I went over and gave it a shove at his suggestion, but now the belt was moving backwards. I pointed that out but he was not interested – he had his script and he was sticking to it. I stepped back in front of the detector only to be verbally attacked by an extremely officious woman who demanded to know what the holdup was. I explained the problem with my bag and she pushed me out of the way and went through. Finally the belt started up and I went though, glad for once that my watch had not set off the alarm. I can only imagine what that nasty guy would have done to me in that case.
The source of my bag’s seesaw trip quickly became apparent – my other bag was not to the liking of the x-ray viewer. I went through the accusatory “Is this YOUR bag?” phase with his assistant and then I was led off to one of the stainless steel tables for further interrogation. This guy removed every single electronic device and placed them in a tray, bringing back a similar experience in Japan where that agent had dug and dug and finally asked me just how many things I had. “Enough to stay entertained” was my answer that day. He swabbed the bag and checked for explosives and gratefully I passed that test too.
My bag and my tray full of iDevices was taking back to the x-ray for a repeat check. Again they didn’t like something, both guys stood there with their noses pressed to the screen, stabbing at something with their fingers and quietly discussing the threat. My guy brought everything over and led me to another table where he handed it all back to me. It turned out to be my backup battery, a little 4”x3” black blob that they didn’t like at all. Funny thing, I normally keep that buried in my roll around suitcase but last night for reasons unclear, I had chosen to put it in my shoulder bag. The smallest things can clearly disrupt the flow of energy in our universe. The agent offered to help me re-pack, something I found amusing when I visualized the two of us trying to put everything back in its place. I thanked him and went off to find the gate.
I settled into a seat and stared at the ceiling. Homeless Annie Hall came over and sat down just behind me and went back to rummaging through her plastic shopping bag. She must have found what she was looking for because she stopped and then fell asleep. Behind me, a family of three was waiting for one of the planes leaving from that end of the terminal. Dad was talking to Junior about how one’s ribs attach to one’s muscles. Junior was making loud fart noises with his mouth and Mom was speaking in some sort of Creole English with a tinge of Star Wars patois. She sat slouched in her chair with a bright yellow cloth shoulder bag flopped over her head. Dad took Junior and went off to find something to eat.
The Officious Woman from the security check showed up a few minutes later and sat down across from me. She was traveling with a friend and the two of them were clearly in foul moods. Friend of Officious Woman didn’t want to sit next to me and she didn’t want to sit next to Officious Woman so she tried a seat one down from mine. The woman next to that seat told he it was taken so she went around behind me and tried to sit with Creole Mom who gave her the same story. She eventually settled five rows to back. Officious Woman got on the phone and spent 15 minutes complaining to her husband (?) Marty, about how she’d been rerouted and wasn’t going to get home to South Bend until 4:30. She was especially aggrieved by the fact that her friend had been given an aisle seat while at check-in while she was told that she had to wait until the departure gate. Given the nature of her travails, I now understood why she had been in such a hurry to push me out of the way back at security.
Turning my attention away from her, I spotted Middle-aged Businessman approaching from the right. Yellow button-down short sleeved shirt, blue knee length Bermuda shorts, sandals and white socks pulled up to his knees. He was a neat and crisp version of a stylist’s nightmare, another person in my age bracket who made me wonder how I turned out like I did when so many of my peers turn out like he did. I guess I’ll thank My Lovely Wife next time I see her.
It was getting close to boarding time and I decided to commit the ultimate Rookie Mistake of going to the Boy’s Room just before boarding. I say Rookie Mistake because this leg of my trip is on the Barbie Jet and if you happen to be lucky enough to get a 1st class upgrade, you have to be at the head of the line because the Barbie Jet lacks adequate overhead storage in the 1st class cabin. It’s known as the Barbie Jet for a reason - it’s about the same size as the toy plane that every 8 year old girl hopes to find under the tree on Christmas morning. It’s that small, and is barely adequate for jetting Barbie, Skipper and Ken off to Jamaica for a week at Hedonism III.
I got back from my diversion and found myself several people back in line. Of course it was hard to tell if there was a line because each person forming said line had about 8 feet in between them. It was more of a “loose social gathering” than an actual line. I scooted between two guys and asked the leading one if he was waiting for early boarding. He confirmed that he was so I stood there with him. The guy behind him didn’t say anything so I stayed where I was. When they opened the velvet rope it was clear that I had cut that second guy off and I considered apologizing but chose instead to just head down the jet way.
I found a place for my bag in the bin above the seat one row up and across the aisle. I love to sit there and watch my fellow passengers board. First of all you can see the envy in their eyes and secondly they’re an interesting bunch. First class filled up with an older guy in front of me and man and woman across the aisle. The guy I had talked to outside had the window one row up and across and my next subject of the day took the remaining seat. We’re going to call him “Bird Boy” not only because of his angular features, but because his motions and behavior strongly evoked one of those glass birds half filled with water that amazed us all as children. That bird would stand on the edge of a glass and pretend to drink, endless bobbing and waiting as the fluid inside its body would redistribute itself. Bird Boy this morning had the most deliberate motions of any person I have ever seen, from the 10 minutes it took him to properly place his small backpack in the overhead bin to the intent examination he performed on both halves of his seatbelt. To say that he was focused would be a generous understatement. He finally got buckled in only to be told that his computer also had to go up top which entailed another 5 minutes of examining the bin for precisely the correct placement opportunity.
One last interesting passenger boarded in classic New Jersey gangster attire – sport coat, blue shirt unbuttoned to the navel, gold chains, a hairy chest and ample pompadour. He was carrying a blue canvas book bag and was truly offended when he discovered that there were no hangers available for his coat. “First Class only” from the flight attendant sent him on his way.
We took off on time and rose up above the clouds, the year’s smallest full moon riding the western horizon. I drank an orange juice and watched Bird Boy as he tried to fathom his snack box. Apparently it provided too many choices because he would reach forward, touch something and then quickly snap his hand back as though he’d put it in a fire. He finally decided on the bag of bagel chips and from then on, the choices came faster and easier. I dozed off.
Not a bad haul from a people watching standpoint given the small amount of time doing so. Probably one of my best days ever; honestly I had my doubts that the total of these cases could be topped. But sitting in the lounge a few hours later the Crowning Event occurred – Santa Claus made a late August appearance.
He was a jolly old elf sporting an ample belly. Shoulder length white ringlets crowned his head and a long white beard framed his ruddy face. He was wearing black Dockers and a bright red Hawaiian shirt festooned with big white camellias. Completing the outfit – a bright red pair of red patent leather Reebok walkers. I sat and stared and wondered who else it could be. I also wondered why the heck Mrs. Claus let him out of the house looking like that. Deciding that there was no answer, I watched him walk by and turned my thoughts elsewhere.