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Planespotting

Refractions on flying.

With no one from here, and everyone on their way, it's a no-place, and the lack of reference is underlined by the drift towards gray futurism in the architecture. The airport is an annex to the corporate park, a terminus for the highway, not much else.

Approaching the gate is a ritual: remove your shoes, put your keys in the bin, make no jokes, retract all claws. Consent to being probed with wands, to having your effects rifled. Once inside you may re-shod yourself, put the belt back on, tuck your dignity back into your waistband.

No one in the airport looks good; attractive people are dressed as blandly as possible, or in uniforms, as anonymous as business-casual. The food, bought with money that, inside the gates, is somehow no longer truly money, has no taste, laden with grease atop sugar, caffeine, starch. They call your row. If it's a long flight you take some sort of knock-out pill before stepping aboard, like an astronaut going into deep freeze on her or his way to some distant star. Not only is this sort of travel not to be enjoyed, but it is not to be experienced.

The airplanes themselves are lonely boxes of tired people. I sit counting the minutes, crossing my arms so that my shoulders don't bump the person next to me, and I wake up sore and bleary.

We land in Detroit. This airport looks like a portrait of the future: moving walkways, natural light streaming in, great pylons and beams exposed, running together in huge hex nuts, the exposed screw-threads painted over. A small train connects the terminals. This is fun and vibrant architecture, but if that is the future, I don't want to live there. I want color and details at a human scale, textures I can see and touch, for my long legs to be acknowledged, for my humanity to be acknowledged in full.

The flights show me exactly where the class line divides, with a blue curtain. They load first class at the beginning, and the rest of us file past in obeisance, watching the stewardesses fetch orange juice for the select few, marveling that there are people willing to spend hundreds more for something as ephemeral as comfort. I watch two men split apart. One takes a seat in first class, and says “I'll see you in a little while,” to the other one, who proceeds towards the tail of the aircraft. Someone says, “How come he's sitting up here and you're going back there?”

“Because he's the vice-president,” says the other man, and there is laughter with a sting. If you ask the regular passengers in first class (you don't have to; they'll tell you), you hear that there's no other way to fly, buying extra humanity for a few more dollars. To me, $500 is half a week of being allowed to write what I want instead of what someone pays me to write, so I tend to skip out on wild privileges. But if I had a life of hard work, and nothing to save for, and could care less that $500 would buy goats for the poor or whatever fool cause I'm on about now, I'd probably live for first class.

When I find my seat a man walks past with a book in his pocket called Taming the Sales Dragon, and another comes in with a book called Unleashing the Enterprise, all of them trying to work their way up to first class, to get to that point where they don't have to walk back past row 10, and then someone walks past with a novel by Oliver North, and I realize I have no choice but to sleep, to get as far away from this as I can. When I wake up I will be on dusty earth, in a city with a past, eating food with spices.


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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

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