Thursday, October 02, 2008

The Ritual of Airports

The Brown Clown pulls up to the curb outside the Kansas City International Airport terminal and everybody scrambles. Suitcases, instrument cases, cowboy hats, carry-ons, neck pillows, and other Wilder necessities spill out onto the sidewalk as we take shifts, carrying everything inside to the check-in kiosk. Once everything is safe, I head back out and drive the van to the economy parking lot. I look for an open spot near to one of the glassed-in waiting areas. I make a mental note of the location using some stupid mnemonic- "I can't wait to retune my steel guitar to C6 tuning", or "If I run into a robot, I hope it is C3-pio". I know that no matter how creative the mental picture, I'll still forget where I parked.

I turn off the engine, put the sun-visor in the window and quickly look around to make sure nobody forgot anything. Then I lock up and go to wait for the shuttle by the glassed-in waiting area. If we have arrived in plenty of time for our flight, the parking lot is literally teeming with shuttles, and one comes to pick me up almost immediately. However, if we are running late (which we often are), its more like downtown Tombstone out there. There are no other cars coming in to park, no other people waiting, and no shuttles- no shuttles anywhere. I begin to make frantic phone calls to Betse, telling her that I'm stranded, that I'm screwed, that I'm going to have to walk to the terminal...that I just got hit by a tumbleweed. She speaks to me in a calm reassuring voice- she's incredulous because she's heard it all before. I hang up when a shuttle finally comes. I arrive at the airport and find Betse and Nate waiting next to my pile of luggage. Betse hands me my boarding pass and then they both scatter.

I grab my stuff, hit the restroom and gulp down some water at the fountain before heading into the security line. Unlike most larger airports, Kansas City International has a separate security line for each gate. Our airport was built in the early 70's, prior to today's daily terrorist threat. Although they have been retrofitting some of the busier gates with new bathrooms, once you are past security, there isn't any guarantee that there will be any services whatsoever (unless, I guess you want to call chairs a service). Regardless of this minor inconvenience, I love our sweet little airport. There never seems to be very many people flying, the lines are mercifully short, and the security staff are, for the most part friendly and free of the burnout level you see at busier airports.

I smile at the first security guard as I hand her my boarding pass and passport. She waves a weird blue flashlight over my picture, compares the info, then returns my smile along with my stuff. I move past her and pull off my boots, unbuckle and unthread my belt, take off my coat and hat, and dump the lot into a plastic bin, Then I unzip my carry-on suitcase and remove my 1 quart plastic bag containing all my important gels and liquids. I remove my laptop from the suitcase too, and put it and the gels into their own plastic tub, Finally, I pull off the tennis bag off my back (which contains my mandolin case) and lay it on the belt behind the plastic tubs. I've just organized my entire life into little train of plastic tubs. I double-check my pockets for any change, scrap metal, razor blades, or anything else that is going to get me busted, then wait for the x-ray attendant to look at me. He motions me forward. Just before I pass through the machine, I grab a quick breath and hold it... I don't hear an alarm. I'm clean- thank God. I exhale, then wait for my train of tubs to come out of the x-ray machine. I quickly put back on my belt and boots, coat and hat, and then unzip my carry-on to return my laptop and important gels and liquids. Then I go grab a seat near the gate. Even though I just went to the bathroom, I now have the urge to pee. But, of course there is no bathroom inside this gate.

I look around and see Betse sitting 10 yards across from me in another row of seats checking email on her laptop. Nate is sitting about 20 yards behind me reading the sports page. Today Ike is meeting us in Newark, and is flying out of Allentown, Pennsylvania, so who knows what he is doing? But even if he was here, he wouldn't willingly sit with any of us. For whatever reason, we don't hang out together in airports. Given the opportunity, we will change our seat assignments in order to NOT sit near each other. Of course, we DO spend a lot of time together on the road. But another part of this avoidance behavior is due to the fact that each of us has our own preference as to where we like to sit. I am claustrophobic by nature and require not only an aisle seat, but, if possible, an aisle seat at the very front of the plane. This preference allows me to get the hell off the plane as soon as possible. Ike likes the front too, but because he is sensitive to the engine noise and prefers the quieter ride up front. But, unlike me, he has no problem sitting on a plane, and will sometimes dawdle just to be the last one off. Both Betse and Nate like window seats- not because of the view, but because they have developed a technique where by they can actually go to sleep by cramming their heads up against the closed window shade NOTE: This technique requires the use of a neck pillow. Misuse of this technique can result in spinal injury).

A voice comes over the intercom telling us that they are now going to begin pre-boarding for our flight. A line quickly develops at the gate. Betse gets up and joins the line too. She will need to board as soon as possible so that she can find a safe space for her double fiddle case before all the overhead bins are full. Thus, she has a very good reason to get in line, but I look at the other people jockeying for position, and I wonder what it is they are in such a damned hurry for. I remain seated. Due to my claustrophobia, I would never willingly hurry to get ON an airplane. And besides, once you are past the gate attendant, you only get to walk a few steps before you hit a secondary line on the jetway, where everyone who got up before you is now stuck waiting. Inside the aircraft, all the people who first jumped into line are now cramming their oversize carry-ons into all of the available overhead spaces. They will have to wait, though, until the rest of us stragglers come aboard.

I wait until there most of the people are on the plane, then move toward the gate. I don't want to be the last one on the plane because I usually have slightly more luggage than is really "allowed". When my carry-on bag is fully packed, containing all of my clothes, at least two western suits, my 1 quart bag of liquids and gels, my computer and whatever else was needed depending on the tour, it is about an inch or so over the maximum size allowed on an aircraft. Technically, you are allowed to carry-on this bag as well as one nebulous "personal item". This is where it gets sticky. My personal item is the tennis bag containing my mandolin case. I need it because it has backpack straps that allow me to carry all three of my instruments at once. If I only had the mandolin case inside, it wouldn't be a problem. However, lately I've been pushing the envelope by cramming in my cowboy boots, some magazines, snacks, a neck pillow, and so on and so on... Today, my "personal item" is actually LARGER than my carry-on bag! As I move up to the gate attendant, I keep my carry-on suitcase on the opposite side of my body in an attempt to block it from her view- and I sort of stand sideways,. hoping she won't look too closely at the monstrosity hanging on my back. I'm lucky, and she doesn't even look up at me when I hand her my boarding pass. I move quickly down the jet way and run into the tail end of the line waiting to get on the plane.

After a few minutes I finally reach the door and I see the flight attendant staring at my luggage and shaking her head. I'm busted. She tells me the overheads are all full and I'll need to gate check my bags along with the strollers and wheelchairs. Defeated, I quickly open my suitcase and remove my computer, grab some gum, a magazine, re-zip everything, then say a silent prayer for the continued good health of my luggage before handing both bags off to the disinterested, overworked and underpaid baggage handler standing in the door of the jetway. Powerlessly, I watch him drop my carry-on bag from the stairway landing to the truck bed, located 4 feet below. I cringe, quickly turn away, and then move through the door of the suffocatingly small aircraft. I smile at the flight attendant and take my aisle seat in the first row. I was the last one on, and with any luck, I'll be one of the first off. Thank God.