CHICAGO — The jet age really changed everything … how quickly we get from here to there, obviously, but our sense of personal well-being as well. I can’t take all the blame, though it did occur on my watch and began about the time I was born.
Indeed, in my lifetime jet travel has invigorated America. Our collective pulse rate has been a little high ever since. Really, I think it changed our psyches in dramatic ways.
Jets helped turn us from a largely agrarian, hat-wearing nation dressed in wool, to a 90 percent polyester country. It was electrifying and romantic, jet travel was, but also lethal. It made wars go faster — if that’s good, and I’m sure it’s not.
It also made daily civilian life tick faster. Lesson learned: “Faster is better.” That joins the other mantras of the modern era: “Greed is good” and “God is everywhere.”
As if those three things could coexist.
I contemplate this while waiting for airline mechanics to top off the oil in the left engine of my 737 the other day in Chicago, after one canceled flight, three gate changes and now this 45-minute maintenance delay.
The Midwest is always good to me. I leave it reluctantly and five pounds heavier, having hijacked some of its grandest pizza and those Chicago-style hot dogs that taste, to me, like mother’s milk.
Everything is a little heavier here, the food, the architecture, the dark-chocolate soil. The afternoon clouds look like mountain ranges, enhancing the lush Irish topography, and later there is heat lightning in the distance, which lights up the horizon like an old projector.
I stayed up late one night just to watch the fireflies.
Saw friends and family, played some golf, though that’s really a game that plays me. If Phil Mickelson can lose it on the course, just imagine what that cruel hoax of a sport does to me.
Now I’m paying the real price of any Midwestern adventure: O’Hare.
These days, air travel is like boarding sheet-metal wagon trains, equally miserable but usually over in just a day.
It is also a metaphor for almost everything in modern life: a rushed and joyless experience devoid of much human decency and, in the end, a brusque and unsettled customer experience.
No one smiles much in airports anymore. Here’s why … .
I arrive at Gate H11B to find that my flight has been canceled. There are options on other airlines, no doubt, but no gate agents are around to help, or explain why the flight has been scratched: weather, repairs, crew illness? Or, as it seems regarding everything in air travel, on somebody’s whim.
Re-booking turns out to be easy enough; they do it for me by text. Father’s Day dinner back in L.A. will have to wait a few hours — no big deal. Meanwhile, I watch some soccer at the airport bar, drink a small, passive Bloody Mary and try to mingle with phone-obsessed strangers with buds in each ear. Not easy.
“Hiya,” I say, raising a plastic glass.
“I’m good too, thanks,” I mutter.
As you know, my life is a series of tiny existential crises, broken up by bursts of cold beer, so an airport bar is a good place to find like-minded individuals adrift in their personal lives and work. I always have a good time at an airport bar.
In this case, the underdog is whipping a World Cup favorite on TV, and there is much mirth and reverie to that … the fact that the little guy might finally kick the arrogant favorite in the keister. We nurse our $14 drinks, wishing we were home with family instead.
Good God, get me home.
Yet there’s a certain camaraderie to an hour or two in a nondescript airport bar, awaiting the next flight to various points on the planet. You’ll never see these people again. You don’t really have to be convivial, but why not?
Like me, these other folks have been herded through long TSA lines, told to partially strip, treated like suspects and possibly patted down by some government goon in latex gloves.
Personally, the patting down is the highlight of the trip. Not the best first date I ever had, but certainly not the worst.
“Got any metal in there?” the TSA agent growls.
“Just my heart,” I say.
So now here we sit at the airport bar, in these long timeouts between potentially life-changing journeys: vacationers, soldiers, business people, college kids, all rooting for some underdog on TV we don’t even probably know.
And, by turn, rooting for us all.
Email Chris Erskine at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter at @erskinetimes.