Mums the Word

Budgeting Plush Waffles and the Final Descent

Thursday, March 1, 2012

“...what I want and all my days I pine for is to go back to my house and see my day of homecoming. And if some god batters me far out on the wine-blue water, I will endure it, keeping a stubborn spirit inside me, for already I have suffered much and done much hard work on the waves and in the fighting. So let this adventure follow.” -- Odysseus, The Odyssey

“Prepare for our final descent.” Tell me this right now, pilot, just what exactly do you mean by that? Did you mean to specify “final descent as a group”, or maybe you are just blithely prophesying a fiery denouement? No one understands the forces at work here. We should all be howling in terror. 30,000 feet above the Earth and this Boeing 737 is pregnant with 75,000 lbs of steel, blue toilet water and corn fed all American ass-fat, nothing but three sets of rubber tires to buffer the awkwardness. Memories flicker in my mind’s eye, gurgling to the surface as the moment of impact approaches. I scan urgently, desperate to relive a moment - any moment - that isn’t this one. All the while, the woman next to me is thumbing casually through her Sky Mall.

Visions play out in the split screen of my mind’s eye, countless scenarios in which we all perish violently, vaporized into ash and painted onto twisted steel. What if the landing gear doesn’t go down when it’s supposed to go down but instruments in the cockpit says that it is in fact down but it’s not? Would the pilot have any way of knowing? Maybe one of the tires has a slow leak. That used to happen to my Chevy Malibu all the time. I would take it to the gas station, fill the front left tire to 44 PSI, and two hours later the steering wheel would start to wobble violently when I drove above 50 MPH. What if that happened to us? What would be our recourse? We can’t call time out, take a knee and rest on a cloud while taking turns blowing into the valve stem, and this lunatic lady is window-shopping themed throw pillows purposely shaped and colored as to mimic buttermilk pancakes.

All fear abated at touchdown. Wheels and Earth reunite as needle to vinyl, scratching the score to the end credits of my vacation. Twenty-four hours ago I was driving through Sonoma; now I’m back in frozen New York’s corporate purgatory. I never really left it, as Time Off is Time On to the corporate masters. The reward for six months of toil is 5.86 paid vacation days. I took 14 off, trading caution for wind. Now money is thin. I’ll be using breakfast tips to pay travel expenses put on my credit card. The lady next to me is fingering the trigger on her visa over some plush waffles and I’m cutting the budget on actual food. Rage.

Deplaning is excruciating. We’re packed in here like Pez. No exit until the candy tab in queue before us discharges. Most of us understand the ritual at this point - grab your bag and go - but there’s always one party that can’t coalesce with the urgency of the pack. This time it’s a mother of three, scramble-headed and overwhelmed by her own spawn. I feel a pang of sympathy for her, not for her struggles with the kids per se - she dug those holes- but rather for the deluge of judgement she now has to endure. One hundred eyes on 50 craned necks bore into her, trying to will her into motion. These people need to relax, shelve their contempt and lend a little sympathy to her priorities, foreign as they may seem. I’ve learned to mitigate my own anxiety in these moments. If ever there were a situation outside of my control, it’s waiting to exit an aircraft. This lady has a flock to herd and between three and five carry-on bags to untangle before she can clear the path. At that point, and not before, the rest of us can be on our way home. We can remove our shifted-during-flight bags from the overhead compartments, cruise past the Cinnabons and the Hudson Newses in the terminal, collect our checked luggage and catch our cabs and our buses to go home to where our girlfriends and wives, as well as the toilets where we celebrate most of our shits.

I’m only anxious to get home out of habit. Nothing there to look forward to. I fantasize about this woman never budging, never getting her shit together. In my dream she has endless children, and her row is a clown car with an endless stream of pre-adolescent children scooting off their seats and tugging at her sweater for attention. Her overhead compartment is endless bags; as she fusses one down into the aisle another appears in its place. Stall, lady, stall. Maybe if she lingers long enough, the pilot and passengers will reach a consensus: we never should have left California. It’s 80 degrees at LAX with no wind. My toes belong in sand, I should be splayed out on some hot stand, not hoarding all the steely reserve I can to endure life in New York. Come on, people, let’s turn this around.

Unfortunately I underestimated this woman. She’s less mess than ninja. The best efforts of her unruly, rambunctious children are suddenly thwarted with surgical precision. A few moments of visible anxiety vanish as she finds her feet, wielding discipline and love as sword and shield. Her young - well versed in the rules - recognize her authority the moment she channels her voice, filing behind her with military efficiency. Damn. Baggage claim will be a hustle, then I have four trains to ride. The third train is the shortest leg; the 1/2/3 from Penn Station to Times Square. Between the wait and the one-stop ride, it’s only slightly faster than exiting the station and crossing the distance on foot. Upon arrival the train is packed to capacity, but I don’t believe in capacity. I shove on, bag at my feet. The door snaps shut less than an inch behind me. Every eye is on me, drawing the collective ire of a suddenly unified flock of strangers. Everyone wants to glare at the biggest cocksucker on the train. I don’t care. In only one stop their rage will disperse harmlessly as I meld back into the warm embrace of anonymity.

The train arrives at Times Square, doors opening on the right. I shoulder my bag to depart through the opposite doors...but am stopped by an invisible resistance from behind. Something - or someone - is holding my bag. I look back for the culprit, bracing for fisticuffs. My aggressor is karmic, not sapien. My strap is caught in the doors, and the train rolls onward with me on it. I won’t be leaving until we reach a stop where the doors again open on the left. It’s a 45-minute side quest to Harlem added to an already interminable journey.

Home groans reluctantly into view. I cut through the park towards my apartment, walking slower the closer I get. This feels all wrong. My doorknob is cold, the latch unwelcoming to my keys. The stairs seems steeper, air stale and foreboding. My bedroom opens under duress. I flip the light switch on and right back off. My bag slides to the floor with a reluctant thud. I’ve been gone for two weeks, a luxurious vacation in the corporate world, but I do not feel refreshed. I don’t feel right at all. Two weeks is an amuse-bouche, only the fleeting bouquet of adventure, and now I’m ravenous. If I go back to work I will return instantly, dangerously close to my breaking point. I know this feeling too well. The hotel is understaffed as it is. My absence was tolerated, not embraced. I have to make that money.

Routine returns easily enough as I retrace the footsteps I know by heart until it becomes automatic. Sandwich from the deli, a movie via HBO On Demand and three Yuenglings. My to-do list vanishes as my beard is shaved, teeth brushed, alarm set for 4 a.m. As much as ever, I am fully reengaged into New York life. I lie in bed, waiting for sleep to take me, gazing around the room with a smile. There, perched against the door next to my boots sits my bag, fully packed.


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