Moving So Fast and Going Nowhere

The beautiful for spacious skies are not hanging over Newark Airport.

I’m sure that the little rusted opium planes that loop through tinpot military dictatorships with landing strips on mountainsides are better able to slip past the well-greased eye than I was able to crawl into Newark on Continental Airlines last month. First, our flight from New Orleans was held for more than an hour because of a “weather delay.” When we finally took off, the air was blue and the clouds were as innocent as baby’s breath all the way up the coast, not a dark ripple anywhere. And then we landed in Newark. Not so late after all.

But we waited while another hour and 20 minutes passed. The plane was hot. The non-English-speaking Chinese woman next to me began to cry. The person in the seat behind grew frantic. She was traveling on to Ireland. Would she miss her connection? “Stay in your seats,” said the steward. Keep your seat belt on, the sign said. Time is leaden, time is like glue sliding around in your mind, time passes but it doesn’t move. My foot fell asleep. My book was done. I reached for the plane phone, swooped my credit card down the side. No channels available. I nibbled on my thumb. My family waited. I had forgotten to tell them what plane I was taking. Would they think I was being held hostage by a narco-terrorist? Would they think I had some unfortunate accident while talking to the assembled librarians in the Doubletree Hotel along the Mississippi?

More time passed. People began to defy the steward and move around and complain. The captain got on the intercom. He sighed a deep sad sigh, a man who has to tell his troops that the enemy has massed on the left and the right and they should just dig in and wait. The captain told us that we were within sight of our assigned Gate 42 but there were too many other planes all over the airport and a kind of terminal (pun intended) gridlock had set in. No one could move. Good news for those making connections. Out the window we could see more planes landing. I looked out over the airport and saw nothing move except an occasional cart darting between wings.

Someone sitting in the back of the plane had an anxiety attack and demanded to be released. The plane could not be fitted for steps. We had to wait for a gate. The captain came on the intercom again. He sighed the sigh of the damned. He was asked by an irate passenger to call the airport for information on the plane leaving for Ireland. He came on the intercom. “Sorry,” he said, “I can’t get through. The lines are jammed.” This was alarming. The captain can’t get through to report a fire or ask for an ambulance or just tell the controller he’s bored. We are isolated, here among many planes we are alone, the usual irony of modern urban life.

Purgatory. There had been no food on this flight. I had skipped lunch and found myself thinking about pretzels and peanuts in a friendly way. On request, the stewardess passed out some pretzels, tossing them to the left and the right the way the keeper at the zoo feeds the seals. The captain ordered the bar at the back of the plane opened and anyone could have anything they wanted, free. Anything, that is, but freedom. How can this happen, I ask the steward in my nicest voice. It seems as if he is my jailer, the captor to charm. I resist the impulse to show him pictures of my children. He tells me that this happens in Newark all the time. The airlines have more planes than they can land. Too many people are flying. The airport can’t accommodate the traffic. Ah, I see. Newark Airport is like the Long Island Expressway. Travel that route often enough and even the president of a diaper company might find himself dreaming of condoms flowing out of gas pumps. I thought of Ruby Foo’s and Shun Lee and Ollie’s filling up with their usual Sunday night customers. I thought of spring rolls and moo shu and prawns in garlic sauce. I tried the phone again. Still no open channels. Did anyone have a cell phone? Not the non-English-speaking Chinese lady next to me. She was still crying softly. But every 10 minutes she rose, I rose and her son would take her to the bathroom.

Time like mud, time like a held breath, hurting the diaphragm, pushing at the roof of the mouth, causing thirst and unwanted thoughts. Nothing moved forward or backward. I walk up to the pilot’s cabin. “Fly us to La Guardia,” I say. He laughs. I sit down. Fly us to Boston or Philadelphia or Toronto, I send him telegraphic messages. He doesn’t move.

Then he says we have been redirected to another gate, No. 92. The plane moves slowly, a bear after a winter-long hibernation. We lumber over to Gate 92. Hope leaps in my heart. But no, there is gridlock at this gate, too.

We wait again.

All in all, it was only a two-hour-and-some delay, plus the wait in New Orleans, plus the fact that I always arrive at the airport early out of fear of the plane leaving without me, so the trip that should have been two hours and 53 minutes was in fact more than six hours. Now this is not cataclysmic and I probably shouldn’t be so cranky, but I got off the plane fired with the desire to warn others. Don’t go to Newark Airport if you have any other choice and don’t fly Continental if you can walk or swim or take another carrier.

Also a curse on all business travel-it would be better if everyone stayed home and mowed the lawn or went to a major art museum or took in a movie at the local cineplex. Why are we scurrying about the country-in search of what? Why don’t I take to a rocker on a hot June day and sip iced tea and hold a baby in my lap? Why are we putting our luggage in overhead bins when we could be curled up on the living room couch? Have we gone mad?

Most of the sojourners in the air are not adventurers or sightseers. They are people with computers and attaché cases. This culture of movement is as if we are all condemned to play an eternal game of musical chairs, afraid that if we don’t keep circulating we’ll be left without a seat of our own.

Stay home. I will if you will. Let’s give Newark Airport back to the geese and the weeds and the stinky oil refineries. Feet on the ground, let’s look at the stars, not try to join them. Moving So Fast and Going Nowhere