Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The View From The Air

Romulus, Michigan

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

I am at the Detroit airport awaiting my flight to LAX. To be precise, waiting to fly to Nashville, Tennessee and then to Los Angeles, the result of one of those routing arrangements made and understood only by personnel well above my pay grade. In general I enjoy airport terminal gates. You’ve gotten past the strip search part of the process and have consigned the heaviest of your bags to someone else, trusting against all odds that it will get to where you want it to go and come popping out, probably upside down or sideways, onto a luggage carousel thousands of miles away. Near the gate there are lots of bathrooms and little fast food joints and convenience stores, minus the hassle of parking. And there are lots of TV screens.

Here at Gate D21 most of us sit in wide leatherette chairs held together by robust aluminum framing. I’m up on a barstool affair with the computer plugged into electricity. Unlike many of the people down in the chairs, I can’t use the battery on my venerable laptop, as the charging mechanism deep within the machine ceased to function a few years ago.

People will become pretty docile when know they have to wait for things they want or need. I’m always amused and a little surprised when I see bits on the news where passengers act petulant and put out at airports. I’ve really never seen that kind of thing—but then I’m no world traveler. Once in a while someone in front of or behind me in a line will say something deprecating about airports or airlines in general, but I’m convinced they do it mostly to show how jaded and well-traveled they are. Their expectations seem to be that they are entitled to travel in a manner equivalent to first class on the Orient Express early 20th century. But air travel is mass transit in a way it never was even back when Pan American and TWA operated. It’s estimated that on any given day between 1.5 and 2 million people fly in the U.S. And while it’s true that at one time the seats and service aboard airplanes were better, those days are so long in the past that I doubt if the middle aged dude in the suit—the Glen Beck watcher whose clarion voice you can’t ignore—really remembers those days.

Of course there are people who just love to complain, and they’re everywhere, not only at airports. I was at the front of the line at the post office a couple of weeks ago, waiting at the spot where they tell you to stay until the next person is available to help you, carefully watching the two employees to see which of them would summon me to the counter. About six people back a woman was huffing loudly that we should just be able to go up to the counter when we got to the front of the line, not wait to be called. It was a trivial idea, at best, and I concluded immediately that it came from a mind clouded and crowded with the trivia of life. It was the middle of the day and from the crap she was carrying I suspected that the woman was one of those local business people or self-employed types who is apt to be at the post office during business hours in the first place. God save us all from these denizens of the downtown. When Napoleon called England “a nation of shopkeepers” he meant it as an insult, as indeed it is.

From having worked at the post office briefly, and simply from observation, I know there are at least a few things the counter people have to do besides wait on customers, like making computer entries that accomplish automatic inventory control, moving packages around from one place to another, and going to the back to do other jobs. Someone is always telling them exactly what to do, whether it's to work the front desk, go back and sort mail, or pass out special deliveries to the carriers. Postal employees are some of the busiest and most efficient people I have ever encountered in the workplace, so I’m on their side, notwithstanding their bad reputation. Also, postal employees know what anyone should know but most of us forget. Newman the mailman on Seinfeld knew it, namely, that the mail never stops, and the customers never stop, and nothing ever stops until it’s time to go home, and when you're home even more mail comes in. So there’s no point in rushing. Work steadily, work accurately, but don’t break your ass. And I quite agree.

But this woman behind me was someone who thinks that for 44 cents (surely one of the lowest domestic postage rates in the world) you should get the royal treatment. In fact, as a small business owner (I’ve already got her pegged, you see) she thinks the nation and the world revolve around her. Why? Because people keep telling her so. She believes all the hogwash and propaganda our government and advertisers put out about how “small businesses are the backbone of the economy.” If that's the case, we've got serious spinal problems. So the thinking (even of the liberals) goes, don’t go to a big nasty store with lots of employees, where economies of scale keep prices low and there’s at least a chance the workers have a union or if not then some regular benefits. No, go instead to a little store run by your neighbor, who is apt to cut corners, ignore safety rules and wage and hour laws, skip paying his taxes, and engage in unproductive nepotism, either because he’s incompetent or he can’t afford to do anything else. Makes sense, right? Don't patronize a place with enough money to withstand being sued by its employees or customers without going out of business and flying by night. (Here I admit that the bankruptcy laws of the U.S. have made it increasingly easier for large businesses to fly by night, too.)

This love of the small businessman, the one with the 75% chance of failing in the first year or so, must be part of our national weakness for the underdog. In any case, it is one of the great mysteries of American economic life to me. People love, almost venerate, the idea of small businesses. I suppose it’s because they can see themselves in that role, whereas it’s hard to see oneself as a scion of the Ford family, for instance. But let’s face it, even moderately successful small businesses are usually run by grubby cheapskates who, by the way, are exempted from many of the wage and hour, insurance, and pension laws that govern their larger brethren. We all have stories about having worked in such places, whether they’re local independent pizza joints or group homes or party stores or motels. These roach pits get all the glory in the mythology of American capitalism. They are for some reason viewed as the virtuous little acorns from which the mighty oaks of the Fortune 500 grow. But it was only in the large, well-organized mega-businesses, like coal mines and Pullman train cars and Ford and GM, that unions were able to force collective bargaining on a shop-wide basis. Try organizing the workers at your beloved little corner restaurant or coffee shop some time and see how far you get. In those places you’re supposed to work for the sheer joy of laboring alongside your fellows and knowing the boss personally.

But back to airports. Funny things you almost never see anywhere else exist in airports, like people movers, those horizontal escalators that let you rest a bit or walk faster. Cool and sort of silly at the same time. And lots of corridors and immensely high ceilings and carpeting and big thick windows. Quietude and the occasional announcement, many of which are as familiar to air travelers as are the liturgical pronouncements of a priest. "Do not leave your luggage unattended." "The National Transportation Safety Administration advises that...." "Don’t offer to carry anything strange for anyone who looks like a nervous Bedouin." I have a theory about these announcements and it is simply this: whatever might be next in the way of terrorism, you can be sure we’ll never see it coming. It’ll be like the proverbial bolt of lightning or the bus that appears out of nowhere and runs you down, but with an even lower statistical chance of happening than anything like that. So fuck it.

Then I’m in Nashville, where famous hillbilly singers like George Straight make welcoming announcements. However I don’t tarry in Music City longer than it takes for my connection to LA to arrive and begin loading. Once we're aloft I try in vain from my window seat to figure out what's what on the ground. The view goes from too close to take it all in to too far to comprehend it except as patches of varying shades of brown. I wish the states really were different colors like they are on the map. The Mississippi River must be down there somewhere, but I can't find it, and soon I'm above clouds and the sun has set and that's it. Then a nap and then it's the long descent into the lights of the most populous county in the United States. As the wheels touch ground I reflect on how glad I am that it’s not as easy to start an airline as it is a taco stand. No small businessmen allowed here, and no complaints from me.

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