Everyone on the Peace Train

I think people who are used to wide open spaces are fine, when they’re in wide open spaces. People who are from cities – and I mean big ones – are fine with the way their lives are affected when masses of humanity are breathing down their necks. Generally, the human being is a pretty versatile machine and we learn to get love and function well in our normal. Issues arise, though, when a group of people with heterogenous experiences and expectations are thrown together.

Obviously, so far I’ve set this up to be a post about anything from religion to race to the far more vicious and longstanding “soda” versus “pop” cultural clash. And curiously, penning that first paragraph reminds me of my theory regarding why auto traffic in and around Washington DC is so hellacious – you have people coming from all over the country and the world, into a crowded environment where there is very little room for disagreement on the rules of the road. If you’ve ever driven in New York, you know they have a way of driving there (60 mph and completely ignoring anything presuming to call itself a lane marker). Los Angelenos and Bostonians and Chicagoans all have distinctive mannerisms in their driving. Heck, even Philadelphia has particular habits, consisting in my observation mostly of stopping on the interstate and reversing back to an exit one has missed.

Washington, DC does not have one sense of driving. Rather, we have all of these things. It is a city that very few people are from, so people bring their provincial driving flavor from all over the 50 states and test drive it in heavy traffic. Foreign nationals do the same, except that they come from places with left-hand drive or completely different right-of-way laws or no cars on the road. On top of all those residents, you have tourists who can’t see the instant genius in the grid system. AND, as if we weren’t into the bonus round already, you have Maryland plates sprinkled into the mix. Traffic jams follow Maryland tags like dust clouds trail around after Pigpen.

In a broader sense, taking people out of their element is where the recessive Stoopid gene usually makes its appearance. It seems like stories about putting city people into the great outdoors usually end with a Darwin Award, while stories about putting rurals into urban environments usually end on a police blotter. For the record, stories about trailer parks are even odds for one or both of those conclusions.

But those situations are when people are in other people’s element. I prefer mash-ups. I’ve always thought restaurant staffs were microcosms of much of what I find interesting about humanity, while Wal-Mart (“where America shops”) is a microcosm of what I find disheartening. It struck me yesterday as I dashed through Dulles Airport, trying to catch the last flight to London of the day, that mass transit provides some of the ultimate comparison and contrast between people available. Some people are good at travel – I consider myself one of those – but no one is really at home doing it. It wasn’t too long ago that Alison posted this to her Facebook page:

Someone just shushed a lady on NJ Transit. Her extra-loud response: “Jesus Christ! Did someone just shush me? On a train? I’m having a bad day and now I just want to punch you in the nose!”

I’ve had my own experiences on the Amtrak, so I can sympathize. It’s not the train Cat Stevens was singing about. Alison also had a good one on the bus.

At the least, you have to respect the apparent customer satisfaction.

But air travel is really where crazy comes home to roost. There’s a reason that Alison and I talked about going to the airport for people-watching dates when we first started spending time together — it’s fascinating. People from every place in the world and a surprising range of socioeconomic strata are all trying to do one thing: claw their way over one another to sit on a steel tube and be somewhere else. You can forget about holiday spirit if you’re traveling on Christmas or Easter. You can forget about privacy, whether it’s the woman in the gate who won’t stop staring or the TSA randomly checking whether you’ve tried to hide one more carry-on in your colon. You can forget about comfort because that kid isn’t going to stop yelling about how he’s hungry. And also because of the TSA’s colon check.

Throw all of that into an environment where people in charge are a lot more worried about whether you intend to blow up said steel tubes than about how you feel after being inspected, detected, rejected, and all kinds of mean and nasty stuff. They divest you of 4-ounce containers of liquid or self-respect. They bark into microphones and clearly have given up the Sisyphean struggle of trying to please any of the people any of the time.

All of this crystalized for me as I sat awake all night on the red-eye from DC to London. A stewardess had moved my perfectly nice and sincere seatmates away so that two elderly people, who didn’t speak English, could sit together. The old woman spent more than an hour complaining to me that it was cold, even after I repeatedly demonstrated that I’d turned off not only every air vent on our row of five, but those pointing at the row ahead and behind us (over the objection of another neighbor, so I can sympathize with the way the Waitresses in the Sky threw up their hands and walked away). For the record, I later decided that “cold”, “please” and “excuse” were the only English words she knew, and she was probably trying to make conversation. Sorry, lady. I don’t even have conversations on planes with people who can manage it. Besides, I have a girlfriend. Quit your flirting.

Which doesn’t seque, but does make me want to give one heartfelt piece of advice. Please, if you never listen to anything I say ever again, please do not EVER recline your seat quickly. I know the pilot just said it was okay and that you’re positively panting to see the inflight movie from another angle. But hypothetically, someone behind you may happen to be over six feet tall, and most of that leg, and their kneecaps may be pressed up against the back of your seat even in the unforgiving coach-class confines of the full and upright locked position. To the teenager who had never gotten this advice prior to last night: you’re very lucky I didn’t drag you backward over the seat by your hair. If you hadn’t just shattered my patellas, I might have actually done it. You’re also lucky that Alison sent me this a little while back, and that I decided catching the flight had been tough enough without spending time in the airport brig once I reached London. In case you think that just because I didn’t throw down, no one will. Bouncing all night so I arrived in London literally not having dozed off once … well, there’s a circle of Hell that Dante didn’t know about, and one of these days someone’s going to put you there.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m still a big fan of travel. I like running into so many different kinds of people and watching the interactions between others. I like being only a few hours from new and interesting places to explore. I like the feeling of invincibility every time I don’t get sick from airplane air. And if I liked random, inescapable conversations with strangers, a plane would be my first choice.

Coach Class Kitteh is not amused.

But I think that after several months in London, I’m looking forward to Plan A. I’m going to come home and persuade Alison to go to Reagan National with me on a day when neither of us actually needs to leave town. Maybe we’ll get a hot chai latte from the Starbucks and sit on a bench for a while, enjoy the fact that we’d arrived together and are still leaving together without baggage claim, and appreciate the goodbyes and travails of other people for once.

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2 Responses to Everyone on the Peace Train

  1. Paul says:

    Great line: Traffic jams follow Maryland tags like dust clouds trail around after Pigpen.

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