Diary of a Cross Country Air Traveler

Diary of a cross-country air traveler

Saturday, September 29, 2001

By Rebecca Redshaw
Tuesday, Sept. 25 — Two weeks since World Trade Center attack.

6 a.m. Leave home for 2 1/2-hour drive to Los Angeles airport. Pass time by listening to NPR, Howard Stern and the book on tape of John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath.”

9:20 a.m. Pull into parking lot “C,” the only available convenient parking. Shuttled to airport around police barricades. Two olive-skinned riders board wearing black ribbons. The five-minute van ride is ridden in silence. Two elderly Skycaps stand at the usually crowded entrance talking to one another. At check-in, there are more airline employees behind the counter than passengers in line.

9:50 a.m. Show California driver’s license as ID and answer the mandatory “Have your bags been in your possession?” and “Had anyone unknown to you, etc.?’ questions. Because I was warned tweezers might be considered a weapon, begrudgingly check my carry-on. Before ascending escalator to luggage scanner, required to show ID and ticket at bottom of escalator.

10 a.m. Delay because nervous woman does not want to put two rolls of unexposed 35mm film through the X-ray machine. While security inspects the film, my camera bag — complete with two tape recorders, two electrical chargers, cell phone, Palm Pilot and batteries — goes through without question.

10:10 a.m. LAPD is visible at every turn. Enter the near-empty food court prepared to kill time and eat in case food is not served on the plane. A sure sign that we are in bigger trouble than I thought — there’s no line at Starbucks. Cell phones are everywhere. Bowing to panic more than wisdom, I extended the service on my seldom-used phone to cover anywhere in the country — just in case.

10:40 a.m. Settle in the waiting area with the Los Angeles Times, turning first to the crossword puzzle. Look around at the few others waiting and find them looking at me, too. For the first time ever in years of travel, I hear background music in the nearly deserted terminal. Mariachi music. Even though the past seven days I awoke every night with nightmares, I am remarkably calm. I even packed a miniature deck of cards in the event a young person might want to be distracted on the flight.

11 a.m. Several pilots, flying as passengers, talk quietly among themselves. I mentally compare their level of fitness to the police officers I had seen moments ago. I realize I want my pilot to concentrate on flying the plane and leave the thought of carrying a gun to the men and women who are trained to do just that.

11:35 a.m. No patronizing greetings from bored staff upon boarding. The A321 is better than half-full and everyone is exceedingly polite boarding. Overhead compartments, which on previous flights were treated like oceanfront real estate, are barely full. There are only sporadic comments as passengers settle in for the 4 1/2-hour flight to Pittsburgh.

12:05 p.m. “‘You are now free to move about the cabin.” Passengers recline seats; the movie preview is visible on tiny screens. I opt to continue listening to my audio book. I’ve never been a good flier, but I always fly prepared. Instead of an extra set of underwear, I pack my carry-on with paperbacks, tablets, pens, crosswords and stationery. A pilot once told me that if you make it past the first two minutes after take-off without anything happening, you’re home free. That thought isn’t comforting anymore.

12:40-3:40 p.m. Very few travelers shell out $5 to see “Bridget Jones’s Diary.” The captain announces our cruising altitude as 33,000 feet and our arrival time as 7:21. Reset watch to Eastern Time.

4 p.m. I had ordered a “Special Vegetarian Meal” online. Proof again that this was an unusual flight — the steamed vegetables are good. Evidently, chefs assume if you’re a vegetarian, that a half-canned pear and half strawberry are preferable to a square of apple spice cake. This is not the case.

4:40 p.m. Trays and cups are cleared without fanfare. The young woman across from me finishes her second beer and receives a third from a solicitous steward. She’s been personally touched by the recent events, but I’m reluctant to inquire. Sometimes people want to talk or need to talk, and sometimes they need to be left alone. I never learn by asking questions. I only learn from listening to answers, and then I’m limited by the scope of my question. I learn mostly by watching and listening. I suppose that’s why I call myself a writer rather than a reporter. The drone of the engines and the absence of turbulence cause me to doze, and I only awaken when my cassette tape clicks off.

5:15 p.m. Time to stretch. The movie’s over and multiple screens recess into the ceiling. A walk to the rear of the plane, and then back to my seat finds more people sleeping than usual. Maybe because there’s more room to stretch out. Conversation is virtually nonexistent. A little more than two hours to go and I’m ready for the flight to be over.

6 p.m. Last round of beverages. A pretty attendant smiles and says, “That’ll be $20” when the fellow in front of me asks for water. It’s good to hear laughter. I accidentally bump the woman sitting next to the window. I apologize and we both comment on how quiet the flight is, but neither of us pursue a conversation. We know what we don’t want to talk about.

6:15 p.m. I can’t concentrate anymore. I put the cassette player away, consider turning to my James Baldwin novel but I’m tired. The past two weeks, I have feverishly read newspapers, magazines, editorials and essays written by respected journalists, columnists, authors and educators. Their words are sincere and touched by some degree of emotional depth, but these are people who will still pour their coffee in the morning. Basically, life for most of us is going on. Change is seldom permanent. We respond and react to activities around us, first and foremost, as to how we are affected. That’s not a good or bad thing, only human.

6:25 p.m. A none-too-dainty belch is heard from the pretty beer drinker. Now it’s my turn to smile. We land in an hour.

7:35 p.m. No smiling children or happy lovers greet passengers coming off the plane. The usually active shops and restaurants have only a sales clerk or two watching sporadic travelers hurry past to baggage claim. My suitcase is first off the belt — amazing. Waiting outside for my ride, I adjust to the 50-degree drop in temperature, happy to be on the ground. My flight home is tomorrow. I expect much of the same but maybe, by then, a little more conversation.