Friday, October 16, 2009

Not yet lost, but definitely searching

I’ve gone to look for America.

Sung by harmonists Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel almost two generations ago, the lines come to mind to me with greater frequency these days.

We’re still a large and diverse country, even with our consolidated media, concentrated lifestyles, and coordinated schedules. Just because CNN is on in airports doesn’t mean New York has the same feel as New Orleans or Houston or Denver, or even Honolulu or St. Louis. Hundreds of miles can feel like thousands, separation from one another can become ever more evident, and we seek out private space in public places just so we can digitally link ourselves to hundreds of ‘friends’ with updates and reflections.

She said the man in the gabardine suit was a spy.

Even with baseball blaring from overhead sets, watery drinks served in sloppy bars, and chain stores flogging identical shirts and books and curios, our airports reflect the character and the pace of the city in which they’re located.

New York’s LaGuardia is a dirty, disheveled mess, with rodent control devices strategically placed on seatbacks in waiting areas, security attendants either disinterested or overwrought by what’s going on around them, and passengers either thrilled to be returning home from the land of $11 domestic beer or excited about their once in a lifetime visit to the Big Apple.

Landing in Honolulu, let alone being on a flight to Honolulu, is just like being on a flight and landing in Vegas. Everyone is there to party. Young or old, fat or thin, American or international. Everyone is in good spirits, ready to feel the sand under their feet, sweet drinks across their lips, and the warmth of the sun on their naked shoulders.

So I looked at the scenery. She read her magazine. And the moon rose over an open field.

Well, New Orleans is another thing entirely. It’s said you can get a contact drunk on flights leaving the Big Easy late on weekends or first thing Monday mornings, from folks heading straight to Louis Armstrong from the French Quarter. All I know is that the smell of piss, that’s other people piss, by the way, is so acrid that it’s the closest reminder of New York’s Grand Central station of my youth. And that’s just on the welcome, before you even depart and enter the maelstrom that is the alcohol and tattoo and skin festival that is downtown New Orleans. Hell, the damn airport is humid, with low ceilings, poor ventilation, disengaged staff, and furnishings and adornments left over from the ‘70s. Even an impressive photo display on the role the airport played during the 2005 Hurricane Katrina response and evacuation is buried around a corner from the main corridor, en route to several restrooms. Again, think piss.

Houston. Well, Houston is another thing. But that’s Texas for you. Once another country, it retains that feel over 160 years on. Women’s hair challenge gravity, as well as style and modernity. Men’s girth know no bounds, no limits, no sense of decency. Conversation among Texans engage small groups, roping people in as if they had all been going to the same church on Sunday for years, held at decibel levels that must run up against the din of the aircraft around them. And I’m not getting anywhere near the clothing styles and personal habits you see in Texas. Not gonna do it.

Denver is a whole other thing. People seem to be in better shape in the Denver airport. Many are sunburned all year long, with weather worn faces, tougher skin, and infinitely more casual clothing. A cowboy hat worn by an older man in Denver not only seems real, it is real, and for good reason. The kids with their snowboards and overstuffed backpacks are also for real. The men in suits, few that they are, are probably not as they appear. Though not poseurs, they just don’t fit in casual country, the American west. And you don’t see many suited passengers, though you do see women with longer hair, less makeup, and bluer jeans. At all ages. Colorado casual, I suppose.

Sitting here in St. Louis, after two straight weeks of coast to coast travel, there’s a distinct Midwestern feel. Not a sense, mind you, but a feel. This place is perhaps what America once aspired to be. Business travelers mid-week almost seem stranded. But outside the airport, it appeared as though I was the only person making u-turns across double yellow lines all over town. The only person willing to risk a parking ticket instead of seeking change for a coin meter downtown. One night earlier this week, I was literally the only person walking six blocks early in the evening from my hotel to a restaurant for dinner, on streets so quiet you would have thought there was already an H1N1 curfew or quarantine in place.

But the relative tameness and sedentary pace set by the fine and ordinary people of St. Louis belies a further level of calm, of diminished expectations for the grand, or the wild, or the exceptional. Even the architecture here, while classic, is frozen in the golden age of 19th century industrial might, with a few early 20th century neo-classic buildings thrown in for what was then a modern touch, and is now just a reminder that the city, or at least what is left of it, is frozen in an earlier time, and a time that the rest of the country, at least the more engaged coasts, have long forgot.

They’ve all gone to look for America.

Airports capture us at a range of moments. They can strip us of dignity as we shed our clothing for inspection. They can examine our moods, and our patience, and our dietary habits, or preferences. And they serve to remind us of where we are, whether that’s in the rat-race of New York, the tranquility of Honolulu, the vastness of Texas, the openness of Denver, or the commonness of St. Louis.

And it’s good that homogenization hasn’t taken us over any more than it has already, the plethora of Wolfgang Puck fast food and Sam Adams pubs notwithstanding. Well, except in St. Louis, where Sam Adams is not a domestic brew. But that’s another story.