The Numbers

Airline travel is seamless and magical, until…it isn’t. There is no middle ground here; you either slip into the airport on a cloud and emerge via your 3 connections with all your luggage in tow, even lighter than when you first left it, or you fall through some hellacious trapdoor and find yourself sequestered in the world’s smallest terminal with no hope of rescue and no accessible caffeine. If Starbucks hasn’t found its way to an airport wing, it’s likely you could find the fibers of someone’s HAZMAT suit lingering somewhere.

I was stranded in the New Orleans airport this past week, possibly the worst armpit of an airport I’ve ever had the displeasure of spending 8 hours in, only to find myself sitting, once again, motionless on the tarmac because of an issue with “the numbers”. It’s comforting when the pilot reports an issue with the sky-bound vessel you’re strapped into as being with “the numbers”. As I sat there waiting for “the numbers” to resolve themselves, I was suddenly, and vehemently, over my numbers. Four days, three nights away from home. Five shitty meals that left me scrounging through the hidden pockets of my backpack for chocolate, mints, peanut dust. Eight hours sitting with hundreds of other impatient travelers waiting out a storm system, zero cups of decent coffee to be found. Two and a half more hours of air travel that wouldn’t get me home, but only to another airport where I’d be spending the night because I’d missed all connections. 100 percent struck with the urge to deplane, grab the backpack under my feet and hightail back to the Big Easy for an indeterminate number of red bean and rice filled meals.

The appeal of absconding this way, i.e. with only my backpack and my complimentary copy of American Way, was an imagined sense of not being tethered to anything, my suitcase included. Wheeling luggage into this new adventure seemed slightly less Bohemian, so I was willing to leave it tucked under the plane, assuming it was there and had gotten less lost than “the numbers”. Besides, I imagined this carefree excursion as being made possible on the crutch of a credit card, so I had to move a few markers back into the “dangerously spontaneous” column somehow.

I think the thing I forget to do when I travel is to get lost for awhile, to forget I’m attached to any other place or bags full of things, and I wanted to go get lost until the flickering gas lamps in the French Quarter stopped seeming like a novelty, or until I was revolted by the sight of the tourists walking around with hurricanes in to-go cups shaped like penises. (This last point is rhetorical; my disgust was immediate.) Traveling for work is tricky. I usually end up in a really cool place only to have no time, or no motivation, to do anything other than the thing for work I was sent there to do. Sure, there were a few dinners out, a quick loop around the “nice” part of the city, but what does New Orleans look like when you’ve been there for awhile?

Ironically, my nineteen year old self could have told you, though that experience was much too messy to have even wandered into my field of longing as I sat yearning for freedom in aisle 17. Many moons ago, I found myself in New Orleans for Mardi Gras with a group of my college friends. Kids, NEVER go to Mardi Gras. Mardi Gras is disgusting in all the ways you anticipate it will be, and then in some completely unexpected, but even more visceral ways. Imagine trudging down streets covered with some black, slimy shit, and then start to use your imagination to come up with a list of possible ingredients. Kids, NEVER go to Mardi Gras, unless you’ve borrowed one of those leftover HAZMAT suits you can probably unearth at the airport.

The trip was such a cliche in so many ways; twelve stupid youngsters in one hotel room. No sense of danger in trying to peruse Mardi Gras. It’s possible that this trip pre-dated my first cell phone, so it’s not like we were texting meet-up locations or SOS’s. As we couldn’t afford to actually stay in New Orleans proper, I suppose you could say we saw the city as you might if you were living on the outskirts looking in. I don’t remember hurricanes to-go, and couldn’t have told you that the area of the city I was wandering through was the French Quarter, though I’m sure I got lost many times over. I’m also sure that I really, really wished I was older and could have afforded to stay in a decent hotel, sans 11 other guests, and that I really didn’t want to be lost and wandering. Our trip was extended because someone in our group was detained for public drunkenness, a feat that seems nearly impossible during this bacchanalian parade of an event, and while we were waiting and coordinating our pick-up (sans cellphones, how did we even manage!) the city wasn’t happening. Whatever security we felt in being “at” Mardi Gras, surrounded by swarms of others doing the same thing, was gone, and the snapshot of a memory that remains is sitting in my car alone outside of a cheap motel, listening to Radiohead’s Creep and crying because I just wanted the whole stinking mess to be over. Translation: the wanderlust was no more.

It’s possible that my plane-ridden fantasy was founded solely in the fact that I am now a grounded adult, which is to say that I have firm enough foot in a life to imagine being okay getting completely lost somewhere else for awhile. I think at this point it’s also safe to say that I’m old enough, and wise enough, to be able to get “lost” somewhere else in a completely different, albeit safer and calmer way, than my nineteen year old self. I always imagined adulthood as a slowly forming rigidity, but I’m actually finding the opposite to be true. Don’t get me wrong, I like my life and its daily, habitual ways, but I also feel easy and free just about anywhere. (Unless I’m in an airport terminal with no decent coffee. There is no easy life with shitty coffee.)

*Photo credit: Mike Freyder

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