Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Get Away

People once dressed up go to to the airport. I'm told they used to primp for the train station too. Former elite hangouts, now you go in flip-flops and pajamas designed to get the most out of a stranger's pat-down. We take vacations to relieve stress, which we load up on in the terminal.

I was headed for San Francisco. I made it as far as Minneapolis before things ground to a halt. That's a good start these days. The delay wasn't the airline's fault this time, but God's: the winds in San Fran were hurricane-worthy. I know the SFO airport is right on the bay, and the bay water is really cold and dark and unpleasant—more so after that big oil spill—so I was happy to stay where I was. I suddenly had three hours to myself.

Minneapolis is famous for The Biggest Shopping Mall Ever—so big it has every franchise you can think of, with room enough left over that some chains added a second store. They have two Gaps, for instance, so if you don't like what you see in one Gap, you can go to the other one and not like their stuff either.

The airport is clearly inspired by the mall, with endless franchises up and down the hallways. I looked for something interesting I could afford, and found neither. But I did find a tiny, secret stairway, back behind a big ad display A plain sign marked it "Observation Deck." I timidly ascended the narrow stairway, and emerged into a beautiful, Oz-like glass-bubble room, bathing in warm sunshine on the roof of the terminal. It had a view of everything. I tiptoed back down, purchased two scones, a double-cappuccino and the Tribune, and went back up to my private treehouse.

After about twenty minutes of blissful, sunny vacation, I heard heavy breathing behind me. The hair raised on my neck. I thought I had been alone. I froze and listened. The breathing deepened to snoring. I turned around and saw no one, nothing but a frumpy pair of black shoes on the floor in the far corner. A shrill cell phone rang and you would forgive me for nearly wetting my pants. A rumpled, pudgy man sprang up zombie-eyed from his deep sleep on the back row of seats and answered the call, using that too-loud "hello!" of someone trying to sound awake. He launched into an impressive song-and-dance with the caller, who was obviously his superior, explaining that things weren't his fault, that he didn't really this and couldn't get that, that he was already on probation along with the others and couldn't afford to lose his holiday pay, that he was a goof-up. He paced past me as he weasled his words, his rumpled shirt half untucked, and I realized from his outfit that he was a pilot for my airline.

After he hung up, he stood stoop-shouldered and silent,  watching his friends take off from the runway below. The loudspeaker announced that security level was Code Orange, in the same flat emotion used to remind me not to leave my bags unattended. The announcement seemed to muster him from his trance. Without acknowledging my existence or tucking in his shirt, he descended the stairs in shuffling silence.

Before I could let out a sigh, a very-not-silent young couple clamored up, wrestling a screaming, squirming, spoiled four-year-old.

I surprised myself by announcing authoritatively, "Sorry. No kids under 12 allowed on the observation deck." The father stared at me blankly, the Squirmer still dangling an inch over the carpet. "Security is Orange," I explained. I didn't blink. They left.

Twenty minutes before my plane was to leave, I crept back down from my nest, squeaked across the wide glossy hallway to Tahiti Tom's Bar & Grill, and ordered a local pint. Two 50-ish guys saddled up on the stools next to me and the bartender asked them for ID. He hadn't asked me for ID. Seeing my eyebrows raise clear to my hairline, he offered, "It's because you ordered beer and they ordered cocktails." It was a lame explanation, but better than the only one I had come up with, so I took it.

I checked the Departures board; my flight was delayed again. I walked to the Walgreen's and bought a roll of masking tape and a "Closed" sign. I went back up the observation deck, taping off the stairs behind me.

Maybe next time I should just fly to Minneapolis for vacation. I know this great little place . . .

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