SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
May 31, 2015

Here on in, I’m Taking Amtrak

 

The little commuter jet carrying some fifteen passengers arrived neat as a pin and right on schedule after the thirty-five minute flight from Green Bay’s Austin Straubel Field to Chicago’s O’Hare. I like those little commuter jets. Got my share of stories out of them even as they’ve never given me a lick of trouble.

            After stepping off the plane I was met by a young Mexican on a seven-month visa who walked me from my arrival gate to my connecting gate some eight miles away. Along with making six bucks an hour as an O’Hare cripple escort, he was also taking ESL classes at night, just to improve his English before heading home. That’s what he said anyway. I always end up learning quite a bit about these escorts during our few minutes together, and I’m never sure how much of their story I should believe, and how much is just put on for the tourists. No matter I guess. It’s usually at least reasonably entertaining.

            He got me to the gate, found me a chair, then warned the people at the check-in desk to keep an eye on the blindo. I tipped him and he was gone again. It was almost eleven thirty, which left me a little over an hour to stare at the floor before they began boarding the one o’clock flight to LaGuardia. I always arrange at least a one hour layover, more if possible, to shield myself against any unforeseen but vaguely expected initial delays. It had worked out well so far.

            The flight from LaGuardia to Green Bay had gone off without a hitch, and I wasn’t expecting anything less on the way back. The weather in Green Bay, Chicago, and New York was all clear as of eight that morning. Maybe I was too cocky. Maybe that was it.

            I’d been there about five minutes, listening to the nothing conversations around me when they made the first announcement.

            “Attention passengers of Flight 368 to LaGuardia . . . this flight has been delayed until two thirty, so we will begin boarding at one fifty-five. I repeat . . . ”

            Okay, it was a minor pain in the ass, but at least they weren’t cancelling anything. All it meant was another hour and a half of sitting and staring. I could deal with that. Spent most of my life sitting and staring. I had Grinch’s number in my pocket. He lived in Chicago and I’d brought his number along just in case, but I had three problems. First I had no cell phone. Second, I think they had long ago ripped all the public phones out of the airport. And third, even if they hadn’t, I had no loose change on me. Well, so much for that. I folded my arms and continued staring and listening.

            Several more announcements followed. The flight was changed to two o’clock, then one thirty, then two fifteen. I didn’t much care. Whenever we left, we left. I sure as hell wasn’t going anywhere, even if I needed to piss. Way things were going I didn’t dare ask someone to lead me to a bathroom for fear they’d start boarding while I was away. I could hold it until they made up their damn mind.

            The apparent problem was this, which I gleaned from listening to the check-in people. The night before Morgan told me things had been mighty foggy in Brooklyn. So foggy the foghorn by us had been bleating all day. Well, apparently it had also been thick enough to screw things up at the airport. As I sat there waiting, the airlines were still playing catch-up, scrambling to get all those backed-up flights from the previous night out before any newly scheduled flights could take off.

            No matter. I still wasn’t sweating it. I’d get there.

            Well, come about quarter to two, another cripple escort appeared in front of me and led me down the jetway and onto the plane. As I ducked my way inside a flight attendant introduced herself, called me by name, then squeezed my neck and stroked my back along with giving me the usual welcoming spiel. That was a little unexpected.

            “Oh, um, hello,” I said. “Um, thank you.”

            I was plopped into the middle seat in the first row of coach, up against the bulkhead separating first class from the heathens like myself. That was fine by me. More room to stretch my legs out, and I no longer had much use for a window anyway.

            A few minutes later the same escort asked me to stand again so they could tuck the woman in the wheelchair in between me and the window. She immediately whipped out her iPhone and started watching a video of a cooing baby as she whispered at the screen. It was a little unnerving, considering she would continue watching this same video over and over, muttering at the screen for the duration of the trip.

            The flight had been sold out and then some, so it was another half hour before all the shuffling and rustling and clinking and slamming settled into a low hum. Once it had, the pilot came on the p.a. to inform us it would be at least another hour before he got clearance to leave the gate.

            That didn’t sound exactly promising, but in the larger scheme what was another hour at this point?

            An hour and a half later, the plane still not having moved, the pilot came back to tell us two things. First, he was getting a lot of conflicting messages from the air traffic controllers at O’Hare and LaGuardia and so wasn’t sure what to believe. And second, even though the weather over New York was clear, the backed up traffic was still a problem, so a ground freeze had been ordered on all flights to LaGuardia. He wasn’t sure how long that would last, but he’d keep us posted.

            Meanwhile the flight attendants started handing out free water, which seemed awfully nice of them considering what we were paying. And that one attendant who’d been pawing at me upon my arrival stopped by several times to lean over the kid to my right and, ignoring the poor wretch in the wheelchair to my left, squeeze my hand and asked if I needed anything.

            “Oh, no,” I’d tell her. “I’m doing just fine, thanks.” Can’t say as I much understood it, but it was very nice of her.

            Around me though the serious grumbling had begun. A mid-level businessman across the aisle was on his cell phone calling whoever he could think of to complain and bitch and moan. He was apparently scheduled to be at some meeting or another and then had tickets for some Broadway crap after that.

            “I’m never flying into La Guardia again!” he yelled repeatedly, just to make sure (as with everything else he said) that we all heard him and understood what an important and powerful fellow he was. “It’s a big hole! The whole town’s a big hole!”

            Behind me a lazy grad student supposedly working on her thesis was on the phone with her dad explaining in tense, uncomfortable tones what was happening, and hoping she didn’t miss her shuttle bus.

            Up in first class someone’s infant started going ballistic, caterwauling and shrieking and not stopping for anything. I was kind of happy to hear that. Serves those entitled arrogant fuckers right, what with their china plates and cloth napkins and complimentary Chardonnay.

            A few rows back some frazzled mother was keeping her own kid placid by playing the soundtrack to some goddamn Disney movie.

            Yes, well. It all became a grand show. A work of modernist theater.

            As the noise levels and whining around me intensified, I began losing track of time. Over the next several hours though, here’s what we were told:

            I’m guessing about half an hour after that initial ground freeze we were told it had been lifted, the plane had been refueled, and we could move into position on the runway.

            Later we were told we’d be taking off in five minutes.

            Over an hour after that we were again told we’d be taking off in five minutes.

            Then we were told it would be awhile yet, and since the engines had been turned off passengers were free to use their laptops and phones. But everyone had to be ready to shut them down and stash them at a moment’s notice should word come through.

            Then we were told that although the weather had been clear earlier in the day, a line of storms was moving across the Eastern seaboard, so now there was a general ground freeze on all flights to DC, Philly, Newark, New York, and Boston. It might be lifted at some point, or maybe not.

            The businessman got back on the phone to complain to several more people, ordering his assistant to look up that passenger bill of rights business instead of looking it up himself given he was too busy and too important.

            The grad student was near tears in that stiff pseudo-intellectual sort of way.

            The woman in the wheelchair kept mumbling at the baby video, leading me to concoct any number of unpleasant but hilarious explanatory scenarios, most of them involving heavy machinery and tragic accidents. And that flight attendant stopped by a couple more times to squeeze my hand for some reason. Maybe because I was the only one (apart from the nutjob next to me) not bitching at her.

            Then the pilot told us time was growing short. Not only were we running low on fuel, but if we weren’t given a go soon there would be legal troubles not only with that passenger bill of rights, but with the onboard staff who were only allowed to work so long. In fact, he said, if we didn’t hear anything in the next twenty minutes he’d have to take the plane back to the gate and cancel the flight.

            As I sat there through all of this I couldn’t help but think of the friend I’d written about a couple of weeks ago and his own efforts to get home after visiting his family. Our two situations were eerily similar, but I wasn’t going to fret about it. What was the point? It wasn’t like I was holding tickets for some goddamn musical based on a stupid movie or anything like that. I wanted to get home to Morgan and everything else of course, but it was out of my hands. If the plane took off it took off, and if it didn’t it didn’t. It wasn’t the pilot’s fault (he seemed as frustrated as everyone around me) and it wasn’t the flight attendants’ fault, so bitching at them was pointless. Better to just sit back, enjoy the ugly human circus around me and see what happened next.

            I was admittedly a little concerned about Morgan, who’d expected me to be home a few hours earlier. Given it seemed likely the flight would be cancelled and I was looking at another night wandering O’Hare, I had to contact her somehow and let her know what was happening.

            After pondering possibilities for awhile, I finally turned to the wheelchair bound crazy lady and asked if I might be able to interrupt her incessant baby video for a moment to call my wife, explaining I had no such device of my own.

            She reluctantly agreed, handing me an iPhone with a smooth touch screen. I hate those fucking things more and more the more I think about them. I was finally able to con her into dialing the number for me, and, just as I got Morgan on the other end the pilot came back again and announced we’d be taking off in a few short minutes. This time he wasn’t lying.

            It was dark outside. We’d been sitting on the plane about six hours. Up in first class the baby was still screaming and inconsolable, which warmed my heart. And I was just hoping the flight would be a quick one, as I really, really had to go to the bathroom.

 

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