SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
May 26, 2019

The Isolation Room

 

When I stepped off the commuter flight from Green Bay to Chicago, an airport escort was waiting to walk me to my next gate. The connecting flight to LaGuardia left in a little over an hour, so there was no panic involved. Just had to get from Gate G1 to H8. I was relieved someone was waiting—more often than not botched communications leave me standing around for half an hour or more before the escort shows up, inevitably with a wheelchair I would never use. At the time, though, I was more obsessed with the music than I was with getting to my next gate on time.

            I Don’t know if other airlines do this, but during the boarding procedure on American Airlines, they pump contemporary light rock through the cabin, I guess in an effort to make the whole stressful ordeal of finding your seat and stowing your luggage as a hundred other people are trying to do the same thing a bit more relaxing and pleasant. I don’t know if any of the other passengers pay attention to the music, but I do. It’s like pop Muzak, but with vocals, and with each track performed by a different group. It’s so determinedly innocuous and inoffensive that even as it fascinates me, it offends me to the core, as all deliberately inoffensive things do.

            It took me awhile to figure out what it was about the music, but it finally dawned during this most recent trip home. What I was hearing, I realized, was a simulacrum of pop music. It wasn’t real. They were pop songs in form alone, but without hooks and without style. You’ve never heard any of these songs anywhere else, and you never will. I thought it might all be computer generated, but no, listening closely I determined these were real bands with real singers. It seemed that American, not wanting to shell out for the rights to use Fleetwood Mac or Paul McCartney, songs people actually knew and loved, something that might distract them from the misery of modern plane travel, instead commissioned a bunch of insipid no-name bands to record inoffensive, immediately forgettable songs that would only be heard on airplanes. Like Muzak, it was music designed to be nothing but background noise. So my question is, who are these bands? How much were they paid, and what do they think of being heard on 737s instead of the radio? Have they given up completely? Have they abandoned those early garage dreams of putting out a string of top-ten hits and filling stadiums? Is their new dream to maybe move on next to recording the jingle for some discount furniture outlet in Scranton?

            All of that’s neither here nor there, simply what I was thinking about when I took this large young woman’s elbow as she began walking me to Gate H8.

            After a few fractured attempts to engage her in conversation as we walked, receiving only grunted monosyllables in response, I figured it would be easier to just get to the gate, find a seat, hand her a tip and be done with it.

            “So,” I ventured again after a few minutes of silence as we tromped through the dense crowds. “Are we in Terminal H now?”

            “Yeah,” she replied.

            “We’re getting close then, huh?”

            “Yeah.”

            “Well, okay then.” I’d just leave it at that. It wasn’t worth the effort.

            After muttering a few things into her walkie-talkie, she said, “I’m gonna take you to the PSA room.”

            I’m not certain it was PSA exactly, but an acronym of some kind she never bothered to translate.

            “Oh,” I said. “Alright. What is it?” I wasn’t sure I was liking the sound of this. “The PSA Room” was not “Gate H8,” which is where I wanted to be.

            “You have a hour until your flight,” she told me as we continued marching along. “So I don’t wanna just leave you at the gate.”

            “But I’m fine at the gate. Last week I sat at the gate for four hours. An hour’s nothing.”

            “Yeah, but if something happened I’d get in trouble. That just happened to someone here. They got in trouble.”

            “Well, I don’t want you to get into trouble, but nothing’s going to happen. I’m not going to wander away . . . Where are you taking me?” I was starting to get a little nervous about all this.

            “Some people with special needs aren’t comfortable around normal people, so we put them in here. We also take children who are traveling unescorted here until someone picks them up.”

            Wait, what? I was about to tell her I was perfectly comfortable around, um, “normal people,” though there may be some question as to whether or not they were comfortable around me. Before I could, though, she took a sharp left and pushed open a door.

            It was a large, bright, quiet and apparently empty room with a few chairs and couches and a desk. The only other person in the room was another O’Hare employee, a woman in her twenties, who was sitting behind the desk. My escort led me to the desk, asked to see my boarding pass for the fourth time, and handed it to the woman, who stapled something to it.

            “He blind,” my escort explained. “His flight starts boarding at twelve, so I’m gonna let him wait here until someone comes and gets him and takes him to the gate.”

            I wasn’t liking the sound of this at all. Then it hit me—she hadn’t said “PSA room,” she’d said “TSA room.” Somewhere along the line I’d been profiled, it was determined old white-haired blind men in trench coats posed a security risk, and any second now the door was going to burst open and a half dozen heavily armed Homeland Security agents in body armor were going to charge in to begin the interrogation.

            “Um,” I ventured. “I think I’d really be more comfortable out at the gate,” I told them. At least if DHS grabbed and beat me out there, there would be witnesses.

            “You can do that if you really want,” the woman behind the counter said. “But if they change the gate or something and no one tells you, what will you do?”

            “It’s very simple,” I told her. “When I get to the gate I talk to the people at the check in desk, tell them I’m blind, and ask that they tell me if there’s a gate change. It’s always worked in the past.”

            “People with special needs like it in here,” she said, ignoring my logical point. “You can just relax in the other room, and someone will get you.”

            “Um, can I have my boarding pass back now?”

            “We’ll hang onto it until someone comes to take you to your gate. It’ll be okay.”

            All this sounded like anything but okay to me, and that “special needs” shit was really starting to grate. Beneath the obvious and justified paranoia, given my history with O’Hare’s escorts, I was not at all convinced I could count on someone showing up to get me to the gate in time to make my flight. If I was allowed to leave at all. I couldn’t very well make a break for it, because I was no longer certain where the door was. My escort took my arm and led me into an empty adjacent room and sat me down on a couch.

            “Just relax here. It’s quiet.” She said before leaving. I was starting to sweat.

            I pulled out my phone and sent a quick note to Morgan, letting her know I had made it to O’Hare, but had apparently been taken into custody for some unknown crime, and was presently being held in some kind of cripple isolation room. I promised to write her again when I knew more. After sending that off, I stood and left the small side room, tapping my way back to the front desk.

            “Excuse me?” I began, trying to keep my voice under control. “Yeah, so is this some kind of new policy? I’ve been coming through O’Hare for thirty years, and nothing like this has ever happened before. I mean, I’ve been marginalized plenty, but never locked up in an empty room.”

            “No, it’s not a policy. We just thought you’d be more comfortable waiting in here instead of out there with all those people.”

            “But I’m not. I Don’t know what’s going on, and I’m nervous.”

            “Your flight starts boarding in about twenty minutes.”

            “That’s part of the reason why I’m nervous.”

            “Well, no one’s forcing you to stay here.”

            “Well that’s good. Can I have my boarding pass, please?”

            “Do you know how to get to your gate?”

            “I have no idea how to get to my gate, because along the way I was shunted off into this weird side room.”

            “Well, I can’t leave this desk, so you’ll just have to wait until someone comes. Why don’t you just go sit down in the other room and relax?”

            That was it. I was doomed. I would never get back to Brooklyn. I was being held in this isolation room against my will apparently because I was crippled. Oddly, if the line they were handing me was true (which I still doubted), for a place the size of O’Hare, and as busy as it was in the terminal—a terminal undoubtedly teeming with the blind, the deaf, the hobbled and the retarded—I was the only cripple who required isolation. Was I being quarantined? Were they afraid if they let me out into the general population I’d infect people with a genetic eye disease?

            Trapped, I returned to my seat in the other room and sent another cryptic and alarmist message to Morgan. Then I began plotting my escape. If I could get a hold of that boarding pass and find the door before the woman at the desk shot me in the back, someone out there would help me find Gate H8. It couldn’t be that far away. I’d just run out the door and start screaming.

            A few minutes later, I heard the door to the isolation office open and close, followed by a few muffled voices. Then a security guard appeared in the doorway to the side room and called my name. I stood, thinking this was either my savior or my assassin. Assuming the latter, I nearly greeted him with: “You’re an errand boy . . . Sent by grocery clerks . . . To collect a bill.” But he spoke before I had the chance.

            “I just wanted to let you know your flight’s been delayed,” he said. “So they won’t start boarding for another half hour. Someone will come by and get you to your gate around then.”

            “Yeah, that’s fine,” I told him. “But I really think I’d be more comfortable waiting at the gate.”

            “If that’s what you really want. No one’s forcing you to stay here.”

            They kept saying that, without taking into account little things like holding onto my boarding pass and refusing to take me to my fucking gate.

            “Yeah,” I said. “I think I’d really like to wait out there, thanks.”

            He made a small noise, as if he thought I was making a foolhardy mistake, but nevertheless retrieved my boarding pass from the woman at the desk. Things were starting to look a little better.

            “Would you like me to hold onto this?” He asked.

            “No, I’ll take that, thanks.” He handed me the boarding pass, which I tucked safely into my inside coat pocket. As we left the room, the woman at the desk wished me a good flight. Everything she said now sounded sinister.

            On our way to the gate, which was about twenty yards away, I told the security guard, “You have to understand that when I’m on my way to the gate, then whisked into this side room where they take my boarding pass away, I’m gonna get a little antsy.”

            “Yeah, I understand,” he said. “But if we let you sit out here and they changed the gate or something, you might not know about it. It’s just easier for people with special needs.”

            I nearly clobbered him with my cane, but then remembered I’d likely find myself back in the isolation room for good.

            “They’re gonna start boarding your flight in about twenty minutes. You sure you’ll be okay waiting?”

            “Made it four hours here last week with no trouble.”

            We arrived at the gate and he found an empty seat for me. After he left, I sat between two overweight commuters and again reached for the phone to let Morgan know I had escaped. Before I even had a chance to pull the phone from my bag, however, one of the check-in agents told me they were boarding at that moment.

            So in other words, that half-hour delay he’d told me about had been a cheap ruse. The plane was leaving on time, and if I’d listened to those fuckers in the isolation room, I likely would have missed it.

            One of these days I think I’d like to find out what the hell that was all about. I’m not sure if it was O’Hare’s doing or American’s, but I don’t for a second believe that bullshit that they were locking me away for my own comfort and safety. So if that wasn’t the case, why in the hell were they fucking with the blind guy? Or is this simply the world I should expect to encounter from here on in?

 

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