I am 21A

joe gerstandt
Feb 4, 2016 · 18 min read

It is an uncomplicated 25 minute drive to the airport and my attention is on the silence. I breathe it in, hoping to maybe take some of it with me.

In my mind, travel is like climbing into and being shot out of a canon.

There is the very real privilege of being flung off to another part of the world in a relatively timely, relatively affordable manner. There is also the sacrifice of a certain amount of freedom, the getting small, the confinement that is a part of climbing into that barrel.

Flights leave at certain times, with or without you. There are assigned seats. Things that cannot be traveled with. Restricted areas. Travel also traps you in the trajectories, and priorities of others. It makes no matter whether or not you are traveling with other people, you travel with other people.

Times of departure and times of arrival are for the most part established in advance. I know that I am not able to get to my destination ahead of schedule. I would simply like to choose how to spend as much of my travel time as possible. My choices get smaller, but they are still my choices and I protect them fiercely. So, I move with economy when I travel, I cut straight lines. People make that difficult and it begins before I am even inside the airport. As I enter the airport parking garage I am already caught up in others.

I have, over the years, developed the ability to pluck my parking ticket from the parking ticket dispenser without even coming to a complete stop, but not the folks in front of me. They come to a complete stop. They put the car in park. There is conversation and eventually a reach for the ticket.

After a bit of unsuccessful reaching, the seat belt comes off and the drivers’ side door opens slightly as the driver is not quite able to reach the ticket. They are parked just a bit too far away from the ticket-dispensing machine. They are also parked just a bit too close and cannot open the car door far enough to actually place a foot down on the ground. So there begins a half reach, half crawl through the window of the somewhat-open driver’s side door in pursuit of the ticket. Travel involves a surprising amount of unintentional sharing and intimacy, and I spot my first well cracked human butt of the day right here at the entrance to the airport parking garage. There is strain, struggle, and, eventually, there is success. The ticket is harvested from whence it blooms.

The driver’s door closes and the seat belt is re-fastened. The ticket is stashed for safe-keeping. Brake lights come on and the car is placed in drive. Houston, we have lift off. This is the parking garage of what I like to refer to as Omaha Intergalactic. It is my car’s home away from home (garage away from garage?), and I spend thousands of dollars every year to park here for 2–3 days at a time. There is no other single place I visit as frequently. I pluck my ticket on the roll and head for one of my favorite parking spots, location confidential.

Big bunches of people on different vectors at varying velocities is not a frictionless thing, and it means that I spend a fair amount of time and energy waiting for and navigating people. We are all in this together. I do realize though, that travel for the person who only travels by air once or twice a year is a very different thing than it is for the person who travels once or twice a week by air. I travel well. I have routines and heuristics. I have developed a skill set, and unrealistic expectations of others.

And here they are again, going through security. They stand in line chatting and day-dreaming and then are suddenly overwhelmed by and unprepared for all the work that they have to do after their boarding pass and I.D. have been checked. They have soft drinks in their bags and forget to remove their belts, earning them eye-rolls from spouses and occasionally one from me. There is fluster and confusion, but we all check out okay and head to our gates.

I get a coffee, find a place to sit and do some work. Behind me there is a dramatic conversation about what an incredible bitch someone has been lately and I am shocked to discover that I have been inside an airport for several minutes and have not yet plugged in my earbuds. Rookie move. I quickly remedy it and I do some more work. You do not want to hear what people talk about in airports.

We board the plane, and this is just an absolute travesty. This is the part that gets me. I can understand clumsiness in the parking garage. I can understand not being a well-oiled machine going through security. But this getting on the plane nonsense boggles my mind. How you get on an airplane with a bag hanging on each arm, a pillow under one arm, a hot cup of coffee in one hand, cell phone and boarding pass in the other only to be caught off-guard to discover that there is not a super convenient place for you to set your stuff down so that you can use your hands to put your crap away is beyond me.

I think that the inability of many, many Americans to simply get on an airplane, put their stuff away and sit down in a timely manner might be symptomatic of some real psychological and/or spiritual pathology. And yes, the amount of issue I take with this is probably symptomatic of my own pathology. A pathology which I have chosen to embrace.

Gotta delicately fold your fine men’s jacket and store it away? Gotta move 19 things from one bag to another? Gotta change wardrobes, gotta get all your stuff organized, gotta get your life together, gotta find that one cord for that one thing? A great time for that would have been 20 minutes ago while you were sitting and talking about what an incredible bitch someone has been lately like you had nothing else to do. Right now there is an entire planeload worth of people standing in line directly behind you, and some of us are rolling our eyes with such vigor, they might pop free of their sockets.

It’s really not complicated. But apparently it is. This seemingly simple and straightforward task is actually an incredibly rare skill set. If I were asked to design an aptitude test or a job interview process, this would be it. Let me watch someone board an airplane. Do they think ahead, are they prepared, can they simply find their seat, put their stuff away and sit down? If they can, I want to know that person. I can spend time with that person.

We all get our stuff put away and we take our seats. I am 21A, a window seat in an exit row and there is an empty seat next to me, so this almost qualifies as a holiday. We are wheels up and off to O’Hare. Omaha to O’Hare is a short flight. I listen to Bikini Kill (airplane boarding obviously does not bring out the best in me, and listening to Kathleen Hanna almost always makes me a better person) and I review the next day’s presentation. The people that are going to be in the audience are not thinking about me yet, but I am thinking about them. I have something to tell them.

We deplane in O’Hare, I have a short layover and am in need of a bathroom break.

Travel involves the use of a lot of public bathrooms. Airports, airplanes, hotels, convention centers. I use more public bathrooms than the average bear, and believe you me, it is no perk. Based on my experience in men’s public bathrooms, I believe we are a species worthy of further research and observation. I will leave this important work for a more capable and objective person to tackle, but I look forward to the results.

I disinfect to the best of my ability and grab a quick snack en route to my gate for LaGuardia.

I wonder sometimes about the people that work in airports. They are surrounded every day by people in transit, people on their way. I used to think that this would be kind of like working in a fishbowl, surrounded by a constantly rotating lineup of others observing them.

Sitting in an obscure nook of an airport next to an all-important electrical outlet once, I listened to a group of airport employees on break talking very openly about their work and the people flowing all about them every day, and I came to realize that we are the ones in the fishbowl. While they seemingly occupy this blurry, peripheral role in the travel experience, we are actually in their place of work. They take their post in this river of humanity and human nature that slaps up against them. They see us rushing to and fro, puffed up with impatience and self-importance. They see me zigging, zagging, weaving, bobbing and rolling my eyes as if my time were The Most Important Time Of All The Times. They see us. They hear and smell us being human. They know the ways in which we are assholes. We just see them at work.

My flight has just started to board when I get to my gate. Another group of fully formed adult human beings struggles mightily to simply put their stuff away and sit down. I pull out my phone to communicate my frustration with the outside world because that is how mature adults handle stuff.

I sit and look out the window as the plane boards and prepares for flight, and I think about people, I think about my issues with them and their issues with me. I intuit no solution and decide to put a pin in it for the time being. I read a little, nap a little and listen to Bob Dylan between Chicago and New York City, and when we come down out of the clouds I am reminded that I have not been to NYC in some time. It is sprawled out below me and I feel good about coming here. This is a real city.

I like landing at LaGuardia, coming down over the water. I like the cab ride into the heart of the city, the Grand Hyatt, blocks from Times Square. I am checked in and in my room by 5:30 p.m. I plug all of my things in, reconnect to the relentlessly chirpy virtual world and I experience my room. It is nice, but a little too fancy for its own good. It looks great but is hard to use. Some kind of new-fangled light switches that I never quite figure out leave me slapping and pawing and tapping at them until I achieve the desired result. In the morning I will slam my head on a poorly placed bathroom shelf right above the sink. A room that looks good, but does not work well and does not quite feel good once settled into. Designed for the designer or maybe the owner, but not for the user.

I find the fitness center on the top floor and inflict some pain on myself with the free weights. There are people in the fitness center running on treadmills, and they may be decent people, but they baffle me. They could be running through Times Square right now, but whatever. Maybe it is too cold to run outside. But still. You are in New York City, man.

I finish my exercise and travel down to one of the lobby-type areas, where they have a “market” offering allegedly healthy foods at allegedly reasonable prices. I get the catch of the day (salmon) warmed up with Asian slaw. I intentionally avoid passing by the bar in the hotel lobby, because I know of no sadder place on a week night and I am not shopping for sad right now. I return to my room, eat my reasonably priced, reasonably healthy dinner and look over the notes for my presentation the next morning.

I feel productive, I feel like a fairly competent, functioning adult. I have on this day transported myself across half the country dodging human beings the entire way, made my way to a temporary residence, worked out, done a bit of work and eaten responsibly. It all feels very grown-up.

I turn on the TV in my room, which is the single worst thing that a person could ever do in a hotel room. I have a nice chat on the phone with my wife, I get a bit more work done, but spend most of the evening flipping endlessly through the channels. I could get a lot of work done and/or get a really good night’s sleep and/or read and/or write. But, no. Despite nothing good being on at any time on any channel, I watch and am irritated by bad television of all genres until 12:30 a.m. Television should be outlawed in hotel rooms.

Up at 5:30 a.m. and immediately disappointed at having stayed up until 12:30 a.m. I choose to forgive myself and start the day, reviewing my notes. I iron my shirt, which can be a little bit risky with a hotel iron. I shave my face, hit my head on the shelf in the bathroom, shower and shave my head. I am pressed, shined, polished, dressed, and packed, and I head to the lobby for breakfast. They are really slow and casual in taking my order and in bringing the food out, which brings me just a touch of anxiety as I am on a schedule this morning, I have a place to be.

Decent frittata, good coffee. I am paid up and on the street in plenty of time for my five-minute walk up 42nd Street, and it is cold, goddamn it is cold. I arrive at my destination, check in with security and they are not quite ready, so I am temporarily stored on some big strange furniture in the massive lobby of this massive office building that is rapidly coming to life for a big fat day of commerce. Security comes when they are ready and escorts me down to the auditorium. It is nice. It is fancy nice, inappropriately nice. Thick, dark woodwork and molding, plush seats — it feels like a room designed for drinking brandy, smoking oversized cigars and working out the details of the Louisiana Purchase.

Signs at the door do not permit food and beverages in the auditorium, signs which surely do not apply to me. It is morning and I have hot coffee, which will not be left behind. The audiovisual support person is waiting for me, and she is nice and friendly, but that does not always mean much in the strange and complicated relationship that I have with audiovisual folk. One of the biggest unknowns of any speaking engagement is the quality and full functionality of the audiovisual equipment, and nobody cares about it nearly as personally and closely as I do as the speaker. Including most audiovisual folk, who, as I understand, are actually paid to care about it.

Most of it works on this day, but not all of it. The wireless lapel mic seems to be cutting out, so she gets me a wireless handheld mic. This is a perfectly acceptable tradeoff for her. Maybe if you do not speak for a living, a microphone is a microphone is a microphone. I do speak for a living and I am unhappy. She is perfectly at ease with the state of things, and is not even going to acknowledge my unhappiness. It is kind of impressive actually. I have a pretty powerful stink-eye she seems to not notice.

I move when I talk. I move a lot and I use my hands a lot. Holding a microphone the entirety of my presentation (and holding it well) is not the end of the world by any means — after all I can improvise, adapt and overcome — but it is a real adjustment. It is not a minor thing, and it does not meet the terms of the contractual agreement we have in place.

I smile and say, “No problem.” And it is no problem. I am a professional. I take a seat and wait as the room fills. The lady who is going to introduce me stops by to visit, review details and to make sure that she pronounces my name correctly. She does, though she will not when the time comes to actually introduce me. She buzzes off to visit with other people and review more details, I sink into my comfortable seat and let my mind wander. The auditorium is almost full and it is almost time. I love this. It is early in the morning, early in the week, and there is very little energy in this room. That is about to end, as I am here on a mission. The buzzing lady mispronounces my name and introduces me to the sleepy people in the fancy room and I set upon them.

Two hours later, the auditorium is again empty, and I am wheeling my luggage out the door. I have a good post-gig buzz. My work makes me high — I am one of the lucky ones. I no longer feel the lack of sleep or the bump on my head, those things are simply no longer a part of who I am. I am, for a little while at least, bullet proof.

It is nearly 11:00 a.m. as I again hit the streets, and my flight does not leave until late afternoon, so I am going to soak up a bit of the city. It is still make-your-face-hurt cold, but I want to check out the Museum of Arts and Design, which I am told is 1.9 miles away. I pass the Museum of Modern Art, the Rockefeller Center, the Russian Tea Room en route, all good NYC stuff. I stop for lunch and a thaw. I remember that I finished a book on the flight in and should try to find something to read on the trip home. After lunch, I make my way to the Museum of Arts and Design and feel light after leaving my bags with the coat check.

I spend a couple of hours in the tall skinny building, most of it on two floors. One features a really big and broad display of blown and other types of glasswork. Lots of beautiful stuff, incredible variety. Art transcends much. It is likely too big a thing for me to fully grasp.

The floor that surprises me most is a fragrance exhibition. You lean into an alcove carved out of the wall, and a fragrance is released, and there is a beautiful write-up on each of the fragrances and its creator. I had never thought about the creation of fragrance before and certainly not of the art and creativity that goes into it. The fragrances themselves are interesting, but the write-ups are probably my favorite part of the exhibit.

“By introducing synthetic molecules as part of the composition, Jicky moved away from flowers and references to nature, and was much more difficult to grasp. In fact, this abstract scent was initially rejected by women and instead adopted by men who embraced its “animalic” boldness. In addition to vanillin and other artificial ingredients, Aimé incorporated a substance found in an Ethiopian feline called civet into the composition. This substance has an almost sweaty smell, which when mixed with other ingredients creates a sensual, sexy experience. The unconventional new scent catered to the rising middle class, which was more inclined to try out a product that shattered conventions and was increasingly able to spend money on luxury goods like perfumes.”

There is clearly a lot more thought, deliberation and exploration involved in creating fragrances than I had ever considered.

I leave the museum and spend some time in Central Park. I would stay here longer, but it is cold and my face hurts. I start to look for a bookstore, and hope to find a groovy independent bookstore, which are some of my favorite places to visit when I travel, but I end up at … well, you know, the other kind of bookstore. It takes me a while to find something; sometimes it does.

I see some interesting books, but they are big, heavy books and I can’t currently budget that kind of investment, as I have just started The Pale King by David Foster Wallace. I commonly have more than one book going at a time, but my primary focus right now is The Pale King, which is complex and involved and big enough that I did not feel like hauling it along on this trip. I have to bring my A game to this book, which is patiently waiting at home on my nightstand. I cannot let DFW down. I am committed to that book and looking forward to returning to it. I simply need something to spend some time with until then, something to get me home.

Eventually my eyes land on Blue Nights by Joan Didion. I do not need to pick it up and skim the pages or the back cover; I do not need to think about it; I simply take it to the cashier and am done. I read some Joan Didion years ago, and her writing left an impression on me. Additionally, the book that I finished on the first leg of this trip, an examination of essays and personal narratives, used Joan Didion as an example. So, seeing her book on the shelf completes an equation. I know it is the one I am here for.

Book in hand, forfeiting a bit of remaining spare time to the temperature, I hail a cab and am back at LaGuardia. I navigate myself and my things through the various lines and conveyors and scanners, I dodge the people and their cracked butts, I find a place to sit down, and I read. Boarding passes make fine bookmarks. Despite the fact that I own and operate a large and diverse collection of bookmarks, I quite often use boarding passes, bookstore receipts, air-sickness bags and photos to mark my spot. I always love finding these treasures when leafing through a book I read some time ago on some trip to and from some place.

I get some coffee and I read. I have a sandwich and I read and I also think about writing. My flight is delayed; I read some more. My flight is delayed more and now my connection is in jeopardy and this begins to feel like a very long day. We board our plane, take to the air and somewhere between NYC and Chicago I finish Joan Didion’s book. I would like to take her out for a nice dinner. I would like to run some errands for her. I am saddened by the book and again moved by her writing.

I sit for a bit looking out the window and I think again about writing. Writing is such a revered thing in my world that I generally do not allow myself to do it, there is simply too much at risk. This trip has filled my head with words and feelings which need somewhere to go and they push me out onto a blank page with blue ink. It is slow and choppy until it is not.

We land in Chicago, and I have 23 minutes to make my connection. 23 minutes can be sufficient in O’Hare or it can be wildly insufficient. We sit and sit and then we begin to stand. And stand. I now have 17 minutes and I have to go from K7 to G5. I am going to be okay. I think. I hit the concourse with 14 minutes to make my connection and I think I am fine. I run anyway because this is about getting home, I have run before in O’Hare and I know how to do it, and there is simply too much at risk.

All is well. I am huffing and puffing a bit, but I am in my seat and will be home tonight. I bring the notebook back out and I write more. I write this. I am homeward-bound and tired, I listen to Miles Davis, Kind of Blue, which is the correct music for traveling home at night. It is 10:40 when I land at Omaha Intergalactic; it is 11:30 when I pull into our garage.

I am greeted by a dark and quiet house, and a needy silver Labrador. I smell of myself, others and other places. I have been in the world, survived it and will go back, but tonight I am home and I will sleep like I am home. After a bit of canoodling with the dog and peeking in on the kids, I crawl into bed next to my wife and am as home as I can be.

I have been gone for 36 hours, including 50–60 minutes of drive time, 4 flights passing through 3 airports, twice each, 2 cab rides, and 1 night in a hotel. I speak for a living, and have been silent for close to the entirety of my trip — surrounded by people most of the time and completely alone. This is my workday.

Lots of squeeze and a little bit of juice.

I have found work that I love, but it takes me far from home. Again and again. It requires that I get small and climb into the barrel of that canon so that I might be flung off to where the work awaits me.

In many, many small ways it sucks. Those small things though, the people, the waiting, the nonsense, they all exist inside of a larger truth. That larger truth is that I have it made.

I do for a living work that I love, and I do it without supervision or censor. Work that makes me high as a kite, work that lights me on fire over and over again. I would simply not be alive in the way that I am today if I would not have found this work, I have no doubt about that. I also have no confusion about how incredibly rare this is and how fortunate I am.

Lots of squeeze, yes. But damn, that juice!

Maybe you will see me out there, I will be in 21A.


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