Monday, March 27, 2006

Tales From a Great Indoorsman

Just to recap. J.S. Bankston went against his 'genetic coding' and took his first plane ride from Austin, Texas to Paris, France. This is the first of many stories from that recent trip.


The Two Loves: The Story of a Trip to Paris

by James Scott Bankston

— Monday, February 27-Tuesday, February 28: Getting There—
I come from a long line of people who didn’t travel. We came here from England between the early 18th and early 19th centuries, landed in the American South, headed west, and pretty much stayed put at whatever point we found ourselves in 1900. To live more than a three hour car journey from where you were born just wasn’t done. Such an idea was crazy talk. Travel was an expensive folly reserved for millionaires–not ordinary folk. Whenever the wife of one of my step-brothers used to drag her family to Europe every few summers, my father would ask her in all seriousness, “Why would you want to go over there? We’ve got all the same stuff here in the United States.”

My father lived to be 65, and as best as I can tell, his journeys outside Texas included a few jaunts to Oklahoma and New Orleans, a school trip he chaperoned to Washington, DC, New York City, and some border towns in Canada, and a late-in-life sweep of the Southwestern states. My mother, who will soon be 64, has flown on only two occasions, both round-trip Houston-to-Dallas flights–once to get married, and another time to buy furniture. My Great-Aunt Maurine was an exception: she was once our “poor relation” until her chain-smoking, over-insured husband died–then she became our “rich aunt.” She spent a good deal of the last decades of her life traveling. I think a few of my step-nephews may have gone overseas in the military, but for the most part, we have all stayed put.

So for me to actually consider taking a trip to Europe this year was nothing short of a rebellion against my genetic coding. Still, my friends James and Nyssa made such a persuasive case for going that I couldn’t help myself. I had the money (just barely). Even my dog-loving friend Jennifer agreed to look after my beloved Fred in my absence (and Fred is always the deal-maker or -breaker in anything I do). Before I knew it I had booked myself a hotel and bought American Airlines tickets with the intention of spending a week in Paris.

I devoted the weeks leading up to my departure studying my dozen or so guidebooks, watching a French movie just about every night, examining Paris maps in detail, listening to language CDs and French music and online broadcasts of Paris radio stations, and printing out a five-inch thick stack of Parisian research from the internet.

I got only four hours of sleep the night before I left because I was busy packing and repacking my bag. I was determined to limit myself to one carry-on, so I’d not have to worry with baggage checking and claims. As a result, I went with only the black pants and blue shirt I was wearing, four pairs of boxer shorts, three pairs of Lycra bike shorts for long walks, four t-shirts, one complete pair of long underwear, one black pullover sweater, a grey and black checked cap, a black leather jacket, eight pairs of socks, one pair of Doc Martens, and one pair of slippers, as well as Ziploc bags of toiletries and other items.

I was filled with excitement and dread-- dread mostly for betraying Fred, my only true friend, leaving him alone in a strange place for a week while I lived like a sultan. In truth I never got over feeling bad about this, and went to bed each night in Paris feeling I’d made a horrible, unforgivable mistake, and hoped the trip would just hurry up and get over with. Each morning I’d feel better, but the feelings would return every night when I got back to my hotel.

Nyssa’s mother Tharelyn drove us to the airport. We had to stop first at Jennifer’s to drop off Fred. All the way down there as I scratched Fred’s neck I felt like I was slashing his throat with a knife. He was too happy to know otherwise.

Fred seemed to take an immediate shine to Jen’s Border Collies Zoe and Truman, and waddled happily around the grounds, sniffing and peeing. Jen mentioned the neighbor dogs had recently come down with kennel cough–that gave me a new thing to worry and obsess about. I stepped in dog shit in the yard and held my legs up while Jen’s ex-husband Darren hosed the shit off my shoes. I got ready to leave, and bent down to give Fred kisses, but he didn’t stick around too long–Jen took the leash and he headed off with her without looking back.

In a way that was a relief. I was expecting a big, emotional send-off, with Fred clawing at the windows of Jen’s house–that sort of thing had happened before. But he seemed happy now, like he was going off for a week at doggie summer camp, so I was able to relax a bit and enjoy myself.

We got to the airport quickly and Tharelyn dropped us off and left. I had hoped she’d stick around in case my bag turned out to be too heavy and I needed to give her some of my excess items. But I got through check-in okay–the bag was just the right size.

This was to be my first-ever airline flight. I wasn’t worried so much about flying as I was about getting through Customs and checking in and making it to the right gate at the right time. But as soon as I got to the security line some fat woman handed me a yellow card that announced I’d been randomly chosen for a second, more thorough security check.

I was separated from my bags, shoes, and outerwear and herded into a glass cage, not unlike a veal-calf feeding pen. James and Nyssa, who’d already gone through security, were standing to one side laughing at me, upset only that they couldn’t take pictures of me in my helpless state. I figured this was what people felt like 300 years ago when they had their hands and feet locked in the stocks.

I resented the hell out of those guards searching my luggage, but they were civil and easy-going about it. I joked that my bag was so tightly-packed that if they opened it it would spring open like a jack-in-the-box, and they took me for my word. My pride ruffled, the guards sprang open the glass door and sent me on my way.

Any illusions I had about the glamour of flying were shattered the moment I stepped on our cramped, rattle-trap plane. Even First Class didn’t look all that impressive to me. What with the tight seating, the shaky movements, and the noise, it seemed to me to be nothing more than an over-priced Greyhound bus.

I had made sure to get aisle seats. (I’m short, but need my leg room.) My seat mate was a tall, lumpy guy who didn’t talk, and who spent his time either sleeping or working on a book of those Japanese number puzzles that are so popular these days. When the plane started up my immediate sensation was that some people were pushing up and down on the wing outside–then I saw we were actually moving. I got slightly alarmed for the few seconds it took for us to lift off, and began praying.

In my left trouser pocket was a rosary blessed by the Bishop of Austin. In the money belt hanging around my neck was an Agnus Dei blessed over half a century ago by Pope Pius XII. And in my right inside jacket pocket was an envelope of photos of Fred. I wasn't taking any chances.

I got really fascinated by everything that was going on and wanted to see everything happening outside, but as soon as we got off the ground my seat mate closed the shutter, so I had to watch everything through the windows across the aisle. Strangely enough, after we got to our normal flying altitude, the view outside became instantly rather commonplace. I felt like I was watching a rather dull movie, and indeed, a feeling of watching a movie, for good or ill, stayed with me for the rest of the trip.

But I think the biggest surprise I had about flying for the first time was how shady and unsteady the process is. I had just assumed that after a century they would've figured out how to make airplanes fly smoothly.

The flight was uneventful. I had a Coke, read the papers, studied my travel notes (I’d brought an inch-thick file of my most vital Paris print-outs), and looked with vague interest at the skyline of Tulsa as we passed over it. But I got very excited when the Pilot announced we were getting ready to land in Chicago.

James, in the seat behind me, intoned, “Bring your seats to the upright and locked position–we are preparing to make our final descent into madness.” I responded, “I’m way ahead of ya there, buddy!”

I was as giddy as a child when I finally could make out cars and trucks on the Chicago highways and see the skyline far off to the east. I thought of that old cop show, “Crime Story,” the opening credits of which included vintage 1950s/1960s footage of planes landing at O’Hare. When we landed safely I felt one more burden lifted: I’d survived the first of my four flights. James, I soon learned, was both surprised and disappointed I'd not had a major freak-out or panic attack during the flight.

I got off the plane and felt the sharp cold biting through the corridor that connected the plane to the terminal. When I walked into the terminal I was greeted by the serious, stony faces of men who looked a lot like police detectives. Who had tipped them off? Then I passed the line of people waiting on friends and family and the chauffeurs holding up signs bearing the names of the people they were to drive. For some reason, I felt rather important walking by this bunch.

J&N apparently waited for everyone else to get off before they got their things out of the overhead compartments, as they didn’t get into the terminal until several minutes after I did. When they spotted me and walked up I had a speech ready: “Welcome to Chicago, the home of Ferris Bueller, Jake and Elwood Blues, Al Capone, John Wayne Gacy, and Henry Darger! My kinda town!”

We walked a hell of a long way to the gate for the Paris flight. Naturally, I took note that while the Austin merely has barbeque and sandwich joints in its airport, O’Hare has a Wolfgang Puck restaurant. I was also tickled to have the chance to buy the “Chicago Tribune” and “Chicago Sun-Times”–the names in the obituaries had such a robust ethnic quality to them. Even the local news seemed interesting, which is never the case in any of the places I’ve ever lived ...

I noticed the travelers gathering around our gate were much better dressed than average Americans. This was definitely the Paris flight. When we boarded we were told the flight wasn’t even close to being full, so that after we attained our regular altitude we’d be free to get up and sprawl over two or three seats if we wished–a plus for anyone who wanted to sleep.

I was rather shocked by the angle and speed and force with which we took off–I was tempted to yell out, “Ramming speed!” It was already night by now, and North Chicago was a gorgeous golden netting of lights beneath us. As I stared with my mouth open, not expecting to be bothered for the next few minutes, someone annoyingly tapped first the top of my head and then my left arm. I was disoriented and looked all around, then James stuck his face around the side of my seat. This so startled and annoyed me I poked my finger out at him to caution him not to surprise me like that, and accidently poked him in the eye. And I’m damned if I know now what it was he wanted to tell me in the first place.

I moved up a few rows and took over two seats. I knew I wasn’t going to try to lay out over three seats. If I could sleep at all, it’d have to be in a seated position. I worked on my print-outs until they turned down the lights and began their programming, which started out with some CBS clips.

Somewhere over Canada I had to rid myself of some carry-on baggage, so to speak. I went into a tiny lavatory that was just as wide and half as long as the bathroom of an efficiency apartment I had in 1992. As I sat there I noticed a huge wall mirror to my left at shoulder level, and realized there are several bodily functions that cause one to make a face so silly and embarrassing one should never see it.

I tried to sleep during the first movie, but the monitors were too bright and the plane was making too damn much noise. (On both of our trans-Atlantic flights we had monitors hanging from the ceiling, not the more modern kind on the backs of each chair.) I tried to listen to music on the in-flight channels–oldies, classical, jazz–then noticed the programming repeated every 90 minutes or so. Clearly they counted on everyone getting to sleep.

One row up in a three-seat section was a French woman with a baby and a rambunctious three-year-old girl that a horse tranquilizer apparently could not take down. (It’s been long-established that everyone in the world has to just suck it up for the wants, needs, entitlements, and peccadilloes of young parents. Nobody else really matters.)

But it wasn’t the child making noise that scared off my last chance at sleep–it was the mother’s strong perfume, which was spread around by all the scurrying and bustling she was doing. (The BBC World Service recently did a report saying a study had found young mothers are not in fact ditzy airheads, but are actually at the peak of mental alertness and intelligence. As much as I respect the BBC, I call bullshit on that finding.)

We were somewhere over the North Sea and I hadn’t had a decent night’s sleep in two days, so I settled back and watched the Dennis Quaid/Topher Grace workplace comedy “In Good Company,” the language of which had apparently been censored by my Presbyterian Great-Grandmother.

I raised the shutter. Was I seeing icebergs? The tops of clouds? There was just a hint of light out there. This was the only way to start the day. I am by no means a morning person, but if you have to start the day in the morning, then by God do it flying into the sun!

Later on I got a weird feeling and raised the shutter again. We were over Ireland. I felt very peaceful and comfortable knowing that, for some reason, possibly because so many of my friends are Irish. I left the shutter up.

The stewardesses began stirring the passengers and rolling out the breakfast carts. I ate my breakfast with relish and excitement as I watched the clouds glow. The French mother woke her kids and tried to pick up the debris they’d spread all over the plane for the last eight-and-a- half hours. The Pilot announced we’d soon be in Paris, and the mother began singing to her kids a charming little children’s song about going to Paris. Even I, sleep-deprived that I was, found this charming.


At 9:43 AM, Anonymous FirstTimer said...

Damn - you can write. So many vivid images. Stumbled across this site - will come back for updates.

At 8:35 PM, Blogger Scrubby Nub and The Bothered Brigade said...

And he has a name!! I just figured your brith certificate read simply "J.S."

Excellent first installment. Best thing since your "influences" post.

At 8:51 AM, Blogger SportyChick said...

...but what did you think of the airplane food?

At 11:22 AM, Blogger jsbankston said...

Funny how many people have asked me what I thought of that. I guess none of the airline meals were memorable enough to mention. They were neither rancid nor fantastic. They were certainly frequent enough. I just could've used a lot more beverages, as I was really, really parched on all flights. I just couldn't figure out which button to use to call the stewardesses.Maybe I was afraid one button worked like an emergency brake in a train and would cause a panic.

At 11:40 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It’s been long-established that everyone in the world has to just suck it up for the wants, needs, entitlements, and peccadilloes of young parents. Nobody else really matters...

I think a more apt replacement for "young parents" is probably "young children" or "americans".

At 12:52 PM, Blogger jsbankston said...

Well, this group in question did not consist of Americans. Also, children in general and really small children in specific are the responsibility of their parents.

But while I can't speak for parents around the world, not having had extensive contact with them, I have a lot of experience with and exposure to young American parents, especially from my miserable experiences in jobs that deal with the public. And I can say than many young parents act as if the world revolves around them and their kids, based on the way they let their kids behave, the messes they (adults and kids) leave behind for others to clean up, the space they take up with their urban assault baby strollers, etc.

Someone a few months ago on this site said that anyone who is bothered by such things is just being immature, but I don't think so. Humans just don't act in a considerate way these days--nobody gives a shit about how their actions might affect others. A person's right to give offense is considered paramount. It's the same attitude of all the assholes who bellow loudly into their cell phones in public, not caring that they're bothering other people.

And let me quickly point out that the woman and the kids on the plane weren't even remotely close to being as annoying as some I've encountered, and indeed I was disturbed less by her howling kids and more by the gallons of cologne she had on that were so strong they woke me up. It would've been nice had I been able to get a little sleep on an 8+ hour flight.

And I thought it totally unnecessary that she left a big mess behind. If you can't go anywhere without leaving behind a dirty campsite, then maybe you shouldn't go camping. She was the central figure in that section of the plane, and didn't need to be.

At 2:38 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

easy there...i meant the "american" thing as joke, as in something like "americans think the world revolves around them", which was a lame attempt at humor and social commentary, and a backhanded comment about the bias against the french, and parisians in particular, who are accused of thinking the world revolves around them (napoleonic complex, etc.), because you mentioned that the woman was french.

and if that wasn't a run on, then i don't know what is....

At 2:47 PM, Blogger jsbankston said...

Well, if you can wade through all the installments of this once they post (it'll take a few weeks), you'll find the French come off very well. But I went over there predisposed to like them in the first place and sure that we'd be simpatico and have no problems. I made a point before going over there to try to take France and the French on their own terms and not try to bring a miniature version of the US along with me.

Sorry for misinterpreting. It seems anytime I post something on the internet that lays into young parents, poorly-raised kids, rude yuppies, the sorry state of American marriage and relationships, or just any of the things I hate about suburbia, it stirs up instant and fevered responses. Apparently somewhere I have a cabal of soccer moms on my ass. Hence the over-compensation in my response. My apologies.

At 4:06 PM, Blogger jsbankston said...

Yes, Scrubby, my first name's James---Mr. Bankston if you're nasty.

At 4:09 PM, Blogger TripleJ said...

I would have loved to be a fly on Fred when you were debating that response to Scrubby.

At 4:31 PM, Blogger jsbankston said...

Actually, I confess it's a line I've used before. But there has been confusion about my name for a long time.

There was a guy in college who was surprised to learn it actually was my name. He thought it was just some pretentious handle the guys came up with to match my pompous personality.

A freshman, upon being introduced to me, got very wide-eyed and said, "Ive heard of you--Bankston Hughes, right?" I said, "No, you're thinking of Langston Hughes, but thanks for playing our game."

Then about eleven years ago, after my dad died and before my mom remarried, she went to judge a marching band contest (both of my parents were band directors).

Before the contest started, one of the other judges, a young man, walked by and saw her name, Lounette Bankston, on the front of her table, and gushed, "Pardon me, but you wouldn't happen to be Bankston's mother would you?," and laughing, she admitted she was. Turns out the young judge had lived in my dorm in college.


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