I write this, Google maps tells me, at 35,048 feet. My body travels 569 mph through the sky, encased in a steel tube with wings – but might as well be on BART, the sensory details are so similar. My legs can’t stretch out; music bleeds from nearby headphones; the smell of ranch-flavored Doritos pierces the otherwise sterile air. Only the view out the window has changed, from the Pacific to the Rockies to the hazed-over fields of the Midwest.
Compared to other airlines, Virgin America offers a few inches more legroom and a greater opportunity to indulge individual taste. Instead of screens planted every several rows offering shared content to the entire group, each seat back has a built-in monitor. We can watch TV, the “Best of the Web” or pay for a movie-on-demand. I don’t mind the isolation; I am one of those who travels in a bubble of my own making, more pleased by lack of conversation than seeking to make yet more connections. This may be a flaw, however. What if the plane goes down? I will have made no friends and so when the rations are divvied up, who will be motivated to ensure I get my share?
More to the point, while perhaps cocooning with one’s viewing choices makes sense on a plane, I worry about all the other time spent gazing into a screen rather than at one’s surroundings. The people behind me have started conversing, He’s from Sydney, she’s contemplating going to Bali, they’re sharing travel stories. At the airport, between flights, I pulled my phone out from habit, caught up on the last four hours of Twitter, checked my email, clicked over to Facebook in case anyone had messaged me. Not only after I tucked my phone back into my purse did I notice the woman wearing the red cowboy boots, see the way the slanting sun lit up a laughing toddler’s face and the unguarded smile of her captivated mother. Meanwhile a man in a suit clenched his hands around the armrests and hissed into his headpiece. Business deal gone wrong? Romantic entanglement coming unraveled? Airports are a theater for people-watching. By not thinking to look around, I almost forgot to observe outside myself.
Social scientists and others have lamented the toll technology has taken on our interactions already. I do not intend to complain about the pitfalls of being constantly plugged in, especially when the benefits are clearly many. (Look, friend, I can tell you I love you with a short text and funny photo from almost anywhere, almost any time! Isn’t that a miracle?) But as my brother once said, I do sometimes wonder what it is I used to do when I had to wait and had no smartphone to kill the time. Did I daydream? I think so. And is the disappearance of those daydreams a bad thing?
Meanwhile, the conversation behind me has expanded into a discussion about the hideousness of the possum and the frigidness of the Santa Cruz climate. (Santa Cruz is frigid?! I roll my eyes.) The light outside is fading and so am I. The TV beckons again.
Later, I cave and order food from the same touchscreen. My plan is to save my meager funds for pizza, bagels, donuts and Coney Island. But we’ve been on the go for over 12 hours with little more than a Safeway sandwich for Nick and a succession of yogurts and truly horrible Kashi granola bars for me. We need to eat. I go for the “Artisan Cheese Plate,” which is surprisingly not awful. Some nice cheeses, a fig and an apricot, grapes, rosemary crackers. I break the cheese into chunks and combine each chunk with a grape, a cracker piece. The sweet-creamy-crunchy textural juxtaposition pleases me. Not that I think of it like that in this moment; all I know is oh, yum, good.
Nick’s “Hearty Meal,” on the other hand disappoints. A bunch of prepackaged food items ranging from salami to fruit snacks, all subpar. He didn’t complain, much. “Wait till New York!” I promise. “It’ll be so great.”
We land just before midnight and exit into an airport quieter than I expected. Normally, I’d enjoy the lack of crowd, but I worry Nick would be disappointed. I need New York to blow his mind.
My brother and his girlfriend arrive in a Zipcar. “It’s a red… uh… hatchback,” he’d said on the phone. “It’s a Prius!” I pointed out as I climbed in. “Have you been gone from San Francisco for so long?”
He drives us to their place in East Williamsburg and then, because we have the car for an hour, suggests a quick trip to the water. Manhattan’s skyline looms across the river, reflects in the water, perfect like in the movies. We admire it from the pier, even as slightly downriver, a man and woman yell at each other, marring the moment and yet cementing the fact that this is real. We are here.
After dropping off the car, we walk the several blocks to Tag and Jen’s place as bursts of brightness wreck the night sky. I think it might be lightning, but who can tell with all the lights beaming from the boroughs? And is that thunder or just big trucks powering down the street a block over? The drops landing on my head confirm that, indeed, we were getting caught in a storm. Within minutes, my hair is plastered to my head and my feet squish in my shoes, and yet I have not a single complaint. It’s lovely to be walking in Brooklyn past midnight, in the embrace of family and warm summer rain, with so much to look forward to.