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The Hackiest Place On Earth
This month I'm writing about airplanes. That's right, airplanes. Sure, standup comics have driven the premise of air travel into the ground for decades. But in the last month I've had to go on two cross-country trips-- which for me is a lot-- and it got me thinking again about our fastest method of long-distance travel.
Airplane travel is a magical type of experience. Not simply because it involves an enormous metal object flying through the air at ten times the speed of a highway-bound car. No, much more than that it's because the plane, and anywhere associated with air travel-- the airport, limousine or shuttle bus-- are cheerily polished, pleasantly sterile environments that make me feel as if I haven't got a real problem in the world. And if I do, they've been left behind in the raw, ugly world of everyday reality.
On any airplane, it's easy for me to imagine I could be a wealthy businessman on the go, a covert, happening actor trying to keep a low profile, or a James Bond-type operative, with a two-way videophone in my watch and a poisonous-dart-shooting pen, ready to subdue the shadowy terrorist seated across the aisle. One reason for these thoughts is the really cool gadgets-for-sale publication that's always tucked into the seat-back. Just like the brochures from The Sharper Image or Hammacher Schlemmer, this thing is absolutely jam packed with incredible cool and life-improving stuff. Almost every single time I fly, I eagerly flip through this catalog and drool over the FM radio night-vision goggles, the portable folding bicycle and a cell phone so tiny that you could accidentally inhale it as a dust particle.
And, despite my obvious lack of disposable income, I always think to myself "If I just take every available cent I have and put it toward that combination ballpoint pen/barometer/laser, I'll become the coolest guy in Hollywood and chicks will be falling all over me." By the time we hit the ground and I'm walking through the airport, my excitement for a new life-changing gadget has been replaced by somber realism and a hankering for an overpriced donut and a copy of Maxim.
Another major plus of airplane travel is the self-selected screening process that seems to happen among the passenger pool. Of course the cost of a plane ticket is a major consideration, but I don't think even that accounts for how generally civilized and well-groomed air passengers always appear. I recently took a 12-hour bus trip from Salt Lake City to Las Vegas, which I will never do again. What absolutely sucks about such a bus trip is not necessarily the amount of time it takes and the seats aren't much smaller than on a plane. What absolutely sucks is being in an enclosed space with no less than three people who have pissed themselves, or worse, repeatedly, and not changed clothes in several weeks. This never happens on an airplane. The only air passenger who's ever pissed himself is an out-of-control drunken rock star in first class, in which case any of us would be clamoring to sit nearby and take in the spectacle of a celebrated artist and the rare aroma of celebrity urine.
A huge percentage of air travelers have laptop computers, personal organizers and impressive wristwatches. Everyone smells fresh and well-scrubbed, with hints of scented soap and sensible cologne and almost never the disgusting, sickeningly sweet powder-puff perfume that one might find on... say, the bus. Purposeful, productive-citizen types chat away on cell phones, studiously fill out crosswords or plow through their high-middle brow novels plucked right off of the NY Times bestseller list. The airplane nearly reeks with optimism, confidence and the unmistakable smell of success. And I'm only talking about coach!
The potential to meet great folks is everywhere on a plane. Sure, people complain about the horrible, boring person in the next seat all the time. But what's vastly under-reported is the friendly rich businessperson with a handle on a job or the cute single girl who can eventually be won over with persistent conversation about cats, your favorite bars and the wonders of beach volleyball. And unlike almost any other situation, I have about six guaranteed hours to get my rap together and close the deal.
And let's look at the flight crew. Where else are you waited upon and fretted over diligently by upbeat, smiling, neatly coiffed women and gay men? Some of these flight attendants are so good at what they do-- being attentive and congenial-- that they actually make me feel as if I am IMPORTANT! This is especially true when they relent and give me that second pack of pretzels.
Pilots have to be the coolest guys ever. First of all, they wear friggin' UNIFORMS. Sure, subway and bus drivers wear some sort of outfit, but airline pilots look like a cross between an IBM executive and a Navy admiral. And that inspires confidence. Let's put it this way: When the person driving the vehicle is called "Captain," when he wears a cap with gold insignia, and he makes an easy six figures, you know he's not just some guy who got laid off at the factory or had a relative in the union.
I was on a flight recently in which the pilot's intermittent
comments over the PA system were laced with attempts to try out
some sort of comedy routine on the passengers. He'd say things
like "Folks, we're flying over the Painted Desert, and all
I can think is what guy's wife talked him into THAT job?."
And then I realized that perhaps flying a jet and doing comedy are
very similar. They are both thrilling, highly respected lines of
work, frightening to the novice, and much harder than one would
think to be good at!
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