Monday, February 16, 2004

Goodnight Irene

"Please don't make me cry with my circus makeup on..."
-Carol Phyllis Vescey

So I'm boarding America West flight number 625 from Minneapolis to Phoenix on my way to Long Beach, California. For boarding purposes the airline has divided us passengers into groups of what turns out to be seven. Group one and two are the first to get called to board the plane (after those in first class and those with small children and those who need help getting seated). Group three is called a few minutes later. I'm part of group four having a seat in the front of the plane so I begin gathering my things (a carry on suitcase and laptop computer). A pretty young Asian girl is seated across from me and keeps rather obviously looking at me. Is hers a glance of attraction or of fear of me being a terrorist? I'm really not sure.

Finally the chirpy middle-my aged blonde flight attendant calls out group four and as I stand up I notice the pretty young Asian woman seated across from me is also standing up. This makes me wonder how exactly they divvied up the groups. She is seated closer to the gate than I am yet I am more prepared so I pass her on my way to stand in line (group three is still boarding the plane). The line moves at a pace where it's not clear whether or not one should put down one's heavy carry on luggage or whether it'd be more work to keep moving in line while constantly picking up and putting down the suitcase. I decide to hold on. It shouldn't be too long before I'm seated in my assigned seat (6F- a window seat). Sure enough I find myself standing next to the chirpy middle-my aged blonde flight attendant that tears my ticket and sends me on my merry way.

As I approach my seat I see an elderly woman with sunglasses on sitting in 6D, the aisle seat to my row. As I stop in front of her she slowly looks up and says, "Do you have to get in?" And I say yes I do, I have the window seat. We both agree that it would be nice if the seat between us remains empty. She sluggishly gets up and lets me by. I excuse myself and squeeze on past, all the while thinking ahead and hoping my carry on luggage fits underneath the seat in front of me so I don't have to stow it in the overhead bins. It's a tight fit but I squish my vinyl suitcase beneath the all too close seat in front of me leaving me just about three inches of foot room or in other words, more than enough.

While settling in the elderly woman tells me her name is Irene and Irene and I both agree that it is cold on the airplane. The temperature outside is 11 degrees below zero and we are soon to find out the flight beverage service is hampered by the frigid cold- the water line is frozen so no one can have coffee. Irene looks over and again mutters how she hopes no one is seated between us and I look back wishing I could see her eyes that are hidden behind the dark shades. It's evident that this is not meant to be a non-conversation flight. She tells me she lives in Oakland and I ask her what she is doing in Minneapolis. Irene looks sad. She tells me that she was in Rochester visiting her sister who had to have her feet amputated. "This has not been a very fun trip but I guess it could have been worse," she says and later repeats the same phrase a couple of different times almost sounding like she's trying to convince herself as much as me.

Irene tells me that she is a retired medical doctor that served in the military. After we take off and the pilot informs us of the altitude we are cruising at Irene tells me that once in the 40's she was training aboard a military plane where they were learning about the effects of altitude. She tells me of the time of flying at a high altitude (though lower than the one we are presently at) where she was instructed to take off her oxygen mask and identify cards from a deck of playing cards. She said she kept seeing the queen of diamonds over and over right before she tipped over. She asks me what I do for a living and when I reply, "I work for the government," she patiently awaits more information to clarify exactly what I do for a living. When she ascertains I'm not a politician she lowers her voice and tells me how she thinks we should get this country back on track. "They keep telling us that the Chinese have nuclear weapons pointed at Oakland. I think we should get them to launch them at Washington DC and we should move our Capitol to Iowa. Get rid of 'em all," she says adding a disclaimer that she really shouldn't say such things in public less the wrong person overhears her beliefs.

Irene goes on to tell me that what really is wrong with this country is that too many people are taking advantage of government welfare and that others who don't have the discipline to finish college are keeping others out who deserve to be there, and those that think and speak in a language other than English should realize how that hurts the very impression they make on others in this country and how that makes them reflect badly on those who matter, and that people should stop criticizing the top one percent income earners since they are the ones creating jobs and that Bill Clinton is personally going to hell for being responsible for the decline of morals in the youth of this country and how there should be a license required for people to have children and how she is in the process of moving from Oakland to Carson City, Nevada because she is tired of the "eco-freaks" and how unsafe she feels walking the streets of Oakland.

I bite my tongue at some of what she is telling me mostly because she keeps trying to qualify her thoughts, "Am I a snob for thinking this?" and "When you get to be my age you realize that you can speak your mind and if people don't agree they don't have to listen," and I realize that in the small chance that I do live to be her age it is very likely that I'll be a crotchety and bitter old man (who will eternally be damned, constantly wondering what might have been if only things could have been different all the while wondering why where what is and what should be are somehow the same) and will be pleasantly surprised that anyone would ever pay attention to me.

Listening to Irene I also realize that there is something simply poetic that somehow our seats are right in front of the right wing of the plane. Irene also tells me she's recovering from a broken neck suffered in a fall and how she never married because being a female military doctor meant that she had to choose between her career and a family. She appears frail yet she tells me she's worried about gaining weight since she was once over 200 pounds ("I learned that if my friends were going to judge me by weight the I didn't need them...") but now has gained 8 pounds up to 148 since she broke her neck.

After a few minutes of silence the real reason for our encounter becomes clear- she is a cat lover who takes in strays because they need a place to live. All during our conversation I couldn't stop thinking of the two cats (seven limbs between them) that I was leaving alone for the first extended period of time.

The plane is landing and Irene tells me she's enjoyed talking with me and that she knows I'll go far because I care about education and I care about public service and I love my cats. I wish her the best and for one of the rare instances of my current state of using every last bit of energy just to get by, I really really mean what I'm saying.

So a little later on I approach a hotel bartender and ask for a "Windsor water and a buttery nipple on the rocks." The curly dark haired young lad looks back at me blankly. Ordering my friend's drink has caused me some instant embarrassment and she smiles knowing it would. "Two shots butterscotch schnapps one shot Bailey's," I say merely repeating what my friend with a shock of red hair had told me all the while hoping to clarify things without melting away.

"I know what a buttery nipple is. I don't know what a Windsor water is," the bartender brusquely says to my utter (udder?) surprise. I then reorder a whiskey water. Placing two glasses in front of me, the one that holds my friend's order that seems a bit shallow in its execution. "$11.50." the bartender says in a matter of fact, I don't like you, tone of voice. Welcome to sunny California.

During the conference (with classes still to come) we take a psychological test. As always I wonder if I have passed, and how I stack up compared to others. I'm a bit concerned to learn that I don't possess any of the physical manifestations of stress (headaches, wheezing, allergic sensitivity, nausea, muscle tension, neck or backaches) knowing full well that the person in the garden shirt next to me has suffered from several of these telltale signs. Just where is my stress manifesting itself? The rest of the test is equally stressful. I learned I earned the highest score in the entire room on the "emotional warnings" portion of the test ("fatigue, withdrawal, restless sleep, general discontent") but I don't raise my hand with pride when the instructor is asking us to reveal our scores. I also score rather high on the "mental warnings" section but not as high on the "life change index" as the person seated next to me.

So I'm back in a hotel room sad that I know the person I'll always everlastingly be in love with on a scale not matched before or since will never love me back and yet proud that we still have somehow managed to remain close friends. I remember the time we were lying down watching a movie together and how much she means to me- how much whatever she thinks, whatever else is in her heart, means to me (even though it's seldom if ever is about me). And how I wish she could know just how much she has gotten through in a time where that is rather impossible for other people. I'm feeling rather guilty (in a Catholic way even if I'm not exactly Catholic) because I know other friends are quite concerned over my recent state of being and state of mind. And as I eat my battered whitefish and I miss her even if she's always present, always there in one way or another. And I think of that famous Leadbelly song that I sometimes sing to myself and I wonder how much more of this one is meant to take.

13 or 17 years later and it all comes down to this? 17 years ago in the midst of some troubles I spent a healing month in Los Angeles with my sister. Basically I drove to the beach every day took a long walk and then tried to write. Tried to write what went wrong. Tried to write where I emotionally was at. Tried to write. 13 years ago I took another trip. This one was in the opposite direction although it was eerily was like the other trip for altogether similar and different reasons.. I did a lot of driving and even more walking. I tried to find spots to write. Now here I am on another trip and tonight I took a walk down to the pier by the new development to clear my head. I didn't do any writing but still it occurred to me what a different place I'm at. Those other trips seem so far away and seem like I was such a different person. Finding myself on the coast I want to find a seafood restaurant. I walk and walk some more but all I can find are chain restaurants and those are filled with young good-looking couples and people waiting in large groups. An elderly woman approaches me as I'm looking at the directory trying to truly figure out where I am. "Is that a movie theater?" she asks pointing to a huge complex with a sign that says "CINEMARK." It's the same complex that my friend had pointed out the day before because of its clever name. I tell the elderly woman that I think it is indeed a movie theater. She looks at it and back at me. "Do I have to go up the stairs to get there or is there an elevator somewhere?" Seeing the theater is about a block away and seeing I'm not really from the area, I'm not sure but I point her towards a set of doors on the sidewalk level. A little while later as I'm actually walking by those doors I notice they lead to a room full of a bunch of construction equipment.

So I give up my quest for a seafood dinner and start walking back to my hotel. I then stumble across an Indian restaurant tucked underneath a cement building. I wander in and see that there is no one else in the whole place except the staff. I am politely seated and I order a shrimp vindaloo dish. It is one of the most tasty meals I've had in a long long while. Enjoying where I was at for a minute I was returned to those other places and times and long long walks trying to figure out where I was really at. Just gotta keep moving I says to myself.

On my trip back to the airport Joe, the shuttle guy, picks me up. He's an elderly gentleman, originally from New York, and he spent some of the 1950's in Minneapolis working at some business on Hennepin Avenue. Joe's Italian but lives next to a recently widowed Japanese American woman who often brings he and his wife (she's Sicilian) food for helping her out with stuff. Once Joe finds out I'm a Twins fan we talk baseball (ironically Denny Hocking is on my flight back). Suddenly I've become a guy elderly folk approach and comfortably talk to. Could it be because I'm close to becoming one of them?

On the return flight home to cold snowy Minnesota the in-flight movie is Cuba Gooding Jr.'s Radio. Since I decide not to put down the $5 needed to purchase headphones to listen to the movie I guess you could say I was watching the Radio only without the sound.

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