Four Lonely Days in a Brown LA Haze
Well, I must be dreaming! I went through airport security without having to take my shoes off. And for once, they even let me keep my damn belt on.
That was probably the first time since that shoe-bomber nut-job tried to take out East Lansing or wherever that I could actually walk through the metal detector with my dignity intact. Or at least the thin shred of it left to us inmates in the National Security gulag. They did pull me aside for a “random” chemical analysis of my palms (“checking for traces of explosives”), but at least my pants weren’t falling down.
A few years back, I found myself blocked from using electronic flight check-in, and I was informed of my membership on the TSA’s Naughty List, those “known to be or suspected of being a threat to Civil Aviation.” This meant my bags had to be searched before I could board a plane. That time, the sharp-eyed agent spied a geology textbook in my suitcase, and, confronting me with a stern tone of wary indignation, said, “So–you’re claiming to be a professor of Geology?” Now, I wasn’t claiming anything—in fact I am a remodeling contractor who wanted to learn some geology. The creepy part was that they had to already know what I did for a living, or they wouldn’t have asked me that.
Another 9/11 narrowly averted. I lost all fear of the TSA the next year though, when I unpacked my carry-on to discover I had just taken a metal box knife on board. And this for a known terrorist.
I’m old enough to remember getting to the airport just before departure. Not two hours early, to leave enough time for the nude X-ray and complimentary crotch-grope, but literally at the last minute, where you have to toss your luggage to the curbside Red Caps and run through the terminal hollering to stop the plane on the runway. Today that would bring down the S.W.A.T. teams from three neighboring counties and send the airport into an all-day lockdown.
Now in my late middle age, I watch my fellow country-persons bleat their way through the turnstiles of the hyper-militarized 360-degree panoptic surveillance system that is America, their every tweet and GPS data ping pre-screened by the Homeland overlords, and I wonder how we became so willing to give up our freedom for security. Once again I find myself struggling with the impulse to dismiss everyone as goose-stepping nitwits willing to trade the Bill of Rights for a worry-free week in Disneyland, but then, hell, I submitted to it too. (Not the X-ray, though. A guy’s gotta have some limits.)
Now past the Security Checkpoint, I am able to relax in the jihad-free environment of shiny marketing opportunities that surround me. I don’t want any of the Seattle-themed merchandise–no Space Needle mugs or Seahawks Super Bowl Champs T-shirts for me. (There are no shirts yet featuring the Royal Family, Bill and Melinda Gates). So I go in search of a cup of coffee for under ten bucks. Starbucks, no thank you–the money goes to Israeli settlements. I find a knock-off place down the concourse.
I ask the young barista about Sea-Tac’s new $15 minimum wage law passed by voters. Has it kicked in yet? After furtive glances left and right he leans in, sotto voce: “The law only applies to the City of Sea-Tac, not the airport, which is run by the Port of Seattle. So the answer to your question is—No.”
It is just like this whenever I talk to non-union workers at Home Depot and the like. When they will talk at all, it is only with a palpable anxiety that makes us both feel like we’re in a German spy movie, looking over our shoulders to see who’s listening.
Now waiting at the end of C-gates, I sit across from a woman reading a magazine. I have to wait until she blinks to be sure she is not a mannequin. I put her in her late 50’s, with makeup and surgery trimming maybe five. Expensive clothes. The magazine is something called Traditional Home. The “home” on the cover might have been “traditional” in the Carnegie or Rockefeller’s neighborhood, but definitely not mine. She boards in First Class.
They call airplane seating First Class and Coach, but I prefer something more honest. I rather like Ruling Class and Lumpen Proletariat, but there is no avoiding euphemisms in this country. There are more of them on board, as the steward-person briefs us on the use of emergency flotation devices (for use in the event of an unscheduled water landing). I chuckle at George Carlin’s routine (“I know what that means: CRASHING INTO THE OCEAN!!) Now she tells us that the airline is recognizing Earth Day by offering recycling of our In-Flight Service Items. This as we begin our 3500-gallon jet fuel burn-down, enabling us to eat Easter dinner in globally warming L.A.
“There are no masses of people,” Raymond Williams said, “there are only ways of seeing people as masses.” Well, maybe, but one of those ways for sure is to fly into Los Angeles. Especially at night, as the urban lights span from one horizon to the other. But by day, the immensity of this great human-built organism must be beheld in all its terrible majesty. Eighteen million souls, intricately connected, sensitively dependent on a bewildering and breath-takingly complex network of transportation arteries, channels of water distribution and sewage collection, circuits of electrical, communication and financial transmission. None of life’s necessities exist here in a readily available state. Food, water, raw materials, energy–all these are imported, and L.A., like all our great cities, would collapse in a matter of weeks if the grid were seriously disrupted. As, eventually, it will be.
We swoop over the San Fernando Valley, descending near the San Gabriels, as the infinity of blue swimming pools and red tile roofs comes into focus. Miniscule cars trickle off the Interstate into the web of arterials and branching side streets, then round the winding strips of asphalt to their terminal cul-de-sacs. In the sprawl of the commercial and industrial sections, semis back up to warehouse loading ramps, and railroad tracks criss-cross through miles of assembly plants and bright glass office buildings.
No one person could truly comprehend more than a square mile of all this. And anyone who sets out to change this way of living is signing up for the School of Hard Knocks, let’s face it. From up here, there is no denying it–this way of living will not last.
There are more than 800 miles of freeways here, jammed day and night with obese Americans in their Ford Excursions searching for a deep-fried Jumbo corn dog. It hasn’t rained down here since Pope Pious was in Rome, but that doesn’t stop the Angelenos from washing their cars twice a day. My God, how they like their cars shiny here. But for the real picture of America at its gluttonous best, you gotta drive around San Marino, and some of the neighborhoods of Pasadena. There, the legions of Mexican gardeners tend the green lawns of what must be America’s royalty. Who these rich people are, or how there could be so god-damned many of them, I just can’t say. But you could drive for hours on these winding boulevards and not see half of these stupendous porticoed plantation mansions, three-story Tudors and Greene & Greene Craftsman masterpieces, set back in their terraced landscapes behind iron gates and handsome stone walls.
Inside, they’re too busy counting their money to give a shit, but the cultural values enshrined here have placed us squarely in the path of the catastrophes inexorably approaching. A lot of folks do sense it. Most people do, at some subliminal level. And so, this being the commodity-obsessed country that it is, Hollywood has figured out how to commodify even Armageddon and sell it to us. It seems that every third movie to come out of this town these days has to do with a ruined planet and the decrepit remnants of humanity.
Then there are the apocalyptic followers of the Dark Lord, Bill O’Reilly, and his imbecile guest the Reverend Pastor Robert Jeffers, of the Church of Dallas Dingbats. Those two warned me the other night that Obama and his campaign for Big Gummint are paving the way for the Anti-Christ to launch his totalitarian war against God’s People. (I am really not kidding.)
But there are other people who really are paying attention. I mean the concerned minority that has somehow managed to survive the culture of Kardashian weddings, talk radio, and 0.9% APR financing with a few of their higher cortical functions intact. These few, mostly on the political Left, know about the dying coral reefs, the global de-forestation, the methane hydrates seeping up from the ocean bottoms and the permafrost. And in that knowledge, there is isolation, and a real sense of despair in a culture devoting nearly the entirety of its energy to keeping everyone ignorant and distracted.
And, of course, heavily drugged and kept under surveillance, just in case. We’ve spent an estimated $57 billion on airport security since those Al Qaeda guys bagged their 72 virgins, and that was all about 3000 people getting killed. Hell, we’ve lost that many to cancer just since yesterday morning, but nobody seems to be worrying about taking the poison out of the food supply. There certainly is no pesticide-scanning checkpoint keeping us safe at the grocery store, with armed federal agents on the lookout for Monsanto operatives. But then, that would not serve the interests of our corporate masters, would it?
But now I gotta go, and catch a plane the hell out of here.
I’m hoping I get to leave my shoes on again.
Tom Wright lives in Olympia, Washington. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org