Going on Safari With the Wildebeests of Long Beach
It was about the time that I began critiquing the fashion choices of our fellow passengers in the Long Beach Airport that I realized I may have reached my limit for what the brain could tolerate on “vacation.” Completely mean-spirited, I was watching the passers-by stuck in the same predicament as me, crammed like cattle waiting for their damned flight crew to arrive so their plane could take off, now three and a half hours late. “That woman should never wear stretch pants,” I would spew in my head. “She looks like a naked mole rat rolled in purple icing.” I’d turn in another direction, only to face someone else worthy of my skewering. “Jesus Christ, dude. Have a little dignity. Leave the acid wash at home in the bins,” I’d scowl.
But this was just an indication of the fragility of my own state of mind, since I am a great slob myself, rarely bothering to put my clothes together in any discernibly fashionable way. I am, in general, sympathetic to my fellow American slobs. Sometimes it can just be too much bother to put on clothes that look more interesting than thrift store cast-offs, when one knows that the outfit’s only future is one with spots of ketchup and paint splatters on it.
We had endured an amazing number of obstacles to what anyone might call “fun,” and we were now stuck in Long Beach, in one of the most dismal little airports I’ve ever seen, trying to get home. We had already spent the morning in Los Angeles fighting a cloudburst of epic proportions and forging through rivers of water to get to the Museum of Natural History. We had been soaked, grumpy and hungry when we got in the doors of the museum, where it turns out there is no restaurant. We took one look at the T. Rex just past the door and turned around to slog through L.A.’s new rivers again, looking for crappy food in a crummy part of town.
We returned to the museum, ever mindful of our flight a few hours hence. We carved a neat path through the exhibits and it was enjoyable enough, but we were happy to get our soggy asses to the airport, the first step in our trip back home. We arrived with a picture-perfect finish at the airport, just enough time to pick up a magazine and get on the plane.
This is a small airport. It was built in the 1950′s and perhaps updated most recently in the late 80′s or early 90′s. It has a grungy institutional lack of charm, made worse by its lack of amenities. So when we arrived, thrilled at our speedy dodging through L.A. rush hour traffic, we were dismayed that we would be spending a rather long stretch here. Ours was the only delayed flight in the whole damned airport.
When we checked a bag (a decision based solely upon our unwillingness to drag our bags, along with our son, through the airport for our long delay), my husband asked if there was anywhere to wait it out. “You could either go to your gate, which is basically a big room, or the restaurant.” That was it.
Restaurant it is! We parked ourselves in the booth, and whiled away the time as best we could; eventually we could no longer tolerate the nice but useless waitress or drink more beer and get thrown out for public drunkenness, or cited for child endangerment: our son was flopping into the aisle, and we needed to remove him before he tripped someone and sent food raining down on his head. So despite having several more hours to wait, we gave up our plush digs in the ugly paneled restaurant and opted to go to the big room.
Big room is right. At the entrance there was a “bar,” separated from the main room with a barrier rope; they apparently couldn’t be bothered with walls. There were 4 or 5 seats, two of which were occupied by bozos hitting on the female bartender. At the other corner of the room was a snack bar, similar to what one might find in the lobby of a hospital, with blue plush bears no-one wants and bags of popcorn and licorice, some aspirin and bottles of water. We found seats in the remarkably quiet room in front of the only other amenity, the magazine kiosk, manned by a pimply overweight young man who looked ready to kill himself. There were four gates and rows upon rows of Trailways-era institutional seating. That was it.
But at least it was empty, and our son could burn off a little extra energy by climbing the seats and running through the aisles. Which was fine, but only good for so long. So we gave him our phones to play with. That palled after a while, so we went to the bathroom. A brief distraction, but at least we got to see what the fluorescents looked like in the there.
The only art in the whole big room was parked between the men’s and women’s restrooms, a fitting place if ever there was. My husband encouraged me to go look at it, and since I wasn’t encumbered by distractions, I walked up to it.
It struck my husband and I both with foreboding and curiosity about the artist’s intent. A rank, yellow heavy sky hangs in the background, the Washington Monument shooting up violently behind a single skeletal tree, while two children flee in the foreground. Or is one fleeing and the other pursuing? Their backs are turned to the viewer, making the viewer a party to the action, either pursuing, which is creepy, or being pursued, which is creepier. A girl is looking over her shoulder to see if the unidentified threat is gaining upon her. A plane shoots diagonally overhead, its jet trail leaving the viewer questioning if it were the culprit in making the sky yellow, a villain leaving behind clouds of mustard gas or sulphurous evil intent.
It did not soothe the uneasy traveler into a sense of calm about their impending journey. And it didn’t matter that upon further examination I discovered the kids were not fleeing but ice-skating; it remained jarring merely by its composition. The artist pulled a fast one, even if they themselves didn’t know it. They had a lark at the expense of poor hapless purchasers of bland institutional art.
My husband took a photo he was so charmed.
The room was beginning to fill up. The passengers were all similarly travel-frumpy, most recently having come from Disneyland and god knows what horrors there. Most of them were dressed in Classic American Tourist: pale shapeless blue jeans or Dockers for the gents, often with a cell phone clip on their belt. A well worn t-shirt from some other tourist destination they visited long ago, now soft and faded from washing, or a shirt with sequins, glitter or some unholy combination of the two. An impossible number of stretch pants under too-large t-shirts, a look I sported when I was 15 and gave up realizing that no-one wants to look at a sad-sack Olivia Newton-John facsimile. Sandals, though it was not warm. There were perms.
And there were more and more of them coming. Our son was being squeezed into smaller areas of territory, and like a cheetah losing habitat he was becoming more brave and more ornery. Climbing up and over the bucket seats right next to whoever was there, placing an unwelcome foot dangerously close to a pissed commuter; sitting on the tables bolted between them and twitching and fidgeting, throwing elbows out too close to grumpy seatmates; distracting people from their only respite: reading People magazine or looking at their phones.
Our plane was now four hours late. The natives were getting restless. There was a sense in the room of static electricity as people swapped stories and bonded over their stranding; I overheard conversations full of intimate details of other failed vacations between complete strangers who had become their new best friends in the dreary Long Beach Airport. Parents were desperate to keep their children from exciting a riot, which in this fevered climate would not be too difficult.
Like streaming tides of wildebeests the stranded passengers began to crowd towards the gate. Had someone seen something? Did someone know that the crew was here? Where was everyone going? The hive mind had spoken, and all passengers uniformly wove their way to where our plane was supposed to have departed, so long ago. We too followed, a rash decision as we had staked out our territorial claim early on. To leave it was a hopeful, but ultimately senseless act of optimism.
The wildebeests had not seen the crew, nor gleaned some greater intelligence about our flights status; the airline, choosing wisely to placate the beasts with symbolic gifts had left out water and soda and some bags of fodder in the form of mini pretzels and cashews. The herd had gone to the wallow, and we, proper dupes that we are, had given up our prime section of grassland for an utterly craptastic booby prize.
I don’t know if we cheered when the crew arrived, or simply tasted blood in our mouths from the anxiety and waiting. I know that we finally got on the plane two and a half hours past our son’s bedtime, and he was running on fumes and nervous excitement. We were relieved that the plane would lull him to sleep, the drone of the engines knocking him out like a sedative.
Alas, that is not our son. He is the perpetual motion machine, always enraptured and engaged by anything new. So while our fellow wildebeests slept, we were stuck with a playful calf, jumping into the aisles and jostling the flight crew, playing peek-a-boo with the toddler seated behind him. They would have been cute had everyone around them not been trying to sleep.
Predictably, just as the plane was descending toward our blessed Portland home, our son passed out cold, the fatigue overcoming him in our last ten minutes in the air. Our journey not quite complete despite our tantalizing proximity to our home, we now had to get our checked luggage and a dead weight through the airport past midnight, to curbside and a taxi.
We struggled in the aisle with our belongings, the other passengers laughing at our impossible task: our son was so asleep that we couldn’t put his coat on, couldn’t move him, couldn’t figure out how to negotiate this last obstacle to free ourselves from the belly of the plane. With no small amount of help from the herd, we somehow stumbled free.
It is some sort of divine joke when you’ve reached this point and step off the plane into a completely deserted concourse only to discover that you are at the very furthest end of it. Unlike Long Beach Airport which is the size of a gymnasium and just as unattractive, this concourse was long. But if adversity is the spark of ingenuity, I discovered that I was ready for a wheelchair. With my son weighing a metric ton in my arms, and my husband burdened with the rest of the carry-on, I sat down in the first airport wheelchair I saw, right at the end of the ramp leading off the plane.
Wildebeests laughed at our choice but applauded and then raced themselves to the luggage carousel: whoever got their luggage first got the taxi first too. Realizing the desperate race against the clock had begun in earnest, my husband, a wheeled bag in one hand and another across his shoulder, our son’s car seat wedged between his body and the handles of the wheelchair, began to push the wheelchair as fast as he could. I was buried in impossibly heavy child, trying to keep his limbs from getting caught in the wheels as he flopped around. My husband found it so ridiculous that despite his carrying two bags, a car seat and 170 pounds of human cargo he took out his camera to document our final journey down the long hallway home.
• • • • •
We’re home now–this was weeks ago–and we made it back in one piece. Even though we did not beat the clock for our luggage, and no kindly soul offered us to cut in line for a taxi, despite it being 22 degrees and carrying a boy utterly insensate to the bitter elements despite us being unable to put his coat on, we were finally ushered into a cab where Rasputin himself was at the wheel. It was a fitting end.
Since then some crazed dumb-ass wanna-be terrorist lit explosives on a plane to Detroit, not serving his ultimate goal of bringing it down, but certainly serving the lesser goal of making it even more unpleasant to travel.
And we just booked our flight to Mexico.
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