Saturday, March 07, 2009

Apocalypse Now

I used to live in Manhattan, but it's been decades since I flew into JFK. By a quirk of fate I landed there last Saturday under a sky that exuded grey. Grey seeped into the jetway, the terminal, the air itself. The drive into town via the Triborough Bridge was like the opening of a horror film. New York has become seedy; decay gnaws its buildings and monuments.

We passed by the old World's Fair grounds, its tower ringed with lidless eyes of broken windows, its concrete eaten with disease. Even the relatively new tennis centre seemed to apologize, and Shea is clearly showing its age. High-rise after high-rise, condemned and boarded up, loomed over us, strings of buildings in an architectural dance of death. We thudded along the bridge, pocked with potholes. Loathing, pity, fear and sorrow twisted my stomach into a queasy mass.

Along 126th Street some of the city's 100,000 homeless shuffled below windows nailed over with metal sheets. The filth seemed filthier; the noise, noisier, the screams more despairing. A foot of snow failed to purify the hopelessness even for a day.

My flight out of Newark was delayed, but I went through security anyway, hoping to find a quiet corner. First, however, there was TSA: Torture Seniors Always. There were no other passengers in sight; I was the only one going through.

I asked them to put my sandals in the x-ray and then give them back to me so that I could pass through the gauntlet like anyone else (I can't walk without supported feet) but no, I was going to be forced to submit to the humiliation of the confiscated passport, the sadistic female uniform, the pat-down, the desperate worry that my things would be stolen.

But first—ah, first there was a nightmare new sci-fi machine, an elongated vertical aluminum rectangle, like an upright shower, with weird nozzles on all surfaces, pointing inward towards the centre. My loathing turned to terror. The showers at Auschwitz flashed through my mind. No one told me what this machine was or what would happen inside it; no one spoke to me at all. I balked; I worried it was an all-body x-ray. I have had too many x-rays. For someone who had just spent five months in the rare book room of the Bodleian Library in Oxford, England, and who rarely travels, it was a vision of hell.

Someone shouted at me. By this time I was near collapse, heart pounding, blood pressure doubtless at stroke levels. Not good for a senior. Thoroughly traumatized. I entered. A barrier slammed down behind me; a black rod blocked my way forward. Suddenly, without warning, I was blasted on every side by strong jets of foul-smelling air. A noiseless scream; I nearly fainted, froze in place. Now I was being shouted at to come out but the barrier hadn't lifted; I didn't dare touch it, not understanding that I was supposed to push it open. I emerged, babbling. It was one of the most disgusting, dehumanizing, assaults of my life. I felt as though I had been raped. I felt as though I were in a concentration camp. Which, in a sense, I was.

Shaken and nearly incoherent, I was then forced through the usual metal detector, which was set off by my glasses. I was pushed to the side into a chair, then told to walk. This woke me up and I croaked. "I keep telling you, I cannot walk without my shoes!"

My Birkenstocks were taken away.

"Stand up."

"I cannot walk without my shoes."

"Stand on this mat."

"I cannot walk without my shoes."

"Why not?"

"My feet will break."

Someone shouted something about diabetes (I don't have it, but my medical history is none of their business).

The female gestapo would have yanked me to my feet if I hadn't started to stand up slowly and painfully. She cared nothing about my pain, or my feet. She began the humiliation at a leisurely pace, the wanding, the pat-down; she clearly enjoyed it; she repeated several times. She even turned back my cuffs, told me to turn my trouser band inside out (and must have sensed that I was so shaken that I was thinking of pulling the trousers off and handing them to her, because she snapped, "Leave them on.")

Then I snapped back, "Why do you insist on torturing the elderly? Why couldn't you do the simple thing I requested and save us all this trouble? Why has TSA always been hostile to old people?" And on and on and on, my voice rising until she was finally finished and snarled, "Have a nice day."

"I want to see your supervisor."

A Hispanic man came over, obviously sympathetic.

"Why do you make this process such hell for old people? Where is common sense? We could have avoided all this unpleasantness and saved time (the queue was now building) if you had just put my sandals through and then given them back to me so I could be processed like everyone else." I shuddered at my own words. I was indeed but a cipher in prison. He said he would mention it to his superiors.

Upset turned to rage as I re-packed my computer and my baggie, retrieved my clothes, my carry-on, my computer bag, passport, boarding pass, and walked down the chute into Concourse A. But more squlaor awaited me. By Gate A18 (where my flight to Seattle was to leave from) I was choked by the stench of old frying oil; the air so heavy that droplets stuck to the inside of my nose, coating my eyes, my clothes. Crazy-making tinny drums and cymbals thumped from a loudspeaker.

To escape, I went to the other side of the concourse, beyond the barrier provided by the oval structure hiding offices and toilets. But there was no escape from the rattle and hiss, or the oil-slicked air. I became short of breath. It is no wonder, I thought, that people explode into air rage; they are goaded into it by demonic technology and small-minded people drunk on power.

I spotted another TSA officer lounging in a chair, his belly, hips and thighs overflowing into more chairs on either side, his fingers stuffing sections of an oversized and unidentifiable food item in his mouth.

"Are you on duty?"


"Can you please go over to TGI Fridays and ask them to turn that racket down?"

He smirked, "That's Port Authority." His eyes resumed their vacant stare; his features relaxed into their accustomed smugness. His fingers continued to pick and poke.

"Fine. I will tell them myself." And marched back to the other side of the concourse.

The hostess pointed me to a weedy, pimply, sallow rat-faced man behind the bar who didn't look old enough to drink, much less barkeep. When I made my request he flashed me a sick, slick programmed smile and said he would turn the sound down. As he moved away he sniggered.

I sat for nearly five hours in that greasy miasma, unable to read or do sudoku, watching the monstrous Anheuser Busch brewery on the far side of the runway belch CO2 into the atmosphere. By the time my plane was called, I was afraid I would vomit.

How could anyone remain human in this inhuman sterile vacuum, where everything and everyone is programmed, where breathing the air is like choking on plastic wrap, where anything resembling food has disappeared, where noise is inescapable, where the natural world might as well never have existed. "There is no healing for this mess we have made," I thought, despairing.

And then I recalled the remark of the exquisitely polite driver who had delivered me to the airport in his beat-up car. He was the only sign of hope in that weekend vision of the end of all things. I had quietly refused his courteous offer to turn on the radio if it pleased me, but said that he could if he needed it. He thanked me: "Silence is so hard to find in this city."

And we drove on in peace through the squalor of New Jersey under an intense blue winter sky.


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