“We have ways to make you tell us about the contents of that carryon bag…bring on…the comfy chair!”
Oh no, not...the COMFY CHAIR!
All I encountered, however, was a near-empty airport peopled with dozens of uniformed security personnel. There were approximately three such officials for every one passenger. They x-rayed my bag and waved me through the scanner, just as before. No-one said anything about my stiletto pumps, lethal on so many levels; no-one made me remove the chopsticks that were holding my hair in a fat bun (and as martial arts movie fans—as well as their mothers—will tell you, a swift chopstick-to-the-jugular move can take someone out very nicely, thank you).
No, it was smooth sailing, so to speak, all the way to the deserted Starbucks kiosk, where I spent the next three hours reading before boarding my plane.
Within minutes, a dark-haired, olive-skinned and muscular-looking man in a black jacket glanced around the cabin and sat down right next to me.
“Bon jour, Madame,” he said, before launching into several sentences of rapid-fire French. He couldn’t have been talking to anyone else: there were only fifteen-or-so passengers on the Boeing 727, and the others were scattered throughout the cabin after having laid claim to entire banks of seats and stretched out to take advantage of the unprecedented luxury. The pleasant-sounding French seemed to be directed at me, and I wasn’t sure why—I wasn’t reading A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu or even Paris Vogue, nor were there croissant crumbs on my lapel (if I’m going to splurge my meager middle-age calorie allotment on a croissant, it bloody well won’t be one of those Starbucks cardboard imitation croissant-flavored products).
“I’m sorry, I don’t speak French very well…” I was scrutinizing him now, having suddenly remembered all the French-speaking countries where Muslim extremists were said to be lurking.
“You’re English!” he said, in very good English. “Only we foreigners are flying right now. The Americans are too scared.”
“Aren’t you?” I said. “I am. A little bit. Worried, anyway.”
“It’s probably safer to fly now than ever before,” he declared. Then he promptly contradicted himself: “Yesterday, when I fly from Africa to Miami, I sit next to a Bin Laden.”
“Really?” I said, not sure what to make of that bit of information. I looked at the man’s briefcase, a slightly worn and extremely beautiful Hermes. The engraved nametag read “___ Mercier”. Perhaps he was related to Laura, creator of one of my favorite lipsticks. I decided not to ask.
The engines began revving, and the plane wound its way around the runways until it reached the long stretch used for speeding up and taking off. As is my habit, I closed my eyes and said a silent prayer. Call me a hypocrite, call me a fox-hole convert; I won’t mind. For in my case, years of childhood Catholic school indoctrination were followed by a couple of grades’ worth of Mennonite Missionary dogma which, in turn, was replaced with a bout of college atheism that later, when I felt my first son’s first embryonic kicks, morphed into a grudging, if vague, belief system involving an unnamed but benevolent and (probably) genderless Creator with limitless patience and no small sense of humor. And the magical thinking encouraged by this Church for One dictates that during the takeoff process, I must always ask God to bless the pilot and deliver us safely to our destination. So I did, and still do, despite the likelihood that every doomed flight in the history of aviation surely had at least one such favor-requesting believer, or quasi-believer, on board.
The flight was uneventful, as they say. Viewed from thousands of feet in the air, the smoldering World Trade Center’s remains were surreal and horrific. Everyone on board gathered on one side of the aircraft; no-one said a word. We just looked and looked, stunned by the enormity of the devastation.
Later that day, I flew home and unpacked my tote bag. There, beneath the notebook and files, lay my trusty Swiss Army knife. I had completely forgotten about it, and it had escaped the notice of not one but two gauntlets of security experts—most disturbingly, that of Newark Airport, the departure point of one of the doomed 9/11 flights.
I recently purchased a new Swiss Army knife—the sixth one in four years. Having them taken away (and, I’m certain, sold en masse by some entrepreneurial eBay merchant) is as predictable as it is annoying. Everyone I know travels with the little red-enameled gems; they come in handy for all manner of travel emergencies: zip-tied suitcase zippers (“This is to notify you that your luggage was opened and searched by TSA personnel…”) that need to be snipped open; wine bottles that need uncorking; eyebrows you forgot to tweeze before leaving; magazine pictures that need to be cut out for collage projects that are due the day of your return and that someone was supposed to finish last week, but didn’t.
I always forget to put the damned pocket knife in my checked luggage, and the TSA goons find it in my handbag and confiscate it about 50% of the time.
Sometimes they make me take off my shoes and shuffle barefoot through the scanning machine; sometimes they let me keep my dignity—mine are not the prettiest feet in the world, though looking around me at airports, I often wonder whose are? More often than not, and more often than I think is fair, the officials pull me aside for what some of them call Additional Scrutiny. I haven’t been asked to strip completely, but I have had to remove everything except my jeans and camisole and endure lots of patting and prodding. This begs the question, Are blonde, fortysomething English mothers suddenly being recruited to hijack planes? Did I miss a memo or something?
“They think you’re a Terrorist’s Bitch,” said my husband after having to wait while I submitted to yet another Additional Scrutiny session. “They watch all those Bruce Willis movies where the guy with the bomb gets helped out by his tall blonde girlfriend in leather and boots.” He pointed to my beloved motorcycle jacket and spike-heels.
“I always get cold, and besides, if I try to squash this jacket into the checked bag it gets all creased and nasty,” I sniffed.
“I’m just saying…”
“It’s ridiculous,” I countered, my caffeinated self-righteousness now fully awake. “They’re wasting time they should be spending looking for the real evildoers. I’m the biggest pussycat in the world; hell, I don’t even eat hamburgers,” I said, logically distancing myself from the probably-carnivorous terrorist bastards who, I was certain, practiced their knife skills on big slabs of red meat.
“No, darling, you’re ridiculous. It’s all part of traveling now; get used to it.”
We’re flying to Los Angeles for the boys’ Spring Break. The plan, insofar as we have any plan, is to stay in the city and make sorties to outlying hamlets like Fontana, where my husband will oversee the loading of plants he has purchased onto climate-controlled tractor-trailers, and Carlsbad, home of the fabled Lego Land.
“When we get there, we’re going to Lego Land?” Son Three is asking.
“No, my love. When we get there, we’re going to the car rental place,” I tell him.
“Then we go to Lego Land?”
“Then we go to the hotel.”
“And then, the hotel bar. Followed by THE COMFY CHAIR!”
Would that it were that easy. When we arrive in L.A., it’s only 9:30 am, thanks to the miracle of time zones. The boys are hungry. The rental agency’s shuttle bus is nowhere to be seen. Finally, it chugs toward us, and though it’s as tightly-packed as a rush hour subway car, we somehow manage to fit three boys, their parents, their nanny Jade, and six massive suitcases on board.
“The computers are down,” said the young, uniformed man standing outside the sliding doors. “It might take a while.”
When people in L.A. tell you something might take a while, you must listen to them. It’s not for nothing that the nickname La-la land has stuck: Type-A Manhattan-born souls like my husband cannot believe how laid-back and, well, relaxed the pace is here. Today, a while translates to over two hours as the line of people seems stalled in front of us even as it grows visibly behind us, spilling out into the parking lot and toward the street. Eventually, though, we get our vehicles and make tracks toward the hotel, a refurbished Mid-century building on Sunset Boulevard.
Despite the now-late afternoon hour, the rooms aren’t ready. “It might take a while; we can store your luggage, and if you like, you can sit outside, you know, have some lunch and cocktails….”
Apparently, driving south to Carlsbad on a Monday would be a bad idea. Everyone—well, everyone to whom my husband has spoken, at least—says the freeway traffic on Monday is Pure Murder. Fair enough.
“Today we go to Lego Land?”
“Uh, no sweetheart…today we, um, go shopping. New sneakers for everyone!” I say brightly.
The Puma Store in Santa Monica is great fun, but Lego Land it most certainly isn’t. All the same, Sons One and Two find great shoes and pretty girls with whom to flirt; Son Three chooses a pair of royal blue suede sneakers that are heartbreakingly cute. Jade snaps up a wonderful retro-styled racing jacket. Even I, a woman who regularly promises They’ll bury me in my high heels, am enjoying walking around in a new pair of extremely cool-looking sneakers with Velcro closures that remind me of the boys’ multi-colored toddler shoes, only considerably larger.
On Tuesday, we pile into our politically incorrect rental-SUV and head for Lego Land. The southern California sky is Windex-blue, as always, and there’s a gorgeous breeze. Of course, the traffic is breathtakingly dreadful, in every sense of the phrase, and by the third hour, the three adults are more than a little weary of answering the same questions over and over.
“Yes, we’re almost there.”
“Yes, Lego Land is in California.”
Finally, we take the Carlsbad exit, cheering wildly, and turn into the amusement park’s flowery driveway. There are two steel gates in front of us, and there is a sign on one of them.
The park is closed on Tuesday and Wednesday.
No. NOOOOOOO! I close my eyes and picture the colorful Lego Land Website I’d visited when we first discussed this trip.
“There was nothing on the site about the park being closed…” I say.
“No way. No way. This isn’t for real…" said Son One.
“What was that National Lampoon Vacation movie, you know, the one with Chevy Chase?” I ask.
“Fucking Wally World,” the husband is grumbling. Everyone else is either crying or swearing. We are not exactly a laid-back, accepting kind of family.
Quick…think….what to do, what to do….
I dial Jo, also known as Tart, who lives nearby and whom we’d planned to meet for dinner post-Lego Land.
“Jo…Hi! It’s Deborah. We’re outside the gate at Lego Land, and the place is closed. It’s unbelievable; I mean, who ever heard of an amusement park being closed for two days, and in the middle of Spring Break…”
“Oh no! I’ve never heard of that, either. That’s terrible,” she says, as the din behind me grows.
“It’s like that National Lampoon movie…”
“…Wally World!” Jo/Tart says, laughing.
“Wait, didn’t they bribe the park owner to open the place?” I say, gesturing toward my husband’s pocket.
“No,” say my husband and Jo simultaneously.
“The Chevy Chase character pulled a gun on the guy…” remarks my husband.
The crying and screaming is now deafening. “Well,” I say, “Are you packing, darling? I mean, of all times to be caught unarmed.”
Finally, we decide to visit the San Diego Zoo instead; Lego Land will happen later in the week, sans our Patient Patriarch.
One panda, two crocodiles, and several orangutans later, we meet Jo for dinner in a part of San Diego known as Little Italy. As soon as we open the doors of the SUV, we’re feeling much better: the sun is setting behind the harbor and the scent of garlic floats on a light breeze. Heaven.
“Tomorrow we go to Lego Land?” Son Three is asking me between mouthfuls of pasta.
“We’ll go to Lego Land, pumpkin. I promise. But it might take a while.”