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THIS IS NOT A TEST with Michael Phillips

Come Fly With Me (transcript)

Published September 7th, 2019

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Greetings and salutations my brothers and sisters, from the high desert and the great American southwest I bid you good evening or good morning or good day, whatever the case may be. The grasshoppers are hopping and we’ve had some record-setting temperatures here in Joshua Tree and the whole Yucca Valley/Morongo Valley/Coachella Valley area, but it’s the end of summer, so I’d expect nothing less. I named a bunch of valleys, but we live in the highlands above a basin. I couldn’t tell you the difference between a valley and a basin, I guess a geologist could tell you. Or a phrenologist or one of those people who will give you a sound bath over at the Integretron. The desert is still marvelous, we still love it, and I still hope it’s the last stop for us. I don’t want to go anywhere else. This seems like what I’ve been headed for or destined for or doomed to, depends on how you see the world, but it seems like I’ve been headed here all my life and now I’m here, so I may as well stop. Stop moving, stop landing in a new town yet again, stop the madness. As the kids say.

As much as we love it and would have preferred to stay put and settle in for a few months without leaving, we had to travel out of town last week. Up north, as they say, to Minnesota. I’ve traveled a lot in my life, and I’ll tell you, I think I’ve traveled enough. More than enough. I don’t want to travel anymore. I know some people love to travel, and they can have it. It’s not fun anymore, not the travel or the destinations. There are too many people on the freeway, too many people on the airplane, too many people at the destinations, too many people every step of the way.

I’ve had a lot of cool experiences in faraway places that I’m pretty sure I couldn’t have today. I know I couldn’t lay on the grass under the Eiffel Tower at 9 pm with no one else around and stare up into its guts, then go climb to the top of it, look around and climb back down, all without seeing more than half a dozen other people. All of whom smiled, by the way, and said, “Good evening,” or “Bonsoir.” I couldn’t do that now, mainly because I don’t think there’s grass under the Eiffel Tower anymore, but whether there is or not, I’m quite sure there is not a time, day or night, when there aren’t a thousand people milling around the thing, blowing their noses on their shirtsleeves. And they’re not smiling and friendly, the people at these destinations now. They just seem angry and goal-oriented.

I went to the Grand Canyon in 1984 because I happened to be passing by, and it was maybe 8 or 9 in the morning, and we stopped and walked to the edge and it was pretty amazing and all that, but the thing I remember most is we were completely alone. Alone as far as I could see in either direction. Now it could have been that we happened to stop in an unpopular spot, I don’t know, but when Carol and I visited the Grand Canyon maybe 15 years later, it was just people and garbage and people and busses and garbage and people and it was really hard to look at the thing and have any sense of wonder when the hundreds of people within 50 feet of you won’t shut their god damn mouths for ten seconds.

Anyway, yeah, I had to travel, and I’ll tell you, I love living out here in the desert. I love Joshua Tree and I love the remoteness and the small town and I love all that, but a side-effect of that remoteness is we’re really far from the big airports. There’s an airport in Palm Springs, but there are hardly any flights in and out during the summer. Because no one in their right mind wants to go to Palm Springs in the summer. We wanted a non-stop flight for our trip and the only airline offering that anywhere only flew nonstop out of LAX. Now, I haven’t used LAX in more than 20 years, mainly because I discovered Burbank airport, and before that, when we were in San Pedro, the Long Beach airport.

Burbank airport is small, it’s easy to park, easy in, easy out. Same thing with Long Beach. Once in Long Beach, we parked in the lot about 100 feet from the airport door, and when we came back a week later, the car was there, unmolested, and we just hopped in and drove home. Everything is so easy at the smaller airports. It’s almost not a pain in the ass to fly into or our of them. LAX on the other hand – there’s nothing easy or friendly about it. It’s the Grand Canyon of airports. Very impressive as a thing, but swarming with dickheads so it’s impossible to appreciate it. Back in the day, a million years ago, you could park at meters near the 1 and 2 terminals. Now, I have no idea how the parking is near the terminals, but I know that there are 800 million cars and vans and busses on the loop that goes to the terminals.

We didn’t park near the terminal for this trip because we needed long term parking, and if you stay for five days at a lot inside the airport loop you’d probably pay a thousand dollars, I don’t know. So we parked at the economy lot far away from the airport and took a shuttle. I think it ended up costing $60 for five days, which is pretty good. Considering. The shuttle sucked, it was slow and took 25 minutes to get us to our terminal, but it got us there. A couple of days later I was laying on the bed in the hotel and I said to Carol, “Hey, did you happen to notice the number of the lot where we parked?” because I hadn’t even looked for a number since I really had to piss when we parked.

I had to piss because it took us three and a half hours to get to the LAX economy lot from Joshua Tree. We got up at 3 a.m. to leave at 4 a.m. for a 10 a.m. flight. Let me say again, we got up at 3 a.m. for a 10 a.m. flight. Because we’re that far away from LAX, and going toward LAX from here in the morning, you’re in all the rush hour traffic headed toward the city. Not where you want to be. Even at 5:30 a.m., we were stopped in traffic. So three and a half hours to get to the airport. Hopefully, next time I need to fly somewhere I can leave from Palm Springs. Or even the Ontario airport, which is a mere two hours away.

Yeah, well, the parking lot, so, okay, Carol hadn’t made a note of where we parked – why would she, I always do that – so I had no idea where we were parked when we came back. I thought I did, but we did a lot of walking, and going to the wrong places for half an hour in the afternoon sun when all I wanted to do after five days of airports and planes and appointments and obligations – all I wanted to do was get into the Fit and get back to the desert. Eventually, I stopped and looked around and figured out where the car was, and we made it back. It was dark when we crested the hill into Yucca Valley, but it still felt like decompression. Carol opened the car window and let the warm desert air in and we just laughed. We were close to home and the joy and beauty of our enlightening and character-building travel adventure was behind us.

The flight from Minneapolis to Los Angeles was…noteworthy. Because of who I sat next to. Not a celebrity – it was Sun Country airlines, not the Concorde – just an ordinary woman. So it seemed. But our interactions with her started before we got onto the plane. In the waiting area, she sat down in a chair near Carol, a chair with a small tabletop between them. She flung her bag onto the tabletop, letting its handles fling out and snap into Carol’s arm. She was eating something, then began to cough. A deep, hacking, ugly cough. Carol said to me, sort of under her breath but sort of not, “People shouldn’t fly when they’re sick. I mean, you’re not supposed to, are you? It’s rude.”

It’s rude, that’s for sure. But I don’t know what you’re supposed to do if you have a flight you have to take and you wind up being sick on that day. I mean, I was sympathetic to it until we got onto the plane. Out in the waiting area, Carol said, “I bet she sits right next to us.” Nah, I said, what are the odds? Pretty good, as it turns out. The odds are pretty good because Carol was in 2F, the window seat, I was in 2E, the middle seat, and there on the aisle, in 2D, was the coughing lady.

Airline seats are so narrow these days that I wonder how some of the people I see walking around the airport fit into them. I’m pretty sure the planes we usually fly in, with three seats on either side of the aisle, were originally meant to hold two seats on each side. I mean, I remember flying when I was younger, and I don’t ever remember being stuffed into a seat the way we’re always stuffed into seats now. Except once about 30 years ago on Air Tunis, or Tunis Air or whatever it was. Or is. But that’s a story for another time.

Anyway, the seats are close together now, so I usually make some wisecrack to whoever is sitting next to me about how we’ll be good friends by the end of the flight, because you’re up against each other and touching and suffering together, so you may as well laugh about it. But when the coughing lady sat down, I didn’t feel like making small talk, and luckily, neither did she. She didn’t want to talk but she did everything but talk. She was a bundle of unnecessary, idiot energy that never stopped. Just an endless fluttery chaos, like sitting next to a 175-pound pigeon.

First, she bent down to rummage through the large bag that she kept between her legs for the whole flight, never putting it overhead or under the seat in front of her, she rummaged through there and came out with a can of Pringles. I like a Pringle now and then as much as the next idiot, but she put a little stack of four or five into her mouth and started chomping them, little crumbs escaping from her mouth the entire time, and apparently the Pringles triggered the deep, hacking, ugly cough that she was suffering from.

Then the flight attendants came by with the little bags of nuts or pretzels or whatever they were, and the coughing lady put her tray down, from the seat in front of her, and laid the bag of nuts on the tray. She just left them there, the tiny bag on the tray for about five minutes, staring not at the bag but down at the aisle floor. Finally, her head jerked up, as if she’d awoken from a trance, and she tore open the bag of nuts and dumped the contents into her mouth.

Which triggered the deep, hacking, ugly cough again – apparently eating any kind of snack did that – and she and I rode out the cough attack, after which she began digging in her bag again. She dug and dug and came up with nothing. She sat leaning forward in her seat gazing into the bag for a minute, then flopped back into her seat and stared straight ahead.

When the flight attendants came back offering drinks, the coughing lady asked for half a glass of orange juice. She put the tray down again in anticipation of the orange juice, and when it arrived she pulled two little airline-sized bottles of vodka out of somewhere and poured them into the half glass of orange juice. I like a little vodka in my orange juice now and then too, as much as the next idiot, so I understood. But as soon as she tipped up the glass to drain the last drops, the deep, hacking, ugly cough returned.

When the flight attendant passed by again, not soliciting drink orders, just walking by, the coughing lady grabbed her arm and asked for a glass of water and a glass of ice. The flight attendant said no problem and left, which gave the coughing lady another opportunity to rummage through the big bag between her legs. She dug in the bag until the deep, hacking, ugly cough returned, then sat back in her seat. When the flight attendant returned with the glass of water and the glass of ice, the coughing lady tried to hand her the trash from her bag of nuts and vodka and orange juice session, but the flight attendant said she’d be back for those things, hold on. The coughing lady held on.

She held on by digging in her bag, again and again, coming up with nothing. Then she went into the bag again, as if maybe she’d missed something the last time, and she came up with a box that held a wrap of some kind, like a veggie wrap and a plastic container of pasta salad. She organized the tray with her water glass on the right and the glass of ice on the left, then unwrapped the wrap and took the lid off the container of pasta salad. She sat there with the pasta salad lid in her hand, looking around, left and right, up and down the aisle, like a trash bin would suddenly roll up to accommodate her immediate need.

It didn’t, so she put the lid down on the tray, wet side down, and picked up the wrap with her left hand and a plastic fork with her right hand. She took a bite of the wrap, kept it there in her hand, didn’t put it down, and stabbed a forkful of pasta salad and stuck that into her mouth with the bite of wrap and chomped them down together. For the next few minutes, the wrap never left her fist and the fork never left her hand. She maintained the hypnotic consistency of gripping and alternating bites until all the food was gone. She jammed all of her assorted garbage into the little box the wrap and salad were in and settled back in her seat for a fresh round of deep, hacking, ugly coughing.

I opened up the air vent above my seat and aimed it at my left shoulder, so it would blow a kind of cushion of air between us. Maybe blow whatever microscopic horror was spewing out of her, blow it away from me and towards her when she coughed. I don’t know if it worked, but it made me feel better. When I aimed it her was she said, “Brrr,” and put her sweater over her shoulder, and I just thought, “Fuck you, my friend, you can ‘brrr’ until we land, but I ain’t moving that nozzle,” and I didn’t, even though she made quite the show of pulling up her sweater every five minutes.

Normally, I’m a live and let live kind of creep, you know, and I try to get along with people who are stuck in unfortunate situations like airplane rides with me. But the coughing lady was beyond the limits of human endurance and I had no problem causing her a bit of discomfort. It was nothing compared to the discomfort she was causing me. 20 years ago it would have been a lot worse, I would have shouted at her to TURN HER FUCKING HEAD when she coughed, or at least COVER HER FUCKING MOUTH with something more than her limp, open, half-fist. But I suppose some of my rough edges have worn off over the years, so I didn’t say anything like that.

What’s the point? It doesn’t make anyone feel good, and it sure as hell doesn’t change anyone’s behavior or the way they let their stupid lives spill all over yours. Sometimes when we’re driving and someone is driving like an idiot in front of us or around us Carol will say, “Honk at them!” but I don’t, because I’m pretty sure that in the history of driving, honking at someone never taught them how to drive. It isn’t even that people are uncivilized now, it’s like they were never civilized to begin with. Like they sprung from the womb spewing shit and mucus all over everything around them and never stopped. No one ever taught them that you don’t tromp through life out in public the same way you tromp through your hovel full of duct-taped La-Z-Boys and microwaved Mountain Dew.

That is what civilization is. It’s all of us reigning in our naturally awful tendencies when we’re around other people. That’s what made civilization. We all agreed to it, and those who couldn’t handle it, who couldn’t reign themselves in out in public were considered outcasts and not normal and shunned and kicked over to a shack on the edge of town. Or an asylum if they lived in the right city. Or I guess the wrong city. We all agreed that we would try our best not to annoy each other and not to be as disgusting as we naturally are in the comfort of our homes.

Then something happened, and I’m not sure what that something was, but all of that went out the window. Behaving in public any differently than the way you behave in your home is now a thing of the past. It’s quaint and antiquated and people laugh at the idea. They laugh with their mouths full of half-chewed food and their shoes off and their god damned wild beasts of children running amok screaming like nuns in a carnival spook house. Or their zombie children-lumps glued to the phones and tablets, drooling from the half pound of sugar they consume every day, and rebelling against their idiot, savage parents by being even bigger idiots and savages.

I’m old, and I’m glad I won’t live to travel on an airplane or a hovercraft or whatever we travel on 50 years from now. I’m sure they will be little more than cattle cars full of dimwits and their dim children, howling and barking and shitting their pants as they are teleported to whatever Disney theme park city is closest to them.

But I digress. Because I’m still sitting next to the coughing lady, who after another round of deep, hacking, ugly coughing, decides to chew some after-dinner gum. She bends over and rummages through her god damned bag for the 50th time and pulls out a giant pack of gum and unwraps three pieces and jams them into her mouth, chewing like this: [chewchewchew]. For about 10 minutes. Until she puts her head back against the seat and within, I’m not kidding, no more than 30 seconds, she falls asleep and starts to snore.

On the second or third snore, the gum spills out of her mouth and I jump, but it lands on her belly and sticks right there to her flowy peasant blouse. She continues to sleep and snore for a few more minutes, but her slumber is interrupted by a deep, hacking, ugly cough. She wakes up, sort of, and looks around as if she doesn’t remember where she is, but she also apparently doesn’t remember she was chewing gum, because she doesn’t look for that, and it just stays put on her belly for a few minutes, after which I lost track of it so I don’t know where it wound up. Probably on the bottom of my shoe.

She was awake enough to dig in her bag some more, and she came out with the can of Pringles again. But we know how that ends, don’t we. Well, you’re right, it ended with a deep, hacking, ugly cough. She put the top back onto the Pringles can, dumped it back into her magic, bottomless bag, and laid back again. She snored for a few minutes, woke up and bent over to dig in her bag again. This time, something new. She comes up with an iPod – one of those really old ones, the size of a credit card with the screen on the front and she jams some of those hard plastic APPLE BRAND things into her ears and scrolls around on the iPod until she lands on something I don’t recognize, and starts playing it. She puts her head back on the seat and closes her eyes and I think, “Here comes the snoring again,” but she didn’t start snoring.

She did, though, start singing. You know that indiscriminate kind of mumble singing people do when they are listening to music, only when they have those hard plastic things stuck into their ear holes they mumble sing a little too loudly? You know that? That’s what happened. But thankfully she didn’t sing for long, because the singing caused her deep, hacking, ugly cough to return.

We landed, finally, mercifully, and we all walked a mile through the airport and then stood at the baggage carousel for half an hour because the luggage was delayed for whatever reason luggage is always delayed at LAX. I had staked out the spot right where the bags hit the circular conveyor so I could grab our small suitcases and get the hell out of there. I glanced up at the other side of the conveyor loop and there she was. My nemesis, the coughing lady. It was the first time I really got to see her because when someone is sitting right next to you, jammed up against you, you can’t really get a good look at them. Standing there waiting for her luggage she looked completely normal. Probably around 50 years old. Sad, kind of lonely look on her face. And for the entire half-hour we stood there, she didn’t cough once.

I said the last time I remember being stuffed into an airline seat the way we’re always stuck into them now was about 30 years ago on Air Tunis, or Tunis Air and I said it was a story for another time, but maybe this is another time. Maybe I’ll never talk about flying on airplanes again, so I better tell you about it now. Okay, then, we’ve decided. Haven’t we? Well, I have. Out of courtesy, I say “we,” but you really don’t have any input. I’m sorry. So here it is. The story. That may have been too much buildup though because it ain’t much of a story. Okay. Well, what can I do. Ready? Here it is.

I was in Europe – Germany or France – headed for Africa on Tunis Air. I wasn’t on vacation, I was working, on tour with the reggae band Boom Shaka. We climbed onto the plane and it was filthy. You know how they clean the planes between flights? Yeah, this wasn’t that. It looked like we were the third or fourth trip of the day on the plane, and like I said, it was filthy. Just shit everywhere, blankets on the floor and flung across seats, seat pockets jammed with other people’s garbage – you get the idea. And I’ll spare you a description of the bathroom. I’m not even sure how not cleaning the plane between flights is even a thing that can happen, or that could have happened, even years ago. Especially years ago.

It was the late 80s, and back then people could smoke on airplanes, and everyone aboard the flight – from the littlest children to the oldest ladies – smoked incessantly. Before we even started moving the cabin looked like half-price fajita night at a Mexican restaurant. Just a thick cloud of smoke. It was hot and claustrophobic, and the seat I was assigned to had no cushion. I’m not kidding. There was a fabric cushion cover, but it was just flapping there, on top of a hard steel bar, and that’s what I had to sit on for the entire 1000 mile flight. There were no unoccupied seats I could move to. When I complained in English the flight attendant just shrugged and walked away.

I was a vegetarian at the time, and I didn’t recognize any of the food they were serving, so I didn’t take any chances eating it. Next to me was a 400-pound woman who was flowing into my metal bar seat, and she motioned at my untouched plate and I waved it toward her and said, “Please, enjoy,” and she did. I dozed off for what I thought was a few minutes and when I woke up there was an official-looking form on my lap. I tucked it into the seat pocket in front of me and tried to forget about it.

That’s it. See, I oversold it, didn’t I. Well, what can you do. It was a thousand-mile flight, what is that? An hour, an hour and a half? It felt like a day and a half. And “half-price fajita night at a Mexican restaurant” – anyone even get that? I feel like it was too obscure. You know how at some Mexican food places they bring the fajitas out on a hot platter and they’re smoking…no? Well, you’ll have to take my word for it I guess. I had the best taco I’ve ever eaten the other night, but this restaurant, man, when they brought out a plate of fajitas it was like a brush fire had broken out.

Well, anyway. Planes. I have a friend, let’s call him Jordan because that’s his name, and he has this hobby of gaming the airlines for free flights and upgrades and what have you and he’s always Instagramming pictures of him and his wife in the levitating first-class sleeping chambers on Emirates air or some shit, while I’m in an 18 inch wide seat next to a tuberculosis patient.

I said “gaming the airlines,” but that’s not what it is. He’s not up to anything unsavory. He’s just taking advantage of airline and credit card offers for free “miles.” But the people who are really into that are really into it. I guess you have to be to open a dozen new credit cards a year and balance your spending across them in just the right way and transfer things by certain dates and memorize airline timetables and on and on and on. A few years ago I got a Southwest airlines Visa card because we were going to go somewhere and just for signing up for the card we got enough free miles or credits or whatever you want to call them to pay for the trip.

Since that was so easy we opened up another card, a Marriott hotel card that did the same thing. Gave us a signup bonus that paid for our hotel for a week. It was easy, but I wasn’t in nearly as far as the experts. I had a toe in and they were scuba diving. But even with that toe in, I was irritated by the cards, irritated by making sure I spent enough on them to qualify for the bonuses, and just generally keeping track of something I’d never had to keep track of before. It wasn’t worth it to me. The time. And like I said, I hardly spent any time at all compared to the churners or burners or charmers or barners or whatever they call themselves. But if you’re into planes and air travel it’s probably a cool way to spend your time. I’m just not into planes and air travel. As you may have gathered.

To me, the inconvenience of all of that credit card wrangling wasn’t worth the “free” trip. I’d have rather just paid for it when it was all said and done. I think we actually still have enough Southwest points for a couple of free round trips wherever they fly. I don’t look forward to cashing them in and getting on a plane again any time soon, but I suppose before too long I will. I’ve been invited to Germany next summer, and if I can stay off planes until then, I’ll be happy. Jesus, that reminds me that I have to get my passport renewed. Where the hell do I do that out here? Guess I’ll find out.

Oh heavens, look at the time brothers and sisters. I’ve really got to go. I’m late for the mobile mani/pedi van. It’s probably waiting for me out in the driveway. She’s going to be mad. Okay, there’s not really a mobile mani/pedi van. Or maybe there is, I don’t know. Out here it would probably be the same woman who grooms your dog in her van. Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that. If it existed, which I’m pretty sure it doesn’t. But that could be an opportunity just waiting for an entrepreneur like myself. Hmm. mjp’s Mobile Dog Grooming and Mani/Pedi Van, at your service! I’ll give it some thought. In the meantime, keep your feet on the ground and we’ll rendezvous next time.