Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Planes, Trains and Automobiles

So that the poor sucker who runs across this blog doesn't have to choose among the richness of two whole posts, I'll flesh things out a bit with the occasional journal entry from the past couple years. Here's one from last year. Bon appetit!

10/23/04, 2:45 am

In Newark. We got released to the hotel, but with my flite out at 6:05 there’s not enough time for me to ride the :20 back there and sleep for more than an hour before someone has to give me another ride back to the terminal. So I’ll just come over to the terminal straight away and sit out the time here (instead of sitting at the gateway, from whence I could not easily get a ride over).

The terminal is fairly populated this time of the morning, both with workstaff doing maintenance or vendors and airline workers either ending or beginning their day, or passengers who, like me, are here considerably earlier than necessary for their flights for whatever reason. There are always 20 folks or so in the central part of the terminal. There are, I think, three separate terminals here, each with a bunch of gates and ticket counters for different airlines and the security and baggage claim facilities, etc. They are all linked with a common roadway, and served by a monorail which runs from parking lots on one end past all three terminals to parking lots on the other end. So these people are just for the four or five airlines served by this particular terminal.

As I look this morning the terminal here seems like the modern equivalent of the train stations I love from the golden age of train travel and of noir fiction. Both have an electricity about them as the jumping-off points to exotic and exciting things beyond, the first steps of journeys with all that entails. Because I was not alive during the golden age of railroads, that era exists in my mind with an idealized and emotionally-charged patina, but somehow the passenger airline equivalent is devoid of elegance and of any of the stateliness that used to accompany travel. Movies about train travel always focus on the self-contained dining aboard the train, and the small but nicely-appointed traveling compartments. And the train stations figure as settings for action and locations for dramatic goings-on. By contrast the lure of airplane travel is the airplane, not the travel; it’s a chance to touch the magic of the future, and the mere act of going places is now commonplace.

I have a snapshot vision, no doubt acquired from some great black & white photo years ago, of all the little towns spread across the Great Plains, and of kids--like my dad & his older brother--watching at night while the passenger trains rolled through town. Toward the back were the lit-from-within service cars, in the open doors of which African-American porters and cooks could be seen smoking and working as the train headed into the darkness, passing through the vast nothingness as it connected significant points of the nation. Black people were not common in Iowa or Kansas or Nebraska; residents simply didn’t have contact with this whole part of humanity. And the tracks which passed through the dusty little towns--the tracks which fed the towns like blood feeds a tumor, the tracks which were directly responsible for the town’s existence--continued in an unbroken line to the great cities that young kids had only read about or maybe heard about on the radio. They knew that the train was headed toward Chicago or New York or San Francisco or Denver or Kansas City or Los Angeles; it would steam across the vast distances and roll thru maze-like rail yards and into huge, cosmopolitan stations where the savvy black porters and urbane business travellers would disembark and head to their urban homes or offices. These were the places that Midwestern kids must have looked at with awe and fear and great curiosity: places where films were made and Jazz was born and the radio would broadcast famous dance orchestras from the big ballrooms and dance clubs. Such a romantic and powerful magnetism those tracks must have had! The promise of civilization! It all has an impossible romance and power about it.

At the Green Bay Railroad Museum there is a train one can walk thru with all the dining and cooking and sleeping compartments available for view, dusty and worn and long dead, too close to the present to be of widespread interest and not old enough to warrant a full scale and expensive restoration. At the back of this train is a mail car, an industrial-strength workspace (everything on a train is industrial strength; that’s so much of its charm) with many overhead lights and special racks to hold huge mail sacks and sorting desks with labelled pigeonholes. It’s fascinating to think of postal or railroad workers beginning a cross-country journey, picking up mail in bags on the way as towns were passed, and a person’s workday involved sorting letters by hand as the train rolled through the darkness accompanied by the sounds and smells that were absolutely characteristic. It’s one of those job descriptions which are now gone.

Aircraft, by contrast, are not on their journeys long enough (at least domestically) to worry much about either sustenance or accommodation. But the news stands and restaurants are here in the terminals as surely as they were in train stations of old (and modern ones, like Grand Central or Penn Station).

My magazine in the crash pad about the Boeing 707 and DC-8 and their ushering in of the Jet Age has something of the excitement of really rapid transit brought to the masses. I guess the things that were gained--coast to coast in a couple of hours!--were concrete and almost universally valued, while the things lost were maybe of limited value or biased toward a particular taste; or maybe these lost elements were a romanticization of the necessary evils of travel of the day (to be fair, the train travel of the 1920s was really was a meaningful advancement over what had preceded it).

Still, I think of Sam Spade, cigarette dangling from his lips, swathed in a trench coat with a hat rakishly tilted over his eyes, coming out of the rain thru a back entrance and sidling up to an all-night grill in the bowels of a New York train station to get a sandwich before catching the red eye. If he staged that scene in an airport it would lose something huge, and some other thing would upstage the noir style of it.

Looking at the mode of travel--airplane versus steam train, looking at the machine itself--the airplane gives up nothing in terms of magic to the train; indeed, it trumps it soundly. But taken as a package, there is a sense of train travel as an event that modern airplane travel absolutely lacks. On every flight I am ever on now there is some proportion of the passengers who bitch and complain about every little thing, trying to soothe their nervous stomachs with giggling belittlements of the whole travel process (as though the problem is flying and not them), carping little people who are insensible to any magic or romance in their journey. And if they can’t sense it, they won’t demand it--certainly they won’t pay for it--and so these elements ebb away. Flying has become city bus service. Or maybe Greyhound. And of course this trend is exacerbated when the industry is literally starving itself now to attract suitors. (According to a report on the health of the industry in the Times this week, load factors at all the airlines are running from 78-85%, and yet all but a small few are hemmorhaging money alarmingly. Operating costs, we are told, are simply too high. No one can dare to raise prices to a level which would sustain the industry, as the immediate loss of those passengers would necessitate a further raising of ticket prices, into an industry-killing spiral--or so the industry claims. The ground workers and pilots and flight attendants are all asked repeatedly to make deep concessions, while management salaries are kept high because “we can’t attract the best talent without competitive salaries,” never mind that the “best talent” is running the industry into the ground).

I never thought about it this way, but maybe this is why some people pay for first class, to avoid the dirty, cattle-call aspect of modern air travel. The airlines originally tried to model their services after ship and train travel, but over time it has become, like television, more and more debased until it caters almost exclusively to the lowest common denominator. Air travel has become what train travel never was (so far as I know): a right, an obligation of society to its citizens. Maybe this stems naturally from the value system of a nation which devotes huge resources to an infrastructure enabling the free reign of personal automobiles across its vast territory. In a large nation, it’s not an absurd stretch that if one is able to drive everywhere, there should be an alternative form of transportation for when distances are too great to drive practically.

I suppose a realist, a pragmatist, would claim that travel has ever been driven by practical necessity primarily, and has been accompanied by elegance or luxury or some aspect beyond mere practicality to an extent, within a fairly narrow range, dictated by economics. In the historic past, poor people could not afford travel except by foot or horse, and the earliest forms of rapid transit were for the wealthy. When the average person could finally afford a car, there was a need for a greater infrastructure to support them, and society grew accordingly. Meanwhile, the rich were able to afford train travel--with sleeping and dining and bathing facilities--rather than the gruelling ordeal of a long car trip. And so it goes. Airplanes were initially for the wealthy. Then rich folks flew the Concorde until it was recently parked. Soon it will be space travel, prohibitively expensive, of course.

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