I have arrived safely in Portland, Oregon for a microscopy conference. I’ve wanted to go to this conference for years, but was always told no dice because there’s not enough dough to go around. This year, I applied, and they liked my application so much, the people putting on the conference offered to cover all the bills. So here I am.
I’ve been to Portland before. I have some pretty intensely negative memories about it, and being here makes my skin crawl. Portland’s like a ship that’s started to sink, and all the rats are lined up on deck trying to decide what to do. Also, the water’s on fire, and all the rats are veteran pickpockets.
But this isn’t the story of Portland. It’s the story of how I got to Portland. I flew out of Detroit on what was essentially a roller-coaster car with wings. Think more Leonardo DaVinci than Wright Brothers. I’ve seriously never before been on an aeroplane that only has two rows of seats separated by an aisle. Our cruising altitude, if I understood correctly, was 600 feet. This aeroplane was hard on the nerves. The part I hate most is takeoff, when you can look up the aisle and see that the people in the front of the plane are 20 feet higher than you because you’re on a 80 degree incline. It just messes with me. The arms of the seat probably still have the imprints of my iron grip, and I probably saturated the air so thoroughly with muttered obscenities that there’s a crew trying to get curse words out of the fabric with powerful vacuums.
We landed in Chicago, which is apparently the world’s largest aeroport? I’d believe it. By my estimation, terminal C contained 7,000,000,000 travelers. Anyway, I had booked my flight with Orbitz, and told it to send me a text message if anything about it changed. So as soon as I get off my flight to get to the connection, texts start pouring in. Gate changed to C28! To C20! Time delayed till 9:00! 9:20! 9:40! Gate changed to C29! The gates all seemed to be near each other and, since my nerves were shot, I decided to take some nerve medicine down at the pub. I quaffed a number of pints, let’s not be too pedestrian by counting, and wandered over to the gate.
I was met by chaos, holding a carboard sign with my name misspelled in black marker. Hundreds of standby passengers, all clamoring to get to Portland. I was confused. As the ticketing agent told me when I bought my plane ticket months ago, Portland’s a place you ‘end up’, not a place you ‘go’. To my horror, I find SAK/A listed as #3 on the “confirmed standby” list. I don’t even know what this means, so I stand next to the ticketing agent, a skinny Indian girl who called all of her coworkers “darling” and all of the waiting passengers “honey”. I was worried. I don’t understand how there can be a category between “on the plane” and “waiting to get on the plane” any better today than I did yesterday, when I had an after-school special’s worth of warm Sam Adams coursing through my veins. If past experience was any guide, I’d need all of my eloquence to get this sorted out, and I had left all of my eloquence at the pub as a tip for the high-mileage dame passing around the pints.
The Indian told me everything would be okay, and I was relieved when the gate agent sashayed up to me, mincing the words “here you are, sir” directly to my crotch as he handed me a ticket. People were already boarding, and I seemed to be reading the slip of paper wrong, so I gathered up all of my charm, which had begun to slip down around my ankles, and approached the gate. “I’m not sure what loading section I’m in?” I asked casually, the soggy aroma of warm ethanol surrounding me like a down jacket. “First class.” Said the woman, and pointed to the door with her thumb.
I thought she was being sarcastic. You know, in a “you’re a real class act, mister” sort of way. But no. My seat, 3A, was the last empty seat in first class. I assume they just wanted to cram as many people as possible onto the plane, there was a seat free, and I won the lottery. The irony, of course, being that people usually sit in first class to get away from me. I should mention, First Class is relaxing as hell. My nerves were totally fine, and I laughed at every little bit of turbulence, which would have caused me to pucker hard if I was a few rows further back.
Let me tell you for a moment about my Uncle Freddie. He’s a good guy, a forklift driver at a warehouse somewhere, and he spends hundreds of hours decorating his house and yard every Christmas. He also uses one word more frequently than anyone I’ve ever met. Perhaps it was some sort of psychic bond, perhaps it was merely coincidence, but when the man next to me asks me what I’m studying, I channel Uncle Freddie. “Titties.” I tell him. “I’m studying titties.”
That was the end of my talking to people in First Class. The guy beside me rolls over and goes to sleep, there’s a couple leaving for their honeymoon in Indonesia to the left, and in front of me Glenn Beck’s skinny doppleganger is playing videopoker on an iPhone and saying ‘chardonnay’ to the attendant without looking at him. Thinking about it, I probably channeled Uncle Freddie because I felt bad being in First Class. Flying First Class to Portland is like taking a limousine to a soup kitchen: poor taste.
I’m torn from my reveries by the face of Raoul Julia. The attendant was his dead ringer, and there’s nothing quite so startling as Gomez Addams leaning down and casually asking you what you’d like to drink. The other people in First Class are looking at me. “Beer.” I say. “I’d like for to drink some beers.” The other people look disgusted, probably because they’re jealous of Heineken for doing what they never could, colonizing all of Africa and not getting kicked the hell out, but Raoul Julia smiles and returns with a can of Heineken crusted in ice. He must have gotten it from some sort of unpressurized part of the plane. When he comes back later to ask if I want a second one, our eyes meet. I say yes, sir, and he says right away, sir, and I know he’s one of my people. After the second beer, he stops asking. He just shows up, drops off a beer and is gone. At one point, as I go into the bathroom, he slips a can into my hand and I stuff it into my back pocket. He laughs and laughs and laughs, and I feel a lot better about being in first class.
There’s nothing interesting to the rest of my arrival. I hop in a taxi and slosh my way into the hotel, politely informing the clerk in words perfumed by lager that I’m here for my room.
And now I’m in Portland. Standing at the window of the hotel, I can see a used car lot having a going-out-of-business sale, and on the other end of the street there’s a woman sitting on the curb sobbing with her head in her hands. But more on Portland later.