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A momentary blank when driving his own car leads our Sunday Comics author to remember a visit to London and the disorientation experienced routinely by transported bodies

Jim Gabour
7 July 2013

I had the strangest feelings rolling through my head this morning -- possibly amplified because the house is resonatingly empty as a recurring symptom of mid-summer vacations -- but, as I was driving to the gym to try and work off some of the July mid-body flesh accumulation, I began wondering at my ability to drive a car.

It all suddenly seemed so complex.  I was almost overwhelmed:  “Maybe I should just pull over, run through a little checklist, and make sure I DO know how to work this device.”  

But instead I drove on to the club.  I stayed in non-questioning mode until I parked in the lot, breathed deeply for a few moments, then got out of the vehicle.   The car is very much akin to a tiny black roller skate, but it serves me well.  I was befuddled at my sudden and apparent loss of knowledge of its workings.  Still, I signed in at the front desk, and trudged to the stairwell.  This day I was intent on running round and round the fourth-floor outdoor track that circuits the roof, giving a 360° view not only of Vieux Carré rooftops, but also a fine perspective on the final stages of post-Katrina renovation of the legendary and massive Saenger Theatre.  As I passed the third floor on my way up, I noted that several beat-up sparring-partner sorts had come in at daybreak to whack each other a bit and were just leaving in a sweat as I arrived.  They both had large unlit cigars clenched between their teeth, but the upturn of their outer mouths indicated more completely that they were indeed smiling.

Half an hour later, as I came back down toward the ground floor locker room, I saw, hanging over the sparring ring ropes, all the boxers’ bloodstained hand-wraps, a dozen long white bandages speckled with pink- and rust-colored patches from one end to the other left to dry on the edges of the ring. 

I’m not sure why the residual violence in those rags once again drove home my tenuous hold on competence, but I began to wonder again if I should, or could, drive the car home.  After all it is barely two dozen blocks back to the Marigny from Rampart street, even though it is already blazingly hot, and I could just leave the car where it is for a day.

I couldn’t.  I’m home now.  I drove.  I even pulled to the curb once to visit with my down-the-street neighbor, a retired fire-extinguisher maintenance man.  I am sure he has never boxed.   A reassuring thought.

* * *

All that disconnection from the concrete aspects of life welled up so unexpectedly, supposedly a result of my thinking too much and turning the steering wheel too little.  I had moved about a space I have inhabited on a daily basis for decades, in my own well-known vehicle for a single, simple round trip.  And I had faltered.  But I have always had trouble with transporting my corporeal being from place to place, and I feel that many other more planetary travelers might empathize with another example of an attempt to realistically deal with that modern-day discomfort.  As in an auto drive, a plane flight, a train journey, a taxi, a boat, and a tube sojourn.  All in  a single run.   This is undoubtedly the norm for many of these more journeyed folk, who often do not consider how many modes of movement have been involved in their supposedly basic travel.  But to me the realization was revelatory.

The journal entry below reads from just before the New Orleans storm, coming up on eight years past, an event and time when disorientation actually became a way of life for people here.  I remembered writing the notes when I got home just now, found them, and at the same instant I discovered that the emotions I experienced then somehow segue with my current jumbled state of mind from this morning.

* * *

747, Boeing, embraced Kingdom, United, with a bump and a grind and sixteen tires’ smoking osculation.  The previous smooth courtship of airborne vessel and gravity-scented earth instantly gave way to thirty seconds of desperate groaning brakes, screaming engines and involuntary diagonal thrusts of the plane’s hips.   Then just as suddenly it was over.  Momentum reversed.  Passengers, moments earlier straining against forward motion, gripping armrests and bracing knees, collapsed back in their seats.  The pressure had been released.

The craft’s computer purposefully forgot the damp landing runway.  Now of no further use,  Gatwick 7N was deleted.  Flight 1301’s taxi checklist moved forward without a twinge of regret.  The brief romance over.

Inside the winged metal tube, a detached voice informed captive ears that they had experienced “another on-time arrival”.  A glance at itineraries verified that the voice had not lied. The flight was in England at the very the minute predicted.

In England.

Grudgingly creeping across the man-made quilt of interconnected concrete ribbons, the 747 discovered that it was no longer flying, and promptly became a  tractor, plowing  in ever more minute increments an earthbound row of wet, blackened sleet.

Another continent’s worth of travel time seemed to elapse.  The fresh breath of cruising altitude on a star-filled night high above the Atlantic dissipated, and was replaced by recycled mustiness, reminiscent of a none-too-hygienic elderly aunt’s winter closet. Each passenger became aware that he or she was now reduced to a single insignificant digit among hundreds of sweaty gravel-eyed bodies, too many  stacked and sorted into much too small a space.  There could not possibly be enough air in the human transporter to keep everyone alive.  There must have been some sort of miscalculation.

To the rear of the plane’s central kitchen, a smothering claustrophobia arose from the economy-class collective unconscious, a sour spark arced between the teeth of “below deck” passengers.  The moment the seat belt light went off, they jumped to their feet as a group, grabbed carry-ons and began to push and elbow one another to gain six inches’ advantage toward the exit.

To no avail.  In front of them stewards and stewardesses were already in place to politely but firmly block the main cabin doorways, gently and reverently discharging first and business classes in the preferential manner and order due their expenditure.

Only after the last of these had headed out the door did the service crew allow the disembarkation of the passengers who, by virtue of their seating’s tiny size – which was directly proportional to their airfare – had each been charged a night’s sleep in addition to the ultimately less painful fare of hard currency.

There followed the march through passport control, the shuffle through baggage recovery, the guilty file through customs, and finally a mad sprint downstairs and onto an express shuttle train into the City.  The journey still far from over.  For, some short time afterwards this modestly comfortable rail ride would empty, bags and all, directly into rush hour madness at Victoria, a time noted in guide books as not entirely suitable for the efficient acquisition of further transportation.

Exhausted and, as is usual on the eastern leg of transatlantic flight, totally divorced from physical time reference, the traveler is nevertheless required to wait patiently in line with an aggressive gaggle of suited and stockinged commuters, daily come to the City from Clapham Common and Wimbledon with an eye solely to making the stray pound, and ready to roll over anyone who would haphazardly stumble into the path of that driving intent.

Questions arise as to dominance in the queue.  Ill-concealed remarks as to parentage ensue.  The temporarily ungroomed foreigner receives a proper modicum of abuse. However, being laboriously and recently arrived from the Colonies, he is not inclined to accept such ill will with calm spirit and good humor.  Those clustered about him do not recognize the danger.

On the occasion of a second long-delayed movement of the line, a particularly well-starched subject of Her Majesty is ill-advisedly motivated to deliver another nose-raised slur as to the rudimentary manners and demeanor of The Visitor.  The gentleman’s comment is quickly proven true as it is followed by a reply from its target, who makes an untoward reference as to the efficacy of the insulter’s reproductive organs.

A taxi is offered shortly afterwards.  However, even with the most expedient assimilation into London, it has taken three hours from the time of airplane landing until arrival at Battersea Bridge and the hatchway of the Thames barge houseboat that is to afford shelter for the next seven nights.  But that portal is latched from the inside, as it is still much too early for proprietors to rise.

Standing on a swaying deck with bags in hand, The Visitor is not pleased with the manner of entrance into the Kingdom, United.

The Visitor, of course, is me.

After the ten-hour flight and the exhausting transitional process, it is still morning in SW10 Chelsea where I will sleep the night, and in W1 Soho where I will work the day. I leave my bags with a note on the enclosed dock of the houseboat, and begin the walk to the South Kensington station some dozen blocks away, figuring the opportunity for breakfast and coffee will present itself as I walk along King’s Cross Road to my preliminary destination. 

It does.  I drink Kenyan coffee, allow myself to be solaced by a well-oiled English breakfast, and make my way to the South Ken tube stop as prepared as I can be for a series of nuts & bolts meetings guaranteed to keep the unfortified gastrointestinal tract in a turmoil.

Seated and nodding quietly to the rhythm of the roaring train, I wonder if my feet will actually work when I emerge from the tube, when they discover they have been moved so far from their familiar turf.

* * *

So, back to present day, that morning was not really so frightening was it?  Not really frightening at all.  Just something to be expected as standard 2013.  I do live in the 21stcentury.  Yes, it is true, chronologically I do.  And I talk to friends in the UK and elsewhere, round the world, via skype and other electron magic, even while I am walking about near the banks of the Mississippi River, interacting with other humans as a disemboweled virtual creature.  We will soon all be avatars, I think, wandering universally while our physical beings, sewn throughout with tubes and wires, remain in some rusting warehouse in New Jersey.  But until then this problem with physical transport continues to be unsettling.   My spirit rebels and just refuses to accompany the arms, legs and head.

I am actually disoriented right now, as I sit here at the computer getting ready to transport these words – this part of me -- to forbearing editors and publishers in London.  I am remembering that day going to, and being in, London nine years ago, and continue comparing it with this very morning. 

It is disconcerting when dwelt upon.  Now I am not even sure that I will be able to drive back to the gym tomorrow.  Possibly not.  Just to be safe, I think that in the morning I will plug my ears with the reverberations of my iShuffle – that device currently programmed with nothing but vintage Stones playing extremely loudly, “Gimme Shelter” seems appropriate to the situation – drift somewhere else, and allow a dilapidated and rattling streetcar that at least I know quite well, to transport my body.

My spirit and I, we will be on auto.

Peter Geoghegan: dark money and dirty politics

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