I'm writing this somewhere over New Mexico, on a United flight to Los Angeles. This is the day's last plane out of Washington, the one for people who absolutely have to be in L.A. by midnight. Evidently a lot of people do. Every seat is taken. Watching the passengers file on, I realized that I haven't been on a Greyhound bus since the '80s. In fact, I don't think I even know anyone who rides Greyhound anymore. It's not just that I'm an out-of-touch, inside-the-Beltway elitist. It's that everyone flies everywhere now. Even me.
I never thought I would. If you grew up after about 1965, you probably never considered air travel glamorous. Earlier generations may have associated frequent flying with opulence and adventure. I associated it with drudgery. I remember in college thinking that the bulky-briefcase business types you see on airplanes were all midlevel Radio Shack managers on their way to some sales meeting in New Jersey. My friends and I envisioned them as the sort of people who might wear hairpieces, or order the Executive Decision Maker from an in-flight magazine. (My friends and I were the sort of sneering undergraduates you'd want to beat up.)
By contrast, I had more profound career plans. I wanted to live in the woods with my girlfriend and 10 dogs and never leave. Then I graduated and discovered that only the very rich and the very poor live in the woods. Everyone else has to live near an airport. I moved to Washington, which has three.
Within a few months of arriving, I was flying with the Radio Shack managers. My first trip was to Detroit, to profile a member of the city council. He'd seemed normal enough on the phone. He turned out to be a foaming paranoid. Minutes after I arrived at his office he accused me of scheming against him, started yelling, and canceled the scheduled interview. He ordered his secretary to escort me out. I spent the next two days on the phone from my motel room trying unsuccessfully to get back in.
The trip was a total bust, but I had a pretty good time anyway. Even a failed assignment in Detroit, I decided, was more interesting than being a drunk history major.
Most of my sneering college friends came to the same conclusion. One of them married a woman who works for USAirways. They fly to Bermuda for dinner.
Another of them called me from his cell phone the other day. He's a big deal at a movie studio now. He travels constantly. I had drinks with him in Washington a few weeks ago. He'd just flown in from Cannes, by way of Australia and Buenos Aires. I was in my backyard fiddling with a sprinkler when he called. "Where are you?" I asked. For a second he couldn't seem to remember. "I'm in Canada somewhere. I came for the weekend from Munich. I think I'm in a national forest."
It sounded almost appealing. On the other hand, what's the appeal of traveling if you lose track of where you are? Compared with a lot of people, I don't travel much. (My next-door neighbor commutes to Atlanta.) But anyone who flies more than three or four times a year knows what it's like to throw back the Sheraton drapes first thing in the morning and feel uncertain as to whether the skyline is Dallas, Phoenix, or San Diego.
Ten years ago, I couldn't have imagined myself catching the night flight to L.A. Now that I'm 36,000 feet over New Mexico it doesn't seem so strange, just something that everyone with a job has to do from time to time. Except, apparently, the Radio Shack guys. I don't see a single one of them on the plane. At some point they must have spun their Executive Decision Makers and decided to buy tech stocks. They're probably all on corporate jets by now.
Just about every other element of American society seems to be flying to California tonight, though. In front of me are two middle-aged men in T-shirts. They were talking about sex, but one has since fallen asleep and is now snoring. Across from them is an elderly woman with too much carry-on baggage flying alone. Next to her is a youngish guy with stiff hair and a backpack covered with pins who looks like he's on his way to a Satanists' convention. In the seat next to me is a woman who's dressed like an art student -- black clothes, silver jewelry, sketch pad -- except she's at least thirty years too old to be enrolled anywhere.
Looking around the cabin, I realize I'm in no danger of becoming a corporate drone. Except for the pretzels, it could be Greyhound.