A chapter in an occasional series of posts documenting an autumn 2021 road trip through the Midwest.
Bound for Omaha, baby.
The gate agent announces the boarding sequence; special needs passengers, military, first class, and economy.
Walking past the proletariat towards the jetway and my first class seat I could almost feel their mixture of envy and hatred. Settled in my seat I feel the pain of the passengers filing past and back to damnation.
In truth, this will only be my second time flying first class, so I’m well acquainted with economy, the search for overhead space and squeezing into a seat. I know what it’s like having someone’s seat back in my lap and feeling my own seat back yanked from behind as a fellow passenger steadies himself while he shoe horns his way into his own seat in back of mine.
The previous time I flew first class Cora and I were returning from Richmond, Virginia and I had to be at work the next day. No day of decompression. From two weeks away from work, straight back to the office to face 500 emails, whatever work my office back up decided she didn’t feel like doing, and an ass chewing from my boss for having the audacity to take time away.
I decided to liquidate damn nearly every American Airlines mile I had and upgrade to first class.
I’m flying first class this time because COVID isn’t done yet and I’d like to have as much space between me and the rest of the public as possible.
That and the fact that the first class price wasn’t much more than economy.
I’m taking an Embraer 175 airliner; an unglamorous, even in first class, tube with wings.
I’d reserved a seat on the left side of the cabin, which is a solo, thereby avoiding bouts of elbow wrestling and lessening the chance of getting splashed with COVID.
Before takeoff my usual routine is to rummage through the seat back pocket in front of me.
Save an air sickness bag and the aircraft information card the pocket is empty.
Something’s missing. Something important. I’m trying to recall my last flight, taking a mental inventory of what should be in that seat back pocket.
The SkyMall catalog! Where’s the fucking SkyMall catalog?
The beloved, yet often ridiculed, SkyMall is missing. First it’s no more inflight meals. Then they replace a bland sandwich with peanuts. And now? No SkyMall? Just another erosion of air travel. Hell, might as well just get out of the plane and take a covered wagon to Omaha.
I doubt that there’s a single member of the flying public who hasn’t marveled at the SkyMall catalog. It was the prospectus of the preposterous.
SkyMall offerings ranged from the conventional, such as wine coolers and spice racks, pet grooming supplies or personal electronics, to the unconventional such as a heated cat shelter, to the you must have better things to spend your money on, items. You know, the R2-D2 room humidifier which was a perfect companion to the toaster shaped like Darth Vader.
For the home gardener there was a pair of lawn aerator sandals, basically plastic flip flops with nails sticking from the bottom (pointed downwards of course) so that one could aerate the lawn simply by taking a walk. Just be sure to take them off before going back in the house.
There was the Babette Table, a cocktail table held in place by a torso-less pair of legs wearing stockings, panties and strapped red high heels. Sexy.
SkyMall had that special something for those who had nothing better to spend $3,135.00 on than a garden yeti statue. Let the local food bank or teachers buying paper out of their own salaries fend for themselves, we’re buying yeti.
“Hey ma, let’s buy a statue of the abominable snowman to set out in the front yard. Forget giving to the soup kitchen. Let the homeless eat cake.”
SkyMall was always my go to while I ignored the flight attendant who was at the front of the cabin giving life saving instructions. I always figured that in the event that plane would ditch in the ocean I could ask my seatmate to review that whole life vest routine. Of course my seatmate was probably thinking the same thing as he buried his head in his laptop.
In 1989, an accountant named Robert Worsley was browsing through an inflight catalog called Giftmaster, a sort of SkyMall 1.0, which offered products that were as half-baked as what we became accustomed to seeing in SkyMall.
Worsley’s plan was to start his own catalog, only offering more pragmatic items. In a plan that was something of a precursor to the now popular practice of ordering an item online and then picking it up at a brick and mortar store, SkyMall allowed passengers to place an order on those old clunky Airphones that were embedded into an airline seat back and then pick the items up at the gate.
Worsley’s scheme was great, but not yet ready for prime time as it required warehousing near the airports and runners to deliver product. In 1993, SkyMall lost $6 million.and Worsley dropped the airport delivery and scaled back his product line to focus on what he called, “new ideas (read, bizarre).”
According to Worsley, the now ubiquitous rolling suitcase “started on SkyMall and went straight to the mass market.”
Worsley sold SkyMall in 2001, for $47 million and the catalog kept chugging along.
Where did all of those catalog items come from?
From other catalogs, hundreds, which bought space on SkyMall to highlight some of their offerings. Many of those catalogs were minor players but there were some, like Brookstone, that had genuine bonafides.
SkyMall merchandisers also combed trade shows and fielded offers from inventors.
Where did the King Tutankhamen Life-Size Sarcophagus Cabinet (mummy not included) come from? Or the NFL high heel shoe wine bottle holder? Who the hell knows. Do we want to know?
The Strain Relieving Eye Massager (which doesn’t sound at all comfortable) emanated from venerable Hammacher Schlemmer.
In 2013, sixty percent of SkyMall was purchased by Xhibit Corp. Two years later, SkyMall and its parent company filed for bankruptcy, bringing to an end a captivating era of air travel.
SkyMall still exists as an online retailer but most of the offerings are practical, which takes away all of the fun.
So if you’re in the market for an $85,000 dollar two seater, Seabreacher boat that looks like a shark and hits speeds of 55 MPH, well, maybe you’ll get lucky and find one at a garage sale.
With no SkyMall I turn to my book.
When Cora and I had flown from Richmond, Virginia, we were offered complimentary Champagne to sip while we watched folks straggle past us.
I’m looking forward to a stemmed flute of bubbly, not because I like Champagne (I don’t), but because it’s one of those perks that comes with the price and I’m taking advantage of every single perk. Hell, if first class included a bowl of chilled monkey brain and bottomless cheap Scotch (with a light taste of jet fuel and hints of toxic dirt), I’d be all in.
Alas, today Champagne is off the menu, replaced by coffee, soft drinks or juice, and accompanied by two cello wrapped biscotti.
I suppose it’s due to either cost cutting or a nod to flight attendants who are sick and tired of passengers getting shit faced and acting like frat boys – or Brett Kavanaugh (but I repeat myself).
I take a peek behind me into the back of the plane – towards steerage. Something else is missing. The curtain. Where’s the damn curtain?
During all those years when I flew economy (and most likely will in the future) there was a curtain that separated first class from the unwashed. Once the plane began to taxi from the gate, the first class flight attendant would stand at that dividing line between the plentiful and the piteous, jut her chin out towards us in contempt, turn smartly on a spike heel and then pull the curtain shut.
I always wondered what went on behind that curtain. Baccarat? Was there a teppan chef flipping chunks of perfectly cooked steak onto the china plates of the swells sitting in their lounge chairs? Illicit drugs? Orgies?
Every now and again an attendant would pull the curtain aside briefly to pass between the two realms and I tried, vainly, to get a peek.
Today, no curtain, no Champagne. This must be the work of Bernie Sanders or Bill Gates.
But for one highlight, It’s an uneventful flight. A few minutes after takeoff, I’m looking out the window as the plane is cruising northeast and off in the distance and getting closer is the refinery in Rodeo which is about a ten minute drive from my house. Looking closely I see my granddaughter’s elementary school and just a few blocks away I see a house with what looks like a blue dot in the backyard – our pool. I feel a slight pang as I imagine Lucy in the playground or Cora puttering around in the garden so far below. I miss them already.
There’s a layover in Salt Lake City where I’m hoping to get something resembling real food although I’m a bit full of biscotti. As we’re starting our descent the flight attendant comes by with what must be her fourth pass of handing out the cello wrapped twin packs. I guess they must be approaching the “use by” date and she’s been told by the higher ups to get rid of those damn cookies before the mold forms.
The layover is scheduled for about an hour and forty five minutes. There’s always a layover. I imagine that those wanting to fly to Salt Lake City out of Oakland would never be given the option of taking this flight. That would make it direct. I figure that anyone Salt Lake City bound would be directed to something else, anything, with a layover. Maybe a plane change in Las Vegas. Or even Denver. That way the hapless passenger could watch his final destination, Salt Lake City, passing below him as he wings his way to a plane change 500 miles distant. Yes, there’s always a layover.
It’s been decades since I’ve flown into Salt Lake City. Back then it was what we called a podunk little airfield. little more than a single terminal, where I deplaned, not on a jetway, but on an old style portable stairway that was rolled out to the plane.
As the plane taxis to the gate and a real functioning jetway, I marvel at how sprawling, Salt Lake International has become.
Damn, Salt Lake, you’re all grown up now.
Hell, you’ve even reached drinking age. Alcohol is available in the airport restaurants.
I guess the notion that dry airports are not conducive to attracting tourists and the flying public, moved the powers that be to overrule the Latter Day Saints, and allow airport restaurants to serve alcohol.
Or, and this is more likely, the LDS was in complete agreement with the change. I’ve never known a church that isn’t down with the almighty dollar. When it comes to the choice between god and greenbacks, orthodoxy is usually relegated to playing second fiddle behind coin of the realm.
We’re disgorged at terminal A and a peek at the flight information board informs me that I need to get to terminal B. It’s a hike. Yep SLC has grown up.
Through a concourse, around a bend and yet another turn or two before going down an escalator leading to a tunnel which apparently runs under the tarmac, up an escalator, through another concourse with bends of its own and finally to my new departure gate.
After my trek, there’s no time to get food. My flight will be boarding soon.
Gate B25 isn’t so much a boarding gate as a bus terminal. It’s the usual order of special needs, military, first class and commoners, but once past the gate agent we’re led down to the tarmac and a short walk to buses, which take us to the aircraft where we board from – roll up stairs.
After getting seated and catching my breath it dawns on me again, just how dispassionate air travel has become. It’s becoming clear why people wear pajama pants or sweats on airplanes.
Why in the hell would anyone wear good clothes just to go through this routine? Riding with a stream of tense and exhausted fellow travelers on steel rivers called people movers, through concourses, under glaring lights, past purveyors of everything from cheap t-shirts to fine watches.
Air travel has become robotic and will never go back to charming.
Could there be a more cold, steely, impassioned and yet so appropriate term to describe an iron beltway that carries people like an assembly line carries parts? Homo sapiens, unquestioning, and with sanitized expressions allow themselves to be led by electronic signs, and voices echoing from on high. They pass mindlessly through checkpoints, lines, gates, up and down escalators and elevators in order to get to…
Hell, they’re all just being pulled by the current. The trek is supposed to lead to an airplane but would anyone blink an eye if it took them to the edge of a cliff where they would follow the throng over the brink and down into perdition?
Isn’t this the kind of stuff that those futuristic novels of the fifties warned us about?
The odyssey finally leads to a cramped, winged, comfortless tunnel which flies to a destination where the throng gets dumped into another maze of concourses only to be regurgitated into the street where travelers, by now just numb automatons, catch a cab or a bus or the complimentary shuttle to get to a hotel.
At the hotel, a desk clerk demands an ID and a major credit card, and then once given the bank’s okey dokey, slides the traveler a paper to be initialed as proof of understanding that smoking in the room or sneaking dogs, cats, wildebeests, aliens from Mars or other pets into the room will incur hundreds in penalties.
Then the cheerless clerk perks up to announce that a complimentary breakfast of yogurt, days old pastries and plastic eggs will be served between 6 and 9 in the breakfast room.
The traveler, eyes glazed and nearly unresponsive, is handed a little envelope containing an electronic key card that might only work in fits and starts. And oh, by the way don’t discard the little envelope because the Wi-Fi code is written on it. So by all means, hang onto that little envelope that has your room number AND your key and don’t worry about what happens should you lose that little envelope – with the key card..
The clerk then dismisses the traveler, pointing to the corridor or the stairs (an elevator if the automaton is lucky) and then calls up the next drudge to be processed.
But what the hell. After that, have dinner, a drink, take a nap – screw. Take another nap and screw again. You’re on vacation.
Seated in the plane, without the company of Babette and Mr. Yeti, I come to realize why a road trip is so much better than air travel, or a cruise or a bus trip where the traveler is a prisoner of those syndicates.
On a road trip the journey belongs to me.
The road trip is mine and mine alone. No concierge, no tour director with headset and mic telling me what I need to see, what I HAVE to see. I decide what’s important. I get to follow my whims.
If I want to take a fifty mile detour to see the Donna Reed Museum in Dennison, Iowa because when I was a kid I watched Donna on TV and thought she was pretty hot, I can do that.
Back on the plane, as the passengers file towards the rear and overhead space becomes more valuable, our flight attendant, Nathalie, goes to work. She shifts briefcases, repositions camera cases and overcoats and moves carry-on bags until all is stowed and the hatches shut. She smiles with a look of accomplishment and says, “Sometimes it’s a bit like Tetris.”