Thursday, San Diego

It’s 2:05 p.m. and we’re still on the tarmac. At least that’s the word everyone keeps calling it when they whisper into their cellphones; not pavement or concrete, not even runway, but tarmac. I wonder if tarmac1 is one of those corporations which found its way into our run of the mill lexicon like xerox, rollerblade, and probably soon, “google” as the digital era’s replacement of “investigating someone or something.”

At 12:29, two minutes before our scheduled departure, the captain got on the PA system and in a calm and practiced voice began his explanation. “It’s another beautiful day here in San Diego, but unfortunately the same can’t be said of Chicago.” He went on to say, slowly and with building suspense, that visibility was fine there. The temperature wasn’t even so bad. Everyone started shuffling around, wishing he would get to the point. “The thing is,” he went on, “it’s started to snow and so they’re asking that we hang on a bit before taking off so that we don’t crowd the airway above O’Hare.” That was an hour and a half ago. We don’t seem to be going anywhere quick.

4:15 p.m. – Commuter terminal, San Diego, waiting for 5 o’clock flight to Los Angeles, reminded of the Soul Coughing song, “Screenwriter’s Blues” which repeats over and over again that it’s 5 o’clock and we are listening to Los Angeles.

I’m a people watcher as it is, but on airplanes and at airports it gets to be ridiculous, invasive. I feel a mysterious bond with my fellow passengers. We’re somehow more than just commuters going this way and that. For me, we’re the 16th century crew of a transatlantic journey. We’re the maiden voyage of the Queen Mary. We’re in it together, even if I can’t articulate – even to myself – what “it” is.

I remember that as a kid – flying alone back and forth between Ohio and Seattle – I used to secretly hope that our plane would malfunction leaving us stranded in some Gilligan’s Island or Lord of the Flies-type scenario. The fact that no tropical, isolated islands exist between Columbus and Seattle in no way dampened by 7-year-old enthusiastic fantasizing that my airborne passengers would soon become my adopted aunts, cousins, Skippers, and best friends. It was just a matter of time until I would be searching out coconuts while the brunette, middle-aged woman in 13B would make me an outfit of tropical vines.

6:00 p.m. – LAX, Terminal Four

Los Angeles International Airport must have, I am almost sure of this, the most diverse workforce in the world. And yet it seems that 70% of the employees have their hair in cornrows. Young Vietnamese women, Black Americans, recent Ethiopian immigrants, young White urbanites. They look wonderful. I decide to get cornrows as soon as I get back.

8:32 p.m. Pacific Time – 35,000 feet above Wyoming

It’s not as bad as it could have been. After being stuck in San Diego’s airport for 7 hours and getting re-routed to Los Angeles, it turns out I’ll be arriving only four hours later than originally scheduled.

1“Tarmac” is indeed short for “tar macadam.” John McAdam (1756-1836) invented the “macadam” type of road pavement made of crushed stone, which resisted the rutting formerly plaguing highways in England. “Macadamizing” was later further improved by the addition of tar as a binder, resulting in the “Tarmac” process still widely used today. “Tarmac” is, in fact, still a registered trademark, but in a generic sense it has come to be applied to almost any sort of road pavement. Because the Tarmac process was widely employed in the construction of airstrips in World War II, “tarmac” is also often used as a synonym for the runways and other paved areas of airports.