Saturday, 10 September 2011

This is America, Jack

Eight flights. Seven airports. Five cities. One woman. What could possibly go wrong?

I have a vague memory of visiting America for the first time aged 12.

The now defunct Ghana Airways was in its glory days, and was the airline that transported us across the waters. We got bumped up to Business Class where we were plied with copious amounts of chicken pie and other such yummy goodies which, to a first time international flyer, quickly meant that an enjoyable eight or so hours were spent several thousand feet above the ground. To this day, a freshly baked chicken pie is my first choice anytime I go to the bakery.

My brother and I sat on either side of a striking woman who introduced herself as we noisily settled down.
'Rita Marley...' I mused out loud, wondering why the name was familiar. And then, excited, I asked her in that innocent way children do , 'did you know Bob?'

She trilled prettily, clearly amused by the question, and said, 'Oh yes, dear, I knew that man quite well!'
Feeling very proud about this moment, I would later tell any member of my family who hadn't heard it a million times already, that I'd sat in a plane with Rita Marley, and did they know she was the wife of Bob Marley?! (This last fact, a bemused adult kindly informed me..) Since that time, I have also always been interested in who the person in the seat next to me is whilst on long distance trips, and have made known the three beliefs I harbour anytime I fly.

On a subsequent trip in relatively recent 2007, we took in more places - Washington, Virginia, Maryland and Philadelphia - but my brother and I revelled in being back in Manhattan, witnessing crazy, colourful and interesting scenes in the Big Apple. We would dissolve into fits of giggles anytime we saw something particularly weird or funny, nudge each other and declare gaily, 'This is America, Jack!' The line, is from Coming to America, the classic movie of Eddie Murphy at one of his comic best - how can anyone forget that scene: 'The royal penis is clean, my Lord.' -
 yet my brother and I used it willy-nilly. (If you'll excuse the pun)

Two weeks ago whilst on a whirlwind trip back to the States, I was tickled by the many oddball encounters I had with people in different circumstances. And often, I would catch myself shaking my head in bemusement and thinking, this is America, Jack. A trip through several airports and half a dozen cities doesn't happen without incident:

WASHINGTONOn the flight from London, I plonk down in my aisle seat and immediately turn to the person on my left, an elderly American lady who returns my warm, inviting smile and introduces herself as Jackie.

'Very lovely to meet you, Jackie. I'm Davida.'
She jerks her head in the direction of the man on her other side, and whispers conspiratorially to me, 'You know, that's my boyfriend over there,' she says, almost shyly. 'We met at church.'
I lean over and sneak a better look, and I see the profile of a man who's got a Gary Oldman thing going on.
'Oooh Jackie, he's quite dishy!' I exclaim without thinking, which, of course, he hears, and for a moment I wonder if I have been inappropriate. But they both laugh, he with some amusement, she with girlish pleasure. And for the rest of the flight, Jackie warms my heart with her story of getting a second chance at love and life, having lost her first husband and battled cancer. I'm almost sad when the plane touches down at Washington Dulles Airport. I feel like I could happily spend hours listening to her. 

ATLANTAIt's a short flight from Columbus, Ohio, to Atlanta, Georgia. I find my seat in the plane, and I'm thrilled to notice that this time my partner is a handsome, brooding young man. He is holding a course book with Havard Business School across it, and is studiously ignoring me as I settle in and clink my seat belt on. I should take this as my cue to keep out of his way, but I stubbornly cling to my obsession to talk to people whilst we're flying together. So I flash a smile and introduce myself. He grunts a name I don't quite catch, but I'm not deterred by his less enthusiastic response. I decide that when we're airborne I'll strike a conversation with him. But in the end, I'm disappointed to discover that before the plane takes off, sleep has stolen over me. I wake up sometime during the flight with a jolt. And even before I can process what is happening, I see the terror on people's faces.

Turbulence. The plane dips and sways terrifyingly, and I swear in that moment my life flashes before me. The captain's voice over the tannoy instructs everybody to be in their seat RIGHT NOW as we're experiencing very terrible turbulence.  
I turn to my seat partner hoping to see some of the terror mirrored on his face, and feel a fresh surge of shock. 
He is sleeping. HE IS SLEEPING?! For a moment, I forget to feel scared, and concentrate all my emotions into creating one of anger. The turbulence from anyone's wildest nightmare, and he is sleeping?!

Is this how the disciples felt when Jesus slept through the storm? I continue to grip my arm rest until, finally, finally, everything returns to normal. Even so, I feel like my heart beats at irregular paces for a long time after calm has returned.
There is palpable relief when the plane touches down in Atlanta. In the flurry of seat belts unclinking and overhead lockers being opened, homeboy on my right is roused from his deep slumber. I still cannot believe he managed to sleep through all that. Encouraged by similar scenes around me, I lean over and give him an impulsive hug. You know, a thank-God-we've-made-it-to-the-ground kind of embrace.

He pats my back somewhat awkwardly, and laughs sympathetically, 'Nervous flyer, huh?'
I don't know whether to laugh, cry or swat his face with his own course book.

Still with legs like lead, I exit the plane and almost break my neck walking, because in what is fast becoming a recurring feature of this trip, I have precious few moments between the arrival of my last flight, and the departure of the next. With minutes to spare, I make it onto the plane, en route to:

SAN FRANCISCO: It's a blessedly uneventful flight. By the time we touch down at SF0, I've even managed to kick my new fear of flying. Kicked it where it hurts. And in its place, excitement has taken over, because in San Francisco wedding bells beckon for my favourite uncle. As soon as I arrive, I'm caught up in last minute arrangements and events - rehearsals, more airport pick-ups for family arriving from Ghana, Texas, North Carolina, Canada and such like, sumptuous dinners and general exuberance.
The sun is shining brightly on the day of the wedding, yet, coming from London I can't help but view it suspiciously, as though the rains could come any minute. So I grab my little jacket as I step out to buy an emergency bottle of nail varnish and mascara. Of course, two minutes into my walk, I feel a tad ridiculous holding my coat. It is hot. And this is Cali, baby.
A slightly shifty character is walking toward me, and just as I fear he's coming too close for comfort, he brandishes a box he's holding and demands aggressively, 'want a donut?'
I start a little. ' thanks.'
His right eye twitches. 'I said take the donut. It's only a buck.'
I would have been a little shaken if I didn't find the situation slightly amusing. What is this, a hold-up at donutpoint?
I look inside the box. 'But you're eating the donuts yourself!' I say indignantly.
He shrugs. 'If nobody wan it, imma eat it right?'
'Well I don't want it,' I say.
'Where you from, shorty?'
Oh please. I've wasted enough time with this man.
I say a hasty bye and walk quickly to the pharmacy to get my supplies.
'Aw how you gon' do me like that?' He wails after me. I turn around and give him a genuine smile and wave.

When I come out of the pharmacy I'm drawn to a table with books for sale. It looks like people are arranging their wares for a street fair that is happening later that day.
I'm browsing the titles of the books when I sense a presence on the other side of the table.
'Do you know you hold a lot of power between your legs?'

Huh? This is quite a conversation opener. California is so far proving to be...not boring.
The voice is very grave. And before I look up to see who it belongs to, I spot a book called Mythology of Pussy and Dick by Marvin X.
I raise my head. 'You must be Marvin,' I say, extending my arm.
'You know it, girl.' He has warm, laughing eyes, and looks like he's always rollicking good company. I would love to stay and chat with him, but I'm filled with a more pressing need to hurry home and get ready for the wedding, especially since I know I'll have to wrestle my hair into compliance with MY will, as opposed to its own will. So I bid Marvin goodbye, promising to check out his work.

The wedding is a beautiful affair with many memorable moments, including the time for the presentation of rings when my uncle surprises his bride - and the congregation - by going on one knee to say his vows. By the time he is done, I'm half expecting the bride to do a little move of her own before she puts the ring on his finger. Oh, I don't know..a little tap dance or twirl. Minutes later I'm cheering as the newest married couple share a kiss. I feel a deep happiness that I'm witness to such love and lifelong commitment to the covenant of marriage. 

It's such a lovely time in San Francisco that when I leave my eyes actually well up. Even I don't remember the last time I got teary-eyed at the airport. Another leg of the journey calls my name, and I board the plane to:

MINNEAPOLIS: When I arrive at MSP airport I am a little traumatized by the three and half hour transit staring me in the face before my connecting flight to Columbus, Ohio. I buy a book at the nearest bookstore and walk into a restaurant. I order the greasiest fry-up I can find on the menu, and send a silent apology to my arteries. As my meal arrives, I suddenly decide that I want a glass of red wine.
'You want red wine with your fries and burger?' The waitress really doesn't have to be uppity. What's it to her if I'm taken with the idea of nursing a glass of red wine? I do, after all, have all the time in the world. Or, at least approximately 2:55:07 to my departure time.
'Yes,' I say stiffly. 
Oh boy. This is going to be a long transit.

COLUMBUSBack where this trip really began, my lovely host family treat me like one of their own and I spend my last days in easy, relaxed atmospheres. I go to the Amish country and see plain and simple Christian living that emphasizes humility and composure, and my cousin shows me what a college town is like in Athens, Ohio. 
An Amish man
A standard form of travel for the Amish

Washington: I am at the end of my trip, waiting once again at Dulles International airport for my connecting flight to London Heathrow. When the plane first lands from Columbus, I walk to one of the screens displaying departure gates and times, and realize with a sinking heart that mine has been delayed for two and half hours. The activities of the last few days - not to mention the time differences and erratic sleep patterns -  have finally caught up with me, and there's nothing I'd like better than to crawl into bed and give in to sleep. I sink down wearily, and chitchat idly with a man who turned out to have been on the same flight with me from Columbus. He insists he recognizes me from - of all things - my earrings. 
When he leaves for his departure gate, I retreat into my thoughts and fervently relive every moment of the GAT - The Great American Trip. From nowhere, I remember the donut 'seller' from San Francisco. Hm..I wouldn't mind one now actually...

It's a short walk to Dunkin' Donuts where I make a fine selection - coffee and caramel, as well as sugar-topped donuts. Again, I offer a quick apology in the direction of my arteries before polishing off every last one. I can't even work up enough energy to feel any guilt for scoffing so much sugar.

I'm sitting with my legs crossed when the cutest dog on a long leash stops by my chair and sniffs my big toe. I don't initially see it, so I nearly jump out of my skin when its slightly cold nose connects with my toe. 
Its owner is apologetic as he tries to pry it away from my toes, but the dog won't budge. I don't mind, actually. I'm wearing a new pair of unfamiliar wedge heels that I had to take out of my suitcase at the last minute since it was taking up too much space. I'm pleased the clearly fashionable dog here thinks my choice of shoes is worth a sniff.
'Ruby likes red nail polish..' The owner says, as though it all makes perfect sense. 
Ruby? Oh..the dog.
I point out that my nail polish is not red. 
'Oh, she's colour-blind,' he shrugs cheerfully.
Um..ookay. It's a dog's world out there.

After what seems like an interminable wait, we finally embark, and I'm pleased when I find that I don't have a seat partner this time round. As soon as it's alright to, I lift the arm rest and curl myself across the two seats and sleep fitfully until we arrive in London.

It's been a beautiful time. Planned trips, chance encounters, memorable occasions...all part of what America was, Jack!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Sounds like a fun trip all round!