Food Feature: Emotional baggage

Finding a new national identity in the not-so-friendly skies

This is the last flight from Atlanta to Chicago on Sept. 26 before Delta announces it will layoff 13,000 people, 15 percent of its workforce. Air traffic for the carrier will be down more than 30 percent for the month, and in Orlando alone, the carrier will cut 50 percent of its flights. The airline expects "a dramatic reduction in leisure travel," Delta explains the next day.

The flight attendant has been with Delta for 26 years. She sits with a practiced, rigid grace, and even though her friends will be fired, you can't read even a line of apprehension on her. We sit alone near the very back of the 757 — where you'd like to find a sky marshal, armed and radiating reassurance — in an island of 50 empty seats.

The attendant's hair is a paint-by-numbers do. Her skin is light brown, and she wears tasteful gold jewelry, a pair of bracelets and a necklace. Her nails are long and free of paint and imperfection.

She says she will not lose her job. The others, she motions at two attendants collecting empty cups and napkins from passengers in the quiet cabin, probably won't be so lucky. Even she, the flight attendant admits, won't be able to work the hours or bring home the paychecks she once did. Routes to small cities and backwaters will disappear.

"It's going to be bad all the way around," she says. Her drilled nonchalance wavers. For a moment, the flight attendant looks tired and resigned.

It's not a fatigue from work. In fact, there's never been a time with less work to do. She says that nearly every flight is like this. All the passengers, with their brand-new anxiety, sit in first-class space, able to unfurl and decompress during a time when it's tough to take a deep breath, much less relax on an airplane.

The irony is that now is the best time to fly. I'm not talking money here, just space and manners. Security, while still not inspiring or even comparable to what you'd find in European airports, is tighter, and the lines are usually short. In the air, there is even a transient feeling of brotherhood, of pioneering, as these airborne tubes become temporary nations formed by the universality of empathy and fear.

The people who are showing up, "they aren't complaining," the attendant says. This observation makes her look amused and satisfied. Maybe the killing of more than 5,000 people has lessened the importance of bad rice pilaf, or maybe everyone is just distracted, wondering if box cutters are hidden in the airplane's lavatory or if the dark-skinned man in seat 23C has a date with Allah on his mind.

"You just don't look at people the same way anymore," the attendant says. She's right. You size them up. You wonder if you can break their arms. Will the strangers around you become allies, or will they stick to their seats dumb with terror?

The flight attendant says she's not afraid of flying. "When it's your time, it's your time. It doesn't matter where."

That's not to say that everyone is so blase about the newfound stress of air travel. In O'Hare Airport, on the way back to Atlanta, I watch a woman tell a Delta security agent that she won't leave the line for the terminal, that someone told her to be in the Delta line, that she can't go to another terminal. She argues for five minutes. "He told me to be here," she says over and over, gesturing at someone beyond the metal detectors. "Now who has to pay for this? Me. Me." The woman points at herself and starts crying. A Chicago cop is called over. He gets between the woman and the security agent. The woman wilts and walks away. The Delta line utters a collective sigh.

But the woman is an anomaly — at least on my trips. Air travel is suddenly polite. We find solidarity in suspicion and a shared aversion to flying into buildings. Strangely, I don't even want that feeling to end.

Landing, disembarking and walking up the jetway into O'Hare, safe and set free of worry, seems absurd. Upon arrival, we're greeted by a slinking bongo- version of the Peggy Lee standard, "Fever." "Never knew how much I loved you/Never knew how much I cared/When you put your arms around me/I get a feeling that's so hard to bear." It plays for the nervous fliers over the murmur of Airport CNN.

Before Sept. 11, the song wouldn't have seemed as perverse and out of time as it does now. Before Sept. 11, the airport wouldn't be filled with the electricity of hundreds of people just a nudge away from screaming. In this quiet hysteria is a new national identity. To be American is to be hated. It's dangerous. We know that now.

And in a country where who we are as a people is often decided by what and how much we consume, I feel like there should be a certain satisfaction from our anxiety and grief. It's real.

The feeling, though, wears off. Macy's remains open; gallons of milk and gas still cost the same. Football happens every Sunday. Millions watch, just like every Sunday before Sept. 11.

For me, leaving the plane, the new identification lasts maybe 20 minutes, disappears somewhere on Interstate 90 where the patterned landscape of the browning cornfields start and Chicago stops. The usual disconnectedness of being American returns.

I want to turn the car around and head back.


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