Thursday, March 31, 2005

Hold the Mayo for Jesus
I am on the road again, in the Illinois suburbs of St. Louis, as the area gears up for college basketball's Final Four this weekend. The Edward Jones Dome, hard by I-70 right downtown, is fully festooned, and the airport was full of tall people already yesterday, even though the teams didn't arrive until today.

As it was, I nearly didn't arrive until today. For the second time in my last three business trips by air, I spent a significant chunk of the day stranded in the airport, and missed some of my scheduled meetings. Yesterday it was weather and an unlikely daily double of two different Northwest planes, both bound for St. Louis, both suffering mechanical troubles.

I have decided that the best way to be a happy airplane passenger is to consider yourself in a state of helplessness. Once you walk into the airport, there's not a damn thing you can do about anything that really matters. You're a sheep, and you're waiting for somebody to herd you from one pen to another. So when the airline announces that your flight has been delayed, or that you have to walk to the opposite end of the airport for a gate change (which happened to me yesterday), you don't concern youself about it any more than a sheep would concern itself with walking to a different pen. Better to take it that way then to blow a gasket at the gate agent--because gate agents are, in the end, as helpless as the passengers. If they could get you on the damn airplane any faster, they certainly would, only to get you and your long sheep's face out of their sight. To think that they have some sort of evil agenda--that they got out of bed that morning for the express purpose of screwing you personally, as some passengers seem to suspect--gives them more credit for efficacy than they can possibly possess.

I didn't fly until I was 30 years old, and I only fly maybe three times a year now--so I am still capable of being impressed by the idea that I'm six miles in the air, and I still find looking out the window more entertaining than almost anything I could bring along to read. Flying over the Midwest and seeing those neatly surveyed squares below always reminds me of Thomas Jefferson, whose idea such a systematic survey was--and who would no doubt enjoy being six miles in the air to see it. I don't know whether it's true that spring moves north at the rate of 100 miles a week--that could be a fact, or it could be a folk belief spread by the farmers I grew up with--but it seemed plausible from the air yesterday. Flying south from Minnesota through Wisconsin and Illinois to Missouri, you could see the country below get progressively greener--and outside tonight, I caught a springlike scent in the air. People are talking about mowing their lawns down here already, while the grass back home is still December-brown.

Some people complain that the United States has gotten so generic that every place is like every other. It's true that I am driving a car rented from a national chain, I'm staying in a national chain hotel, and I've had my last seven meals at national chain restaurants--but this place has its own special flavor anyhow. The first thing you notice after hitting the interstate out of the airport is the number of billboards for Jesus. "Jesus loves you," "Jesus is Lord," and my favorite, giant white letters on a green background saying just "Jesus." (The only billboards as ubiquitous are the ones for the various casinos in the area. There's either a lesson to be learned from that or a joke to be made about it, but I can't get the bat off my shoulder.) There are also Jesus yard signs in this same green motif. With the spring elections coming next week, those signs make it look like Jesus is running for mayor or town council--which, given the way some Republicans are about their religion, he just might be. Lots of Jesus on the radio, too--I counted at least five stations while seeking something listenable yesterday afternoon.

When I was in Detroit three weeks ago, I wrote about the aggressiveness of Michigan drivers. They're aggressive here, too, but in a different way. On two different occasions today, drivers behind me laid on the horn when I dallied one microsecond after the light changed. Apparently my Wisconsin reaction time is not ready for prime time in Illinois. But I swear it's not entirely my fault. I am driving a rented Kia Rio, which has all the ferocious power of a month-old kitten, and damn near got me run over by a truck yesterday on the interstate, when I hammered the accelerator to merge and was able to count to three before the car actually speeded up.

Impatiently blowing your horn at the out-of-state visitor (even if his identity is disguised by Missouri plates on the rental car) doesn't seem like very good Southern hospitality. And people down here do consider themselves Southerners, as the proliferation of barbecue joints (and Jesus billboards) might indicate. I made the mistake of calling Final Four contestant Louisville "Louie-ville" today, only to be reminded that down here, they say it "Lou-uh-vul." And I am not sure if the guy eating mayonnaise directly from the squeeze packets at the next table this afternoon was indulging a Southern taste, or if he was just a slob--but I've never seen that up North.

But having barbecue on every corner is a good thing, and that's item A on the agenda for tomorrow.

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