I’m a stomach sleeper, if that’s not TMI.This began many years ago when I realized that upon awaking from nightmares I was always on my back.I started doing what I knew was dangerous to infants, safe since I haven’t been part of that demographic for decades.Terrazzo isn’t one of my favorite sleeping surfaces, however, and on my back on the floor of Newark’s Liberty Airport I realized I couldn’t roll over, for many reasons.My glasses, for one thing, were in the internal pocket of my Harris Tweed.For another, on one’s stomach one’s wallet is exposed in a way that’s maybe too inviting.Before suggesting I could’ve placed my wallet and glasses elsewhere, let me write in my own defense that rationality isn’t my strong suit after midnight.
The night before
I found a spot next to a set of escalators where the constant thrumming alternately kept me awake and soothed me to nod.I heard many languages spoken as I drifted in and out of consciousness for the few hours I had to wait for dawn.And nobody disturbed me.This is rather remarkable—a person asleep is a vulnerable being.Doing it out in public with no private walls was a new experience for me.I don’t sleep on planes, buses, or trains.Or, until two days ago, airports.It brought to mind the biblical world.A town was considered a righteous place if a stranger could sleep unmolested in a public place.The traveller—please take note, United—was in need of special consideration.My situation revealed something unexpected about Newark Airport.
The morning after
It was full of angry, frustrated people.I opened my eyes at five a.m. to find a very long line snaking down the corridor behind me—a queue that had been there when I first drifted off.These were people trying to reschedule flights since United couldn’t bump that day’s passengers because they’d decided not to fly out the night before.Despite the weariness and intensity of emotions, there was very little bad behavior.We were biblical strangers, mostly in the same circumstances.No creature comforts, no privacy.An east Asian woman said the next morning that in her country the airline would’ve brought food, and blankets at least.In the United States fiscal concerns reign supreme, however; do you know how much it would cost to care for all these stranded people?When I opened my eyes the situation was about the same as when I closed them.I couldn’t help noticing I awoke on my back.
Now I have the United bastardization of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” stuck in my head.This comes from listening to the same recording approximately a quarter-gazillion times while on hold.I expected to awake this morning in Denver, but instead I learned a very valuable lesson about refugees.It went down like this: yesterday’s east coast storm over-performed while United Airlines under-performed.Seeing the forecast, I changed to an earlier flight to try to beat it out of Dodge.I arrived in Newark only to have my flight incrementally delayed until it was cancelled around 9:30.By this time all the hotels within 11 miles of the airport were booked solid from earlier cancellations.Taxis were running into Manhattan only.Access to New Jersey Transit was not possible.I’d been awake since the 4 a.m. text alert from United that said bad weather was on the way.Finally, around 1 a.m. I found an unoccupied piece of floor and slept next to total strangers.
The experience opened my eyes to the plight of refugees.Weary airline employees (probably worried about getting home themselves) were not friendly and didn’t welcome questions.The line for rescheduling flights was, by no exaggeration, at least 400 individuals long, one of whom told me this morning she’d waited 8-hours to talk to someone.Since cancelled flight baggage is not checked, it had to be retrieved, and the line for doing such was equally as long as the rescheduling queue.United was under-staffed, stressed, and not in control of the situation.Nobody wanted to listen to you.You were just another stranger with a sad story and all of us have problems, don’t you know.The refugee has no place to go.Nobody to care.
With my aging cell phone dying, my lifeline to those who cared was fading.The shops closed, cutting off access to food.Ground transportation was not responsive.Hundreds and hundreds of people were stranded, relying on their own wits (or in my case, lack thereof) to decide what to do.I just wanted someone to say “Go here.Do this.”Instead I found myself wrapped in tweed, using my carry-on, Jacob-like, for a pillow.I felt for the strangers around me.They were suddenly friends as we were all in the same category—displaced people.This nightmare lasted under 24 hours for me, but I am now keenly aware that it never ends for some.Refugees need a caring glance.A kind word.And it would help if the powers that be would leave Gershwin alone.
I’m receiving a government-sponsored massage at Newark’s ironically named “Liberty Airport.” Like most federal freebies, this massage leaves me wanting. Now, I’ve had many pat-downs to protect me from people like myself, and each time I find myself feeling like so much meat for politicians’ pork-bellies in this culture of fear. I am afraid. It isn’t terrorists who worry me, but my own elected (sometimes) guardians. When being a citizen is considered the same thing as an enemy of the state, there is a problem. In the line next to me is an infant-in-arms being given a pat-down by a stranger. Yes, ma’am, my tax dollars help pay for that. Please, don’t bother to thank me. It will be only the first of many.
The last time I flew was from London to New York. In Heathrow US citizens aren’t sent through the humility of full-body scanners. Only a nation afraid of its own does that. I often ponder what this means. Frequently I hear, “these colors don’t run.” I wonder if it’s because they’re too busy sticking their hands down their own citizens’ pants. Home of the brave? Only if bravery means giving in to the intimidations of terrorists. I’ve fallen off a bicycle a time or two. One time it was with pretty messy results. I’ve even actually fallen off a cantering horse. (That may explain a thing or two.) As a child I was always told that you need to get right back on and try again. After 9/11, however, our country showed its naked fear in the overregulation of air security while continuing deregulation of the airlines. Money does not guarantee a secure future.
If our government has a desire to see its citizens naked, what more need they do? They know every penny we earn or exchange, taking a cut each time, and the only way to get on a plane without hassle is to let them view everything. It’s not good for my Constitution. Our Constitution. Moral outrage, however, is apparently a thing of the past. Full-body scanners may be science, but I still believe in the humanities. And when a babe in arms is considered a threat to national security, I have to wonder what we’re truly afraid of. And next time do you think you could use a little more pressure on my neck? I feel like I’m coming down with a wicked headache.
Earlier this week I had the occasion to find myself in Newark’s Liberty Airport. I had mentally prepared myself for a government-sponsored groping (I find full-body scanners immoral and, no matter what the Patriot Act says, illegal) but I managed to make it through with just emptying my pockets and walking around in my stocking feet. Once I arrived at the gate area, I was once again struck by the duplicitous use of religion in America. Posted above each gate was a small banner reading “God Bless America” surrounding a stylized flag. I thought of the Hindus, Buddhists, and atheists flying out of that terminal (and in Newark I am certain there were all three species, in spades). Since 9/11 the staffs of the large New York City airports are justifiably cautious, but the blending of nationalism with divine will always makes me nervous. Especially since the weightier implications are so readily ignored.
In the biblical world the ideal was that travelers would be treated fairly. Someone away from home is already at a disadvantage. In ancient times the traveler deserved special consideration, not to be swindled or met with unfairness. Looking around at the prices merchants charge for those who’ve gone beyond the gate and have no choice, it struck me how when religion and economy collide, economy always continues on unscathed. The weary traveler, according to the Bible, especially deserves fair treatment. Charging extra to someone already at a disadvantage violates just about every biblical standard that echoes through those unread pages. God bless America? Only if it fills the coffers.
The sentiment expressed in “God bless America” is vastly at odds with the way we behave. Taking advantage of others is the bane of prophets and messiahs alike. Taking care of the poor, the disadvantaged, the traveler—this is the biblical ideal. Instead it is easier to band-aid over our sins with posters asking God’s blessing on our insincerity. Many people fear Islamic fundamentalists without taking into account the more subtle damage done by our own homegrown variety, giddily holding hands with an unfettered free market. Cheating the traveler may not be as wicked as blowing up an airplane, but both these tangled vines, in the biblical view, spring from the same root.