24 June 2012

baggage claim tango

At the baggage claim, you stare at the chute, bags tumbling and sliding down the conveyor belt. Will yours come out?

You’re not sure why you doubt this. You have done everything you should—more even. (When do you not do more?) You bag is just the right size to just barely fit (but fit it does!) into those size-checkers airlines have installed at the gates.

It is, you suppose, like those signs at amusement parks: you must be this tall to go on this ride. And there’s always a lion or an elephant or a pirate holding out an arm (or a trunk, as the case may be), helping little children know who can have fun and who needs to grow up.

The airline bag size-checker is just like a lion holding out his arm, and you’ve discovered that making flying more like a game—and making the airport more like an amusement park—is essential to keeping your spirits up while flying.

Your pre-flight ritual of treating yourself to a tall latte and a slice of lemon cake also helps.

Your bag fits in the substitute for a lion, but today the United gate attendant sweetly said—or you assumed it was sweetly said. Those airport intercom systems make everyone sound like a relative of Darth Vader. He, with his forced, harsh breathing never sounded sweet, but the gate attendant must’ve been going for sweetness when she said, “Folks, we have a full flight today to Houston, and we’re going to be limited on overhead space.”

Here she paused, allowing her eyes to sweep over the waiting area, as if calculating the dimensions of every bag, dividing by existing overhead space. Length times height time width, and it did not compute. “So if we could have a few of you gate check your bags, that would be so helpful. Thank you for your attention.”

You realized that no on else had given her their attention.

She was thanking only you.

You alone could be helpful.

Everyone else clutched their carry-ons to their hearts. They were more attached to them than to their first-born children. (Maybe their first-born children were in those bags?)

You were the gate attendant’s only hope, so you walked up to the counter, smiling but without any of your teeth showing. A Mona Lisa look, an acknowledgment smile: I heard you, sweet gate attendant, and I am now being sweet.

Away your bag went after small talk about oh my, what a full flight and your bag will come back to you in Houston and thank you for gate checking, Miss…?


Walker. Miss Walker.

Walker handwritten on the tag the gate attendant had attached with a snap of elastic.
“Is there a scannable code on that?” You wanted to ask that question—such a small but mighty question!—but your bag had been taken away.

Down the gangplank, into the lion’s den (you’re mixing your metaphors again), and a small but mighty fear arose that your bag would be lost.

Forever. Lost.

It was no longer clutched to your heart, and you started to miss everything in it like you would miss your first-born, if you had one of those.


Here you stand, several hours and hundreds of miles later (and oh, it is so hot in Houston, even in the airport!), in front of the baggage claim chute. Will yours come out?

You watch the other people standing around the baggage claim carrousel, for what are airports good for if not for people watching?

This baggage claim #6 is also supposed to be spitting out bags from a flight that just landed from Orlando. A little girl, maybe 5 years old, is wearing a shiny yellow dress that looks just like the one Belle wears in the big dancing scene in Beauty and the Beast. This little girl, who could be a younger version of Belle, has been to Disney World, and she does not look happy to now be in Houston.

Houston is not Disney (a point in Houston’s favor, in your scorebook, although who will ever look in your scorebook?), and you briefly consider telling the little girl a few things:
One, her dress is very pretty.

Two, you were once told by the lady who animated Belle in the Disney movie that you looked like Belle.

Three, a dream is a wish your heart makes. Wrong Disney movie, and it’s always been a perplexing concept to you, given that your dreams sometimes involve people breaking into your house. Do you wish that? Does your heart really want that? But a dream is a wish your heart makes is just the kind of thing Disney sells so well to 5-year-old girls. That and dresses so that they can feel like a princess.

Four, you don’t need a dress to feel like a princess.

Five, you don’t need to be at Disney to feel like your life is charmed. Remember that, kid: you’ll find it useful in 25 years when you’re living the life you always wanted but find that some days still leave you empty. At the end of days like that—when comfort food seems to be nothing more than calories—you will want to escape into an easier, more charmed world, even though you don’t know where that is. You just know that it’s over there somewhere.

You will remember, then, this lesson: A place isn’t charmed just because it’s somewhere else. Greener grass and all that does not exist elsewhere unless it also exists in your own front yard. A place is charmed because you choose to make it so. That lesson will get you through days when you want to run to the hills because you were just sure, from your spot in the valley, that the sun was shining more brightly and more beautifully there.

But at this moment in front of the baggage claim, you do not tell the little girl any of that about Disney, although imagining this conversation has been a welcome distraction from staring at the baggage claim chute.

If you had not been sweet and gate checked your bag, you could’ve been on the shuttle to the hotel by now, you think.

You could’ve been almost to a place where you could lay down and take off these heels, you think.

You made the wrong choice in letting your bag go, you think.

You always make the wrong choice, a voice that is not you but has somehow gotten into your head thinks.

You shut up, voice. I did the best I could, you think and then see that from the top of the baggage claim chute, more bags are starting to tumble and slide down.

There had been a several minute pause in the bags coming out, and other people had filled their time by looking at their watches and sighing, but not you. No, you filled the time by forcing your face into a neutral, relaxed, of course everything will work out expression.

Forcing relaxation is a concept that rarely works.

But here come the bags—no, the boxes! Someone has checked several cardboard boxes, just as if United Airlines were UPS. They are shrink-wrapped, much like DVDs that are impossible to open easily (why such a barrier to entertainment?), and they are covered in black marker scratchings that must make sense to someone who speaks a different language.

It never occurred to you to pack your clothes in a box, what with the existence of perfectly good suitcases (that fit into the airline bag size-checkers!).

“Well, would you look at that!” you say to the older Asian woman standing next to you. She has been making small, ant-like darts around the baggage claim carrousel for minutes on end, and you’re hoping that conversation will calm her. “I didn’t know you could check boxes!”

She practically leaps forward—nimble movements, craning her neck to see farther up the baggage claim chute—and then turns to you, “Oh, you can check anything. Even people. You could put people in boxes and check them.”

You realize she is not the woman you should be talking to and that you yourself now need someone to bring a level of calm to you after this conversation. Checking people?

It’s no matter, no matter at all (although it probably would be a matter of great importance to anyone who’s ever been sent aboard a flight in such a fashion). You move away from the woman who can’t stop moving, and try to get your mind to stop moving toward worst case scenarios.

The worst being: your bag is lost and will never come back to you. You will never see again your new Mizuno running shoes or your swimsuit or your work dayplanner where you keep all your to-do lists.

These things will be lost forever, but why are you so attached to things?

That question is a bigger one than you intended to encounter on this trip to Houston, but this is what happens when you lose control, even the littlest bit of control, such as over your suitcase: you start to question life.

And why does this loss of control—

Ah, no time for that question now: Your bag has come down the chute.

You always knew it would.

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