I am not a plane person. I have a ’94 Honda Civic EX named Billy Markham, who got sideswiped while parked at the curb last fall in New York, and who has never been quite the same since. I love that goddamn car. I will continue to breathe life into its crippled little frame until it gives up the ghost. Unfortunately, I don’t have the extra lucre at the moment to give him the reconstructive surgery he needs, so I flew out to Brooklyn. And back. Or I will, as soon as my cab gets here.
Writing in airplanes is unlike anything else. There’s the cramped feeling of being stuffed into a seat closer than conventional propriety would allow under any other circumstances. If you write by hand, which I do, your handwriting takes on the uncertain quality of a ghost’s. I have often looked back at pages I wrote while on a plane and thought I must have scribbled them down in the middle of the night, still half-asleep. It’s all the clouds that do it, the heaviness of the sky at that altitude, the way the air makes you a little heady, how close it presses. It makes an envelope of sound around you, the humming noise of the engines and the close-pressing air.
People cannot help but read over your shoulder on an airplane. There is nothing else to do; words catch our eye. One woman was impatient for me to move on as I paused at a paragraph. It was a manual on public speaking; not fascinating stuff. It was all there was, though. She made harumphing noises at me until I continued typing (I type, too).
You write deeply while on a plane. There’s no phone at 30,000 feet. There’s no internet, either. Getting up to go to the bathroom is almost more trouble than it’s worth. You finish your book too quickly, or you forgot to bring one, and quickly got bored of the sky-high magazine. You sit there, at 30,000 feet, staring at a computer screen or a blank notebook page, and think, “Well, there’s nothing else to do.” So you do it. You write. For five hours, you write. There’s something pure about it, the writing high in the air, the invisible bubble of sound enveloping you, the passenger looking approvingly over your shoulder like a household god.
I don’t care for airports, or airport security, or the people at the ticket counter. The fluorescent lights make me a little ill and the food is always twelve times more expensive than it ought to be and lousy, besides. I don’t like airports at all. I’d sooner be in my little car, music on the stereo, scribbling down little snippets of scene on my arm as I drive so I won’t forget them later, stopping in diners to stitch them all together into a portrait of this last hour, this stretch of Kansas that is otherwise bare, except for the Mexican worker toddling along on a bicycle with his hair under a cowboy hat, the graceful church way off on a hill, proud as a castle, and the little girl who grinned at me from under her bangs until I smiled back, at which point she grasped the sleeve of her brother and pointed at me.
I prefer cars. Driving is for seeing, for remembering. There’s nothing to see on an airplane, so I write all the things I can remember down, instead.