The polite darkness of 30,000 feet
In San Francisco it was raining. We’d booked the last few hotel rooms in town. This was in the Tenderloin.
The lobby was marble and wood and the molding was lacquered to a glaze.
No plants, no chairs, no places to sit.
Just a guard, shoulder against the wall, watching the door. We checked in. The WiFi password, we learned, was “savings”.
Upstairs, the carpet was worn to a grey rut. Mirrors covered the hallway walls. You walked and saw yourself walking. The sound of televisions and voices came muffled through every door.
Do it, a man said.
I already did it, a woman replied.
I brought you here and you disrespect me, the man said, not angry just tired, already resigned.
Keep walking. Find your door. Slide the card in. When the lock clicks you think of shaking hands.
In the morning we drive to Redwood City where the streets are smooth and kempt.
There’s a Philz and a Starbucks.
There’s an Applebee’s and a well-lit gym.
The restaurants are empty and will be empty until lunch, and then they will be empty again until five.
In the client’s lobby everything is chiclet white and bug zapper blue, as if to electrocute anything unclean. The precise arrangement of furniture gives an impression: decisions are made here, and crisply. Upstairs there are rows of unused desks.
In the conference rooms there is much nodding and the soft squeaking of white board pens. Out the window the clouds are gathering just behind the ridges of Sierra Morena, just above the coyote bush, the yellow bush, the thin fingerlings of yerba santa.
A flurry of keyboard taps startles like birds. You notice a girl on her iPhone.
Her icons are arranged by color.
Back in the city it rains again.
A man in dirty jeans, walking the other way, sees a gnawed-clean chicken leg in a styrofoam container, picks it up, puts it in his mouth.
A woman crouches under an overhang holding a lit cigarette near her own skin. She doesn’t flinch.
Tents are going up under the maroon and gold of Wells Fargo.
At the airport you’re not asked to remove your shoes. A man plays piano at a terminal bar. The waitress is old with spittle at the corners of her mouth. A blandly attractive man on a stool says he “works in lasers”, flirts, asks her if she’s married. He pronounces every syllable in the word darling.
The planes, rolling slowly, glide past the glass like fish.
Later, when you wake up, it’ll just be the hum of the fuselage and the smell of vacuumed carpet. The flashing light on the wing. The silhouettes of heads in their seats.
Probably the passengers beside you will be sleeping.
Probably you’ll find yourself just sitting there.
Probably you’ll find yourself just sitting there in the polite darkness of thirty thousand feet, watching whatever plays silently on your neighbor’s screen.