Ultraviolent Urges! Soylent Green! A Random Note on Human Nature in The Zone

A Peircean “existential graph.”

Our week in The Zone — the international air-travel corridor and its networks of hotels, airports, transportation mafias and road-warrior information technology networks that generally fail to live up to the promises of the rhetoric of the technological sublime — is nearly at an end.

Thank God.

Tomorrow we take off for São Paulo’s Cumbica (Guarulhos) airport on TAM. We are staying at Comfort Inn near 3rd and Butler in central Brooklyn, near the Atlantic Center. It is an oddity in the surrounding neighborhood of Brooklyn industrial grunge, but it actually happens to be within easy walking distance of our favorite restaurant.

We also happen to be well acclimated to Brooklyn industrial grunge. So we actually do feel comforted.

Unlike a lot of the people we have met during our recent travels, the efficient, cheerful and diplomatic Tiffany at the front desk here is a diamond in the rough. Promote this girl to regional manager.

Along with that skinny Bronx kid from the moving service that gets all its business from listing on Craig’s List, who said he could schlep 30 boxes of books, within two hours to the staging area for dispatch to a container ship bound for Santos, and then proceeded to bust his ass in order to do so — she is a shining hero of Soviet labor amid the general decadence of customer service that we have observed along the way.

Still to do: a follow-up to

Elizabeth “Exterminate the Brutes” Spiers, a former Nick Denton blogger, kvetched to readers of the Washington Post a month or so ago that Brazil’s TAM airlines is “the worst airline in the world” — a symptom of the nasty, brutish and short existence that awaits us in the apocalyptic Third World hellhole that my Brazilian wife and I are planning to spend most of the rest of our lives in, God willing.

We thought we should reality-test that proposition.

Example: Average time required to retrieve one suitcase from American Airlines on our recent JFK-SFO round trip: about 15 hours. That is, 28 hours on the outbound leg and an hour and a half on the return trip, rounded up to 30 hours.

Arriving at our hotel took almost as long as the flying time from one coast to another.

So let’s see if “the worst airline in the world” can beat that benchmark.

Because, yes, the Soviet-drab poured-concrete Guarulhos terminal is somewhat funky and decrepit, it is true. Still, we can honestly say we have never had an apocalyptic travel experience there. It’s a bit like Tati Quebra-Barraco: It’s ugly, but it does the job. (And the taxi corps is totally old-school, by the way. Taxi-driving, like barbering, is still cultivated as a proud service profession.)

It is simply not clear to us that the $1.5 billion spent on the American Airline terminal at JFK has produced a travel experience that is $1.5 billion better.

On the contrary.

Unfortunately, we will not be able to compare AA and TAM on the exact same terms, because we are not taking TAM round-trip. Both of us came back to New York on the JAL midnight flight, as I recall.

Neuza suffered a two-hour delay in takeoff on her flight, while mine departed on time.

The impressive thing, however, was that JAL wisely decided to get all its passengers boarded on time. Get them strapped in, stocked up on infotainment, and medicated on whatever it is we medicate ourselves with. Bombard us with Muzak. Keep us calm.

Not a bad way to manage skittish humans, that. You feel psychologically more safe on the plane than you do stranded in the terminal.

You no longer worry about whether you are going to get on your plane at all, just about when it is going to take to the skies.

Instead of wondering whether this evil corporation is going to break its promises to you — the ultimate insult in the series of petty humiliations that your day has degenerated into — your worry is now of a purely technical nature.

And you have the captain on the intercom reinforcing that idea — we will take of when we get clearance from the tower — and keeping you briefed.

Because one thing I always tend to forget about traveling until I actually do it again — it is an ugly fact about myself that I would prefer not to acknowledge — is the atavistic emotions it can awaken in you.

Ugly, primitive feelings. Violent feelings.

Brazilian newscasts love to show scenes of passengers assaulting airline employees, for example (– although we have never actually witnessed such a scene ourselves.) Much as João Kleber’s show featured Candid Camera-style scenarios designed to goad their subjects into a violent response.

And make no mistake about it: That could be me. Or you.

That smirking lady at the “ground transport assistance” desk at JFK Terminal 1 yesterday? I had really, really evil thoughts about her. I am still having them. My pulse raced. I “saw red.” My mind churned to find the most bitingly ironical parting remark I could produce, but, flooded with frustration, all my brain could produce was a Homer Simpson “annoyed grunt.”

And that TSA guard on the Airtrain?

The information design of the fabulous Airtrain is a porcaria. There are no maps in the terminals to guide you. The scrolling marquees on Track 1 and Track 2 are not at all helpful on indicating which line you want to be taking. There is a gap between the platform in the train that a luggage-cart wheel sinks right into and refuses to budge from. The system appears to have been designed by the same guy that sold Springfield its monorail, if you remember that episode of The Simpsons.

And then this poor disoriented old Chinese lady with imperfect English comes along, wanting the TSA guard — the only visible representative of The System on the platform — to orient her.

He treats her with utter disdain. Her deafness, imperfect English and giddy disorientation pisses him off. He has to get off his personal cell phone to attend to her request, which he gives to understand is an outrageous imposition.

He makes it abundantly clear that his is a shitty job and that helping move people efficiently get through the system is not part of what he gets paid scarcely any money at all, by the Homeland Security outsourcing contractor that hired him, to do.

Headline in USA Today, as we note passing a newsstand near our departure gate that morning:

On our AA flights to and from SFO, I could not help thinking of the “ethical suicide parlors” in the film Soylent Green.

On the plasma screens running down the spine of the cabin, cosmic, soothing Muzak and video montages of the natural sublime — wind blowing snow from majestic peaks, vast pine forests stretching to the horizon — designed to soothe you as they tamp you down into your cattle-car accommodations.

I spent the flight reading John Perkins’ The Secret History of the American Empire — which, as earnest a plea for sanity as it is, given that it does not teem with hitherto unreported historical details of dirty deeds done dirt cheap, does not really live up to its billing — and Charles Saunders Peirce’s “How to Make Our Ideas Clear” and “The Doctrine of Chances.”

About which more later.


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