Friday, February 19, 2010

I'm Johnny. Fly Me.

I wasn’t always terrified of flying. In my teens and early 20s, I found it hardly more daunting than riding a bus. Then, for no good reason, in the middle of a flight from LA to San Francisco, it occurred to me that if something went terribly wrong with the plane, I probably wouldn’t live to talk about it.

We fearful fliers discover one another with an odd combination of delight and disdain. On the one hand, how lovely to meet someone who shares your recognition of how deeply terrifying the whole experience is. On the other, such a person is absolutely the last I want anywhere near me on the plane, where my hope is to be surrounded by those who, even in the most violent turbulence, only glance up briefly from their books and chuckle softly, as though at the antics of an attention-demanding toddler. I count on the flight attendants not seeming even to notice the sudden bumps that make my own blood run cold.

Even on the longest flight — and I’ve flown from London to Bangkok — I can never really relax. Every time I begin to doze off, it occurs to me that the captain might be suicidally depressed, or that a maintenance worker at the last stop with a secret substance abuse problem might have neglected to perform a crucial test. If the airline has a remarkable safety record, I think about how it’s probably due for a mishap. Beginning our gentle descent into Tenerife in the Canary Islands, I could think only of how it was the site of one of the worst air disasters in recent history.

Mind you, it isn’t the idea of dying that troubles me most, but that of the unspeakable sphincter-loosening dread the passengers on an about-to-crash plane must experience. I have nothing to fear but fear itself, and I fear the hell out of it.

I once flew down to LA from San Francisco with the famously skittish David Bowie, who shortly thereafter declared that all his future travel would be on land or water. Every time the slightest thing happened, we looked at each other with no blood in our faces. Future LA Times dance critic Lewis Segal, sitting between us, thought it hilarious. I might have tried to strangle him if I hadn’t been immobilized by terror.

Leaving from Bilbao late that same decade, I and a young woman publicist with whom I’d become chummy over the course of the San Sebastian International Film Festival worked ourselves into a state of grievous foreboding — and had a succession of stiff drinks — as we awaited the announcement of our departure gate. While she had the sense to go on the wagon once on the plane, I, by the time we landed, was drunker than ever in my life. As everybody unbuckled, grabbed his stuff out of the overhead containers, and crowded into the aisles, my bladder suddenly began shouting, “I don’t know what you think you’ve been doing, but I’m getting rid of this stuff now!” I frantically clawed my way back to the nearest lavatory through my extremely displeased fellow passengers, arriving at the last possible millisecond. When I went through customs, the poor devil whose bad luck it was to interrogate me fanned the air between our faces in disgust. Not even all Brits like the smell of a distillery.

I don’t think I’ve been on a plane in the last 60 years on which I didn’t, just before takeoff, think about Tom Wolfe’s famous piece about Phil Spector, in which Spector is seen deciding there's “something wiggy” about a plane he's on, and (successfully!) demands, moments before it's cleared for departure, to be let off. When have I been on a plane that didn’t seem very wiggy indeed as it headed for the runway? I’m proud of never having actually asked to be let out — and, before that, of never even having allowed my fear to keep me from boarding.

I’m not a member of the Sky High Club, or whatever it’s called. The thought of having at it in an airplane lavatory makes not an extra milliliter of blood rush to my pelvic area, though that may be because I’ve just never met the right girl. The only time a stewardess ever gave me a come-hither look was on a flight from LA to Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, and the fact that I could see the jagged peaks of the Rocky Mountains far too clearly beneath us made me want only more vodka. Also, I think she may have mistaken me for Cat Stevens. We’ll never know now.

Have I mentioned that I have a new album out now? Have I mentioned that Facebookers can subscribe to these little essays here?

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