“The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.”—Samuel Beckett, Murphy
“Welcome to John Wayne International Airport. The current Homeland Security threat level is Orange. To enhance your safety, and to avoid transporting dangerous goods, please do not leave baggage unattended. Please report suspicious or unattended packages to law enforcement personnel.”
“We have a high degree of need to protect structure.”—San Diego County Fire Chief, on NBC News
Anaheim, California should be paved over, if it weren’t already. We’ve been going there weekly for six months, yet my friend J. and I still get confused between the 57 North and the 55 as we leave the airport. Our plasticky rental cars get no respect on these freeways, which crawl with wide-arsed vehicles that are probably bought with the profits from p*n*s enl*rgement spam. We cut them off through incompetence, and get cut off in our turn. Who cares? It’s not as if they’re human.
With names like “Hotel Drive,” “Convention Drive,” and “Airport Way,” the streets round here don’t even try. We can’t get a purchase on the geography, so we learn to swerve into U-turns. We drive past Christian superstores, Disneyland hotels, and PetCo chains. Cell towers and bulldozers and parking lots. We look forward to our few landmarks: Fritz That’s Too, our favorite strip-joint, or Mr. Stox, an early 1980s power restaurant straight out of Caddyshack. The memory of dinner there makes us laugh every time.
We drive by strip malls and theme malls and self-styled anti-malls, where the women have padded lips, new breasts, and pale hair. It’s the opposite of camouflage—without them, you disappear at thirty. Their daughters wear skirts that my friend G. describes as “two inches from the good stuff.” Surrounded by modifications, I’m struck by how human beings are hard-wired for facial pattern recognition. I catch myself staring at people in Starbucks queues, searching for symmetries and flaws, trying to tell what’s been altered. Cosmetic surgery is unsettling, in the way that shaved eyebrows are unsettling, and I fantasize that some Hallowe’en the whole population of Orange County will wear t-shirts printed with their first driver’s licence photos, for easy comparison.
Our usual hotel is full, and we call this one the Willy Loman Memorial Marriott. Instead of room service, there’s a communal mini-bar at front desk—a fridge with a tray of tiny liquor bottles, Lean Cuisines, and frozen burritos. At 10 pm, J. knocks on my door and holds up a miniature Dewar’s scotch and a Snickers bar. “Dinner,” she says, my organic, vegetarian friend. “I just wanted someone to witness it.” We make up German words to describe the feeling of opening the door to a lousy hotel room: Hiltonschmerz. Scheissekarpetzgeist.
At breakfast, men eat pallid eggs and make notes on their PowerPoint decks with cheap hotel pens. They’re already in meetings, and it’s just past dawn. Soon they’ll waltz to the ballroom to show the numbers at the All-Hands, while their colleagues doodle. Their company name is pegged up on one of those old-fashioned event boards. They sell drug testing solutions.
John Wayne swaggers at the entrance to his own airport—cast in bronze, bow-legged, a life-sized 12 feet tall. Those security announcements loop on the intercom, full of robotic warmth, while we line up to be searched and have our hummus confiscated. At the departure level, two fat cops on Segways roll past a wall of windows that frames a dark orange sky. The Santa Ana bellows is still blowing on the wildfires to the south, and we can smell the smoke even in the sealed terminal. The air is itchy and thick.
“Keep your hands up! Don’t touch anything. “ A woman sprays Purell on every surface near her son, murdering bacteria, while he asks where I’m going. He’s five, and his name is Miles. He holds his hands up patiently and kicks his light-up sneakers. “M-I-L-E-S, Miles,” he says, mumbling the last letters as she swabs his mouth.
J. and I soothe ourselves with trashy magazines for the plane ride home. The sales clerk at the airport newsstand is a friend by now, and every week we discuss Britney Spears. While J. counts out the dollars for People she asks her a question. Something innocuous; about weekend plans, maybe. However it comes up, the woman answers that, well, at the moment, she’s homeless. She lives in her car, sometimes sleeps on friends’ couches. She’s hopeful that something will turn up soon.
Behind us, there’s a line of tired people waiting, without much interest, to find out if Brad really has walked out on Angelina this time. Or was it the other way round? Everyone wants to escape.