Chapter One: Jet stream of consciousness
Taipei welcomes me with an ice pick in the eye. It’s not a real ice pick. It’s a virtual one, which is worse since I can’t pull it out. I sit patiently and hope it will disappear as quickly as it appeared. I am in a transit area, having arrived from San Francisco and waiting for the final leg of my trip to Shanghai. I hold my head down and bury my face in my hands hoping this will help. It doesn’t. Time ticks away slowly. It’s cloudy and rainy outside. But it’s also sticky warm.
The airport has a sickly, moldy smell, and I am seated right under a vent that spews chilled air in an ongoing battle against Taiwan’s warm, moist climate. The bare, florescent lighting doesn’t help my condition, either. Flight announcements repeat endlessly in Chinese. My fatigue-addled brain feverishly searches for meaning from what sounds like the recording of a three-legged cat sauntering across a pipe organ in need of repair. It somehow translates a series of Chinese sounds in one of the announcements to the words “Special K.” I know that “Special K” is never really mentioned, but my brain tells me it’s there each time the recording plays, which is over and over and over and over. I then hear the same announcement in Japanese, and then in English. The same message repeated in three languages, only the Chinese one announces “Special K.” The ice pick digs deeper into my grey matter. I go Zen and try to think of nothing, that fails. I try to think of the sound of a softly flowing stream. It doesn’t help. I curl up, as best I can, into a sitting fetus position.
Hours pass me through a white tube of cosmic pain. I hope for relief. But there is none. The customer service agents begin announcing that we will soon be boarding. First on, people in need of special assistance and those with small children. The first- and business-class passengers — the airline aristocracy, are visibly irked. How dare anyone board before them. But they acquiesce. They board next. I’m surprised airlines personnel don’t carry them onboard. Finally, they wave the rest of us forward. We are boarded like cheap cattle, I fear if I fall, they will shoot and leave me, not wanting to waste precious time on someone in coach.
My seat is far in the back. I sit down and my inner voice reminds me that slave ships provided more space for their human cargo then airlines do theirs. The thought sends the ice pick spinning.
Maybe I’m dehydrated, I think. I finally get the attention of a busy flight attendant and ask for some water. A few moments later I receive a swallow of tepid water in what looks like a little white paper hat for a Barbie doll. It doesn’t help. My arms are jammed to my side. I am wearing an invisible straight jacket of courtesy. If I relax my left arm, it rubs against a stoned-face Asian man. If I relax my right arm, it is battered by the bony flight attendant as she passes by. The pain in my eye and head increases. I begin to sweat, and I’m quickly drenched. I know that we will have to be at 10,000 feet before I can get up and over to the toilet without a beat down by the attendants. As a precaution I check the seat pocket and find the barf bag. It’s waxy, non-descript and the only paper product without ads printed on it.
I’ve never thrown up in-flight before. If it happens, I wonder if there’ll be a chain reaction. Will I detonate a massive puke chain reaction? I imagine a sour carpet of half-digested breakfasts from around the world overwhelming the barf bags and spilling over like polychromatic lava, warm not hot. I hold off.
Finally, the captain announces that we have reached 10,000 feet. I stand up and move to the back where the bathrooms are. They are both occupied. Have people been in there all this time? Are they selling those as seats? Is there a bathroom class? The thoughts swirl around in my head and my nausea grows. The flight attendant sees that even for a white guy, I’m really white. She quickly points me to the front and tells me there are four more bathrooms there. As the aircraft is still climbing, I begin my ascent, fighting gravity and inadvertently striking passengers as I hastily make my way towards the front. They say nothing, but I sense their eyes drilling me from behind. This is no time for apologies. Would they prefer an acidic shampoo?
I reach the toilet and open the door to a beautiful sight of stainless steel. I close the door, lift the lid and release my payload. As I un-swallow, I experience the sour shadow of my consumption for the last 24 hours. The ghost of orange juice past is particularly nasty.
Still cold from sweat, I’m relieved and happy. I straighten my shirt and rinse out my mouth. I wipe the perspiration from my face. The ice pick is gone. I walk back to my seat, managing to strike a few passengers as I make my way down the narrow aisle. The remainder of the flight is smooth and happy. I am full of sparkly anticipation for my final stop: Shanghai.