Celebration: Proust Meets Kool and the Gang

When I woke from a quick nap, I was thinking about typewriters. I had the sensation in my fingers of pounding the keys, of manually slamming back the carriage return.

My plane was finally in the air, and I’d dozed off. I awoke to somebody’s boot knocking my seat from behind, a scribble of white and blue clouds out the window, and another sliver from my past.

I’d already fallen through several memory holes that morning. My flight to California had only been delayed a couple of hours—chump change, given the rotten weather in Boston—and I’d come prepared to wait. I’d brought along my laptop, newspapers, an issue of the New Yorker, two partially read novels. I’d been ready to distract myself.

What I hadn’t expected was the time-shifting trance that came over me and which continued into the flight. In the departure lounge, rather than click through my activities and ingest more information, I saw the most pedestrian of fixtures shimmer with something else.

I’ve always thought the many monitors arrayed around airports, with their arrival and departure times, scattered destinations, and gate numbers, try to cheat time. Not until long after snow and ice are falling, and people are jamming the lounges and chomping through yet another crummy bag of potato chips, do the screen entries for a delayed flight change from that blissfully unaware ON TIME.

You could say this is an optimistic view of life.

After my group of stalwart passengers had moved from one gate to another—our original plane was diverted for refueling to some tiny town in New York—I stood and watched the closest monitor slowly switch from a column of ON TIME’s to a swath of DELAYED‘s and CANCELLED’s.

At least my flight hadn’t been cut. On a snowy day, that constitutes joy in an airport. At our gate, I jiggled from one foot to another, dancing to Kool and the Gang’s “Celebration,” which played from a nearby speaker over the hiss of CNN.

It was MLK Day. Kool was saying “come on!”—my feet were tapping—and I thought about every wedding I’d attended where I’d heard this song.

Then I remembered standing in the sunny courtyard of my California elementary school, watching the flag lower to half-mast, knowing something terrible had happened. I felt sleepy in the sunshine. I wondered if my teacher, who looked tearful, would have to run in to the bathroom to blow her nose. Would she then walk us out to the terrace above the playground, pointing out the brown haze over the Bay, explaining why we needed to clean up all the air pollution?

In the lounge, I watched them de-ice an airplane. It’s been more than forty years since Martin Luther King was killed. I thought the plane was ours—but no. The jetway had already been accordioned back. Its wings were sprayed, and eventually it pulled out. Then our plane pulled in, nose first.

Time overlapped again, and I grinned, although it was fear I recalled. As a child, maybe younger than my almost-eight-year-old son, I’d been haunted by the thought of nose cones on spaceships. The “nose” had seemed so human, just like this airplane’s nose.

Nose cones in science-fiction movies always seemed to be falling off. The spaceship pilots were supposed to sleep until they woke up on a new planet light years distant. But somehow, their nose cone got separated from the ship. It tumbled into a swamp or a forest, and when the people there jimmied open the hatch, the pilots inside were dead.

They had begun the trip in their twenties, fit and muscular and gorgeous. But there they lay, curled in a fetal position, as wizened as eighty-year-olds with improbably bouffant hair.

I think the image comes from Planet of the Apes, a movie that terrified me as a child. My younger brother and I watched it with my parents at a drive-in. Mom and Dad were in their early thirties then, not far from the age of the dead spaceship pilots.

I remembered, too, those drive-in nights, the walks in our pjs to the snack bar, eating stale popcorn, eyes wide in the backseat. When I was scared, I never wanted to leave our own capsule, the ancient Ford Falcon or our white Dodge.

Back in the departure lounge, decades later, I knew I’d soon fly across the country again, distance collapsed by time. When I emerged at San Francisco Airport, blinking, most of a day would have passed. But I’d still be alive and young, as if I’d returned from my own space voyage. I had traveled light years, maybe to another galaxy.

I’d visit my ailing parents, my friends with their growing children, as if they’d lived half their lives while I was jetting through the stars and only a year had passed for me.

I kept grinning in the lounge—and later after my nap on the plane, typewriter letters still stamping my vision—because this fantasy of time passing and not passing, of my own relative position in the cosmos of changes, had such an exotic fragrance.

It smelled of apricots, from the tree in our yard when I was small. It smelled of iris blossoms, the large purple ones from our garden that I used to turn into bedrooms for my flower princesses; of star jasmine in a dripping wet garden in San Francisco when I was in my late twenties, after a night of dancing.

Here’s Proust, after eating his “petite madeleine”:

“And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory—this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was me. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal.”

I’m on the plane. I’m ready to depart, tapping my feet to “Celebration” in front of a candy counter, watching those guys outside the window sitting in bright yellow cabs on bouncing crane arms. They point nozzle-guns at jet wing after wing. They spray everything down with pink and green, so much light against the white void.

Strange as it sounds, I thank Boston Logan Airport for a bit of Proustian grace, complete with three-packs of madeleines at Starbucks. Note that no one at Massport (or Starbucks) has paid me to promote their “precious essence.”