Flying on a plane during the COVID-19 pandemic is terrifying, let alone idiotic, according to smart people.
In a recent New York Times survey, only 7 percent of the 511 epidemiologists polled admitted that they would fly right now.
But I’ve never claimed to be smart, so I took my chances and experienced the doom-laden dread of cramming myself into a metal bird with other possibly afflicted humans as I flew back to Pittsburgh for my best friend’s wedding. As the best man, it’s an occasion I wouldn’t miss for the world, even though he planned to have me there virtually and postponed the bigger ceremony to next year. If I died en route, the blood would not be on his hands.
Arriving at the Denver International Airport around 11 p.m. for a 1:30 a.m. redeye to Charlotte, where I had a three-hour layover before heading to the Steel City, I parked about seven miles from the terminal, pissed next to my car and took a deep breath. Then I dove into the maelstrom.
This airport seemed off-kilter. I couldn’t find the American Airlines desk or a living person to ask where to go. I wandered aimlessly for what felt like an eternity. My pulse pounded inside my noise-canceling headphones to create a dirge-like drumbeat. Lost. Confused. Irritated. Directionless.
After becoming thoroughly disoriented, I decided to give in. This is purgatory. I must have fallen victim to a violent crash. Somewhere along I-70, I imagined myself drifting in and out of consciousness, this airport being my dying vision.
The south security entrance, which is the one I typically use with the large American flag hanging from the ceiling, had been closed. The north security checkpoint was on the other side, under the gigantic Colorado flag, a friendly TSA employee who noticed my concern told me.
But blank, white walls blocked off a large section of the walkway to the open entrance. Again I walked in circles. After several detours, I found the line. An attractive couple and myself were the only passengers present aside from the TSA skeleton crew. Even the drug-sniffing dogs had the night off.
I asked the lady overseeing the conveyor belt if any airport establishments were open.
Of course there's fast food in the afterlife, I thought. "What about bars? I was thinking I'd get drunk before my flight." A friend who recently traveled by air suggested eating a Xanax beforehand, but another flight-weary comrade said a couple of mini-bottles would have the same effect.
"That much time, huh? No, everything closes down around 6 p.m. ... except McDonald's. You should have been here a month ago, it was like the apocalypse."
Goddammit, I’d have to navigate this post-mortem labyrinth stone sober. At that time, after successfully passing through security, I decided to remove my glasses. And blind.
I found McDonald's at the top of the Terminal A escalator. Ronald McDonald was getting his ass handed to him as a gaggle of my fellow near-dead travelers piled into the four socially distanced lines and a small herd waited off to the side for their orders to be called.
I began to sweat and panicked, “A large sweet tea and two bottles of water …”
“Do you have any alcohol … for the tea?”
“OK, that’s it.”
A lady with arms that ended at her elbows handed me my receipt — Order No. 369 — through the porthole of the protective Plexiglas shield. I began to murmur the song of the same name.
“3, 6, 9
The goose drank wine
The monkey chewed tobacco on the streetcar line
The line broke, the monkey got choked
And they all went to heaven in a little rowboat”
Oh, sweet insanity, you cruel jokester. I grabbed my liquid and scurried to find a spot at my gate. Landing in a seat facing the window overlooking the airport apron behind a large pillar, I tore off my facemask and quickly consumed all my drinks. A lady nearby stared in horror as dribble fell from my chin and onto my chest. I returned the glare, as if to say, “Mind your own funeral.”
As a metal mix played through my headphones, I sat there, blind, reading “The Collected Schizophrenias” by Esmé Weijun Wang, which is a collection of powerful essays about the author’s life with mental illness, but it did nothing to assuage my anxiety. I checked my news app, “BREAKING: UFOs over Wisconsin?” Finally.
I began to write in my Moleskin. In checking my notes from that fearful night in preparing this piece, I can barely discern my scrawls. In no particular order:
“Ignore the other humans enjoying their McDonald’s as if it’s their last meal.”
“If you’re gonna die, die with a Big Mac in your belly.”
“‘The weirdo in the corner won’t stop writing,’ I hear them whisper. ‘I’ll die if I do!” I scream back.”
“DIA (Denver International Airport) is eerily similar to DOA (dead on arrival).”
Once aboard the initial flight, I passed out before we took off, then slept-walked until arriving in Pittsburgh, where a friend picked me up. We immediately headed to Primanti Brothers for oversized sandwiches and Iron City beer.
All hysterics aside, I’d gladly relive the fear-induced fever dream as Darin and Maggie officially married in front of a small group of family and friends during a quaint ceremony in downtown Pittsburgh. Congratulations, Lyles.