Part I

You just got screwed. You knew you were getting screwed. And the only thing worse than getting screwed is knowing you're getting screwed while you're getting screwed. You tell yourself, Okay, just this one time, it won't happen again. But yourself tells you, It most certainly will.

And yourself is right. Because you need them more than they need you. Even if they can't survive without people like you. You don't get from the West Coast to the East Coast in less than 24 hours without them. And you don't travel from the West Coast to the East Coast without at least one piece of luggage. They know this. And because they're barely surviving, they ask that you pay them an extra $25 to take care of it. It's like a restaurant charging you for silverware. Or a barber charging for the extra time he spends sweeping up your hair. You realize that, for a variety of reasons, the airlines are essentially private industry functioning like bureaucracy. Which is to say they charge more for bad service.

As you start to indignantly make your way to your gate, you remember that you still have to go through security. It's the most talked-about aspect of air travel, yet every time you fly, for that split second after you get your boarding pass, you forget all about it. Now, remembering it, your carry-on bag suddenly feels a little heavier.

In fact it is a little heavier—a little heavier than it needs to be, anyway. For your flight, you brought along a book you normally wouldn't read, sections of the newspaper you'd normally throw out and three folders containing mundane paperwork for three different small projects that you'd normally complete without even thinking of them as projects. Also in your bag are your obligatory Just In Case items: you know, extra pens, sticky notes, rubber bands—all the miscellaneous crap that you think, for no good reason, that you might need on a plane.

You lug your bag over to the security gate and find a bottleneck of people. The line is long, but you're surprised it's not longer. You count 16 TSA workers, nine of whom are actively working. The other seven seem to be kind of working, but it's hard to say. One of them stands idly for 20 seconds, then walks to the corner of the room, grabs an empty wheelchair and pushes it over to the other corner of the room. Job well done. Two other workers, one a pallid fiftysomething-year-old man with glasses and a hairline that has just barely receded into official baldness, the other a dark-skinned twentysomething-year-old gal who, when you consider the weight of her extravagant, frizzy and braided, shiny red-dyed hair and hula hoop-sized earrings, might just be the heaviest human being you've ever seen. The man and the lady are animatedly chatting about something that happened earlier. You can't quite pick up what they're talking about, but you're sure it's riveting conversation when you hear the man finish by saying, "So that's why I checked his ticket twice."

The other four TSA employees are enigmatic. You study them for a good 30 seconds and still can't tell whether or not they're on break. You kind of doubt they are because, at the other end of the atrium leading up to the security lines, sit six TSA workers, lounging around, drinking pop and texting. You figure if these four were on break, surely at least one of them would go join that group. All four are sporting one of two facial expressions: the one that seems to say, If you approach me, I won't understand your question, and the one that seems to say, If you approach me, I'll kill you.

Finally, it's your turn to go through security. A gruff, gray-haired lady with a personality that's half librarian, half midnight custodian asks to see your I.D. and boarding pass. You study the lady's uniform and wonder if all the racing stripes and extra seals are really necessary. And you wonder how badly she, and her fellow TSA workers, yearns for shoes that don't make her look like a chain restaurant table busser. No matter how official the uniform and entire setup is, you just can't bring yourself to believe that this lady—or any of her co-workers—actually has any true authority. Are these people really America's first line of defense against air traffic terrorism?

Your ticket and ID check out just fine. Whew! You proceed. Another TSA worker, wearing purple latex gloves, kindly directs you to the metal detector on your far left. You get there and, for some reason, the traveler ahead of you is rushing as if he's being timed on an obstacle course. He frantically removes the change and money clip from his pockets. He becomes even more frantic when some of the change misses the large grey tub that he's snatched and clangs down on the metal surface in front of him. He quickly removes his shoes—loafers—then hastily removes his belt. For his shoes and belt, he grabs another large gray tub, but in his rapidity, he's unable to get the tub to unlatch from the stack of other tubs. He grabs at it. Grabs again. Again. He groans. Finally, he stops for half a second, collects himself, and removes the gray tub with both hands. Then, upon hearing the sound of the tub sliding along all the roller things and onto the moving conveyer belt, the man starts rushing again. He slows down just as he crosses through the metal detector, his arms extended out from his sides ever so slightly, as if he were wearing an inflated sumo wrestler suit. Doing this while walking with his shoes off makes him look like a bit of a Nancy boy.

The metal detector beeps as he walks through. His face flashes an expression of agony. Quickly, he backs up to try again. The TSA guard standing on the other side—the one hired to check your ticket 10 seconds after the first ticket inspector—signals, from two feet away, for the man to slow down. When the man finally does, he walks through calmly. Nothing happens. He's good to go. Grabbing his carry-on bag and gray tub full of shoes and a belt, the man begins rushing again. You get the sense he's not late for a flight—he's just jittery by nature.

Now it's your turn. Shoes off, you approach the metal detector. There's not an ounce of ore on you, yet you feel your heart stop for just a millisecond as you step through. Everything's fine. And look, from behind the conveyer belt curtains, here comes your bag. You half expect to see it weltered and smoking but, alas, it's in the same condition as before.

You gather your things, slip on your shoes and walk past two more TSA workers standing around. On your left is an NBC News shop. You ignore its iridescent glow and continue on. You've been in the shop before—from afar, it looks like the greatest place in the world. But the second you enter, you realize everything inside is spectacularly average and even more spectacularly overpriced. Plus, you don't need a t-shirt or shot glass or a…what the hell's that? Oh…or a magnet, with a state logo on it.

Your gate is B-15. Walking briskly for no other reason than that everyone else is, you're quickly ascending on a gate that you've been able to see this entire time. It isn't until you pass gate B-9 and approach B-10 that you remember that airports are like the city of Phoenix: everything is straight ahead and much further away than you think. On your right is a shoeshine stand. You try to figure out why they still have those things in airports. And why only in airports? And why is the shoeshine guy only around 10 percent of the time? You've never had your shoes shined, you know you never will, but still, you think about it and decide that if you did, it would probably be fun. You've never sat in a chair that high off the ground before.

Passing gate B-12 you hear a strident beeping noise accompanied by a deep voice bellowing incoherent words that somehow still get their point across to everyone: watch out! It's a cart, with one single flashing orange light towering up from back of it. The driver is going entirely too fast, yet who's going to slow him down? You try to get a good look at the people riding in the cart. Though you may not admit this, you're looking because you're incredulous. Three people are riding in the cart and you want to know what their deal is. You want proof that one of them actually needs the special treatment and that these people aren't just being lazy sons of bitches. You don't find the proof you're looking for, but only because you fear you might wind up staring at a handicapped person. This is also why you successfully fight off the urge to turn back and look at the cart as you hear its beep fading away over your left shoulder.

You finally get to your gate and realize that you've actually stopped at gate B-14. How did that happen? Sauntering into the gate B-15 waiting area you again question why, exactly, you always feel the need to arrive for your flight 45 minutes early. You immediately begin to wonder the same thing about the people around you. And it's stunning, the number of people around you. Why do we all get here so early, you ask yourself.

You can't even find a place to sit. Part of you doesn't want to sit because in 45 minutes you'll engage in a marathon sit. Still, you look for a seat. There aren't any. Well, yes, there actually are several single seats, and you're traveling alone, but you don't want to sit next to any of these people. And they don't want to sit next to you. Everyone would rather sit with two, maybe even three, seats of buffer zone between them and the next person. Eventually you sit down.

Everyone is pretending to read while sneaking glances at one another. You choose to play this game. No one around you seems happy. Probably because the only reason anyone is in an airport to begin with is because they'd rather be somewhere else. You get caught glancing at the guy across from you who is reading yesterday's Wall Street Journal. He only caught you glancing because he was getting ready to glance at you.

Scanning the area, you find yourself searching for people you hope aren't sitting next to you on the plane. You see a lady with a baby. The baby is sleeping at the moment, but that doesn't matter: you're already irked that there's a baby on your flight.

Another woman appears to be traveling alone with three kids. She has a ring on her finger, so you wonder where her husband is. You just hope she's not on her way home. If she is, it means she's probably worn out from vacationing with three kids, which means she'll probably give up and let her three kids behave however they want on the flight.

You spot a fat guy—an insanely fat guy. Then another insanely fat guy. Then an insanely fat woman. You sigh as you think about America's obesity problem. Your odds of getting stuck next to an insanely fat person on a plane seem to rise commensurately with advancements in technology. Sure enough, this insanely fat guy is scarfing down McDonalds while perusing his Blackberry. You wonder if he somehow used his smart phone to order the food. You pray you don't get stuck next to him. It's at this moment that you allow yourself to think about—and curse—the fact that your ticket says seat 23-E. Middle seat.

You pull out the Life section of the newspaper you brought along. Odd title, "Life" section. Usually the people who read it are the ones who actually have no life. You're hesitant to read now because you want to be sure to save plenty of stuff to do on the plane. But you can't help yourself. Plus, you need something to help you look busy while you wait.

As you try to read about the huge breaking news of Brad Pitt saying he loves his new twin babies, your irritation grows when you start wondering how it is that 30 people—yourself included—sitting in one quiet area can all pretend to not hear the jackass sitting amongst them who is on his cell phone, vociferously calling everyone he knows to tell them that he's about to get on a plane.

The only thing that saves you from losing your mind in this moment is the even louder voice that emerges from the speaker above you. The voice announces that first-class passengers can now board the plane. You're not a first-class passenger, of course, but at least the boarding process has begun. Judging by the look of things around you, most of these people are equally as relieved. Half of them have bolted from their seat and are crowding around that fun little elastic rope near the ticket taker, waiting like eager dogs for their turn to go for a ride.

The plane is boarding by zones. And it's assigned seating, which is why the eager people gathered around look completely silly. Still, for some reason, you too gather around. You hear "passengers in zone six, those passengers seated in zone six, you may now board the aircraft. Zone six, passengers sitting in zone six may now board the aircraft." It's your turn to go. You shake your head in wonder as you hear that same voice, not over the loud speaker but from behind the counter up ahead, say to a hapless traveler, "You're ticket says zone four—right now we're just boarding passengers in zone six." Another person you hope you don't sit by.

The ticket taker warmly wishes you a good flight after scanning your barcode. You'd feel great about her congeniality except five seconds ago you heard her say the exact same thing with the exact same inflection to the guy in front of you. Nevertheless, part of you admires her spirit. All a ticket-taker can really do is be friendly, and that's exactly what this lady is.

Whatever feeling of liberation you have from finally reaching the jet ramp is obliterated by the site of human congestion up ahead. As you stand in yet another crowd, deliberating whether or not you'll be here long enough to set down your carry-on bag for a moment, you catch what you know will be your final whiff of fresh air. The air is just barely leaking from the cracks between the plane and jet ramp.

Finally, you enter the aircraft. As always, you feel like you're about to hit your head as you step through the door. You're greeted by a female flight attendant who you know you'll never see again after today. As you and she exchange hollow greetings, you start thinking about the term flight attendant. It's quite possibly the most politically correct term out there. No longer do people say the word stewardess. You gotta hand it to the feminists—the lady who just greeted you is probably making three-fourths of what her male counterpart in the back of the plane is making, but dammit, she's doing so under a respectful title.

You catch a glimpse of the male flight attendant. You pretend to think nothing about him before quickly giving up the act and acknowledging that yes, he's most definitely gay. By now you're a good 10 feet inside the plane and making your way to your seat. First, you must pass through the first-class cabin. Having first-class passengers board the plane before everyone else makes no sense for anyone involved. The rest of the plane boards from back to front because that's most fluid. And 99 percent of travelers would prefer to spend as little time as possible on the plane. But, if the first-class passengers don't board first, then who will see them traveling first class?

You feel uncomfortable walking between the 12 first class passengers—not because you're not first-class but because these people should feel out-of-this-world awkward sitting there while everyone parades by. But that doesn't appear to be the case. Not surprisingly, all of the first-class passengers are traveling alone. You look at them without staring. They're all working hard at looking preoccupied. One gentleman is reading but keeps glimpsing up to see if anyone is admiring him. Another is doing the same, though at least he has the decency to feign a casual glance around the entire cabin. Another lady yawns, ostensibly to catch a peek at which commoners see her.

As you exit the first class cabin and enter the aviation ghetto, you strain your neck to see the overhead numbers on the rows. Much like finding the tarmac gate, your seat on the plane feels close but is actually far away. You shuffle through, worrying about whether people are rolling eyes at what feels like your oversized carry-on.

In observing the people around you, you notice a startling beautiful face sitting in a middle seat on the left. You wonder how you didn't see this person earlier when you were sitting around pretending not to stare at everyone in the waiting area. The person is reading an Entertainment Weekly magazine, but they're turning pages quickly, making it hard to tell if they're an avid reader or just a bored passenger. Entertainment Weekly is serious stuff for people who aren't totally serious about life. For those who are serious about life, it's a guilty pleasure to stumble across one (like in a dentist office or something).

The aisle traffic has come to a halt, thanks to the plaid-shirt guy up ahead who can't find enough overhead space for his bag. You don't mind because you're within perfect view of what you're starting to think could be the most gorgeous person you've ever seen. You're grateful for the view because you know how tough it can be to stare at someone on an airplane. If you're standing too close, you hover over them. If you're too far back, you can't fully see them above the seats. Wherever you're standing, you're prepared to look away on a moment's notice, because the last thing you want to do is creep someone out on a plane. After all, since you're both going to be sitting in the same vicinity for the next several hours, there's no running from the awkwardness. All you can do is wallow in it.

Sharp on your game, you manage to look away just as this gorgeous person looks up. You're not sure whether they saw you or not. This is when you realize, you're not sure whether you want them to see you or not. It's hard to gauge your level of self confidence on an airplane. The moils of traveling make it dauntingly difficult to get a feel for your own appearance. Plus, air travel is inherently uncomfortable as it is…are you even sure you want to exacerbate it by worrying about looking good? Isn't it just easier to feel good and not care?

The problem is, deep down, it's impossible to not care. If you really didn't care, you probably would have had all your wildest fantasies come true by now. Cursing these scattered thoughts that are gyrating in your head, you begin to move forward down the aisle again. You get one more look at the beauty in the left middle seat. Their eyes don't lift from the Entertainment Weekly. You find your seat on the right side, two rows back. Your two Row 23 cotenants are already stationed.