I laughed at this tweet by @claire_mcnear: “I am in awe of the monstrousness of whoever put a sticker of an outlet on the wall at the airport.” It was accompanied by a photo of a realistic looking plug-in on a stainless steel lower wall — only the “outlet” was an eye-tricking trompe l’oeil sticker. What a sly prank, so Banksy-like.
And yet, that airport gag would not have made sense when I was young or even just a short dozen years ago.
When I was a kid in the ’60s and ’70s, my dad worked for an airline. Thanks to the generous employee discount, I flew quite a bit. Now with family scattered everywhere, the habit has continued. I board planes more often than I prefer. The result? I have witnessed a half-century of ways people distract themselves from the fact that their bodies are being hurled across time zones in crowded silver tubes.
I can’t forget the days when air travel was a Mad Men party in the sky. Through the haze of cigarette smoke wafting around airports and on planes, grown-ups who were not my parents liked to throw down some high octane beverages between their Marlboro drags. At the time, I associated flying with the sights and smells of cigarettes and booze, booze and cigarettes.
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Today, thankfully, most of that equation has changed. Smoking is banned from most airport innards and all of the aircraft. From what I’ve observed, imbibing while flying has become a more low-key activity. (Minus the one dramatic bar fight that spilled out to my boarding gate in Baltimore a few years back.)
So with menthols out, and the knowledge that getting drunk on a plane can land one on the national news, air travelers have found a new way to distract themselves: with screens. Tablets, cellphones and laptops have replaced Winstons and gin and tonics. LED surfaces are now just as tempting, and I think just as intoxicating.
Sure, you can stuff a three-dimensional book in your carry-on, but if you’re like me, there’s a certain T-rex feeling when everyone around you has earbuds, glowing spreadsheets, digital novels and whatnot. Old-fashioned papyrus fun gets the side-eye. Is that a … book?
Though I sometimes still indulge in high-altitude physical fiction and paper cuts, I, too, have mostly succumbed to digital airborne life. Lately, I cannot survive a flight delay or tedious boarding process without snickering at Twitter or texting family members on my roving whereabouts. And while aloft, I squeeze out other infinities from my gadget’s “airplane mode.” There’s a certain comfort in screens.
This comes with a down side. Batteries. I have become hyper-aware of charging station locales and the rare, discreet wall outlets reserved for vacuum cleaners or floor buffers. I know airports not by their bartenders or Auntie Anne’s Pretzel locations, but by their electrical offerings. It seems I’m not alone.
Outlets are the new ashtrays. Charging stations are the new martini lounges. Today, when travelers say they need a bar, they’re referring the pixelated ones on the upper corners of their phones.
Between flights, I am now amongst the ruffians jockeying for the designated charging stations with USB ports, Apple-friendly slots and standard plugs. I have learned how to pounce on the leather lounging seats with built-in screen juicers. I once got so zoned out staring at my phone in one of those coveted “electric chairs” that I totally blew an A-boarding group position. I boarded with the high Cs. Don’t shudder. It made for a good tweet.
The bright side to this new zombie travel lifestyle is, as I spend countless hours sipping random knowledge from my screentini, I get to share some smokin’ good info nuggets with you. For instance, if you’re heading out for spring break or any trip soon, watch out for faux electrical outlet stickers. They’re monstrous.
Denise Snodell writes alternate weeks. Reach her at email@example.com. On Twitter: @DeniseSnodell