Friendlies

All of the sudden, everyone is white and speaking English. The flight attendant performs the safety demonstration like a presenter on Playschool, the pilot announces the flight details like a sports announcer, and I’m not sure if it’s just because I understand what they’re saying that they seem strange, but I don’t think so.

Then Mexico is gone and we’re flying over Pheonix – a flat landscape of lights all in a row. I learn that Phoenix Airport is America’s friendliest airport. You can volunteer to make it friendlier. The people who do wear purple uniforms and overblown lapel flowers. They stand at mildly complicated corners and guide people around them, smiling fiercely.

“That’s seriously one of the most fucked up things I’ve ever heard,” Nina writes back when I tell her about them in an email.

I can have idle conversations with strangers, and I do. I can eavesdrop. In the customs line at the Phoenix Airport, I listen to a group of people around my age discussing how they’re going to get into town, what they’re going to do when they get there, and I’m fascinated. I try hard not to look like I’m listening.

In my bag are Nina’s Mexican things. She wanted to send them back to Australia for her sister to sell – Frida Kahlo bags, intricately painted ceramic skulls, beaded jewellery, embroidered cheesecloth dresses – and considering Mexico doesn’t have a postal system, I volunteered to ferry them home for her. So this is where my favourite idle conversation with a stranger comes from: at security, with the man behind the x-ray machine.

“Nice skulls,” he says, watching my bag slide back out of the machine.

“Thanks,” I say.

I have two hours in the Phoenix airport before my flight to Yuma and, though it is a friendly place, it is definitely not an exciting one. I wander mildly, then I go to my gate, where the flight leaving before my flight is being evacuated back into the airport.

As they are evacuated, the passengers sit heavily back down in the boarding lounge. They’re supposed to be on their way to Palm Springs by now.

“I dunno, maybe she’s just like that. I mean, I don’t want to judge people or anything,” says a lady on my row of seats. She has a thick southern accent. “But. Well, she was havin’ trouble. I’ll just say that.”

“Nope,” replies another lady. “She was drunk.”

The people in airport uniforms are looking very serious. There is an announcement over the gate loudspeakers apologising for any inconvenience the delay may have caused, but assuring us that safety is their primary concern and all staff must be breath-tested before passengers can be permitted to re-board the plane. This should not take long.

A little while later, a female flight attendant, crying quietly, is escorted from the plane by the pilots, past everyone in the boarding lounge, which has gone very quiet.

Colette and Marcel pick me up from the Yuma airport and take me back to the RV. They are happy to see me. I have to tell them that I’m really sorry but I can’t stay for the New Orleans Gumbo Dinner at the Park tomorrow night with all the Park People, that I’d really love to, but I have a friend in LA who’s only going to be there for a couple of days, and I haven’t seen him in years, and he lives in Melbourne so I probably won’t get another chance to see him any time soon, and he’s just got married so we have a lot to catch up on. But I can stay for a little bit tomorrow. I won’t leave until the afternoon. We can have breakfast. Alright, Colette says, but she’s doesn’t hide her disappointment.

In the morning, the trunk of my car is broken. The button in the centre console that is supposed to open it, won’t open it. Neither will the key. I pull all the stuff out of it and climb in from the back seat, start trying to feel around in the latch, just lie there in the dark pushing at the roof. Soon, there are three or four Park Men standing around it with furrowed brows, and I am watching with Colette from behind the screen door of the RV.

They part, and it is fixed. I hug and kiss everyone goodbye, we all make some vague promises, and then I get in. The car’s been sitting there for three months without so much as turn of the key but the engine goes without hesitation. I back out, drive the speed limit out of the park, and out and up and North.

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