Thoughts from Across the Cultural Divide: #9 (Dancing with Drivers)

June 12, 2012 · Print This Article

My father in-law drove me to the Milwaukee airport a few weeks ago on the Wednesday before Memorial Day. I’d never seen so much activity at Mitchell International Airport. Typically, at 7 PM on a Wednesday, it feels like a private airstrip. This time it felt like, well, LaGuardia, save for the number of travelers in Green Bay Packers jerseys. As it turned out, one of the Packer players, Donald Driver, won the television dance competition “Dancing with the Stars,” the night before and everyone was on a cloud. Half the airport had Driver #80 jerseys and the other half was toting the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel with its supplemental front-page inset hailing Driver’s victory.

Because of traffic my father in-law couldn’t drop me off curbside and had to stop instead in the far lane. I ran across traffic with my luggage like a digital frog, dashing and darting abruptly until a Chevy Suburban slammed on its brakes and stopped me in my tracks. The New York side of me expected a physical altercation or at least mighty insult, but instead the middle-aged dad politely waved me on. For his generosity, I beckoned him to go first. He then waived me on again..and back-and-forth for a good minute. I imagined we looked like those two overly polite Disney chipmunks, Dale and Chip. After a few more seconds of dancing, I finally made a dash..and so did he. And the Chevy’s massive grill put my luggage into the fender of a cab five feet in front of us. It was a clean hit; all luggage and no flesh. My suitcase was upended but in one piece. Still, the driver got out and it turned into a scene of excessive brotherly considerateness. No honking, no screaming, but an embarrassingly intense rush of Packer-jerseyed Samaritans coming to my aid.

 

 

“No worries…I’m fine”

I grabbed my rolling bag from the asphalt and hurried into the terminal before the benevolent suffocated me in compassion.

I jogged all the way to the security line, which was as long as I’d ever seen it in Milwaukee. Almost as long as the average one at LaGuardia, though, as always, much slower moving.

In addition to the tendency for Wisconsinites’ to be exceedingly thorough in performing routine tasks, the process of getting through MKE security is gummed up by a state-of-the-art body scanner that everyone must pass through one at a time. To boot, I was behind what appeared to be the University of Wisconsin girls’ softball team. I had to consider that if I had been selfish enough to walk out in front of the Suburban without hesitation when he waived me on, I would have overtaken the Lady Badgers and saved a half an hour. Oh well.

In line, people started getting anxious. As the chatter escalated and people began sharing their thoughts with strangers – the beginning of any revolt – I mentioned the absurdity of Milwaukee possessing a top-notch body scanner when they don’t have one at LAX or LaGuardia. A guy behind me claimed that the scanner was made possible by the “generosity” of the recent economic stimulus as well as a surplus due to the airport’s good financial management.

By that logic, if Peoria, Illinois had a budget surplus and a little bit of irrational insecurity, the city might just erect a surface-to-air-defense system at the airport whether they needed it or not. Meanwhile LaGuardia, the financial sieve that it probably is, would continue use something like the honor system that make its lines go so fast.

After a good 45 minutes I made it to the conveyors. Super efficient; no belt, no loose change, slip-ons and keys in a pocket of my shoulder bag. After going through the body scanner I waited for my effects when an agent asked me to follow him to a back area. He was holding my shoulder bag in his right hand and a small black case in his left.

It was an open pack of 100 razor blades.

“Why on earth are you bringing these through security?”

“They were for an art project and I forgot to take them out.”

“Razor blades…for art?”

“An accessory to art making, actually.”

“Hmm,” he said in the most stoically judgmental way. The way only a good Lutheran can.

After talking about it with a supervisor the man came back and told me I could go but that he would be taking the blades and that I shouldn’t try anything so foolish again.

His disapproval aroused my shame.

I cowered into Nonna Bartolotta’s to order an Irish whisky before the flight and help forget the experience.

As I sipped Bushmills, I ranted on the inside:

“I once traveled from JFK to Charles de Gaulle via Heathrow, post 9-11, with a box cutter in my coat pocket, and THIS guy at Milwaukee airport is going to bust my chops about some razor blades…I made it through security at LaGuardia with a bottle of turpentine, and he’s going to treat me like I returned his daughter late on prom night with her sweater on inside out?!?”

Later, calmer, I landed at LaGuardia, deboarded and went to meet my wife who was waiting with the car. Outside, I saw her  waiving at me from across two busy lanes of traffic. I tried to dash across, but I couldn’t catch an opening. From the curb I threatened to lurch out with my body, sort of playing chicken with the cabbies, but it was clear they’d run me down if I tried. New York driving is a free-for-all and its drivers don’t conform to any informal social welfare system for the greater good. Systems are New York’s only ensurance of  greater good, and because of this there are rarely accidents caused by people expecting another car to stop out of pure kindness.

Walking fifty feet up to that safeguard called the crosswalk, it occurred to me that Wisconsin, which just confirmed its support for a conservative, some might say, socially insensitive governor, is partially regulated by an informal, de facto welfare state where everyone considers – perhaps a little too much – the well-being of the next guy. Chicken-or-egg, who knows, but it seems government regulation might be undesirable to some in Wisconsin because most are so busy regulating each other informally that any more imposed order on top of all that Chip-and-Dale politeness might inspire people to run into oncoming traffic to regain a sense of liberty and individualism.

My wife drove us home in some pretty nasty traffic. We finally reached our exit at Morgan/Meeker on the BQE and stopped at a red light at the bottom of the ramp. She was anxious from the white-knuckled driving and I leaned over to kiss her forehead. As I did, the light changed and a symphony of impatient car horns sounded. No informal, unwritten civil code; just rules penned by politicians and enforced by public officials. Green light means it’s time to devour those who hesitate for a split second, like “hike” means it’s time to annihilate the opposing team in football. Good will is irrelevant when you’re playing to win and you’ve subcontracted all your rules to referees.

I’m sure that our Wisconsin license plate and the Green Bay Packers bumper sticker didn’t arouse any sympathy, either.