"You always go back for a pilot," said the shuttle bus driver, wheeling around her vessel onto the snowy overpass and back down into the labyrinthian concrete tunnels of the Detroit Metro airport.
The other passenger on the bus was an aging Floridian flight attendant, in from Orlando, who sat cross-legged and looked at me from out of the shadows with saucy flight attendant eyes. But when the pilot got on, the flight attendant shifted her eyes to his tall and lanky frame. With the palpable feeling of choked-up pride one might expect from a single Mom whose life had just been saved by an undercover marine tackling a hijacker on the final approach to JFK, the flight attendant said, "Where to, captain?"
Like an aviation Hemingway he answered, "Amsterdam. Tomorrow. Red eye."
They got to talking about the business. She had been a flight attendant since when they were called stewardesses. She was also a nurse and a personal trainer. He was a pilot, and that was all we needed to know. They referred to me as "the distressed passenger". Snow in Burlington had caused me to miss my connection in Detroit, and the next flight out was not until 4:30pm tomorrow, so I have a 25-hour layover, which, even in this golden age of aviation delays, must be some kind of record.
"Those men changed everything," the pilot said. "It hasn't been the same since 9/11."
"They should pay me extra," said the flight attendant. "Now I'm a security guard, too."
"Damn right you are," said the pilot, "because God knows, if something happens back there, we're not leaving the cockpit. You're on your own."
All three of us were staying at the same airport hotel, which is on a street that consists entirely of airport hotels. My particular airport hotel is called the Four Points Sheraton, but I think it is probably a lot like the others. Anyway on a snowy night like this one, they are all about the same — warm spaces with beds and bars that will give you a burger and a couple of glasses of Johnny Walker in exchange for your vouchers, which are what everyone seems to use instead of dollars here in this bleak airport town.
The hotel bar is manned by a bisexual woman named Courtney who tells me she used to date women but now she dates men, but that really, she straddles the fence. I tell her she must be breaking the hearts of all of the women in Detroit, but she says that the name of this town is Romulus, not Detroit. I tell her that Romulus was one of the founders of Rome, and isn't it interesting how Rome fell, and now so has Detroit.
She tells me about a pilot who was hitting on her one night. He drank a pint of beer, two double-shot jack-and-cokes, and a glass of red wine, before heading upstairs to his room. At closing time the telephone rang in the bar, and Courtney picked up. It was the pilot, and he said, "Hello, Courtney. This is the pilot. I want to let you know that I am staying in room 206, and if you need any companionship at all, I am here for you." She told him that she was a bartender not a whore and hung up.
As far as I can tell, pretty much everyone in the hotel bar is either a pilot, a flight attendant, or a distressed passenger. There is a girl at the end of the bar who is young and pretty and prone to sudden bouts of smiling. She is wearing a black pea coat and a pink tee-shirt that says, "Bad behavior," which sounds particularly enticing on a night like this. She is an accountant, and she wants very badly to smile and to laugh, but the man sitting next to her is gruff and staring into his chili, and anytime he says anything, like how she should order the chili because it is so tasty, she breaks into a wide smile and giggles, which makes her look very pretty, lighting up this dreary hotel bar more brightly than the televisions, which are playing basketball. The man is about her age, and I keep thinking they are probably going to sleep together tonight. I wonder why he is being so gruff and rude and clueless next to such a pretty girl, but then I think that maybe this is part of his strategy.
But she did not order the chili and they did not sleep together tonight, because she went upstairs alone and shook his hand goodbye and said that it was nice to meet you and thanks for the tip on the chili even though instead I ordered the salad. And then right before she left she took out her Blackberry and they friended each other on Facebook.
I think the stranded people at this hideaway bar desperately want to be like modern sailors in a foreign port, feeling and satiating all of the same desires. But Romulus is not a port town, and we are not sailors but airplane passengers, and we are all very polite these days, so instead of going to bed together on snowy nights in strange hotels, we friend each other on Facebook and we don't order the chili, because someone said it can make you fart, and we just could not handle that kind of shame.