Perambulating the Bounds

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Images of Lambert

As a younger man, but not quite young, I entered a new kind of life I never expected, part of the traditional, mainstream business world. A place where I could easily find myself eating lunch at a colleague's club listening while the others talk about golf. At that time, some time ago now, I became one of those men, mostly men, whose daily life involves familiarity with the airports across the country we pass through every day.

If you speak of the past, even past not so long past like when I stepped into this life, you speak of a time when there was more. In those spaces of the air transit system, more airlines, more flights, more seats. Antediluvian, before the World Trade Center attacks, the years of war, the mismanaged economy and the subsequent collapse.

I remember Lambert Airport in St. Louis when TWA existed and TWA had its central hub there. TWA used a strongly centralized hub and spoke system and every flight might have flown there, especially if you lived in the Central time zone. Arriving at Lambert you found chaos, everyone had connections and had to cover a lot of distance quickly because of the spread out layout.

The main terminal at Lambert was one of those temples of modernity airports like the TWA terminal at Kennedy and Dulles, all of them express a sense of air travel as exciting, all sweep and flow, not the bogged down tortuous experience we know today. Kennedy and Duller were designed by Saarinen. Lambert was designed by Minoru Yamasaki. Same guy who designed the World Trade Center.

Even the name Trans-World Airlines carried the strong scent of nostalgia for the recent past, like PanAm, If you picture an airplane in 1962, you probably picture the logo of one of those now defunct lines.

By the time I started my new life, before the Fall, terminals were becoming irrelevant to the flying experience, a place to run through quickly. I don't see why any airport authority would invest heavily in what travelers encounter before security.

In 2001 American swallowed TWA. This was good news for me, consolidated frequent flyer program into one I used all the time, more flight options in one place. Of course American didnt' need a hub in St. Louis since it had hubs in Dallas and Chicago, sandwiching St. Louis. Lambert withered. American cut back flights, shut down wings of the airport. Very little improvement occurred in those wings. It now feels rundown. Like lots of facilities, not just airports, in the mid-section of the country.

It was a nice surprise to see many scenes from Lambert in the film Up in the Air. There was George Clooney, in the Admiral's Club I know. People with mundane lives like mine feel a frisson when they see a glamorous star in our shoes. I can pretend he is me, I am him. Even if the film was off pitch about the details of the lives we lead, those men, mostly men, who pack the early morning weekday airport parking shuttles.

Lambert was an apt location for this movie about economic destruction, about the man who delivers the news of human obsolescence and feels left with nothing while he tries to remain the last one standing. Clooney's Ryan Bingham is completely without power and authority. As a man who sticks with the program he gets to have a level of comfort and security, but much else is stripped from him. The economy damages in more ways than one. Clooney's been here before with Michael Clayton.

Lambert today carries the physical scars of the economic processes that have broken down the promise of modernity. The great achievements, and the promise of happiness have been miniaturized, folded down into a small device screen.

I am convinced that in time we will see that the unraveling in more and more physical processes as we overuse, wear out and heat up the planet.

Last week Lambert appeared on screen, this time in the grainy, voyeuristic security camera that showed tornadoes hitting the facility and tearing up American's gates. Passengers and TSAs run through the councourse, then lights go out, the sealed spaces get punctured, and wind and air pressure effects suck signs and trashcans along the floor.

This summer promises to be one of steady destruction, brutal storms every week touching down here and there. You know we won't always be able to afford to rebuild. Eventially, we'll scrape the bottom of the barrel and will have to let some stuff go, like the houses on my block that are burned out and abandoned but no one--not the owners, not the city--have the money to tear them down.

What comes after modernity, with its slick, sweeping temples, is not post-modernism but ruins.

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