Thursday, January 31, 2008

Park City Diaries, Vol. 2: a pilgrimage, indeed.

"It'll take about fifteen minutes, right?"

It's my first question as I climb into the cab. It's six AM, and my flight out of La Guardia's at 7:05. And that's not good.

Yes, it's true: I'm headed back to Park City. This year, I won't be there with a film; this year, I'm accompanying my friend and client Eliza Dushku, a Park-City novice who's appearing in a film in competition. Way back in December, when I found out her film got in, I was surprised to learn that no one had urged Eliza to attend the festival; now, five weeks and dozens of phone calls later, the crew has grown to four, including Eliza's agent, manager, and brother in addition to myself. I fear this makes me part of an entourage but I decide to refer to us all only as a crew. In truth, I'm not sure what to expect. Her team promises me that we're gonna do Park City right-- parties, swag, all of it.

So again I'm on a Pilgrimage. Some of you may remember that on last year's Pilgrimage I broke road warrior rule #1: Never, Ever, Check Luggage. Due to the last-minute nature of my travel plans, this year I'm violating Rule #2: Never, Ever, Book a Connecting Flight. Worse, I think to myself as our battered minivan bounces over the Williamsburg bridge (why do I always manage to flag down the hated minivan?): here it is I'm already late. The thought triggers a deja vu: I was late last year, as well, I think-- and I'm remembering that unlike my customary JFK-LAX route I can't simply "take the next flight" if I miss this one. But no worries: my cab driver is dangerously fast (my favorite!), and I'm there by twenty-five past six. LaGuardia is, praise Jesus, uncrowded.

As some of you may remember from last year, the one taste of The Good Life I allow myself is my Big Kahuna status on American Airlines. No endless line, no kiosk for me, no, I simply stride up to the first executive-class check-in agent I see and ask about my upgrade request. This morning it's Diane. Diane is impressively perky for 6:25 AM.

"Well let's just take a look, Mr. Kelley... (taptaptaptaptap)....OK, I can help you out to Dallas (taptaptap) and to Salt Lake..." Tap tap tap...

...all at once her face goes slack. It's as if somehow the Zapruder film has begun playing on her computer screen. She's hypnotized by what she sees, and mutters to herself:

"Oh my... wow."

I deduce that I won't be flying first class on the flight into Salt Lake, and tell her as such. She chuckles.

"No. That flight is..." --she runs her finger down the screen, still enthralled-- "forty nine seats oversold. Wow."

She glances at me, then back at the screen. Makes an executive decision. "OK, I'm gonna..." She resumes furiously tapping. A boarding pass spits out. She sneaks a conspiratorial smile.

"I stole an exit row for you on that Salt Lake flight." She slides me the boarding pass, and I actually detect a note of fear in her voice as she whispers: "Don't lose this."

Then, as I'm leaving she adds: "You know, it's a holiday weekend. Martin Luther King Day. That's what it is."

Well, not quite.

The remainder of my time in La Guardia is calm, and flight number one departs without incident. Thing is, though, I'm sick. My head throbs, my gut aches, every blink seems to scratch my eyeballs; I feel wickedly hung over without even having had the pleasure, as it were, the night before. The back of my throat has become Normandy Beach: I feel endless waves of virus storming my body's beachead defenses, and those bunkers ain't holding. Once onboard, I cannot nod off for more than five minutes without coughing myself awake. This sleep-cough-moan cycle repeats itself for the entire flight.

Eventually we touch down in Dallas. I cannot remember that last time I saw this broad an expanse of sky without at least a saw-toothed edge of mountains to define it. We taxi... and taxi... and taxi... our route even takes us up and down a slight hill, and I am certain I have never experienced that in an airliner before. I am, simply, overwhelmed by this airport: Kennedy is more crowded, sure, but it is dwarfed by the endless landscape of runways that seem to stretch all the way to that flat Texas horizon. Where am I?

Ends up I'm in a sovereign state known to its residents only as DFW. As I step off the jetway and get my bearings, I notice an odd feeling, a discomfort that takes me a moment to place: as a New Yorker, I am distrustful of the shiny and spacious and clean, and DFW is all three. Or maybe it's just that I'm still sick. I have almost four hours to wait in DFW and I am achy and exhausted and generally miserable. But as lug my roll-on in the general direction of my next gate (a TWENTY MINUTE walk, I am told), a pair of glowing, frosted-glass doors beckon to my left:

The Admiral's Club. Well, why not. I'm a mucky-muck, after all, might as well make use of it. I head inside.

"You're Platinum so you get a discount. It's forty dollars for a Day Pass."

This from Joan, behind the marble counter. We're alone in the lobby, and her hushed tone adds to the sanctuary feel of the place. Sensing my hesitation at the price, Joan begins to list the amenities that lie at the end of the hallway behind her: the club chairs, the internet access, the free beverages, blah blah blah. No sale, that's what I'm thinking-- but like any good real-estate agent, Joan's saved her fastball for last:

"We also have private showers. The ones here are new and really nice."

Suddenly, Joan and I are speaking the same language, and it has nothing to do with scoring a nooner with an American Airlines employee. I fork over the forty bucks and immediately head for the shower.

I am in shower suite #1, which is softly lit and roughly the size of a New York studio apartment. As I strip naked, I notice that the room is utterly silent. Every sound - the thunk of my carry-on as I drop it onto the rosewood luggage rack, the padding of my bare feet across the stone floor - is amplified. Or maybe I've been living in New York City for too long and am simply unaccustomed to peace.

One could drown under the sheer volume of warm water that cascades out of the rainforest showerhead. Isn't Texas in something of a draught? No matter. I am so tired, and this feels so good, I wonder if it isn't possible to sleep in a shower.

Well, it isn't. Not quite. Oh, it's comfortable enough, and warm enough, and there's something hedonistically ancient-Rome about curling into a fetal position on a warm-tile floor as you're gently massaged with hot water, but every time I start to nod off some primal, fear-of-drowning thing keeps me from the blissful nap I so desire. Suddenly, inspiration strikes. I step out of the shower, turn the water as hot is it can go, block the heat vent and stick a towel under the door (those old druggie skills put to use!)-- and in a few minutes I am in my own steam room. I drape the last pillowy white towel across the teak bench, and sleep. On reflection, I think it fair to say that I've not slept naked and blanket-less before in my life. At least not sober.

Out into the lounge, refreshed. I settle into a plush leather club chair and look around.

I am in the land of middle-aged White Dudes. It's so perfect, so uniform, it could be an exhibit in some exotic zoo, or one of those dioramas in a natural history museum. Funny thing, though: no one's wearing a suit here. All the Middle-Aged White Dudes are dressed to travel. Ill-fitting jeans (or pleated khakis) cinched too tight (and didn't those thin, black-and-chrome belts go out in the eighties?), with a polo shirt or black long-sleeved sweater up top.

Oh, and the Bluetooth. All of 'em. Every single one, yammering away, and as I listen to them I marvel, again, at the inefficiency and pomposity of American corporate culture (an oxymoron, yes?). I actually hear the following shouted into a Bluetooth with neither humor nor irony: "...yeah, Jeff emailed me that they've already got boots on the ground at the convention, so are we there in an overlay capacity?..."

'Are we there in an overlay capacity??' I want to tell this guy, who appears to be single, that the black-shoes-and-wide-jeans look he's rocking, coupled with that attitude... well, throw that Bluetooth in the mix and it's pretty much guaranteed that he will never, ever get laid without the aid of a credit card. But he's on a rap, so I decide it best not to interrupt his Flow.

As any Pilgrim knows, all rest stops must end, and it's time for me to get myself to Salt Lake. Off I go, to E-23.

The mob surrounding E-23, anxious and quiet, is not a good sign. Just as I'm near the gate, the standby list flashes on: still over forty names on standby for this flight. But I've got a boarding pass (thanks, Diane!) so I'm cool, and am not at all tempted by the announcement that passengers willing to give up their seat will get five hundred dollars (!) worth of free travel. Soon, the flight is called (on schedule!), and I'm on the plane. Seat 8A. Not a Big Seat, but not bad. And and and... my immune system seems to be beating back this cold. Things are looking up.

But as I'm gazing out the window, thinking thoughts of Park City, the voice of our Captain From the Flight Deck (do they all attend the same Airline Pilot voice-over school in the Midwest?):

"Hi folks-- well, we felt a little thud up here while we were gettin' our cargo loaded on-- as you can see, we've got a full flight, lots of bags, lots of skis... I had our first officer take a walk around the aircraft, do a visual inspection... aaaaand it looks like we've got a minor puncture in the skin. So, uhm, what all this means is... I'm gonna have to ask you all to get off the plane, because we're gonna take it out of service."

Why, oh why, did I break rule number two? NEVER, EVER, TAKE A CONNECTING FLIGHT. NEVER. EVER.

I am instantly in crisis mode. While my fellow passengers sit, stunned in a momentary haze of shock and denial, I am out of my seat like a shot, and within thirty seconds am grilling the gate agent on the situation. Ends up they're looking for a spare plane (...a spare plane? Like, "yeah, take the old DC-10 out back, keys are under the visor, should have about half a tank???"), and the relentlessly optimistic Gate Lady says she can "squeeze me onto a 9:10 PM flight." No good. But she assures me that there is no better place in the world to get a spare plane (again: a SPARE PLANE) than Dallas.

Amazingly, she's right. Less than an hour later and I'm back in a new seat 8A, on a shiny new plane at the very next gate over (and... are those passengers I see, boarding our old plane? Suckers.) All we need to do is push back.

...and get there.
And get the rental car.
And get to Park City.
And figure out where, exactly, I'm staying.
And go to Eliza's dinner and, afterward, the film's premiere.
At 8:30 PM. I glance at my cell phone: it's 2:50PM, Mountain Standard Time.

I suddenly wish I could take another shower.

Remarkably, the rest of the journey is incident-free.

Or had been, I think while sitting in my rented SUV, at a dead stop, staring at the endless stream of taillights leading into Park City. I still have heard no word from Eliza. It occurs to me that perhaps I won't. That's OK. I look up at the mountain ridges rising on either side of me, their high snowpack now purple with the very last of the light, and it hits me, again:

God, it's beautiful here. Maybe all these delays have a point. Maybe even this traffic jam. See, people ask me sometimes why I'm religious, more so now then when I was younger.

Maybe it's this: in the end, our life (all of us, Our Lives) is nothing more or less than what we do. Not what we hope for, or talk about, or fear; not what we want to do, or absolutely plan on doing, but the cumulative results of what we actually do. For me, more and more often I find I'm not at all sure of the results of a thing at the moment that I do the thing. But sometimes in those moments, those left-or-right, stop-or-go seconds right before a decision, there's a deep, quiet feeling, not so much that the action I choose is the right thing to do, but that it's the only thing to do. More: it's the only thing I can do. And sometimes, underneath that quiet feeling (if I look for it) is deeper feeling still, all but undetectable among the noise of my own vanities or doubts or fears, but it's there: a kind of trust that this thing I do will be the right thing. Even if I don't know what the right thing is.

It's that feeling that I have come to call Faith.

So it is with my being in Park City, in this SUV, in traffic. An act of faith.

I speak truth when I tell you that these are my thoughts as I make the (illegal) left turn onto Main Street... and my phone rings. Eliza.

"Pete, where are you? I just put your name at the door for the cast dinner, but we're sitting down-- how soon can you get here?"

Fifteen minutes later and still in my hiking boots and travel clothes and I'm seated between Eliza and her agent at a table elegantly set for a three course dinner. As goblets of wine are poured, our host points out that our meal is courtesy of one of the seven master sushi chefs in America. He then asks us to lift our appetizer plates-- underneath each of our plates are room key holders for the Venetian Lake Tahoe, and we're all thrilled-- until he informs us that only one holder actually contains a working key-- ends up Alan Rickman is the holder of the lucky key. Then discussion of business while enjoying the lobster truffles, the Kobe beef sirloin tips in a caramelized Wasabe marinade, the macadamia souffle with champagne sauce, then it's off to the premiere. Eliza goes to walk the press line; our crew has swelled to six, and there's a little bluffing, a little palming of tickets required to get us all in... finally, at eight-thirty, I'm sitting next to Eliza as the lights go down.

"What do you think, Pete?"

Eliza whispers the question in my ear. To this day, she is the only person I allow to call me "Pete."

I want to tell her that this is my favorite time. These few seconds, so, so precious: this magic time between when the lights have gone down, the chattering's stopped, and the movie's about to start. It is my favorite time in the world. I exist in these few seconds so fully that the rest of my life is balanced out - the disappointments, the growing questions, the growing fears. I think it may be my fate to be addicted to these seconds. I prize them more than money, or sex; more than the sense of security (that I so utterly lack) that I value more with age. These feelings are a voice, an articulate confirmation that this is why I'm here. I want to tell her how lucky we are to have a Favorite Thing, and to know it, that the years will teach her how many people spend their entire lives searching unsuccessfully for that thing. I want to tell her that this, just this, this moment, is why I crawled out of bed in New York City and into a cab and onto a plane and onto another plane and into a rental car to find myself in a movie theatre in the Utah mountains, thousands of miles from where I woke up. And I want to tell her that this moment would have been a little... less, somehow, if our journey to get here had required nothing more than a cabride uptown.

"I think it's pretty cool," I whisper back. "And I'm proud of you."

And it occurs to me that it's a good thing I took that shower. But that, I keep to myself.