Alison Lurie

Alison Lurie

A weeklong electronic journal.
Aug. 22 1997 3:30 AM

Alison Lurie

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       An entire day spent traveling from San Francisco to Ithaca, N.Y. Or rather, being transported--air travel is mainly a passive process. From the point of view of the airlines, a passenger is nothing but a stupid, noisy, awkwardly shaped package. It would be more convenient if we could be shipped in cardboard boxes--or at least in carrying cases like the ones used for dogs and cats. Instead we demand a window seat, show up late, and complain about extra charges. Once aboard we frequently get drunk, spill things, throw up, smoke in the washrooms, and fail to remain seated until the captain has turned off the seat-belt sign.
       From San Francisco to Philadelphia, I was traveling in first class on free frequent-flier miles. Here we awkward parcels were offered extra orange juice and drinks, and a damp towel to wipe our hands before an elaborate breakfast. The seats were wider and deeper, and during the flight a heavy curtain was drawn between us and the main cabin--perhaps to protect us from the staler air in the rear, perhaps from the envy and irritation of the less privileged passengers--something I have often felt myself.
       From Philadelphia to Ithaca I traveled on a so-called "commuter" plane, in conditions considerably less pleasant even than cabin class. Nothing to eat or drink, cramped seating, lights impossible to read by. Meanwhile, my airline, formerly USAir, has changed its name for some unknown reason to US Airways. This change surely involved considerable expense. If only some of that money had been put into making us parcels a little more comfortable, how lovely it would have been.
       In San Francisco, I visited what locals know as the Legion of Honor--the excellent European art museum, beautifully situated in what my friend Diane called a Maxfield Parrish seaside landscape. The most famous painters are represented by only one example, but most of these are first-rate. There was also a certain amount of 18th- and 19th-century kitsch, including what I now realize is one of the most blandly horrible pictures I've ever seen. Bouguereau's "The Broken Pitcher," which shows a pretty peasant girl, perhaps 15, standing by a village pump with a cracked ewer and an expression of embarrassed guilt. The first time I saw it, years ago, I only thought that this was a rather silly, sentimental scene. The second time I was more sophisticated, and recognized that the broken pitcher was a contemporary symbol of lost virginity. This time I took a look at the pump, and noticed that its nozzle, which points straight at the girl, seems to be about 6 inches long and an inch-and-a-half in diameter, and is stained red with rust. Or blood. What I still don't know is whether viewers at the time saw the same thing. I can't believe that the painter didn't.

Alison Lurie is a novelist and a professor of English at Cornell University.