Boston to Buffalo, N.Y., to JFK to Portland, Maine, to JFK to Burlington, Vt., to JFK to Los Angeles to JFK to Charlotte, N.C., to JFK; LaGuardia to Palm Beach, Fla., to White Plains, N.Y.; JFK to Syracuse, N.Y., to JFK to Denver to Boston
Why can't I be more like George Clooney? In Up in the Air, he takes hundreds of flights and sleeps in dozens of hotel rooms, yet not once does he get a cold. Meanwhile, after only two dozen flights, my sinuses have collapsed. I must have missed the part where Clooney hooks himself up to an IV filled with Airborne.
It's early on a Monday morning, and I'm making my way to JFK for my 23rd flight, this time to Burlington, Vt. For two weeks, I have glowered at the strangers who snort and snot their way through the air. Now I have become that which I despise.
I'm nervous about what's going to happen once we lift off. Last time I flew with a cold, I lost my hearing for a month. After a 2004 flight from Boston to Florida, I may as well have been carpet-bombed. Everything was muffled except for a soft, shrill beep in my ear.
Like that. But more annoying.
A month and many failed diagnoses later—for the day I had it, Ménière's Disease was terrifying—a doctor held a tuning fork against the back of my head and told me fluid had gotten trapped in my Eustachian tube. That's why I kept hearing the beep (aka tinnitus), and that's why everybody sounded like they were speaking to me from another dimension. Antibiotics dried out the fluid, and I regained my hearing a few days later.
So you'll forgive me for being even more neurotic than usual. Until now, I've purposefully ignored the health risks of flying several times a day. Because once you start digging, you start freaking out. Some sample headlines from medical journals: "Intrapulmonary bronchogenic cyst and cerebral gas embolism in an aircraft flight passenger;" "Phlebitis following travel;" "Sudden deterioration due to intra-tumoral hemorrhage of ependymoma of the fourth ventricle in a child during a flight: a case report."
But just because I don't know what to call my ailments doesn't mean I don't have them (or that I'm not hypochondriacally manufacturing them). My thigh muscles have begun to contract an hour into flights, either out of a newfound case of restless-leg syndrome or psychosomatic fear that if I don't twitch, I'll get deep vein thrombosis. (Likely the latter, implied Dr. Mark Gendreau, a professor of emergency medicine at Tufts Medical School and an expert on the physiology of flying.) I have also apparently installed a coolant system in my ankles, where my blood tends to run cold about two hours after takeoff. (Airport seats are designed at an awful angle. Because of the lack of leg room, we often keeps our legs at a 90-degree angle. Which would be fine if the seat wasn't choking our knees'—and thus our lower legs'—circulation.) There was also the time when I fell asleep on a red-eye and was woken up by my own gas. I sat there in the middle seat, opening and closing my mouth like a guppy, trying to find the most discreet way to relieve myself. (The change in pressure fills our intestines with 30 percent more air than on the ground.)
The point being that for the first time on this trip, I'm afraid of flying. And for good reason. Once the plane to Burlington takes off, my sinuses become a slip 'n' slide. The dryness of the cabin—airplanes have only about 10 percent humidity, all from human breath—is causing my nose to overcompensate, releasing whatever had been stored inside. The damned thing won't stop running. I'm going through pocket tissues—JFK doesn't sell the full boxes—at an unhealthy pace.
Luckily, it's a short flight. Unluckily, I have to turn around and go back to New York 30 minutes after I land. This is the second turna-roundtrip I've done, in which I fly somewhere just to get one step closer to 30 airports and then come home on the same plane I just took. Essentially, I have become a flight attendant.
The person I feel worst for is whoever had to sit in 22A after I got done with it. I was as careful as possible to keep my germs to myself. But I neglected to buy hand sanitizer, which makes me Typhoid Matlin. On these quick turns, JetBlue cleans the cabin quickly; 15 minutes after I got to Burlington's terminal (a cozy, handsome place, by the way), my return flight was already being called for boarding. JetBlue declined to provide their full cleaning checklist to me, but I confirmed it is not mandatory for flight attendants to disinfect everything on these quick turns.
I now understand why, on a flight from Raleigh, N.C., to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., a woman Lysol-wiped both armrests and her window before she sat down. "When you fly twice a week, you have to do these things," she told a flight attendant. When you fly more than twice a day and you don't do these things, you get a cold.
After my flight back to New York, I board a six-hour endurance test to Los Angeles. On the way up, a vice has replaced the slip 'n' slide. Something has grabbed hold of the insides of my face and will not let go. My ears, meanwhile, can't stop hiccupping, the pip-pop coming and going with no discernible rhythm. Upon descent, I discover that someone has lined the hallways of my forehead with pressure-sensitive mines. They run along two symmetrical lines from my temples to my scalp, and with every foot we descend, another goes off.
I am unhappy.
Which, I admit, is ironic. Remember, I'm traveling so I can flee the existential pain that lurks back home. And now here I am, with a new, more tangible ailment. One that gets worse the farther I travel.
A hidden benefit of permatravel: I never get jet lag. When your feet barely touch the ground, they rarely realize when they're no longer where they were the day before.
Which is why, at 5 a.m. Pacific, I'm surprisingly alert. Yes, the phlegm has bunkered in my right nasal passage. And yes, my ears feel like they're wearing a set of noise-canceling headphones that can't be removed. But my spirits are high. I am, after all, on my way to see a taping of The Price Is Right.
This was not my idea. It came from the collective brain of my newest best friends. You may remember them from my time in a New York dive bar all those weeks ago. These are the strangers who hang out like old pals, using meetup.com to organize get-togethers while they're traveling the country on JetBlue's All You Can Jet pass. By the end of the trip, they'll stage 185 meet-ups across the country. Because, as The Jacket taught us, there's no better time to form a temporary community than when you're absent from your permanent one.
The Price Is Right meet-up is the brainchild of Greg, a jovial, unemployed guy from San Antonio. Greg went to a taping a while back, loved it, and wanted to use the AYCJ ticket to come back and see the show again. And if he was going to go, he may as well see if people on Meetup.com wanted to tag along.
More than 25 of us did—so many that I was on a waiting list. I had RSVP'd too late to be guaranteed a spot in the group. Which is why I'm in front of CBS Studios at 5:30 in the morning, waiting behind 103 other people—who all somehow woke up even earlier—to get a chance to come on down.
After I get my ticket, I park in a spot that will eventually cost me $24—more than I'm paying for the rental car—and meet the others. There are a few of them there, wearing baby-blue T-shirts that say "We Flew All the Way To See Drew." (Drew being the surprisingly svelte Drew Carey, the host of the show.) I say hello to everyone, but nobody else needs to introduce themselves—they had dinner together the night before.
Because I'm technically not part of the group, we separate during the check-in process, and I stare at them wistfully from across the waiting area. They're getting along! They're creating inside jokes! They're silently staring into space!
Four hours later, we're finally inside. I feel like I'm on the set of an Austin Powers movie. Everything is neo-'60s—the technicolors, the flower power, the skinny microphones. Nico, one of the AYCJ crew, is the final contestant to be called on down. When his name is announced, the whole gaggle of AYCJers erupts, screaming, jumping, and applauding just like all the other groups there.
Nico, unfortunately, does not win. But at lunch after the show, he's our very own celebrity. And he got a consolation prize: a Lobster Gram. It's like a candy-gram. But with lobster.
While eating overpriced diner food, the group starts to swap travel stories. One guy, a smart Mormon whose name I didn't catch, told us that on one of his flights a woman defecated upon landing. Not to be outdone, another guy said that on his flight to Aruba, an old man died on the plane. His head was blue as people deplaned, and crisis counselors were called into the airport to console the disturbed. Later that night, when a guy merely collapses on my flight back to New York, I will feel shamefully disappointed.
Information about everyone's actual lives was limited. Nico and his wife, Sammy, teach Chinese kids via satellite; Adam from Buffalo, N.Y., is an IT consultant; Cynthia from Seattle is "independent." But that's as far as I got. Asking too much about our non-AYCJ selves felt taboo. Partly because travel was what we all had in common. But also because there was a tacit assumption that our travels were more exciting than anything we had waiting for us back home.
Before we ended lunch, Sammy had a thank you gift for Greg and his fiancee, Andrea—a Texas-shaped cutting board. (Greg is from Texas.) Then, not to be outdone, Cynthia offered a gift as well, one with an Oklahoma theme for Andrea.
And that's when I begin to suspect that I've seen Greg before. That I've heard of a couple—this couple—getting married across the Texas-Oklahoma border. Later that week, I confirm my suspicions. This is not the first obscure Internet community that has been a part of Greg's life. He used a different one to meet his wife.
I read about Greg in June, when he wrote a guest post at Pop Candy, a pop culture blog I browse from time to time. There he laid out his modern love story:
- Boy meets girl (in the Pop Candy comments section)
- Compliments her on her looks (the looks of her avatar)
- They talk all the time (over MySpace, e-mail, and then on the phone)
- They go on dates (in real life)
- He proposes (in real life)
The wedding happened just after our Price Is Right meet-up, on the first day of October. Greg tells me that no AYCJers were in attendance. But they still have the cutting board.