Feet on the Ground, Heart in the Clouds

I’m a Midwesterner, born and raised in the working class of the great state of Wisconsin.  My dad was an over the road semi driver, and my Mom was what is now considered an ancient artifact, a stay at home housewife.   Like a lot of middle class Midwesterners, our feet remained firmly on the ground.   Other than a couple of car excursions to California when I was very young, vacation was always “up north,” near where my dad was raised, a six hours plus drive on State Highway 12 through an endless parade of small towns until they finished I-94, after which we were able to make it in about five hours.  Jet airplanes were observed from below, their fluffy white trails carving up blue skies.

In 1997, after working more than eleven years for an electrical utility, I took a job as an I.T. manager at a small advertising company.   One of the job requirements was “some travel.”  The corporate I.T. office where I worked was in Milwaukee, but their headquarters were in New York, in Manhattan, right next to the Ed Sullivan theatre where “The Late Show with David Letterman” was and still is staged.  Their billing department, which would be one of my major clients, was located in Hoboken, New Jersey, and they had satellite offices throughout the country.

My prior business travel experience, with the electrical utility in northeastern Illinois, consisted of two or three car trips to the training center outside of Joliet, where the company put us up in a dirty and dank hotel that someone in the corporate office undoubtedly scored big points in the budget process.  I’ve never been able to figure out exactly what a “frill” is, but I can guarantee I didn’t see any in the Shorewood Inn.  Cinder block walls and stained carpeting is all I remember about the place now, almost thirty years later.

So it was, shortly after taking my new job, my new company sent me on my first business trip to New York.   I’d been on a plane only once in my life, in 1979, eighteen years earlier, with my Mom and Dad for a rare trip to visit my aunt and uncle in California.  As I checked in and found my gate, I tried my best to act worldly and sophisticated, watching other business travelers closely and trying to act natural and confident as I imitated their behavior and followed their leads.

I somehow made it on the plane without incident.  I had a window seat, and I nervously waited for take-off, not knowing how I’d respond, nervous because when I was a kid I had an acute fear of heights.  Soon we were speeding down the runway, then the nose of the plane was pointing up, and we were off the ground.  My stomach was in my chest as I watched out the window, and then we were above the clouds and cruising, and I calmed down, and I loved it.   I spent every second of the flight gawking out the window, looking down at the tops of cloud formations and the earth below, the cities and the farm fields and the woods.  It occurred to me that I was experiencing something that all of the great men and women who’d ever lived before say 1900, before the Wright Brothers and Kitty Hawk, never experienced.  I was seeing a view that Socrates or Abraham Lincoln or Gengis Kahn had only been able to imagine.   I looked around the crowded plane at the other, veteran air travelers, and they were all either asleep or reading something.   I felt like screaming, “How can you sleep?  Look out your windows!  That’s our world down there!  It’s amazing!”

It was dark when we landed in the Newark airport.   My hotel reservation was in the town of Weehawken, New Jersey, in the Ramada Inn, from where I’d be visiting the New York office the next day and the Hoboken office the day after.  I was told to find a cab and have it take me to wherever Weehawken was.  I took my one bag and found the taxi station, where fortunately there was a guy whose job it was to call cabs for the lines of arrivals.   After a couple of minutes I was in a cab, giving the driver the address, and we sped off into the New Jersey night.

Although I grew up and had spent virtually all my days in the heart of the Midwest, two of my cultural heroes happened to be Bruce Springsteen and Woody Allen.  Their over the top romanticism with their home turf framed my understanding and expectations of New Jersey and New York.  As we drove through the Jersey night, I saw nothing exceptional, nothing romantic, just a lot of pavement and traffic.

I finally made it to the Ramada Inn, and by this time I was tired, my first foray into the business travel world having left me exhausted and drained.  I checked in and was given a card to a room on the 12th floor.  Bleary eyed, I opened the door, my expectations framed by the flea bag hotel in Joliet that had been my previous business travel experience.  Instead of the four cement block walls, I opened the door to an expansive suite, with a full and spectacular and living color view of the Manhattan skyline, all lit up, the lights reflecting and mirrored in the water of the Hudson River.  The view was amazing, and I walked into the room in the dark, not turning the lights on, because I didn’t want to spoil the moment.   I immediately recognized the skyline as a full color version of the opening montage in Allen’s “Manhattan.”  As beautiful as that sequence in the film was, it didn’t compare to what I was seeing.  I remember two thoughts entering my mind, the first, “Wow,” the second that there must be some kind of mistake, I must have gotten the wrong room, I’m only a low level manager, I’m not important enough for a room and a view like this.  This is a typical Midwest reaction – it’s not false modesty or humility – it’s just that we know with a lifetime of certainty that we aren’t very important.

The next day, I made it to Manhattan, and to Hoboken the next, and then back home to Wisconsin.  In the months that followed, there’d be a lot of return trips to New York, as well as trips to San Jose, Boston, Montreal and Miami.  Soon I’d be fast asleep before take-off, just like all of those other experienced, travel-weary passengers.

That’s the way the world operates.  We become jaded, pre-occupied, indifferent.  “Experienced.”  It occurs to me that it would be exhausting if we experienced everything in life with the same intensity we experience it the first time.  But it also occurs to me that everything I felt on that first trip to New York remains real and honest and heartfelt, and I long to feel that wonder and awe again.   I wonder how many of those moments I’ve missed, how many I’ve slept through.  I guess I’ll never know.

All I can do is to try and be awake for the next one.