Bye Bye Birdie

Commentary: Stonewall Baby

by Will O'Bryan
Published on June 5, 2008, 12:00am | Comments

The only thing flying high today is the price of gas. I don't feel that pinch immediately or directly, as I don't own a car. Yes, I know it's all related. But before you begin lecturing me about the interconnectedness of the global economy, I will readily admit that despite my pedestrian lifestyle, I am scared. For while I burn little gasoline on a daily basis, I've burned plenty of jet fuel.

As a gay man, that's not surprising. Community Marketing Inc., a San Francisco company that is forever telling us all about ourselves, recently crunched some of their own numbers, as well as a few from the U.S. Department of Commerce, to reveal that ''the annual economic impact of LGBT travelers is approximately $64.5 billion in the U.S. alone.'' Beyond that, take Air New Zealand's ''Pink Flight.'' This is a gay-themed flight from San Francisco transporting revelers to Gay Mardi Gras in Sydney, via Auckland. What other demographic spends so much leisure time in comely cabins as to warrant a specially themed flight?

So when I read and watch and hear that no single industry may be hurt more by rising fuel prices than airlines, I feel a sense of dread. I think of my lesbian pal who loves to jet off on Southwest (I mentioned she's a lesbian, right?) to catch some spring-training games. And I think of all the time spent with the gay fellah who cuts my hair comparing upgrade strategies and the intricacies of frequent-flier programs. It's almost as common as asking what a person does for a living: ''Going anywhere?'' When I ask, the answer is usually yes, and it usually involves flying.

So if the price of gas remains costly, as I expect it will; if petroleum remains the key ingredient of jet fuel; and if no speedy alternative is on the horizon, the world may be on the verge of getting an awful lot smaller for us. Which is so sad as The Gays may be America's best cultural ambassadors.

For me, the flightless future is even worse, as I'm an airline-industry geek. Really. I have no idea why, I just know this addiction is sincere, and that it began before I can remember. By the time of my first wide-body flight, I was already hooked. It was the end of my first ''divorce summer.'' Flying back from Dad's with my sister, brother and his fiancée, I childishly fretted over who would be stuck sitting solo. With three seats abreast, we would obviously not be sitting together. Not so! Hello, Boeing 747! Two aisles?? Four seats together?? At 8 years-old, that Pan Am flight from Rome to New York felt like being aboard a flying city. I've been a size queen every since.

As a youth, I would handle paper airline tickets for an upcoming trip with the same care and intensity that other boys handled baseball cards. Today, I savor that unique plane-cabin odor as others enjoy ''new car'' scent. I sometimes bring gifts for the cabin crew. I know the airport codes of more cities than I care to admit. Want to talk about the differences between the passenger experience in an A330 versus a 767? Well, you'd better pull up a chair.

During my last long-haul flight, a 17-hour, nonstop polar trek in Thai Airways' premium-economy cabin - mmm, delicious - I repeatedly warned my partner that we may be coming to the end of our ''Care for a hot towel?'' days. I was thinking primarily of recession, not oil. But potato, po-tah-to, the outcome's the same. Sure, I'm still planning some short trips by air in the near future, but I'm fairly resigned to the notion that flying cheaply - I once bought a promotional roundtrip ticket from D.C. to Paris for $199 - are not going to stick around.

I do, however, see an upside. Maybe if there were more of us on trains, Amtrak might up its game. Consider that what Virgin America has brought to our skies - mood lighting, sleek design, etc. - they've brought to Britain's rails. Audio channels, three-course meals in first class, a sense of style. Having taken Amtrak as far as D.C. to Tampa, routinely between Portland and Seattle, and just a couple times between D.C. and New York (preferring to fly, of course), I can say there is room for improvement. Acela seems a start. I'd even be willing to trade in some flights of about two hours or so for an overnight odyssey on Amtrak - if the cabins were cheaper, and if I could be guaranteed glassware rather than plastic, stations that are little more than sheds (our Union Station being an hugely welcome anomaly) and a reasonable price.

So until we start flying on liquid hydrogen, I'll bet the pace of things will begin to slow. That's okay with me, as long as we adapt. Amtrak, will you give me a ''Pink Car'' from Washington to New York for the 40th anniversary of Stonewall? America once mastered the romance of traveling by rail. I'm hopeful we may do it again. Otherwise, we may as well start confining our vacations to Second Life.

Will O'Bryan, Metro Weekly's managing editor, was born as the Stonewall Riots ended, making him a Stonewall Baby, he insists. He can be reached at wobryan@metroweekly.com.


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