Douglas Coupland: 5,149 days ago — air travel post-9/11
I remember flying out of Heathrow in the mid-2000s. It was an afternoon flight to Canada and the security screening area was empty of passengers — a pleasant surprise. However, placing my carry-on bag on to the conveyor belt, I ripped my thumbnail backwards, breaking off a wide swath of the top, and I was suddenly in that magical state of being where I could either, a) chew off the broken part of the thumbnail, most likely ripping out a chunk of the nail in the corner and so causing immense bleeding pain, stinging and disfigurement that could possibly continue for weeks or, b) be an adult, wait just a little bit longer and perhaps locate some form of device for safely removing the offending piece of thumbnail. This was a very tough call — sort of like a Marshmallow Test of delayed gratification. As we all know, nature has programmed human beings to always choose option A, even though it’s by far the stupider choice. So, what did I do? I tried to be an adult, and then . . . I had a brainwave. After my bag had gone through the scanner and I was standing shoeless on the floor’s rubber padding (a place the security staff dub “the mushroom patch”), I said to the gentleman on the other side of the conveyor belt: “This is a weird request but here’s the thing: I just ripped off a chunk of my thumbnail but it’s still attached to the thumb, and I know if I remove it with my teeth it will turn into an unholy bloody painful mess. Would you happen to have — and I don’t want to compromise security or anything — something I might use to cut off the nail with?”
The screener looked at me, gave a gentle smile and then motioned for me to join him on the other side of the security area. Once we were there, he walked over to a Wedgwood-blue 44-gallon plastic trash bin and removed its lid, revealing tens of thousands of confiscated nail clippers.
This isn’t something one sees every day. I mean to say, there were SO MANY NAIL CLIPPERS ALL IN ONE PLACE. Tens of thousands. I honestly felt like a lid had been removed from the ark in Raiders of the Lost Ark and I had been chosen to view its contents — and that maybe my face was going to melt off in a few moments.
Then I remembered my thumbnail. Dang . . . it hurt. I posed the question: “Do you think there’s one set of nail clippers here that looks . . . perhaps more sanitary than any other?”
We both scoured the top layer of nail clippers and my new friend selected an innocuous pair as might be found at any local drugstore. He handed them to me. “Try these.”
“Right.” Click click. Nail catastrophe averted. “Thank you very much, sir.”
“You’re welcome. Have a safe flight.”
It’ll soon be 15 years since 9/11, and more planes are in the air than ever. This comes as a pleasant surprise, as on September 12 2001 it felt as though people would only ever fly a fraction of what they once flew, and that an old way of life was over. From an ecological standpoint, more people flying more than ever is a disaster, but from a social cohesion point of view, vigorous air travel comes as a great relief.
In the months following 9/11, I undertook a 42-city book tour. The first city was Madison, Wisconsin, which is where I was marooned for five days. I tried to make lemonade out of lemons and thought, “What a great chance to have a really good look at the region’s bountiful Frank Lloyd Wright architecture!” Wrong. Being Canadian, I was ineligible to rent a car as I might have tried to drive it to the border. So . . . I was marooned purely in Madison, Wisconsin, for five days.
When flights in the US finally began resuming, the first thing I noticed was that I was usually the only person on the plane. For about three weeks. And when meals arrived, instead of silverware the cutlery was a clear plastic bag filled with white plastic utensils like you’d get in a Wendy’s. How sorrowfully depressing. That little bag with a plastic spoon, knife and fork became a haiku explaining one of humanity’s worst moments. My thoughts harkened back to Lufthansa’s pre-9/11 first class, where the steak knife was a stag’s antler embedded with what can only be described as a precision serrated steel hacksaw blade. You could have hacked apart an undersea fibre-optic cable with one of those things. And suddenly this. A Wendy’s cutlery pack.
Sometimes I feel like a character from Fahrenheit 451, except instead of remembering an entire novel my job is to remember a way of travelling that is quite likely gone for ever. Which is fine. But mostly my thinking time travels far, far off into the future, to the year 36,559, when whatever species it is that supplants humans is digging through a garbage dump somewhere outside of London, and finds a 44-gallon container filled with completely uncorroded stainless steel nail clippers.
“Their miniature hooves must have grown at eccentric rates of speed.”
“Perhaps they were vain and only used their hoof clippers just once before rubbishing them.”
“Maybe the hoof clippers were contaminated as a vector in a mass plague, and the local shaman urged his underlings to gather them for some sort of sacrifice.”
Here’s the thing: those clippers are an environmental disaster directly linked to 9/11 but a long way off from now. And more to the point, how do you explain 9/11 — how will we ever explain it?
Douglas Coupland is currently artist in residence at the Google Cultural Institute in Paris. He also has a museum show at Rotterdam’s Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art.
Photograph: Ken Mayer Studios © Douglas Coupland