I'm having a beer in the Denver airport, watching a rerun of Super Bowl XX on TV. It's hotter than hell back in summer Spokane, but here in my lounge it's not any season or year. It could be 2015 or it could be 1986, Super Bowl Sunday, Bears vs. Patriots on giant TVs all around me.
Days and weeks and years ago — I can't tell anymore — I boarded a plane for Vermont with layovers in Denver and D.C. As if going through D.C. to get to Vermont wasn't bad enough, the ticket cost $1,200, purchased three months in advance. Spokane to Paris would have been cheaper — I checked — but that's OK. I'm on my way to a wedding, a family thing. I would have lost this day traveling no matter what, so I'm not uptight about a broken plane stranding me in this lounge for a few hours. My favorite team's on TV — in the only Super Bowl they ever won (though they haven't won yet. It's not even halftime). Ditka's spit is flying as he screams at the refs, at McMahon, at the Fridge. He's practically hemorrhaging. We like a little rage with our football. We like it with our airlines and airports, too, our buses and bus stations, all that waiting and mild humiliation.
But I don't mind waiting today. I like this airport. You can smoke here — not in my lounge, but in a bar called the Smokin' Bear Lodge Smoking Lounge. You have to pay a $5 drink minimum to smoke there, but any smoker would pay 10 times that to disappear for awhile with a drink and a couple of cigarettes or five, depending on the layover, the whole world somewhere out past security. Denver's one of the few airports left that provides such a space.
In 1985, six months before the Bears' Super Bowl victory, I flew to Tokyo from JFK — 18 hours in the air — and sickened myself smoking the entire way. You used to be able to smoke everywhere, and because you could, you sort of had to — in trains and buses, in cars with children in them. Shoe stores required smoking, ashtrays between every two seats, the kind with a false floor and plunger that allowed you to dry-flush your butt to the bowl beneath. Banks were good places to smoke, too, as were hospitals and grocery stores. Restaurants were fantastic, though nowhere — and we all know this, even those of us who never smoked — nowhere was as good for smoking as bars, where we'd gesture with our cigarette hand and drink with our drink hand, talking and laughing and screaming and drinking and smoking. Today we don't even smoke in bars, except in Denver's airport and a few other places.
I don't smoke anywhere anymore, so I'm not in the Smokin' Bear Lodge Smoking Lounge. I'm glad somebody's there though, filling her lungs and the smoke-eating machines, feeding and killing herself for all of us. I hope that lounge still exists when I'm 70 — I hope I still exist when I'm 70 — because that's when I'm going to start smoking again. I can hardly wait. But I'm not there yet. I'm in a lounge surrounded by giant TVs, the kind that ruin bars, killing conversation, though no one's talking to anyone here. No one knows anyone here. It's 1986, it's 2015. No one's keeping track of the time.
In 1979, you could smoke in the smoking lounge at Barrington High School, northwest of Chicago. The principal there was Mr. Fencik, Gary Fencik's dad, Gary, who played for the Super Bowl Bears and remains their career leader in interceptions. My girlfriend forged my parental permission slip for a smoking lounge pass, which was laminated over my name and a line drawing of a crab — the zodiac sign for cancer. Get it? But cancer means nothing to a 15-year-old, unless he has it or his mother does. The smoking lounge at Barrington High School had multiple terraces, like concrete rice paddies under a low triangular roof, to keep us dry while we smoked. The lounge, as we called it, was like a gigantic ashtray we were all wading through.
My Denver lounge opens to a soaring white ceiling over huge banks of windows, through which Colorado sunshine pours. Sparrows flit and flutter around the upper girders, swoop toward the terminal's shopping and dining commons. The Bears are destroying the Patriots. My flight's been delayed another five hours. I'll never make it to Vermont, probably never leave this bright, indoor space where birds shit on domestic travelers. I order another beer. The Bears are up by 40, and Ditka's still screaming.
Ten years ago, hundreds of miles west of here, I took my children to look at petroglyphs. Horsehead pump jacks lined the road to the canyon, which was full of rattlesnakes, which I made the mistake of telling my children about, which terrified them so much they wouldn't get out of the car to look at the ancient images, some of which resembled aliens and some of which resembled birds. I had killed a sparrow an hour earlier, decapitating it with my speeding car, its head stuck flapping to a windshield wiper. We stopped at an Indian smoke shop so my daughter could bury that head. Then we drove into the canyon, where signs warned of flash-flood danger, urging visitors to get out fast in the event of rain. No one else was there. Black clouds rolled in. The kids wouldn't get out of the car to look at the petroglyphs. It started to rain. I drove like a maniac out of that canyon.
I hit a deep rut and the minivan went airborne. Our heads hit the ceiling — every cup from every cup holder hit the ceiling. We were in the air, and when we landed — hard — the children were crying. Of course they were crying. I apologized and apologized. I had been wrong to drive so fast, to be angry that they wouldn't look at petroglyphs. I kept apologizing as we limped back to our hotel, the van somehow undamaged.
The next day, getting gas in Steamboat Springs, I noticed something reflecting off a front tire. It was a sunny day, like today in Denver. On closer inspection, both front tires were entirely silver, all the rubber worn away. They looked like giant doughnuts wrapped in shiny wire. I found a repair shop and learned that my axle was cracked, the struts bent, my front wheels at crazy angles. The car could not be aligned. The shop would sell me tires, but could not fix the car. I destroyed those new tires getting us to Winter Park for a family reunion. The next day I drove to Denver to have the car fixed.
Before stopping in Steamboat I'd been going 75 miles an hour on U.S. 40 all morning. I didn't know I was wearing the rubber off our tires, but it was the second time in two days I might have killed us all. A reprieve.
Now I'm on my way to another reunion. Stuck. I don't smoke anymore and my almost-grown children are not with me. I have no way of knowing that every flight this trip will be delayed, that in five days I'll be stranded in Chicago for 14 hours. There is no time in this place. There is only time in this place. The sparrows flicker and flit. I settle in to watch the Bears win. ♦