NEW YORK — Jack Kerouac, about half a century ago, wrote a book on a long swath of brown paper that mostly described how Americans can find a kind of spiritual transcendence on the road. Generally having less itchy feet than Kerouac, I tend to find my own particular enlightenment in the television, movie theaters, museums, and stages within several miles of me in New York City. (Plus, the hermetically sealed bubble that the Monitor keeps me in so as to regulate television watching makes travel uncomfortable and difficult.)
But over the last few weeks, a series of events have forced me to broaden my horizons, to boldly go in new directions, and to attend some cousins' weddings. So it's also given me the opportunity to compare the experience to the way I remember it from several hundred movies and television shows that have attempted to describe the experience to me.
The main thing about traveling, apparently, is that it involves some mode of transportation. I know this comes as no surprise to all of you, but I had been watching "Alias" this season, and I thought that all you needed to do was to announce that you were going on a mission to somewhere in the world, and then the screen would fade to black, and there you'd be. When I tried saying "London," loudly, several times, in the local Starbucks, all I got were curious looks and, eventually, a request from the woman who makes the lattes to order something or to leave.
So I went to the airport, where I found out, contrary to some recent Sandra Bullock and Julia Roberts movies I had seen, that you cannot in fact just run up to the gate if you arrive several minutes before takeoff, even if you nicely explain to the people who are at the security checkpoints that the love of your life is on that plane heading off to London. Instead, you will get angry looks from people who are standing near you in some sort of line and, oddly, a request to remove your shoes. If you persist, the crowd will not "melt," or "cheer;" rather, they will "riot," or "arrest you."
Thankfully, the flight was uneventful, though it lasted longer than the usual commercial break, and I arrived at my destination, where I was met neither by a mysterious stranger nor a beauteous figure from my past, but by my great aunt. She did, however, have the code phrase: "Have you gotten taller? And you've lost weight!"
The wedding was lovely, thank you for asking, even though no one showed up at the eleventh hour to claim the bride as their own true love, nor was there a single embarrassing gaffe or revealing double entendre on the part of the man performing the service. You can't have everything, I suppose.
The point? Well, it seems somewhat unfair to judge our own experiences by the admittedly fictional ones that we see strutting and fretting before us on the television set and movie screen. And yet, somehow, our ideas of travel are so shaped by those fixtures that there's something either vaguely disappointing or awfully familiar about the places we go to. How to avoid this? Some might suggest an attempt to encounter things afresh, to open yourself up to new opportunities, to realize that entertainment's truth is based on artifice while travel's truths come from direct, unfiltered experience.
But that's too complicated for me. So here are a few helpful suggestions:
1. Never go anywhere.
2. If you do, don't do anything you couldn't do at home.
3. If you can't do stuff you could do at home, complain vociferously to local residents about same.
4. If the local residents don't seem willing or able to understand you, repeat yourself, only louder.
This is what I've been doing while I've been in London (well, when I'm not watching "South Park" on Channel Four, that is). Maybe they'll throw me in jail after a while of this, but, according to that new Fox show "The American Embassy," there's always a beautiful attache just waiting to bail me out. Keep your fingers crossed.