Somewhere a baby squalls. Such wisdom in that cry. The lifeless vacuum! The queer heat of waiting! Who has not inhaled the lonesome smell of the Eastern Shuttle?
Here you are again, sitting out on the LaGuardia runway for three-quarters of an hour and the air is akin to a Finnish sauna. And there's a scattering drizzle on the window, a frightening whinny from one engine only, and someone four rows down is murmuring something about wind shear and you begin to wonder who it is and when this will end.
Down the aisle, Gary Hart is wearing his ineffable Red Skelton Grin. He's sweated several small ponds through his cotton twill suit. His Colorado perma-tan has faded to simple dun. But saints preserve him, Gary Hart is still smiling.
Others are not so calm. Rhoda, the actuary's assistant, is "just about ready to explode." Nor does she think much of the pilot's vintage aw-shucks-we've-got-a-little-ol'-delay-up-ahead-but-we'll-be-outta-here-in-just-a-second speech.
"I've heard that one before," Rhoda says in a voice almost perfectly pitched to a band saw cutting through bone.
The tension does not suit her. The wormy little veins in her temples are throbbing like mad and her forehead is as sweaty as a beer bottle in July.
"You know what they're gonna do to us, don't you?"
"I'm not sure it's anyone's fault."
"Are you outta your mind? Are you? They could blow the 10:30 curfew at National."
"And so . . ."
"And so they land in Baltimore and they bus us like cattle to Washington."
So that's it. Time. In search of lost time. The Proustian sadness. Hours lost in immobility, blown appointments, jilted lovers, minds blurred by heat and a vague fury.
Up and down the aisles hundreds of lawyers are rifling through their boxy litigation bags in the desperate hope of finding something to do, some document or another to fill the time with content and purpose.
"Sure, we're not gonna crash or anything," says a lawyer across the aisle. "But you can't exactly bill a client for a damn bus ride from Baltimore." Power Shuttling
The Eastern Shuttle is the last great work place of American democracy.
The no-reservation and on-board ticketing system has been in place for 24 years, and the Corridor has never been the same. From 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. the Shuttle shuttles, inspiring loyalty and rebellion, dependence and yearning. As one Green Bay Packer said of Coach Vince Lombardi, "He treats us all the same. Like dogs." Ditto, the Shuttle.
Even the most casual flier is apt to plumb the Shuttle for its symbolic value. Mostly they see the power. What regular Shuttler has not thrilled at the sight of Bill Bradley smacking his pate against the overhead baggage rack, I.M. Pei doodling on a barf bag, Pat Moynihan chin-wobbling to an aide in Row 18, Bella Abzug hip-checking for an aisle seat, Teddy Kennedy scarfing a couple of fish sandwiches from Jimmy's and 195 attorneys in regulation yellow power ties whispering the legal mantra: "deposition . . . deposition . . . deposition."
(And who does not yearn for those wacky days when John Warner could be seen schlepping his cat Cleopatra to New York where man and pet were greeted by Liz Taylor?)
Unlike Britain, France or Denmark, where power, culture and finance are all centered in a single city, American power is divided by 200-odd miles of highway. Washington is like Brasilia, a city invented to house a nation's political power. New York is a natural city, a port city, a harbor of culture, immigration and passion.
You can make the argument that the Shuttle is the bridge that makes a unity of the power structure.
But powerlessness is the real principle here. You can't buy out. Robert Kennedy, an all-star Shuttler who was known to make three round trips in a single day and work the aisle, used to show up late and try to hold up the plane. Nothing doing. A few heavies might rate preboarding privileges, but rarely can anyone stall a takeoff on his own.
There is an old joke in Washington. One immensely powerful fellow will say to another immensely powerful fellow, "You'll know you're out of power when you have to take the Eastern Shuttle instead of an Air Force jet. And you'll really know you're out of power when you get the middle seat." Robert McNamara said it to Henry Kissinger and everybody said it to Edmund Muskie.
Some power players learned a kind of elegant accommodation to these forays into the hoi polloi.
W. Averell Harriman was a powerful man. And like all powerful men of the East, he flew the Shuttle as regularly as an adman shuttles between midtown office and Westchester greensward. In his time, Harriman was the ultimate Shuttler, a man of private fortune, public service and the unending need to pinball between the bumpers of New York and Washington.
People remember Harriman boarding the plane with the same calm dignity of the Queen Mum entering her royal hansom. Before he took his seat he would carefully arrange his vents, the better to avoid creases in his suiting. He would place his calf-leather briefcase on his lap and, careful as a surgeon, arrange his wares before him. On one side of the case was a stack of documents -- diplomatic, political, depending on the year and position. On the other side was an ebony lunch box. It always held the same meal: two cups of tea and two cheese sandwiches.
Through takeoff, flight and landing, Harriman ate and worked, spilling nothing, never lifting his head to look at a pretty passenger or a minatory thunderhead. And when the plane hit ground, his timing was exquisite, as perfect and regular as a Swiss cuckoo clock. At the very second the plane clicked into the gate, Harriman's case would click shut.
Nobody did it better. Shuttling Through History
Shuttleologists are still arguing, but the consensus is that the real inventor of the Shuttle was Malcolm A. MacIntyre, former president of Eastern Airlines. Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker was one Eastern executive who objected, calling it "nothing but a damned bus service." Officials at American Airlines had rejected the project as bound for failure. Who would have believed that commuters would sacrifice service and comfort for convenience? The original fare was $14. It is now $75 -- $45 at off-peak weekend hours.
The Shuttle was almost discontinued: twice because it was losing money in its first decade, and once during the oil embargo in the mid-'70s.
Part of the Shuttle concept was the promise that you were guaranteed a ride. Eastern expected to drum up publicity the day a single passenger would be left over from a full flight and then flown, solitary as a hermit, in a backup plane. The first such fellow told Eastern officials, "I won't do it. You people must be crazy -- using a whole crew and plane to take one guy to Washington."
Since the Shuttle started in April 1961, five flights have carried a single passenger. Shuttle Caveats
Eastern Airlines wants you to believe there are two Shuttles: the Washington-New York run and the Boston-New York version.
Eastern is wrong. There is one Shuttle and one shuttle. The Boston run counts only insofar as its ticketing and scheduling principles are the same as the Shuttle's. Otherwise, forget it.
New York Air wants you to believe it is a rival to the Shuttle. While it has better legroom, drinks and bagels, it has not yet reached the status of icon. Amtrak wants you to believe it is better than any plane. Which may be, but some people on the train are actually traveling.
Because no one travels on the Shuttle.
They shuttle. Shuttle Nicknames
Cattle Car (courtesy Jacob Javits).
Flying None. Love Shuttle
Nora Ephron is the Sappho of the Eastern Shuttle, its poet of love.
When she and Carl Bernstein were married and commuting between apartments in Adams-Morgan and New York, they collaborated on a film script called "The Eastern Shuttle." When the marriage disintegrated, they mothballed the project.
But the plane reappeared as if from some silver cloud. In Ephron's novel "Heartburn," the Shuttle has the same importance as Silver in a "Lone Ranger" episode. It is the vehicle:
. . . One day, Mark and I were on the Eastern shuttle and he asked me to marry him. This was when he was asking me to marry him a couple of times a week, but he had never asked me on the Eastern shuttle.
"This is your chance to say yes on the Eastern shuttle," he said.
"No," I said.
"This is your chance at a really bad metaphor," he said.
"No," I said.
"This is your last chance," he said. "I'll ask you to marry me again and again, but I'll never ask you on the Eastern shuttle."
So I said yes.
Nora Ephron was writing fiction. More or less.
There are True Shuttle Romances that are stranger than fiction. There are tales of a woman who "cruises" the Shuttle.
Another young Washington woman tells this story. (In a moment you will not blame her for requesting anonymity):
"One afternoon a couple of years ago I wanted to take the shuttle up to New York but all the planes were down. A storm in New York. The terminal was mobbed. You know how it is, everybody has just got to get to one meeting or another and they're all piled up.
"Finally they decide they're going to let one plane go to New York. So I was standing along the ramp and a guy in some sort of uniform sidles up to me and I can tell he's trying to read my boarding pass. Out of nowhere he says to me, 'Will you marry me?'
"Now, that's never happened to me. He had this deep southern accent. He said, 'As soon as I saw you across the room I knew you were the woman of my dreams. When we get to New York I'll call my mamma and she'll cry tears of joy 'cause her boy has found his woman for life.'
"Just my luck. I said, 'I really don't have time. I'm going to miss my plane.' And so he says, 'Cain't. I'm drivin' it.' He was the pilot! He told the ticket agent to pull someone off the plane and he took me aboard. He even put my luggage in the cockpit.
"At LaGuardia he asked me out for a drink. I knew I just couldn't. So I took my suitcase and told him, thanks, but I had a boyfriend. Two weeks later I thought to myself I really should have had that drink, because the odds of ever seeing him again were about 1,000-to-1.
"Nine months later at National who should I see? He zoomed in on me. Somewhere over Philadelphia the stewardess brought me a message: 'The offer is still open. At LaGuardia we can plan our wedding.' At the airport we exchanged business cards. It was a shtick, but I gave him points for persistence.
"Fourteen months later he called me. We started dating. It was wild. He'd blow into town, we'd see each other and then he'd be gone again. Funny thing, after we started dating, he never mentioned marriage again. I think we've broken up, but I'm not sure. With a pilot, you never know where they are." Shuttle Dreams
Somewhere over Philadelphia (you can spend your life over Philadelphia), the captain quiets down and you close your eyes and try to sleep. The air is cool, the unreal refrigerated air. It's an easy midafternoon flight, no Gary Hart, no Rhoda, the actuary's assistant, but a whole new band of gypsies. Next to you a tense, ovoid fellow from Arnold & Porter is murmuring sweet nothings to his reedy client on the aisle.
The plane begins to drop, subtle as a glider.
The baby, the ever-present baby who must have more frequent flier miles than the entire New York congressional delegation, well, the kid starts in with the squalling.
A jerk and a squeak.
You have landed. For a moment . . . is it National or LaGuardia? It only matters a little. You are never anywhere for long.