BY Randy Cohen
RANDY COHEN WEEK.
(Please: Randy Cohen is a genius of America. He is a writer of rarefied satires (personal and political) and, accordingly, his work rarely appears in popular periodicals. He has written for the New Yorker, the Nation, and Late Night with David Letterman and, a few years ago, he was fired as head writer of The Rosie O’Donnell Show. He currently writes and edits the News Quiz for Slate, the on-line magazine. (Do visit!) He has also written books, but because the world is as it is, his classic collection, Diary of a Flying Man (Knopf), is out of print. As meager recompense, this week we are reprinting selections from it, for no good reason at all.)
The means I have available to defend myself are limited; mostly I rely on peer pressure. I look to the gentle authority of social convention, consideration for others, simple good manners, to deter commercial and military pilots from entering that imaginary cylinder that surrounds my body and extends infinitely upward — my airspace.
Lacking a sophisticated air-defense system — I am particularly weak in the command and control functions commonly provided by AWACs-type aircraft; I have no look-down / shoot-down radar — I must endure the frustrations of routine incursions by even the smaller airlines. Earlier this year, a Sabena flight bound for Brussels crossed into my airspace. If it was really bound for Brussels it was pretty far off course, overflying a route I employ to reach the Key Food market. Pilot error? Navigator miscalculation? Computer malfunction? Possible. So is espionage. Even if I possessed the means, I couldn’t very well bring down a plane loaded with civilians, even a charter group, even Walloons. The publicity would be terrible. How would it sound opening the network news? “Late this afternoon, Randy Cohen of New York’s Greenwich Village district downed a Sabena passenger flight, killing the 240 innocent victims on board, plus three additional passengers whose innocence is still unverified. He’s very sorry. He was under a lot of stress (quarrel with his boss). There may have been technical malfunctions.” Right now all I actually deploy is rock-throwing capability, and I can’t hurl one high enough or hard enough to significantly damage that type of aircraft (the popular A300 Airbus.). So I endure these overflights, a humiliating slap at my personal sovereignty.
As difficult as it is to protect my airspace by day, the nights are worse; when I lie down, my airspace grows bigger. At least that’s the theory I’m hoping will prevail in Geneva. Others assert that when one is reclining personal airspace vanishes altogether, being determined by the top of one’s head. A complex formula is employed in which one plumb bob is hung from your nose, another is dangled from each of your ears. The triangle defined on the ground by these points is circumscribed; the resulting circle is projected upward as a cylinder, and there’s your airspace. Preserve it, protect it, and always stand tall. If you slouch, it diminishes; if you lie down, it disappears. So they say. I say that my airspace is a bundle of infinitely high vertical lines rising from every part of my body. That’s why I sleep on my side, to present the smallest possible target. I shun the provocative gesture; if I could sleep standing up, I would. Call me a horse; I only want peace.
Some people insist that for the sake of accuracy all measurements be made on the naked citizen. Others, more demure, insist on full drapery. But doesn’t this invite cheating — suits with padded shoulders, conical brassieres, broad-brimmed hats? Won’t some favor giant clown shoes, pneumatic slacks? There are many such disputes to be settled. What happens in a fifty-story office building? With so many executives crisscrossing above and below one another, how to determine who controls the airspace? Won’t the uncertainty provoke unendurable anxiety in those subject to the territorial imperative, testosterone poisoning, or over-identification with their corporate status?
All agree that where no one stands — parts of the Bronx, vast stretches of the Gobi, the icy expanse of Baffin Bay — is international airspace. But even here there is discord. Some say that a person’s airspace stops at his nose; others claim dominion 200 miles beyond their epidermal limits. The latter view prevails in coastal areas, at the edge of the rich fishing banks and mineral reserves of the outer continental shelf. If you were about to grow wealthy on kelp or cod or manganese nodules, you too would seek to restrict overflights well beyond your layer of subcutaneous fat.
Each stakes out his borders and provides what protection he can. A popular passive measure is wrapping a mat of pink fiberglass insulation around your head; it displays only a muddled profile on enemy radar. Active measures include battle tested Stinger missiles strapped to your back. You may find this approach unnecessarily bellicose, and it is certainly uncomfortable when you sit, particularly in Broadway theaters. The people behind you will have a hard time seeing the stage. Those folks paid forty-five dollars a seat, and they might have full retaliatory capabilities, so why look for trouble?
I try to stymie overflights with the application of an obsolete air-defense method, counting on the element of surprise. I’ve rigged a harness, anchoring above me at various heights barrage balloons of the sort that helped win the Battle of Britain. Any craft violating my airspace ought either to ram a balloon or entangle itself in the lines. But so far my system has always failed. All incursions happen thousands of feet above my top balloon. And the harness is an awful nuisance whenever I take the bus.
Over on Horatio Street they’ve formed a block association to defend their mutual airspace, chipping in to hire a World War II surplus P-51 Mustang. It flies intercept missions above the neighborhood — from the playground, out past the Greenwich Twin Theater, over to PS 41, then back to the playground. Right now they can afford to send out sorties only about once every six weeks, but next month they plan to have a bake sale. Thanks to the bingo, they’ve begun shopping around for a battery of SAM-6 missiles, the nice, heat-seeking kind. They’ll deploy them on the roof of the apartment house at 32 Horatio if the super gives his OK. Once they’ve trained on the SAMs, I expect they’ll sell those old ack-ack guns mounted on top of the greengrocer’s. I’m hoping to pick them up cheap, maybe go in with a couple of the guys. We could take turns.
The president of that pricy new coop down on Eleventh Street has been hinting that his building will deploy ground-based particle-beam weapons, a spin-off from the SDI program. They’re expensive and probably won’t work, but he insists that by maintaining an R&D program — they run it in the building’s health club — they’ll have the bargaining chip they need to negotiate a route change for Continental’s Baltimore-to-Buffalo flight. He’s been a lot less belligerent since the October ‘87 stock market plunge when he came inches away from losing his job. Since then, he’s had to moderate his life style — less expensive wines, off the rack suits, and no stealth technology for the car. He drives a sporty little Datsun two-seater; I think it’s leased.
In an ideal world, I’d follow the example of Saudi Arabia and purchase the advanced mobile air defense system known in Arabic as the Shahine, or Falcon’s Eye, featuring six French Crotale antiaircraft missiles mounted on an AMX 30 tank chassis. But talk about expensive! And that alternate-side-of-the-street parking could drive you crazy, not to mention trying to find a space during the day in midtown. Yes I know I could park it in a garage. Sure — for $285 a month. If I want to come back and find half my guidance system missing and my paint scratched.
But it’s not an ideal world, is it? It’s a world where SR-71 Blackbird surveillance aircraft traveling at Mach 3.32 cross into my airspace at 85,000 feet. It’s a world where every pipsqueak TV station operates its own helicopter (to keep an eye on the commuter situation, they say). But despite these repeated provocations and routine violations of my territorial integrity, I remain steadfast: I will never — never! — be the first to employ nuclear weapons. I’m just not that kind of guy.
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Monologue: An Air Traffic Controller Instructs a Flight Attendant Through an Emergency Takeoff
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