Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Modern Cities You've Never Thought Of

            I've stopped to spend a leisurely hour in the city of Hartsfield. Sitting beside one of the major thoroughfares, I'm watching the heavy traffic flowing in both directions, and speculating on the origins and destinations of all the other travelers passing through.
            You won't find the city of Hartsfield designated as such on any map of Georgia, although its average population must make it one of the larger cities in the state. The climate is remarkably even, varying little from an ideal 70 degrees , summer or winter, year around.
            Hartsfield is a futuristic city. Conventional cars must be left in parking lots on the outskirts of the city. A robotic rapid transit subway system whisks commuters between the business areas of the city, and a woman's soft computerized voice announces each station stop. The few vehicles you see here are electric powered, and are reserved only for those who are unable to walk easily. Virtually all of the traffic within the city limits is pedestrian.
            The entire population of this city has arrived recently, actually within the last few hours, and although I'm  told that the number of people here at times exceeds fifty thousand, no one stays long. There are no residences here, and workers leave at the end of their shifts to travel to bedroom communities located in Atlanta or other nearby towns within easy driving distance. Hartsfield, with its totally transient population is indeed a city of the future, complete with its own roads, shopping malls, fire department, police force, and city administration.
            This is a new kind of city, having come into existence only within the past couple of decades, taking its place along with the other great unmapped cities of its kind like O'Hare in Illinois, Dulles in Virginia, Heathrow in England, and Le Bourget in France.
            Like the traffic in more conventional cities, the volume of traffic in the city of Hartsfield ebbs and flows fitfully, punctuated by the low rumbling roar of jet engines in the background. Fascinating as it is, everyone seems anxious to leave, stopping in clusters to scan with furrowed brows the rows of digital data on banks of computer screens that display a continuously changing list of arrivals and departures.
            Somewhere far off to the south, a couple of weeks walk, many hours of driving, or an hour and twenty minutes by plane, other intent eyes are scanning digital data on other banks of computer screens, all of them focused on the departure of a single flying machine now scheduled to leave on Dec. 17 at 8:51 p.m. EST. That is the tentative targeted time when space shuttle Discovery will leap for the last time from Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. I'll be watching.
            A faceless voice is announcing my own departure from this strange city. It's time to grab my possessions and to join the others crowding to leave Hartsfield International Airport. I know that I'll be back. Even though I wouldn't want to live here, it's a great place to visit!

Friday, November 12, 2010

Latitude Lassitude

What can you say about an interstate highway...any interstate highway? Basically they all look the same, with minor variations. They are the cement incarnation of a Phillip Glass symphony...seemingly endless repetitions of the same theme, gradually, very gradually evolving from one thing into something else. The music changes with the surface underneath the tires; whispering over smooth asphalt, humming over longitudinal highway grooving, whining over transverse grooves, the tarmac tympani changing the beat from thump-a-thump, thump-a-thump to kathunkety-thunk, kathunkty-thunk as the spacing between the expansion joints changes.
The vegetation gradually changes size, type, texture, tint. The trees seem to observe the state borders. Cruising down Interstate 95, soon after we cross into North Carolina we begin to spot the wispy gray beards of Spanish Moss hanging from tree branches. As we near the the lower side of South Carolina, very close to the Georgia state line we spot the first palmetto trees, and leave the predominant oaks, maples, and sycamores behind.
The colors of the highway change too as we travel, sometimes dark and smooth, then dark with millions of sparkling mica facets that catch and reflect the sunlight, paving the highway with countless diamonds. In parts of Virginia the highways have a distinct greenish tinge from the Catoctin Greenstone gravel that goes into the cement mix, but in Florida the cement pavement of I-95 South is glaring white like the low white sand dunes we see as we turn east off the Interstate toward Cocoa Beach.
Perhaps the most magical change is the air itself. Tropical air is sensuous. Why is that? Surely not just the varying amount of moisture in the atmosphere, since that fluctuates seasonally in Richmond from dry to saturated, and it never feels like Florida. I think that it must be the unique combination of ocean salt in the air and the vegetation. Indian River grass washed up and decaying on sandy western shores, sawgrass, palmetto, swamp-smells blended with hints of flowers and the warm moist air all blend in a heady recipe that seeps into your lungs to work its spell. A few deep breaths and you want to get rid of shoes and wiggle toes in white sand, rub pungent coconut oil on your skin, lie in the sun or sprawl on warm sand. The resulting change of attitude might be blamed on latitude. It isn't exactly ennui, but gone are any plans that involve hurrying. Fading fast is any kind of planning at all. Normally get up at 6:30 or 7:00? Try 8:00 or even 9:00 without a twinge of regret! Thought you might go fishing or paddle a kayak on the Indian River in the morning? Why rush? The river will still be there this afternoon, or tomorrow, for that matter. A few insidious thoughts creep in that you should be doing something, but hey!....sitting and watching a snowy egret stealthily hunting breakfast, or taking note of the changing shapes, colors, and textures of the clouds overhead or watching distant sailboats scurrying south along the Intra-Coastal Waterway...well, those are doing something!