Clan of the Heart Punch

We landed in Philadelphia with just ten minutes to make it from one side of the airport to the other if we were going to stand a chance of catching the connecting flight to Denver. With security being what it is, that was looking about as likely as getting a smile out of one of the flight attendants we’d been trapped with for the last seven hours.

To make it through security, first you need your soul dissecting and then you must answer a bewildering array of questions designed to catch you out. These are either asked by people who couldn't care less one way or the other what business you have in the States and ask stupid questions like “Do you dye your hair”; or people who care a little too much and behave like they never got accepted into the military and have the chip on their shoulder to prove it. These people have buzz cuts in order to ask their questions properly — questions like whether you intend to work while you’re in the promised land and whether you realise that next time you come in, you need a form that says you’re allowed to. Then they’ll tell you the number of that form — and because there was nothing wrong with your entry visa in the first place, attempt to sweeten the deal by telling you that they're “not going to bust your balls for it this time.”

The flight is long gone by the time we hit the gate. To be reasonable here, the airline did book overnight accommodation until the next flight in the morning but it's only for one of us — and the girl I'm travelling with is not going to let me crash on the floor of her room this side of the apocalypse.

The airline guy says he can fix me up a room — for which I am truly grateful. He tells me my friend has a really nice hotel room but I must stay seven miles away in a different hotel. This too is a ‘nice hotel’ apparently, but the fact that he felt the need to make the comparison doesn’t fill me with confidence. So long as there is a bed and some kind of running water that isn't brown or red, it will suit me just fine.

The cab driver is noncommittal in every way. He looks like he’s driven this route close on a hundred times today — the same as he did yesterday and more than likely, the same as every day before that as well, for months on end. Maybe even years. When we get to the hotel, he simply points to the meter and I give him $20 without waiting for the change. Maybe he just gets tired of talking to people. I can roll with that.

At the front desk, there is a young couple trying to arrange some kind of milk warming device for their baby who is clinging to the mother's neck like a newborn monkey. Also at the front desk is an older gentleman who has possibly just talked the other desk-clerk into booking a steady stream of prostitutes armed with cocaine and beer into his room.

Maybe I’ve stumbled across some kind of Hotel Shangri-La. Maybe you can get anything you want in this hotel. It’s certainly out of the way enough to slip under the radar.

The cocaine guy wanders off, still looking immensely satisfied — in case you’re wondering at this point, the milk baby couple are still trying to get the finer points of their seemingly complicated order across.

“Good evening Sir. My name is Daryl. How can I help you this evening?"

I am too tired for prostitutes, cocaine and baby milk so I explain what happened and that U.S. Air should have booked me a courtesy room. He’s already two steps ahead of me and has me up on the screen before I’ve even got out my passport to prove who I am.

He amuses me with some small talk while he assaults the keyboard and one swipe of my debit card later (should I wish to abuse the mini-bar at selling arms to the Middle East prices), I’m handed a key and given such exact directions to my room it would shame an iPhone. Before I can escape, he holds on to the other end of the plastic key as I am trying to take it from him — he appears to be trying to form some kind of connection with me through the plastic — and says:

“Like I said, my name is Daryl and if I can help you out with anything at all while you’re staying with us, just be sure to let me know.”

He may have winked at me during this statement. It sounds like a winking kind of speech but I’m too busy noticing how he has clenched his fist and is pounding it repeatedly onto his heart as he says it. Like they would on Star Trek or if you were swearing allegiance to life as an apprentice to an L.A. drug lord.

“Thanks Daryl, I’ll remember that.”

“You have a good night now bro…”

You know something Daryl? If I could actually get to my room before I have to embrace another time zone shift, I just might.

He does the heart punch thing again.

Weird.

The hotel is a little run-down but clean and bright. It’s kind of how I imagine an out-of-town Vegas hotel to have welcomed me but it’s luxurious compared to the first twenty-bucks-a-night time I hit New York twenty years ago. Tonight, I am not afraid that kidney thieves will break into my room in the middle of the night. An old man looking to escape his overnight harem, or a baby still in search of the perfect milk perhaps; but I’m quite confident that all my body parts will still be where they should be when the sun comes up.

After battling with the plastic key-card, which I have already put in upside down and back to front, I throw my suitcase on the floor and wash my hands and face. There’s hot drink facilities and I make coffee because what Americans know about tea isn’t worth talking about. It doesn’t occur to me until the following morning that Daryl could have fixed that for me.

The room is huge. I could honestly live here for the rest of my life and not run out of different places to sit in. It’s also clean and, as soon as I’ve located the power switch to disable the air-con, it’s damn near perfect. There’s even a balcony I can walk straight onto for secret smoking. And that’s exactly what I’m going to do: smoke and drink a cup of wonderful American coffee while I look out over Philadelphia from seven miles away. In my pants.

It may be the middle of the night but from up here, I can see for miles. The front of the hotel curves around but I don’t see anybody else smoking on the balcony. I don’t think anybody smokes in America anymore. There are no chairs out here so I sit on the floor like a trailer park Buddha. Life is good.

I come across my usual second wind of life that always turns up after midnight even though I’ve been up for something like twenty seven hours already. It’s nice to know it has a blatant disregard for time zones. The TV here is twice as big as the one I have at home and that’s necessary because the bed is so far away from it, I don’t know if I could focus if it was any smaller.

Flipping around the channels, I find exactly what I expect. Junk. There are seemingly hundreds of channels of junk. It takes me twenty minutes and another two cups of coffee to get through them all, just to find something to fall asleep to. I didn’t know they had remade Hawaii Five-0. It’s not bad. In fact, it’s pretty good as far as cop shows go. Or maybe I’m more tired than I thought.

When I wake up, the TV is still going and somebody is trying to sell me something I don’t want. Welcome to America. I turn it off and go back to sleep. I would have left it on but the last thing I need are subliminal messages for ordering pizza with free delivery for less than $10 floating around in my head.

Besides, if I wanted a pizza, I would place a call to Daryl.

The flight is at 9am — an ungodly hour. I make it through security without being frisked and scrutinised like a dime store hooker only to be pulled to one side when I get through the X-Ray machines by the biggest security guard I’ve ever met.

For the briefest of moments, I am concerned - though I have no reason to be, unless a novel by Poe Ballantine is considered to contravene the laws of immigration. Turns out he thinks he knows me from somewhere. Deep in my heart, I’m hoping that he thinks I’m Johnny Depp; but he genuinely swears that we have met before. I tell him I used to be in a band a long time ago but now I’m a writer. He asks me to sign a piece of paper for him and seems very satisfied with that, whaps me on the shoulder with a grizzly paw and says:

“You have a great trip bro.”

Did I see him give me the heart punch that Daryl introduced to me? I guess if I ever need to get through security in a hurry again, he’s my man.

On board, I am checked to make sure I’m capable of doing up my own seat belt before they serve me something concocted by Charles Dickens in a metal tray. I am afraid to go to the bathroom in case somebody knifes me with a shiv made out of a filed down toothbrush. None of the flight attendants look like they are going to salute our brotherhood with the heart punch, though one of them looks like he would punch me in the face given half the chance. If you’re a passenger on a plane these days, you’re nothing but a terrorist waiting to happen — at best, you’re a minor inconvenience.

I don’t meet anybody from the clan for the longest time now. Not the bus driver who drives me uphill for two hours to my room in the remote wilderness of Keystone, not the desk guy — although he does have a good line in politics and holds the keys to the coffee machine, which makes him the most important person in the world between eight and ten in the morning. Most disappointing, though, is the guy who owns the store at the top of the mountain.

I walk in and within a second, he tells me about the last time he saw Whitesnake. Unprompted, I might add — that’s not the first (or last) thing I would ever ask somebody. It does, however, lead to a half hour conversation about all the bands he has seen. I guess he doesn’t meet many people he can talk to up here who even know who Adrian Vandenberg is.

Another guy strolls into the store and he has no hair at all. This means he gets ignored, because we are busy being brothers in rock. I discover the store owners name is Rock Soldier. You can probably look him up on the internet. I hope that’s his real birth-name. I’ll be heartbroken if I find he has made it up.

I leave but he doesn’t give me the heart punch. Maybe the gesture hasn’t filtered out to this side of the country yet. In a town with a permanent population of something close to 100, I shouldn’t be surprised.

Many days later, I’m boarding the flight home with a copy of Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls by David Sedaris in hand. I don’t know what this guy in a uniform does — he doesn’t look like the captain, though I guess he might be as I don’t see him again during the flight — but as I show my boarding pass, he points to the book.

“Good choice, man.”

“I hope so. I’ve not read anything by him before.”

“You’ll love it. He’s a really good writer.”

“Promise?” I smile at him.

“Promise.” And then   he does it. Fist clenched, he bangs at his heart twice which I guess means he really promises or he’ll guarantee my money back out of his own pocket. I am hunting for my seat when I stop and ask over my shoulder:

“Do you know Daryl?”

“Is he on this flight too?” he asks, cocking his head at me.

It’s a small world. Anything can happen out here.

•••••

An extract from The Day The Sky Fell Down

Sion Smith