On Tuesday, April 20, I was walking down the narrow footpath of Cambridge Grove, an ethnically mixed street in Hammersmith in West London. I was one of the many stranded and stalled in Western Europe because of the Plume of Ash emanating from that volcano in Iceland.
A young white man came towards me, wearing black pants and jacket. When he was a few inches away, he turned towards me, opened his mouth, and let out a monstrous belch. The noise was worse than the smell, but I could catch a whiff of gas, beer, and garlic.
I obeyed the New Yorker's first rule of the street. Show nothing. Keep going. But my world was becoming one of eruptions. We can measure an eruption by its power to disrupt.
That small one from a surly young man's mouth disrupted nothing---except for my momentary peace of mind on a leafy English street in spring. That immense one from Eyjafjallajokull, which sounds like a name in an Icelandic saga, disrupted global systems and hundreds of thousands of lives.
When air travel finally began to resume in England on the Wednesday, no-one knew when a symptom of disruption might check in. Thanks to the help of friends, nagging and nagging the airlines, I got a reservation for Wednesday night, April 21.
Boarding pass in hand, I appeared at the gate. "But you're not on this flight," a puzzled and polite agent said. I was asked to wait with a clutter of baby strollers that also had to be loaded on. A few minutes later, an equally polite agent said that their computers had been erupting with errors for hours, They were checking people in and then making them disappear. I was not to worry. I would get on. My baggage would get on. "A hard day for you," I said. "You have no idea, Ma'am," he replied. "You have no idea."
My hotel bristled with glitches as well. My rational self tells me that it was badly built and that glitches revealed systemic weaknesses. My irrational self thought of eruptions and the subsequent disruptions going viral. The television screen would go blank. Two fire alarms went off within the week I was there. The second was at 5:30 a.m. Guests streamed down from nine floors to stone patios. Some of them were fully dressed as if they went to bed prepared for disaster. Two Japanese women were wearing masks. Two young Chinese girls huddled within shimmering, silvery, space age, fire resistant blankets. Be prepared, be prepared. I could smell toast and bacon. A cook, in a chef's hat, smoked a cigarette near a shrub. When I checked out, I asked about the alarms. "Oh," the clerk said, "the second one, this morning, was a real fire in the kitchen." Was my chef the guilty party? Or were the stoves as badly wired as my TV?
The Plume of Ash has shrunk. More flights have resumed. In Europe, the eruptions now also come from the vocal guardians of travel and communications in the public and private sector. In the future, we will smell many more of their emissions of wind as people avoid and shift responsibility for a possible over-reaction to the Plume of Ash. The Wednesday headline in The Guardian was, "Heathrow opens---and now recriminations start to fly." A subhead followed, "BA (British Aviation) chief attacks government."
Yet, as I talked to people who were stranded and as I listened to people in the airport, I heard none of this. People were paging home. Their cell phones were connected to residential numbers. "I don't know how long this is going to be, but I want to come home," was a common refrain outside of the airport. "I am coming home," was a common refrain inside the airport. Yes, destructive eruptions can happen in the home, but they feel like our own. "Home": the point of stability from which we depart and to which we avidly return.
Because the Plume of Ash fouled up my schedule, I could go to a play in one of those slightly musty theaters around Leicester Square in which the greatness of British theater tests and sustains itself. I chose George Bernard Shaw's Mrs. Warren's Profession, an eruption of stage craft that violated late Victorian conventions.
The actress playing Mrs. Warren was a bit too "mimsy," a phrase from a British actor friend of mine. The sets were clunky, miring Shaw's language and conflicts of character in a stodgy realism. The play is still radical, still fiery, and, I realized, it is about the meanings of home. Mrs. Warren's profession is to manage houses of prostitution---which she does successfully. Her job has been her escape from poverty to affluence. She fantasizes that she and her daughter, a Cambridge graduate who knows nothing of her mother's livelihood, will eventually settle down together as mother and daughter. Her ruthless business partner wishes to marry the daughter, sire a child, and leave all his money to his new family. And the daughter, as tough as both mother and would-be-husband, leaves them all to create her own home.
If I discerned a common prayer during this volcanic time, it was that one's home might be strong and sane enough to offer some protection against street kid hostility, the fragility of human systems, and the eruptions of the elements.