January 20, 2008 12:12 pm ET by Kyle Whelliston
People always seem so disappointed when the story isn't as simple as they apparently thought it was. In the eyes of some folks, I don't stand up to certain ideas of pure and perfect vagrancy.
"You never stay in hotels? You just sleep in the car?"
Actually, I stay in hotels on days off between games. There usually isn't anything going on hoops-wise on Fridays, unless I'm somewhere in the northeast. That's when I catch up on phone interviews, site programming, and answering e-mails. Those are all things that are easier to accomplish with a heavy door between oneself and the public, instead of at a Flying J where truck drivers are always coming up and asking how that Apple laptop is "working out."
"You're the guy who drives all over the country to games, like a college basketball rip-off of John Madden? Are you afraid of flying too?"
Actually, I do fly, a lot. I had so many flights last year that I started with an earned comp ticket on Southwest from the 2005-06 season, and then had another free ticket by early February.
That's not the case this year, though. I spent the first two months of the season in the Eastern time zone, usually just rented cars from Providence, and proceeded to beat the hell out of them. In mid-December, returning from my trip through the Mid-American Conference, the guy in the Hertz return section checked the gas and mileage, turned to me and asked, "Is it possible that you actually drove this car 2,300 miles in the nine days you've had it?"
Oh yes, it's possible.
My wife and I have a routine: I wake her up early, then she drives me the 15 miles down to T.F. Green Airport in her pajamas. We kiss goodbye, then she goes home for another hour of sleep before work. By the time she wakes up, I'm off in another state.
But on Dec. 29, a Friday, we drove down to PVD as day broke over Rhode Island, and we were headed to the departure deck and not the arrivals level where the rental car counters sit. I was flying out to Indianapolis, the home base of operations for my annual Missouri Valley swing.
"Are you excited for your big luxurious flying trip?" she joshed, clapping her hands together. "Flying trip! Flying trip!"
Oh, not you too. Come on.
Playing the part of airline passenger these days is like any mundane, robotic and repetitive activity, like manual data entry into a spreadsheet or driving a stick-shift car. As long as you check your suitcases, present your government-issued ID, smile and nod, take off shoes and outerwear, remove laptop from bag, keep your mouth shut and proceed to the gate... then there won't be any problems and you'll get to your destination without incident. The steps are all things that anybody could do with their brains in the "off" position.
However, for some reason, I always seem to run into trouble with the process, especially when extremely sleep-deprived. Before my 6:30 am flight from Providence to Indianapolis, woozy from three hours of sleep, I checked my luggage at the ticket counter.
Then, I went to the Tensa-barrier maze, to the private security worker in the sweater and name-tag ("Joe") whose sole job it is to collect travel documents and ID card, look at them for three seconds, then mark the boarding pass with a cryptic pen-mark that signifies nothing.
"The other one," he said, eyes wide and eyebrows raised and jaw slacked in the triple-signal of polite condescension.
I didn't understand. "The other one," he repeated.
I had given him the boarding pass for the Baltimore-Washington to Indy, post-layover, leg of my trip. Mindlessly, I'd packed the PVD-BWL strip in my carryon for later retrieval. So as I fished it out while those behind me waited and exhaled, a process that usually takes less than 10 seconds stretched out to over 45.
On the plane, I was only awake for a few moments before unconsciousness swept over me. I dreamt of flight, of traveling somewhere and then deplaning in some unknown city... so when we reached BWI, actually getting off the aircraft was a moment in which I didn't know which mirror-hall of the mind I was in.
In the white, steel-accented Southwest terminal at BWI, I waled over and checked the monitors for my connecting flight. Gate A2, it read. I wheeled around -- wasn't that the same tunnel I'd just emerged from? Or was it A3 or A5? They all looked remarkably the same.
"Indianapolis, right?" I asked the gate agent who was checking the scanner and monitor.
After he nodded, I produced my boarding pass. "I was on this flight in from Providence, I probably should get back on it so I'm counted as a through..."
He grabbed me by the jacket, and blocked me with a glancing elbow. "Easy, buddy, I don't want any trouble," he said through clenched teeth, six inches from my face. "Nobody's getting on this plane yet."
There must be a difference between idiocy -- the low-IQ, non-functional kind that's born out of an educational deficit -- and a simple mistake, a clumsy and vulnerably human moment. The observer who mumbles "idiot" under their breath is only getting a snapshot of the observed life, and making a broad assumption based on a tiny, inconsequential sample size.
That cruel assumption, it's a moment that speaks to the absolute worst part of human nature, the desire to feel superior to others of our kind, other human beings. And besides, perhaps that so-called moron is a lawyer, doctor or Nobel physicist, or maybe even a heroic soldier or firefighter who's just having one of those days.
But then again, maybe the observer is right.
Considering the number of miles I drive, it's a constant source of wonder that I'm not pulled over for speeding more often. Especially considering that I openly flout posted speed limits wherever and whenever possible.
As most long-distance voyagers know, the secret to successful speeding is to stay with a group of like-minded drivers. If there are two or more cars doing, say, 85 miles per hour in a 65-marked zone, the chances of being stopped are seriously minimized. One patrolman can't pull over a whole chain of cars, so group-think and group-speed is like ganging up on The Man, power in numbers. Everyone working together so that each individual can get to where they're going... that, to me, is what America is all about.
If you're on your own, all alone on an empty road, it's best to switch on the cruise control and just stick to the limit, though. It's best not to be made an expensive example of.
Coming into this season, I only had one moving violation in 17 years of legal driving. That single citation came in the state with the sneakiest, most underhanded tactics in the land: Indiana. Hoosier sheriffs must be up nights figuring out new ways to stop speeders, like college basketball coaches lose sleep over trying to figure out how to crack pressure defenses.
In March of 2004, the year before the 100 Games Project, I was headed to Indianapolis for the Big Ten tourney. (I hadn't settled on the mid-niche quite yet.) Westbound on I-70, trying to make a 12 p.m. quarterfinal tip, I was making some good time until I hit some congestion. But then came flashing lights along the left shoulder, pulling me out of a slow-moving line.
"I was doing 35," I protested. "In traffic."
"Fifteen miles back, you were doing a little more than 35," said the cop. "My buddy had you clocked at 82."
I later found out that this particular county was infamous on outlaw message boards. One motorcycle cop hides out in the bushes with a radar gun right on the county line, then radios makes, models and license plate numbers to the patrol cars. It's a practice they call "good cop, bad cop."
On the dark night of January 6, on my way from an Evansville game back to Indianapolis airport, the state struck again. Northbound up U.S. Highway 41 between Evansville and Terre Haute, I was all alone until I found a Honda Civic and a brown Expedition cruising along at 80 mph in the right-hand lane. I nestled my rented Prius behind the Expedition and drafted behind for a few miles.
And then, suddenly, from the darkened windows of the SUV, came flashing, rotating white and red lights. Out the side window, a meaty arm motioned for me to pull over. I sat behind the Civic with Maine plates, a young lady at the wheel. Our eyes met briefly in her rearview mirror, then we quickly looked away, both of us silently trapped alone in the shared shame of ensnarement.
"You know why I pulled you over, right?" the cop asked after I lowered the driver's side window.
"I know why," I replied, dutifully handing over my license, insurance card and rental agreement. "Because I'm stupid."
A three-hour nap in a TA parking lot, a few hours of harvesting quotes harvesting quotes from my voice recorder for an ESPN.com story, and 200 miles of driving later, I was in Indianapolis again for another brutal early-morning flight back home to Providence via Baltimore.
I mindlessly performed all the duties of airline traveler -- I checked my suitcase, printed my boarding pass from the kiosk, allowed the stooge lackey to mark that boarding pass, took off my jacket and shoes, removed my laptop from the carryon, walked through the checkpoint, put the jacket and shoes back on, and moved towards the gate.
Once in the departure lounge, I figured I'd use my 30 spare minutes to do a little more work on the story before takeoff. I went to my bag, and... no computer. By focusing so much on my to-do checklist, I'd forgotten one single, crucial step -- put the laptop back into the bag. I dashed back up the corridor, back towards the security checkpoint.
"Is there a white laptop here that somebody... I mean me... I mean I... left here?"
A husky gent at the back desk, in a rumpled white TSA uniform, hitched up his belt. "Why yes, sir, there is," he said out of the corner of his mouth. "It yours?"
"Yes, sir," I answered. "I left it here a couple of minutes ago."
His assistant, a short middle-aged blonde, joined in. "Well darn it, I thought I was going home with a free laptop," she joked. "If you can tell us what fruit is on the front, maybe we'll give it back to you."
I'd given the Indianapolis TSA a real early-morning thrill. Just then, one of the wand-wavers happened by for the opportunity to get a few kicks in.
"Does your momma know you're runnin' around without yer laptop?" he guffawed.
I was cornered as a clown, defeated, but not finished. I fixed Mr. Giggles with a super-serious gaze, loosened my jaw, and delivered a perfectly dry actor's lie.
"My mother is dead," I deadpanned, then turned my head away for an affected stage-whisper. "She died in a car accident over Christmas."
I never did get any work done that morning. Sitting near gate 17 at the outer edge of the terminal, I watched other travelers make their loud cell-phone calls, noticing the similar script they all had. I observed the workings of the two-person coffee stand, how the female cashier and male barista moved through their synchronized paces despite their obvious dislike for each other. Maybe they'd slept together, and it didn't work out. Yes, yes, that withering look of hers right there. No doubt they had a history. I watched as a fat man in a sweatsuit reached his palm down the front of his drawstring pants, and, oblivious to the public and the surveillance cameras, brought his hand up to his face and inhaled deeply.
"Passenger Carl Wellingstone," came a female voice over the PA system. "Please come to gate 17."
"That's me," I said after completing the 15-foot walk over to the gate. "I'm Kyle Whelliston."
"Your flight commenced general boarding five minutes ago," the gate agent said. "Please get on the plane."
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