Montreal has a very pretty, ultra-modern airport. The Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport is clean, spacious, and filled with labor-saving machines and high-end stores.
So it was a bit jarring to walk into the men’s room and see one of those condom-for-sale vending machines — a vending machine which also, mysteriously, sold chewing gum. I’m not quite sure how the two products are related, but I’m guessing that gum sales were depressed by being placed between condom dispensers, especially when one of them is touting vanilla-flavored lubricant, improbably has a drawing of an ice cream cone on the front. and describes itself as “delightfully delicious.”
Sorry, Montreal, but I associate condom-vending machines with the crappiest, filthiest gas stations you can possibly imagine — the kind that have a fat guy with an oil-soaked ballcap and cut-off sleeves sitting behind the counter, rusting gas pumps, and bathroom keys that are chained to a dirty piece of wood the size of a baseball bat. The mere presence of the machine caused my impression of the airport to plummet drastically and made me wonder: “What kind of airport is this, anyway?”
We’re leaving Montreal today, and as we passed through each stage of the travel process at the United terminal of the Pierre Trudeau International Airport I was struck at how much of our lives has become automated and self-directed.
We used the standard ticket terminals to check in, entering our confirmation numbers and scanning our passports and credit cards and retrieving our boarding passes from the printer slot at the bottom. The agent directed us to an automated baggage loading machine, where we scanned our tickets and input information into a terminal, hoisted our bags on a conveyor belt, then watched while a laser scanned our bags and a machine lowered them into the vowels of the airport. It’s the first time I’ve used one of these machines, but the instructions are easy enough to follow and they are bound to discourage travelers from overpacking super-heavy bags. We went through all of the security scanning devices, then moved to Customs. There we found another machine on which we scanned our passports and had our pictures taken — they were unflattering, of course — before talking to the Customs agent and passing through to our departure gate. It’s the first time I’ve encountered one of those machines, too. I’m sure it’s just a matter of time before we see all of these devices in the U.S.
Science fiction has long forecast that we would enter the age of robots and machines. I think it’s here, now.
The other day a group of us were at our traditional lunch with summer clerks at Indian Oven. I wanted to get the check, so I caught the waiter’s eye and gave the universal “I would like the check” sign — that is, left hand held flat and extended, right hand scribbling across it, like you are signing your name to a credit card receipt. (I’ve been told by waiters that they prefer this to the one finger raised in the air and waggled, like Horshack begging for Mr. Kotter to call on him.)
Except that the universal sign apparently isn’t that universal. The Unkempt Guy looked baffled and asked what the hell I was doing. A quick poll of the table confirmed that everyone else at our lunch, aging attorneys and fresh-faced clerks alike, understood the meaning of the gesture. It just confirms what most of us have long believed: the Unkempt Guy needs to get out more.
The fact is, a surprising amount of our communication is usefully non-verbal and therefore capable of getting the message across from a distance or in a loud setting where the spoken word might not be heard. Whether it’s the thumbs-up signal of approval, or the finger twirl telling you to speed things up, or the index finger tapping at the temple to remind you to use your noggin, or the finger drawn across the throat instructing you to stop, just stop, our hands and fingers are extremely effective communication tools — and that’s without even getting into the kind of vulgar gestures that drivers might use to express displeasure at your abrupt, no-signal lane change on the morning drive to work.
The eyes are an wonderfully effective non-verbal communication tool, too. Long-time married couples are adept at reading each other’s eyes and faces. A glance and look can tell you unmistakably not to get into that topic, or that it’s time to get heck out of there. Correctly interpreting the non-verbal cues of your spouse is a crucial element of any successful marriage.