Thursday, March 13, 2008
NYC 1: travel horror
All this helps me reconcile myself to the fiascoes that routinely attend my travels, which this calendar year have involved (flights only, not including stop-overs) SF to LA, LA to SF, SF to Greenville (SC), Columbia (SC) to Montgomery, Baton Rouge to Palm Beach, Palm Beach to Mobile, New Orleans to San Francisco, San Francisco to New York, New York to San Francisco, and most recently San Francisco to Albuquerque. The other day I wrote about getting ditched by the Twin Hearts Express Shuttle to Taos, which eco-guilt suggests I richly deserved. If travel horror stories bore you, skip the rest of this entry. If they fill you with schadenfreude or the cosmic-planetary justice to which I allude, read on and enjoy:
The night before, I stayed up until 2 a.m. James was go-go dancing at 440 Castro, an unmissable if routine occurrence. At 5 a.m., I woke to be on the 6:18 BART so I would be at SFO by 7 a.m. for my 8 a.m. flight. Sleep deprivation I could handle, because I had booked that rare thing for someone in my income bracket, a direct flight. At the self-service check-in kiosk, American Flight 24 came up as 10 a.m.
"When did that happen?" I asked the woman behind the counter, thinking I might have given myself another two hours of sleep by looking up the flight before I left the house. She looked it up on her computer. "Ten minutes ago," she said. "There are storms on the east coast and air traffic control just made the call."
An act of God is no-brainer for an atheist, because there's nobody to be mad at. And my life has been so frenetic since October that the idea of two vacant hours seemed, suddenly, like a boon and luxury. I parked myself at an airport restaurant with coffee, my current notebook and the laptop and typed in notes I'd scrawled, mostly about my back-burnered novel, and tore out and crumpled up pages one by one, forming a little paper cairn on my table.
At a little after nine I decided it would be responsible to move my base of operations to Gate 66. Nearby, I checked the monitor for Flight 24 and did a double-take - it wasn't there. I went up to the gate counter and asked the guy behind it - a pilot, it turned out. He punched some numbers into the computer and told me the flight had left at 8:15. I looked at my ticket, and sure enough, it said 8:15. At first I suspected myself of having had some sort of mnemonic-psychotic episode, but then figured out that the window of time in which air-traffic control moved the flight to 10 a.m. was about ten minutes long, and between the time I swiped my card at the kiosk and the time I got my ticket printed, it had come to an end.
There is a time for everything, a season for every activity under heaven, and this was a time for sputtering rage, forcibly repressed. The pilot summoned an agent, and she questioned me sharply about my story and made a phone call to confirm it. When it checked out, she said my name had undoubtedly been called for the 8:15 flight, which, if true, wouldn't have helped me much sitting at the restaurant outside the terminal wing. The best I could hope for was to fly standby on the 11:30 flight, which was full.
By the time 11:30 rolled around, I had transcribed every page of my notebook into the laptop, scored a greasy lunch at the nearest airport restaurant, and the flight had been moved to 12:34. By the time 12:34 rolled around, Gate 66 looked like a third-world train station after an urban plague outbreak. Everyone was trying to get out, and every one was sick. Soon my standby rank had slipped from #2 to #7, all five sections of the flight had been called, every seat on the plane was filled, and I was on the phone to American attempting to convert sputtering rage into some semblance of sympathy-inducing pathos.
Then, bizarrely, I heard my name called over the loudspeaker. I ran up to the counter and was told that if I was Paul Festa, I needed to run down the gangway to the airplane as fast as I could, because they were closing the door to the aircraft. I whipped around to grab my things, shouted an apology to the AA phone rep before hanging up on her, ran down the gangway without having either my ticket or ID checked, and sat down in the seat they yelled after me: 5D. Business class.
I had never been in business class before. I experienced it as the aborigines experienced the plane flying overhead in The Gods Must Be Crazy, with wonderment and disbelief. I could adjust my seat, in an apparently infinite number of configurations, without disturbing the person behind me! I could choose from twenty films to watch (I opted for a Sidney Pollock double-header: Michael Clayton and Tootsie)! I could be served my meal at the time of my choosing! I could put my laptop on one table and my video console on another! Operating on three hours of sleep, I experienced, for the first time, a desire to be awake for my entire flight, and I never wanted it to end. I deplaned reluctantly, concluding an episode that set the tone for my whole week in New York: disaster and triumph as Siamese twins.
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