These are pretty good.

August 1, 2008

It was almost noon in Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. My morning had not begun well. My 7:00am taxicab driver in New Orleans had run my credit card while he was entering rush hour traffic on the highway, and I was praying barbershop quartet rounds of Hail Marys as he jerked the wheel to steer the car back to the center of the lane. It was frustrating to look out over the city (between lane swerves while the driver was attaching my receipt to a clipboard), knowing that except for my one event, I had not left a six block radius of my hotel. I was jolted from my position with another swerve. “I have a pen!” I yelled. And soon it was over.

Atlanta Airport is a highly stressful airport for me. The restaurant choices are mediocre, and none have views out over the tarmac. Young men in fatigues are everywhere, and they look too young to be fighting a war they don’t understand. And ATL is not at the top of the list of airports with the least delays and cancellations. In fact, according to Wired, it’s #22. I was to fly Air Tran to Chicago, and my flight was overbooked. The gate agent made an announcement asking for volunteers to take a flight three hours later. I was second in line. Why not?

I’ve often observed that travel brings out the worst in people. I’ve come to accept that I live in a world where people around me build lives for themselves that are as easy as possible–lives in which they will hear the word “no” as infrequently as possible. The variables of travel threaten this very existence, and I see people snap.

With booked passengers freeing up seats by taking the later flight, standby passengers who had been waiting to get to Chicago for much longer could get seats. The gate agent called two names and prepared their tickets. I was loitering, waiting to have my voucher prepared, chatting with the parents of two very young children. I learned that they had been on standby since the previous evening. They’d slept in the airport, with the kids. I fixated on the thought of their luggage sitting outside in the August heat for hours, at God only knows which airport. The gate agent had sent the two passengers to the plane and was avoiding eye contact with the standby passengers around me. I figured out that she was waiting for people from a connecting flight with confirmed seats (the kind of confirmed seat I had just happily given up). It was past the departure time, and the travelers had still not shown up. “This is ridiculous,” the mom said to me. “I don’t know if I can take this any more.” And I believed her. She approached the desk and very calmly pleaded her case. The gate agent finally produced four tickets, and the family disappeared down the jetway without looking back to so much as wave to me.

Moments later, a different mother rushed in with her two children in tow. She had been on the connecting flight that was late, and presumably, her confirmed seats had gone to the family. The gate agent politely informed her that boarding had closed, and no one could have predicted what would transpire next.

There were threats, pointing fingers, tears, shameless displays of the children, angry phone calls, desperate pleas, and other deluded acts of self-pity and entitlement that made me wonder what kind of world we’re bringing children up in.

The plane finally pulled away from the gate and the angry mother could no longer protest. I was called to collect my voucher, and the woman sat with her red, puffy faced children on the floor. She looked so awkward and immature, skinny and sad, pouting on the floor with toys around her. I told the gate agent how impressed I was with her calmness, and she shrugged. She, like many gate agents I see, was a young African-American, no older than me, a little overweight and shy. It must have been terrifying, I thought. “It was like she had trained her kids to do that,” I joked. “Cry… NOW! Harder!” The gate agent and her manager laughed. But we knew even that would be better than the reality of it–that this woman had no perspective of what she truly deserves. The gate agent thanked me and sent me to Terminal C with a fine token of the airline’s appreciation for my patience.

August 4, 2008

Only hours before in the dark summer night, I left Nine Inch Nails’ encore performance at Lollapalooza, met up with friends of friends from DC, befriended Kanye West’s assistant at my hotel, and finally ran into Kanye himself, who gave me the once-over and said, “Alright,” in that approving way.

It was about 10:00am in O’Hare, and I was having a taco salad and bloody at Chili’s. Unlike my last cab ride to O’Hare, which turned into a rush hour fender bender, and my last drive through O’Hare, which lasted 4.5 hours when it needed to last 45 minutes, my cab brought me safely and quickly to my terminal–even in spite of slick, rain-soaked roads. My flight was already delayed due to the weather, and I was in no particular rush.

Admittedly, I was shaken. I was intensely distraught about the work aspect of my trip, tired and still coming down from post-concert cocktails, and eager to get home. It was day 15 of a 22-day period in which I would visit six cities in four trips. I would sleep in my bed five of those 22 days. I just wanted to be home. And do laundry. And drink my 2 buck chuck from Trader Joe on East Ontario. And sleep in my own bed.

When I finally hoisted myself out of my seat at Chili’s, it was close to the time of my further delayed flight. And it was cancelled.

I waited in a long line at the gate to rebook my flight, and I was informed that all of the flights through the night had standby lists of about 30 people. “Honestly,” I said to the gate agent, “will I get on one of those flights?” She looked uncomfortable, as though it would be against company policy to answer that. “The standby lists are really that long.” “Can the airline do a free overnight in a hotel?” I pressed. “No,” she said, “because technically, we are offering you a standby seat today.” I paused to think, letting go of the thought of myself on my couch in my living room, with the smell of fresh laundry drying on my clothes rack, sipping $2.99 shiraz and listening to the Killers. “Please book me on the first confirmed seat you have as early as possible in the morning.”

I collected my suitcase from the baggage claim and checked in to the Hyatt O’Hare, one of Hyatt’s properties that was likely the very image of the space age a few decades ago. Like most Hyatts, it was recently renovated, and the bed was perfect. When I woke up from my nap, the sky was almost black and I thought I’d slept through the night, but it was only 4:30. It was pouring. I knew I never would have made it out of the airport.

I worked through the evening and finally decided I was no longer full from the taco salad by about 8:00. I opened my suitcase to dress for dinner, and I knew the smell immediately. A bottle of wine had broken. It had leaked. It had gradually soaked into my clothes over the course of 8 hours, including a white cotton jacket from Split, Croatia that was irreplaceable. The suitcase hadn’t even gone anywhere.

I filled the bathtub with cold water and soaked my clothes. Applying soap to the purple fabrics turned the stains light blue, so I decided against treating them. As if losing my clothes to a senseless error was not hard enough to take, it was the second time this had happened, and I just felt stupid. Meanwhile, the storm was worsening, and my power flickered a couple of times. I was no longer getting televised tornado warnings because my cable cut out. I was sad, lonely, and scared. But I’ll be damned if a bottle of red wine takes me down.

Alcohol is not the answer, but that night, I left my clothes in the bathtub, went to the lobby restaurant, and ordered a two course meal and a bottle of shiraz. (It really was an economical decision, based on the glass wine prices.) The storm thundered on as I ate, and a small puddle of rain formed on the table adjacent to me. Its droplets were falling ten stories, the height of the atrium. I went back to my room, which had a strong stench of corked wine, and hung my clothes in various places around the room to dry. I knew it was futile, though.

In the morning, I wrapped my remaining intact bottles of wine in my wine-soaked clothes and placed them gingerly in my suitcase. (Most of my clothes were purple–what would it really matter if another bottle broke?) The check-in line was egregious, and while the previous day I had the patience to wait one hour in the fascinating company of a North Dakotan prison guard, I wanted out. I decided to go to a self check-in monitor with no line, knowing I would not be able to check in because I had been issued paper tickets (based on such a complicated flight plan). Sure enough, the computer would not process my reservation, and I played naive while the first class agent checked me in.

I was entering the line for the security area when it occurred to me that I’d left my white jacket from Croatia hanging on the back of the bathroom door. (As if things could not get worse.) I had contemplated having it dyed purple or attempting various bleach treatments, but I had not planned to give up on it. I called the hotel, and I was passed from front desk to room service to housekeeping. I did my best to explain to the gentleman on the other end of the line for whom English is a second language that he could have a shuttle driver bring the jacket to me. I was not at all confident when I hung up the phone. I went outside and waited. It was hot and balmy after the rain showers, and I watched as hotel shuttles went by, one after the other. I felt defeated.

Today, the jacket hangs in my closet, and it is perfectly white; there is no betrayal of a stain anywhere on it. The black hand-painted design that extends across the front of the jacket is still as dark as it was when I purchased it.

As for my last bottle of Charles Shaw shiraz, I guess you could say I’m saving it for a rainy day.

August 19, 2008

Over two days last week, the University of Virginia welcomed 100 students and 30 parents from 23 countries on five continents and provided free transportation to Grounds from Dulles Airport and Charlottesville Airport. I have the privilege of designing and coordinating the program, and it is called UVaExpress.

Imagine being 18 years old. You’re flying halfway around the globe to a country you’ve never visited, by yourself, 20 hours on an airplane, knee to knee with a stranger. Upon landing, your body thinks it is daytime but the darkness outside suggests otherwise, and even airport restaurants are closing for the night. You’ve studied the language, but you are not a confident speaker. You don’t know anyone. You don’t have a lot of money. There is no train or bus station near the airport. The air smells different—everything is just strange to you.

I spent much of the summer collecting students’ itineraries so that I could track their flight progress at the time of the program, and answering questions about travel and student life. If anything were to go wrong with the program, it could not go wrong for the students. They began arriving at about 7:00 am on Tuesday, August 19, and the last student of the day arrived from Panama City with her mother and sister close to 2:00 am. I sent her off with two boys from China on a minibus with a colleague, and I felt fantastic. And tired.

I got out to my car and excitedly eyed my backpack through my car window, with face wash, a toothbrush and tooth paste, and a clean change of clothes. I felt around in my purse for my car keys.

Nothing.

I dumped the contents on the dark pavement and repacked it. I went back into the terminal and searched the ground of the entire area around Baggage Claim 10, where we had been stationed. I looked for an open information desk, even a manager-type. I took an elevator to the ticketing floor and did the same. Forty-five minutes passed without finding my keys, and I decided I needed to sleep. I took a taxicab to the Hyatt Dulles, showered, finished the last of my white chocolate and raspberry cookie, set my phone alarm, and fell asleep upon contact with my pillow.

When I woke up an hour after my alarm first went off, there were cookie crumbs pressed into my arms, and I felt rejuvenated, hopeful. I thought I looked strangely pretty with no makeup. My dirty hair was easy to pull back without a brush. And as much as I hated to put on the same clothes I’d worn for almost 22 hours the day before while loading buses with heavy luggage, I did it. And I went straight to the airport to start greeting again. I took 20-30 minutes to myself throughout the course of the morning to visit Lost & Found and find food and shake off the disappointment, but I held on.

Once all of the students and volunteers were bound for Charlottesville, I went to work. It was just after 2:00 pm. I called AAA and requested a tow. The tow turned out to be a large flatbed and its driver spent an hour pulling my car out of its space at a 45 degree angle. (This was really quite impressive, to be honest.) My parking ticket was locked in my car, so we went through a 15 minute debate with the immigrant parking attendants about the injustice of being charged a $1,400 lost ticket fee. Angry drivers came from the line of cars behind us to protest the wait. My driver began to release racially offensive epithets under his breath, between chomps of Bubble Yum. (Anyone who has read this blog for 15 minutes knows I hate the sound of gum, and that this hate is only an iota of my hatred for ignorance and racism.) It could not possibly get worse–I thought.

The Volkswagen dealership I was brought to had a broken key machine.

It was 5:00pm, which means I was coming up on the 36th hour in the same clothes I’d left home in the previous morning, and I accurately guessed I would not be home until 9:00pm, at least. I had flipped my shirt inside out. A simple raise of my arms was enough to kill off all vegetation in my reach. The VW staff was sympathetic, and likely eager to find a place for me, away from any other customers and potted plants. I was simply told, “We’re going to try something,” and I was led to the customer lounge.

I was probably looking pretty dejected, staring at the words SOLD OUT flashing before me on the Pepsi machine in the sales area, when Kenny appeared. (Real name has been changed.) Kenny was the only staff member who seemed neither repulsed nor even sympathetic to my lost keys story. Kenny, it soon became apparent, has seen worse. When he came back from getting me a Diet Dr. Pepper from the office refrigerator (“he won’t miss it!”), Kenny asked me a bit about myself, and at some point, I admitted I wanted a dog. “I like dogs and cats,” he said. “Yes,” I agreed. “I like cats, too, but I like dogs more.” Dear God, I thought, this conversation was not worth a free soda.

“I have a raccoon. It’s kind of like having both. It’s sweet and affectionate like a cat, but it’s real loyal like a dog.” And suddenly the conversation was looking up. The raccoon was one of four Kenny saved in their infancy; two were raised by friends of his, and when he went to release the other two to the forest, this one wouldn’t leave him. He got a license to keep it domesticated. Apparently, raccoons can live to be up to 25 years old, but they rarely do because they contract cancer eating people-food. His raccoon is docile, he insists.

And his pet chipmunk gets along with all the other animals, too.

I could not help but decide that I live in a very strange country, indeed.

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