The adventures of a New Jersey college professor with very strange friends, colleagues, and family members.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Honorary Griswold

“Everything is contingent…and then there is chaos.”

--Spalding Gray, Impossible Vacation


CAPTAIN PICARD:  I hate being on vacation.

DR. CRUSHER:  No, you hate going on vacation.  Once you’re there, you have a good time.

“This is the worst trip I’ve ever been on.”

--The Beach Boys

I just came back from a vacation in Austin, Texas, where I visited my wonderful friend Deb.  Because she lives 1,700 miles away, Deb and I only get to see each other once a year.  Last year, we met in Atlanta…this year, we agreed I would go to her house and meet her family for the first time.  I was psyched.

I was scheduled to fly out of Philadelphia at 9:55am.  I would land in Tampa Bay at 1:30pm, then at 2:50 I’d get on the connecting flight to Austin, where Deb planned to pick me up at 5:50.  I checked my luggage and got my boarding pass—it looked like it would be an easy flight.

I arrived at the airport early enough to get a very dry, dusty, and tasteless cinnamon-raisin scone and some tea at Starbucks.  As I was choking it down, my father called me and told me that Southwest Airlines had just called him, looking for me.  I then remembered that I had given the airlines my home number as a contact number, since I don’t always have my cell phone turned on.  Apparently, they told Dad that my flight had been delayed until 11:00.  I didn’t understand why, as it was only drizzling, but okay…I still had time to make the connection.  I finished the awful scone and pressed on to the departure gate.

After being fondled at the TSA checkpoint, I got to the gate and found many, many angry people.  I looked at the flight board—my plane was now delayed until 12:35, and there was no way I would land in Tampa soon enough to make my connection.

One of my fellow angry passengers told me that apparently there was a tornado in Tampa, causing them to shut down the airport.  I was also told this is the first time this has happened in 11 years.   I went to the ticket counter, telling them I had to be in Austin that night.  I was told that the only way that would happen is if they sent me to Chicago first—7 hours later.  Not only would I have to stay in the beautiful Philadelphia airport that entire time, but by the time I actually got to Austin it would be 10:40pm.  I would be exhausted and cranky, and Deb would have to be out until all hours schlepping me around, but that was the only option so they ticketed me for that flight.

Disgusted, I plopped back down and angrily listened to Sixpence None the Richer for a while.

At about 11:30, though, there was good news—the Tampa Bay airport had re-opened, and there would still be time to make my connection.  The angry passengers were appeased, however, I was still ticketed for the Chicago flight.  I managed to have the tickets changed again, and happily boarded the plane.

Once we were all onboard, we were told that the Tampa airport had closed.  Again. We sat on the tarmac for an hour and ten minutes. The man sitting next to me, who was also connecting in Tampa, pointed out that if no planes could land in Tampa, none could fly out, either, so we’d both probably still make our connections.  I agreed with this reasoning, and once we finally took off, I promptly fell asleep.

Three hours later, I woke up to discover that we had been circling the Tampa airport for over forty-five minutes.  Not only were we not cleared to land, we had also run out of fuel.  We had to divert to Panama City (which I’d never even heard of) in order to refuel and wait out the tornado.  We weren’t going to be allowed off the plane, so there was no way I could go to a ticket agent and try to make other arrangements.  I was able to use my cell phone, however, so I called Deb and Dad and told them what was going on.  After an hour of sitting on that tarmac (they gave us “complimentary water”—seriously), we finally took off.  I have never in my life been afraid while airborne, but I found out that I would be just fine without ever getting to see jagged bolts of lightning zapping menacingly out the window of my plane again.

I eventually arrived in Tampa Bay at 6:40—more than 5 hours after I was originally supposed to.  I never thought I would ever be on a plane in which the passengers applauded when it landed, because, really, you know that isn’t going anywhere good.  I ran to the ticket agent.  My connecting flight to Austin had left 20 minutes prior.  There were no other flights to Austin that night.  I would have to stay there for the night.  However, even though I had missed my flight, my luggage hadn’t, so it was winging its way to Austin without me, taking things like a clean change of clothes, my toothbrush, makeup, and various medications with it.  I asked when the first flight to Austin the following day was, and of course there wasn’t one.  But, apparently, I could get a 6:55am flight to Houston, then board a flight to Austin (it’s all of 70 miles away) which would get me in at about 10:00am…well, okay. At least if I missed that connection it was close enough for Deb to drive out and get me.  They ticketed me for that flight.

I decided to try to find out where my luggage might be.  I took my claim ticket to the baggage claim office and they told me that it was, indeed, on its way to Austin, and that I could pick it up at the Southwest Airlines baggage claim office.  I wasn’t optimistic.

The ticket agent said that there was a Marriott right there at the airport.  Fine.  I then realized that I hadn’t eaten in about 12 hours (the crummy scone had been the last, and it had long since worn off), and as I certainly wasn’t going anywhere, I treated myself to a long expensive dinner in one of the airport restaurants (and a drink or five), while listening to the mildest and calming thing on my iPod, which turned out to be Steve Lawrence.  By this time, all the adrenaline had crashed (probably helped by the drinks and Steve), and I was exhausted.  I headed off for the airport Marriott.
When I got there, I had this conversation with the guy at the front desk:

ME:  Hi!  I’d like a room for the night.

GUY:  I’m sorry, we’re all booked for tonight.


GUY:  It’s Spring Break—every college student on the east coast is in Florida this week.


GUY:  If you want to take the bus, there’s another Marriott a few blocks from here.

ME:  (sobs)

Well, it wasn’t as if I had much of a choice—it was either that or sleep in the terminal, so I headed for the bus.  Of course, since the tornado was still somewhat going on, there was torrential rain and wind, which I’m sure made me look even more like the undead than I already did.  There were two men also waiting for the bus, and one of them was ridiculously cheerful.  I really wasn’t in the mood for it.

The bus came.  We got on.  The other two men (who I don’t think were together, but who had apparently bonded in the wake of the airline stupidity) started talking about the weather, and asked me what my deal was.  I explained everything, and that’s when I found out that the cheerful fellow was one of those “It-could-be-worse!” guys.  Unfortunately, he was one of those obnoxious “It-could-be-worse!” guys, in that we had this exchange:

HIM:  It could be worse!

ME:  Well, this was definitely one of the worst travel experiences I’ve ever had.

HIM:  My daughter had a 26 year-old friend who was killed in a snowboarding accident last week.  I’m sure he would love to trade places with you.

ME:  Okay, you know what?  That really isn’t helpful.  I’m sorry your daughter lost her friend, but you know nothing about my situation, and nothing about the circumstances under which I’m traveling.  Perhaps I had a funeral to go to tomorrow that I’m now going to miss, or a job interview, or a wedding.  Please don’t try to throw perspective on something you know nothing about.

He shut up.  We rode in stony silence to the hotel.

At the front desk, I told my tale of woe and the woman there told me that I definitely qualified for their special “Distressed Traveler” rate (which I found hysterical, but I might just have been punch drunk), and she even gave me a toothbrush and toothpaste (I almost kissed her).  All I wanted was a shower and a bed, and, mercifully, I got both.

The next morning (well, only technically, as it was still pitch dark), I put my disgusting clothes back on, finger-combed my hair, and got on the bus again.  When I got to the airport, I found out that my flight was actually leaving a half an hour early. Fortunately, I was in time, so I got on the plane and passed out.  I also managed to get on my connecting flight to Austin without any problems and landed on time.

Deb, who wasn’t allowed past the TSA checkpoint, was going to meet me at the baggage claim.  I spotted her, waiting with all the other chauffeurs who were of course holding signs such as “BILLY-BOB BOJO,”  ‘SADIE-LOU SALLY-JO,” and “RICKY-WAYNE JIMBOB”—she was holding a sign that said, simply, “YANK.”  It was the first thing to make me laugh on the whole trip so far.  Much hugging, hand-flailing, and babbling ensued.

  Of course, my luggage wasn’t there, but when I brought my ticket to the baggage claim office, they brought it out.  It looked only a little mangled, so we schlepped out to her car and on the way to the hotel I bitched about the airline, finally happy to get it out of my system. We wanted to go to lunch (I hadn’t had breakfast), but I said that I absolutely had to go to the hotel first because the clothes I was wearing were now so disgusting that they were actually trying to bolt off of my body on their own in search of a Laundromat.  Also, I had no makeup on and looked like I’d been in my own mausoleum for two weeks.  We got to the hotel, and that’s when I made yet another interesting discovery.

The luggage, which had looked relatively unscathed on the outside, was a complete wreck on the inside.  I had one suitcase which held nothing but clothes and a second that contained all my other “stuff.”   The clothes were wet.  I don’t mean that “cold and damp from being in the unpressurized hold of a plane for 8 hours” wet, I mean actually waterlogged.  They also smelled of mildew.  I looked in the other suitcase, and everything in there was equally wet, but because I had packed everything (makeup, toiletries, electrical stuff, etc.) in various cosmetic bags, they were more or less okay.  Unfortunately, all the gifts I had brought for Deb and her family were completely trashed—the wrapping paper had actually somehow fused itself to the boxes.  Fortunately, the gifts themselves (plaques and mugs) were ceramic and thus okay, but I certainly couldn’t give them to anyone in that condition.  The packages were so unbelievably awful that I actually took  a picture of them.  I figured out what must have happened.  Because I wasn’t there to claim the luggage the previous night, they had sat, outside, all night.  In the tornado.  Lovely.

Deb called her parents to tell them what had happened, and her mother got on the phone and absolutely insisted that I bring the soggy  laundry to their house so she could wash it.  I was horrified and said that I simply couldn’t allow this woman, whom I had never actually met in person, to wash my underwear.   No, she insisted, she didn’t want to wait one more minute to meet me, whereupon I told her that I simply would not let her see me in my current condition.  She blackmailed me by saying that if I would allow Deb to bring her my clothes, she would loan me a shirt and shorts.  Well, it was either that or go to lunch in my bra and panties, and I wouldn’t subject anybody to that, so I reluctantly agreed.

Deb took my squelchy duffel bag to her house while I showered, then brought me back a t-shirt and shorts.  We went to lunch at a BBQ place, and then I finally got to meet Deb’s family.  They were absolutely wonderful, and sort of made the whole experience worth it, and, hey…at least I got some good material.