I left my home in the New York City suburbs at 1:30 P.M. and arrived at my San Francisco hotel after midnight, Pacific Time, 13-1/2 hours later. The trip dragged on so long I began to show signs of menopause. The inexplicable delays at Newark’s baggage check and the Continental gate were so disturbing that I suddenly thrilled at the idea of all U.S. airlines going bankrupt and air travel grinding to a halt, returning America to a pastoral, pre-Industrial era, albeit one with Law & Order reruns and white-cheese pizza.
Perhaps, as a married father of four, I have devolved into a rigid, cowardly, predictable, adventure phobic, non-adaptable homebody, and am no longer built for travel. Then again, perhaps I maintain a lower threshold for being treated like human foie gras by the recently unemployed.
The Continental flight was scheduled to leave Newark at 4:55 P.M. I have flown five or six times since 9/11, and perhaps I am a victim of poor-probability precipitations, but each time I flew the airports were packed tighter than Somali food depots. Where were the empty flights I saw on CNN? The empty airport is now an urban legend, like the hookman and the kidney-stealing blonde woman.
Continental Airlines’ Terminal C teemed buzzed like an angry beehive that had been kicked into boiling water. I cursed myself for checking my bags as I watched passenger after passenger clinging to cartoonishly overstuffed carry-on luggage that met the allowable legal dimensions by the hair on a quark’s nose. I saw overnight bags packed so densely that their molecular structures collapsed and turned into black holes, sucking in garbage, junk food, and several snoozing Belgian tourists.
My flight was overbooked, 30 minutes late to leave the gate and battered by turbulence. I stared incredulously at the snack–meatloaf on a bun–wondering what biological experiment the Department of Defense had recently launched. Then I was distracted by the flight plan. My flight had one stop, and now, as the cheesy animation pointed out, the plane was on track to be late into Houston.
I stared at the map of the U.S. and tried to calculate how any rational system, man-made or computerized, could possibly route human beings through Houston to reach San Francisco. But this was hub philosophy at work. I was being rerouted like a piece of pottery from Pier One to your Aunt Mabel to meet some hopelessly counterintuitive operations protocol. My flight landed at the wrong gate at George Bush, leaving me seven minutes to hoof the .8 miles of crowded airline-terminal passageways under the weight of my backpack and laptop computer bag. “I don’t think you can make it,” said the Continental attendant.
The next leg was even more inexplicably overbooked. Who was traveling from Houston to San Francisco on a Sunday night? The cultural disconnect was large enough to drive institutionally prepared meatloaf product through. We circled over SFO and my ears filled up like water balloons. The cramped, dingy, aging 737, as wide as a lavatory in a Denny’s, seesawed mischievously.
The Continental help desk closed promptly at 11, and, of course, the baggage began rolling off the carousel at about 11:15. The carousels were poorly marked and the passengers milled aimlessly, lost and luggage-less, exhausted and stunned, brains shivering like tapioca pudding from the clumsy descent. Where was the luggage? The flight information? The taxis? We were sick cows abandoned before slaughter, our masters too lazy and bored to put out of our misery.
After collecting my bag I followed the signs for the mysterious air train to the rental-car terminal. I walked in a berserk Mobius Strip, the signs pointing in opposite directions, every which way, like the Scarecrow. Finally an SFPD officer pointed the way. I trudged through a garage to an elevator that sat, mute, unopened, and inscrutable, for 15 minutes. Exhausted passengers, crushed under the weight of their bags, fuming and sputtering, climbed four steep flights of stairs to the air-train platform. My personal wait time for an elevator is less than 15 seconds, but I was too broken to move.
The air-train elevator let us out into a platform without signage. After twisting in the wind for several minutes, I took another escalator to yet another, hidden level just in time to the air train gliding away into the night sky, its bright lights cursing the darkness of my soul.
As I waited for the next air train, I thought about the airport. I had walked at least a mile already, traversed stairs, hallways, tunnels, elevators, and escalators, and was still several miles away from the car rental. Why weren’t there car-rental pods at each of the three major terminals?
Because the old Soviet idea that centralization equaled efficiency still applied, so now a massive infrastructure had been erected to whisk people around miles and miles of airport for no good reason. I was being rerouted yet again to serve some higher quasi-municipal end.
When the air train arrived, the programmed voice warned over and over again to engage luggage brakes, as if runaway luggage was the deadliest phenomenon in San Francisco. I studied the schematic of the airport and was stunned to see that the terminal and air-train system eerily resembled the female uterus. The path of the air train as it wound its way to the car rental terminal looked like the trajectory of an unhealthy fetus expelled from a mother’s womb. This was a bad omen for my trip.
I hadn’t seen San Francisco in ten years and looked forward to sightseeing in between my business appointments. I soon became convinced I had stumbled into a parallel universe. This San Francisco teemed with angry and aggressive homeless. Drunks and drug addicts commanded the street corners, even in tourist neighborhoods. In the Mission, drug dealers and college kids battled over deals gone bad. The streets smelled like urine. Every block featured at least one straight or gay porn theater, peep show, X-rated musical review, or massage parlor. The entire city felt like Ninth Avenue in Manhattan from the 1970s and 80s. The artificial, Disneyfied Times Square is infinitely superior to the raunchy Tenderloin any day.
The hilly streets I loved now filled me with dread. When I was single and unmarried, the city seemed rebellious and wild, but now it felt as thought San Franciscans were living a life dangerously out of touch with reality. The whole city was one shake away from being a busted snow globe on the bottom of the ocean floor.
I ground away at my meetings, praying for the trip to end. I missed playing with my kids and waddling around my boring old suburban home. The air-train experience really disturbed me. In Disneyland, the monorail integrated the physical elements of the theme park and helped unify the sprawling environment. In the San Francisco airport, the monorail was a testament to overcrowded flights, ineffective government oversight, overbuilding, corrupted urban planning, and an abdication of sound architectural philosophy. More than anything else, it was proof that we were flying too much. We don’t need airports the size of cities. There is no justification on Earth for domestic flights with three and four connections. We need airports and routes that work, simply and safely.
As the sun dropped over the Golden Gate Bridge, where America’s suicides went to blow themselves up peacefully and alone, I thought of Osama bin Laden, hiding in the wild tribal areas of Pakistan, and how he reached out from his filthy cave and stuck a knife into our bellies. The devil always speaks a drop of truth to hide his river of lies. Sometimes we were too busy flying in circles. Airports are waiting rooms, but what are we waiting for?
–Bruce Stockler is a media-relations consultant and humorist. He is author of I Sleep At Red Lights: A True Story of Life After Triplets.