everything you know is wrong

Jerry Remy, announcer for NESN and the Boston Red Sox, has a local chain of Tcotchkes-style restaurants. This bit of trivia – the existence of the chain and the importance of its owner – lives in a weird limbo between “apropos” and “boring,” depending on the audience. People who live in Boston need hear nothing further than the restaurant’s name before instantly knowing every item on the menu and the decor. People who don’t live in the New England area will nod politely – oh, a sportscaster owns a restaurant; how unlikely – and forget the man’s name once the story ends.

Anyhow, there’s one in Logan Airport right next to the Airtran terminal. It used to be a Legal Seafood and it’s about six months from becoming a Johnny Rocket’s. Every space in an airport that’s zoned commercial oscillates between just having been or just about to be a Johnny Rocket’s, depending on the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the airport’s proximity to Chicago. I ordered a hot dog with a Caesar salad (because that makes it okay); I got a 3/4-pound beef log drizzled with cheese, relish, and onions. And the side salad. “That’s a big dick,” said the 50-something man behind me, “I mean, a big dog.” If his stories were to be believed, he was on his way to his third wedding, this time to a 70-year-old woman for money; if not, he was really bad at delivering a joke.

The Departures screen had said my flight was pushed back 30 minutes when I entered Jerry Remy’s Sports Bar and Grille; when I exited, it had changed its mind. I have never seen this happen. I have never seen a plane arrive earlier than announced, especially when it had already been posted late. The takeoff window shrank from 60 minutes to 25 minutes, and I had yet to pass through security, and my pre-printed boarding pass reminded me, in its smug little Helvetica, that the plane shut its doors 10 minutes before departure. Trying not to fume, I slipped into the security line, emptying my pockets of metal and slipping off my shoes.

“Put your shoes flat on the belt!”, a guard would announce from time to time. “Only things that go in the bins are laptops and loose items. Jackets, bags, shoes – flat on the belt.”

Ten minutes before departure, I stepped up to the X-ray machine. I walked through. It beeped. “Do you have anyth–“, the guard asked. “My belt,” I said, backing up and whipping it off like Jet Li vs. Billy Chow (watch all the way to the end).

Passing security, I scooped up my wallet, cell phone, ring, loose change, belt, boarding pass, messenger bag, jacket and backpack and began padding down the halls of the Airtran terminal at a decent clip. I made it about one hundred feet before I realized how comfortable the ground felt. Turning, I made it as far as a 65-year-old TSA screener, his Orville Redenbacher hair fringing his face like a halo. Had I been charging the security gate at a full sprint, screaming “Surely the Party of God will be triumphant!“, he might have tripped me. Maybe. “Are you trying to get out?”, he asked.

“I left my shoes there.”

“Just go get the man in the blue shirt,” he said, blue being the TSA uniform. “He’s the supervisor.”

I flagged the man in the blue shirt down. “I left my shoes on the belt! Brown? Size 13?”

Fortunately, I was the only person to have made that mistake (that hour), so security quickly reunited me with my shoes. I made it to my gate, discovering that my flight had been pushed 30 minutes back.

The next morning, waking up in the family homestead in Maryland, my father suggested we take the dog for a walk. As I put my shoes on – Merona, Target’s in-house brand; brown, leather, worn but sturdy – I noticed an unfamiliar notch in one of the soles. Curious, I turned the shoe over. A ragged slit had been torn in the entire sole from left to right, cutting all the way through the rubber to the very base of the shoe. This wasn’t just a hole in the bottom. This was a rough horizontal line that had cut clean through the sole of the shoe and stopped at the leather. The right shoe had been thinking about snitching; the left shoe had made an example of it.

Am I saying that the TSA, in the twenty seconds that I left my shoes unattended, shredded one of them with a government-issue razor blade? No, but I’ll imply it with all my might.

I don’t spend a lot of time staring at the bottom of my feet, but I would have noticed a tear that size when I put them on in the morning. The only time they were out of my control the entire day was when I put them on a conveyor belt (“flat on the belt! the only things that go in bins are laptops …”) and forgot them. And if I hadn’t thrown these shoes in a closet in Maryland, I’d post a picture to show you. This isn’t a puncture; this isn’t a hole that worried itself wide. This is an even cut that runs between the tarsus and the metatarsals, deep and ragged. My shoes bear the scars of malice aforethought.

By an odd coincidence, these are the second pair of Target shoes to disintegrate catastrophically in 15 months. Am I wrong in suspecting a conspiracy? No. I’m never wrong. Especially not about conspiracies.

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goin’ to chicago (sorry, but I can’t take you)

Twenty-seven B-stroke-6
American Express lets you book flights online with Membership Rewards points instead of cash. The site even duplicates the functionality of Travelocity, allowing you to search a range of dates or a couple adjacent airports. Neat. But they’re not always great on follow-up.

Case in point: I wanted to check-in for my flight to Chicago early, so I needed a confirmation number from AirTran. Never got it from AmEx. So I called AirTran customer service. Waiting for the list of options to end didn’t help; the recording, instead, cycled through broader and broader questions (“I’m sorry; I didn’t understand your response. Are you even getting on a fucking airplane?”). I hung up and tried a different number, but this time ended in some bizarre menu where a recording read a list of check-in procedures off at me. “Fees may be accrued for additional bags checked. Carry-on bags must be eighteen inches deep by twenty-seven inches …”

Finally, I tried the second number once more, punching “0” repeatedly until I got a human. She found my confirmation number with all speed, wasting very little time on courtesies.

No Touching
I had an afternoon to kill before I needed to be at Logan, so I met Misch at Downtown Crossing for lunch. She took me to a place in the food court that served up tasty chicken teriyaki. The upstairs was packed, so we ate in the food court basement.

“Why Chicago?” she asked.

“I have friends there,” I explained. “But more than that, I really like the city. It’s modern, it’s cheaper than Boston. And I’ve been in Boston ten years now. It might be time for me to move. Lately I’ve been feeling something needs to change, though ‘moving eight hundred miles’ is probably the most expensive change possible. So I guess this is–

“I’m sorry,” I interrupted myself. “Could we continue this conversation somewhere that doesn’t feel like a prison cafeteria?”

Paranoia Rewarded
No sooner had I settled into my spacious second-row seat (I sprung for the business-class upgrade) than I felt something missing. Running through the pocket-patting ritual common to all adult males, I found a vacancy on my left side. iPod, yes, but no cell phone.

I darted to the front of the plane. “Sir, you’re gonna have to -”

“I left my cell phone up there.”

“Okay,” the attendant soothed. “We’ll send someone up the jetway to get it. We can’t let you back into the terminal for security reasons.”

Vindicating as it was to hear that AirTran personnel don’t think any more of TSA screeners than I do, I didn’t think sending a third party would help much. My initial conversation with the tiny man who came down the jetway bore this true. “Where was your cell phone?”

“Back there. At the gate.”

“At the gate?”

“Where I was sitting.” Not literally AT the gate; I took it out of my pocket to shut it off before boarding, so I know I had it in my hand while I was waiting for boarding to be called; this is ridiculous …

“Do you know where you were sitting?”

“At the … one of the seats? Near the middle?” A couple rows back from the gate? Near these two college students; you could tell by the baby cheeks and the sweatpants; are you really going to send me to a strange city without a cell phone?

“Okay, come with me.” The tiny man escorted me back up the ramp, nattering the whole while about a time that he’d left something at the gate and the plane had already pulled away. I chimed in to be polite (“wow, really?”) rather than gargling in panic until we got back to the gate. Once there, I shouldered past him and ran to the row I was sitting in. I tried not to wring my hands as I searched, until the crew member himself found it, its dark blue frame camouflaging it perfectly among the seats.

I’d write AirTran a thank-you e-mail, but we probably broke some federal regulations in letting me back off the plane. I’ll check with my lawyer first.

In Wicker Park Did Kublai Khan
Hawver told me to take the Orange Line from Midway into the Loop, then the Blue Line out of the city (toward O’Hare, ironically), getting off at Damen. I found him outside, reading a fat tome on energy policy. We flagged a cab, a light drizzle having started to fall since I landed.

Hawver lives in an old but well-maintained neighborhood, in a second story gut-rehabbed apartment. Wide rooms, hardwood floors and spacious ceilings. He and Dea each have their own private offices, as well as large swaths of the living room they have laid out as they see fit (Hawver: Niall Ferguson and Stephen Baxter books; Dea: Buffy and Angel DVDs)*.

All this, plus a shared garageway in the back and a third of a mile from the Blue Line. “How much does this run you?” I asked. He quoted a figure, a mere 30% more than what I pay for a studio (!) in a similar neighborhood in Boston. If I wanted to live in a similar studio, at a similar distance from a nicer downtown, I could pay half what Hawver and Dea pay for a rehabbed 3BR. I choked on my beer.

Domo Arigato, Mr. Gelato
Hawver and Dea took me to a party a short cab ride away, where some grad school friends of Dea’s were wrapping up a barbecue. The host graciously brought out some raw tuna steaks, which I ate with my hands before I even thought to offer someone else (sorry). There was also a hearty cake shaped like a robot. I didn’t eat all of that. Quit staring at me.

Though I didn’t smoke, I followed the smokers out to the porch while the grad students played Asshole indoors. Kyle, lead vocalist in Hawver’s new band, talked about his last trip to Boston. “After stumbling out of this bar called, whassit, The Field? We’re looking for the train. Can’t find it**. So we keep walking until we hit a bridge going over the river.” He went on listing the bars he and his girl Diana hit in their trip around Boston. Hawver and I, functioning alcoholics both, chimed in whenever he struggled for an establishment’s name.

“Did you come to Chicago to see Hawver play tomorrow?” his friend Tony asked.

I thought for a moment. “Yes, I did,” I said.

“Shit,” Kyle said, pitching his cigarette. “Now I’m’a have to be good.”

________________
* Not to suggest that Dea doesn’t read; rather, as a grad student, reading is business for her.
** To pre-empt the question, yes, you have to be pretty drunk to miss the Red Line coming out of The Field in Central Square. That’s what made it such a good story.

eight miles high and falling fast

Continental Airlines Flight #482 was scheduled to depart Houston Airport at 1:45 (Central) and arrive in Boston at 6:45 (Eastern). These facts inform the rest of the following narrative.

(1) My own damn fault – I thought the plane was taking off at 1:00, not 1:45. So when my ride dropped me at Houston at 11:15, I had two boatloads of time to kill. I got a beer and a chicken caesar salad at the Fox Sports Network Skybox in Terminal E, reading a book and glancing at Tour de France coverage.

(2) The flight got pushed back to 2:00.

(3) I had the aisle seat nearest the bathroom. I have to imagine this was the airline fucking with me, because I would not choose the aisle seat nearest the bathroom if any other seat were available. But I booked it long enough ago that I can’t recall.

(4) Houston’s a busy airport, so we sat on the runway for a while before taking off around 2:30ish.

(5) About two hours into the flight, the captain gets on the vox and tells us that we’re in a holding pattern over D.C. to avoid some inclement weather up into the Northeast. Huh. Inconvenient, but good to know. We probably wouldn’t notice these things if the pilot didn’t let us know – the beauty of air travel.

(6) Forty-five minutes later, the captain lets us know that air traffic has given us a new route: skirting western PA, cruising through upstate NY and coming into Boston from the west. Interesting!

(7) Forty-five minutes after that, the captain picks up the mic and says we’re running out of fuel.

Well, not in so many words. What he really says: due to the extended holding pattern and our new flight path, we no longer have enough fuel to make it to Boston. However, when you’re in a commercial jet, it means the same thing. You can’t just park on the side of the road and call AAA.

(8) So our plane makes an unscheduled stop at Stewart Air National Guard Base in Newburgh, NY. We spend half an hour fueling up and half an hour waiting for our clearance to take off again. During that half hour, the entire plane got up to go to the bathroom.

(9) While we’re on the ground, a 17-month-old baby two rows ahead flirted with the girls in the row immediately in front of me. He would make a smacking motion, sweeping his hand from his lips, smile, and then bury his face in the blanket on his mother’s shoulder. He had big, dark blue eyes, like stones in rings. I hope nothing scars him too much in his next sixteen years; the world needs more ladykillers.

(10) Landed in Boston a mere three hours behind schedule. Not bad, considering the surprise stopover. But my need for an alcoholic beverage had rapidly exceeded my ability to obtain one. I settled for a meef quesarito at Anna’s and got home late.

iceland part one

I didn’t know what to expect for my first international flight traveling alone, so I got to Logan early. I kicked my shoes off for the security line but, in the current production of TSA security theater, did not have to present my boarding pass. With several hours to kill, I had a few beers at Houlihan’s, chatting with an electrical engineer working for Dean Kamen. We swapped horror stories of driving in Boston weather. She won, having spun out on New Year’s Eve onto the lawn of the Goffstown, NH police station.

The currency exchange booth in the Logan Terminal offered every currency in the world except Icelandic kroner (ISK).

I talked my way into the emergency exit row, though I had to take a middle seat. Fifteen minutes before takeoff it looked as if I would have the row to myself. Then the smiling though heavily made-up air steward sat the biggest man I’d ever seen next to me. Picture Bobby before he lost all that weight, for those of you who know Bobby. For those of you who don’t: the man was at least a head taller than me and eight to twelve heads heavier. His belly spilled over the armrest. When my arm grazed against him it felt like I had just brushed too close to a fire. I had no idea how I would sleep, let alone sit still, for four and a half hours.

Then the flight attendant brought another man down, chatting with him in Icelandic. Everyone in Iceland knows each other, since the entire country has half the population of downtown Boston and most of them live in Reykjavik. The window seat was still open. “These two are friends,” she said, indicating the titanic man sitting next to me and the newcomer.

“Would you like to sit next to each other?” I offered.

“If it’s not a …”

“No trouble at all,” I said, shifting over one. “I assure you.”

I couldn’t get the window seat to recline, unfortunately. I slept for three fitful hours, aided by 10 mg of melatonin and the three Sam Adams from the airport bar, and then watched some Arrested Development and How I Met Your Mother on the seatback TV. My verdict on HIMYM: silly and diverting.

First impressions of Leif Eriksson International: a product of the Industrial/Aquarium school of architecture that swept Europe in the 30s and the U.S. in the 60s. Expansive windows look out onto pitch blackness (at 0630 Iceland time) or, once the sun rises, the snow-covered lunar landscape of Keflavik. I went through another security sweep, this one with shoes on, and then got my first stamp in my new passport from a bored Icelandic guard.

LEI has a remarkably libertine attitude toward customs: walk left if you have something to declare; walk right if you don’t. I went straight for the Nothing line and two bored blonds in guard uniforms – one male, one female – gave me a quarter-second glance of disappointment then returned to their conversation. Call me a maverick, but Iceland might benefit more, given its current economic straits, from doing away with its Customs department entirely. Or maybe even setting up an anti-Customs office. “You will be subjected to humiliating search unless you’re bringing in $100 or more of trade goods, foreign fruits or international currency.”

I changed $100 U.S. for 10,500 ISK – brightly colored bills and a handful of nearly worthless coins. Enticed by the prospect of lucrative savings, I browsed the duty-free mart, which was open and bustling at 0700 in the morning. Sadly, not even the prospect of not paying customs duties, or getting a refund on any Icelandic VAT I spent in-country, made the liquor cheap enough to buy. It had to get made in the U.S. and shipped across the ocean first, after all.

Tired and still disoriented by lack of sleep, I bought a bus ticket to Reykjavik and stepped outside. A vicious horizontal wind checked my stride, bringing with it the icy smell of the North Atlantic. The sun creeped over the horizon as the bus trundled along, casting a gorgeous glow over the Icelandic countryside. I finally remembered why I came.

Part two tomorrow.

christmas is for children

Let’s not overlook the most important gift I could ask for this season: the Ravens in the playoffs. Expect to see a lot more of the #5 jersey over the next few weeks.

I’d say something clever in anticipation of the next playoff round, like, “I hope this year’s Dolphins play like last year’s Dolphins when the Ravens face them,” but the Ravens were Miami’s only victory last year. So … um … let’s just have a good game, yeah?

# # #

I sat down on December 24th to talk wedding details with Matt and Lydia, who I will marry in June 2009 (not to be confused with John and Melissa, who I will marry in May). Man, there’s a lot that goes into a wedding ceremony. How many readings, what kind of readings, who’s going to read them. Will there be a song? Who’s handling the vows? What’s everyone wearing? All sorts of crazy nonsense.

# # #

The TSA riles me up every time I fly through Baltimore, and I’ve finally laid a finger on why: it’s the “Simplifly” video that runs on constant loop while you stand in the security line.

The implied message – people who want to get where they’re going on time disrupt the system; people who docilely comply with the latest bizarre directive are quiet heroes – bothers me. What are you doing to make the TSA’s job easier? Does your packing style accommodate the Administration’s needs? Are you a cooperative citizen?

At about the 0:30 mark, a woman – the recurring villain in this video – sifts through sheaves of airline paperwork, looking for what the TSA demands of her this week (boarding pass, one form of ID). The scanner waits patiently for her to produce it, while the person in line behind her shoots her an, “Are you serious?” look. The nerve of these people! Not anticipating what they’ll be told to do before they’ve been told.

I’ve flown four times in the last forty days, as do many Americans around this season. No two trips through security were the same for me. For instance: despite being told repeatedly – through voice, sign and video – to put all liquids in a clear plastic bag for inspection, I never did. I only got stopped for it once: a thrower pulled my overnight bag out and rifled through my toiletries. If they can’t keep their own restrictions straight, why should I?

my hometown

Thanksgiving weekend, comparing and contrasting my experiences in Baltimore (where I grew up) and Boston (where I live):

The TSA

  • Boston: Though I’d already put my jacket on the X-ray conveyor belt, the security goon asked me to strip out of my Ravens hoodie as well. Another goon rifled through my toiletries kit before putting it back on the X-ray for another scan.
  • Baltimore: Though I’d already put my shoes on the X-ray conveyor belt, the security goon asked me to remove my belt as well. Hoodie stayed on. Toiletries made it through unscathed.

Marriage

  • Baltimore: I’m officiating a wedding in rural Pennsylvania this June, at an outdoor amphitheater near Swarthmore College. “So what do you have planned for this all natural, non-denominational commitment ceremony?” the groom’s older brother joked. “Because I’m definitely picturing Lord of the Rings. I want elf ears and crossbows out the wazoo.”
  • Boston: That Sunday, I recounted the story to Melissa and Fraley, whose wedding I’ll be officiating three weeks earlier. “That sounds cool,” Mel said. “… wait, they were joking?”

Drinking, Dancing and Carrying On

  • Baltimore: I caught up with Liz, whom I hadn’t seen in about nine years, on Friday night. We carpooled over to her friend Keith’s rowhome in Highlandtown. After pregaming for a bit, we squeezed into Keith’s car and hit up The Depot, a narrow little lounge on Charles Street. We had several rounds of cheap beer and a Jaeger shot that felt like a punch in the stomach, then spent most of the evening dancing to 80s pop on the industrial black floor.
  • Boston: Highlandtown reminds me a lot of Medford, or East Somerville just off of Pearl Street. And The Depot reminded me a lot of Toast in Union Square. In fact, I’ll bet when Depot has their goth nights it looks exactly like Toast.

    At one point, Keith got up to stare curiously at an all-black painting hanging near the men’s room. It turned out that the painting actually had several plastic roaches set just into its surface. Also, the artist was sitting right next to it, waiting for someone to notice so he could trap them in conversation. Keith shot us several plaintive looks. Tell me that couldn’t happen at the Middle East on Mass Ave.

they say money don’t make the man, but damn I’m making money

Here’s a lesson in marginal costs.

If you buy business class seats rather than coach on AirTran, you will pay $100 to $200 more. However, if you upgrade at the moment you check in – whether online or at the airport – you’ll only pay $50 more. An empty seat in business class earns the airline $0 once the jet takes off, so why not capture those marginal buyers? This is an example of price discrimination – charging different prices to buyers with different preferences. Someone who wants to guarantee a business class seat has to pay $300 or more; someone who’s willing to gamble on a seat opening up the morning of can pay half that.

And the profit margins must be tremendous. For that extra $50, I got:


  • Two gin and tonics;
  • My choice from an overstuffed snack basket (I took a bag of T.G.I. Friday’s Chedder + Sour Cream potato crisps and some Milanos)
  • More than enough leg room
The nips of Tanqueray can’t cost more than $3 apiece – probably less, through wholesaling and B-to-B pricing. Add to that $0.50 worth of soda and $2 worth of snacks, and that’s $8.50 worth of food and drink. I can’t imagine the inches of extra leg room would accommodate another row of seats, so they’re not losing much in the way of additional passengers. Let’s price the extra attention from air stewards at $1.50, just to make the numbers round.

This makes $50 in revenue vs. $10 in costs, for a 400% profit margin return on investment. Not bad!

I cannot stress enough how wonderful two gin and tonics make me feel. It’s that warm acceptance of everything that crosses my path – a pleasant, liquid balance. Any less than that and I feel nothing; any more and I start rolling down the slope toward sloppiness. I suppose alcohol’s power over me should frighten me more, but I felt too happy to mind. Tanqueray, a comfortable chair and low lighting – that’s the life of the jet-setter.