When we left each other last, about a month ago, I gave you some hint of difficulty looming in this journey which I had already told you was going to be, so I thought at the time I wrote it, a leisurely stroll, a pleasant interlude. I should have known better. We were, after all, in California, a place where the laws of the universe do not seem to operate.
Our limo driver, a kindly Asian man who had driven us to our hotel only the day before was happy to drive us back this sunny afternoon to catch our connecting flight to Los Angeles. We were to leave at about 3:00pm, plenty of time, so the folks who schedule these things thought when they set this up, for us to connect with an 8:00pm flight from LA to Auckland. It was shortly after noon when we arrived at the gate for our flight to LA.
Now a word of truth. The airport at Los Angeles, LAX, is, I am sure, where Charon went when he got his wings and gave up his boat after the trip to hell was brought into the modern age. It, LAX, must be an ante-room to hell. More precisely, I think it is hell’s own terminal; a bedlam and torture chamber combined, containing every known device to heighten travelers’ anxiety, drain the spirit and create acute and heart pounding confusion and fear, and frustrating, impotent anger. And that is what is good about it.
There is the center of confusion, mis-direction, lack of care and mindless activity. It extends for hundreds of miles in every direction.
As I said, we had checked into the airport at San Francisco quite early. We settled at the gate for the long wait. After a while I got up to stroll about the terminal. I was almost back at the gate where I had left Mariellen with our carry on bags, when my cell phone began to ring. “Who could be calling me now?” I thought. The phone call was from Mariellen, frantic because the people at the gate had paged her to tell her they had changed our flight, moving it up by an hour and a half…and it was being boarded as she spoke to me at another gate. Another gate in another place in the terminal, somewhere north of Vancouver, CA.
We were still speaking on the phone when I spotted her just outside the gate area covered with bags and coats and what alls, glancing frantically in all directions, a look of anxiety and stress on her face that i had never seen before. I was instantly sorry for every sin of my past life which I believed was responsible for this calamity, and promised lasting reform. I waved. She saw me and we began. We literally ran through the terminal for pretty near a mile, carrying and dragging bags of several sorts until we reached the newly assigned gate and our flight, just in time. They were closing up as we arrived sweaty and breathless.
One of the gate crew quickly explained the reason for the change. Our connecting flight had been booked for us by the folks in New Zealand. They had no idea what hell was like, and so figured two hours to connect passengers from a San Francisco flight with a New Zealand flight leaving LA was quite enough time. They had even built in about an hour long cushion. The United people knew different. In a tone of amazement, she told me that wouldn’t even leave us time to collect our baggage and board the shuttle for transfer from the domestic to the foreign terminal; let alone go through the security check once more (God bless Osama bin Laden!) , check in and flight boarding. We would have only 1.5 hours for what she said would take at least three. In answer to my question about whether anything could be done, she suggested that I become disabled. That way they could have a special bus meet the plane and ferry us directly from it to the foreign terminal.
I wished later on in the day that flying through LAX (an oxymoronic term, accent on the last two syllables, if ever there was one) itself was a disability. Well, it is, but…
Anyway, the plane landed. We got our bags after a twenty minute wait at the baggage carousel in some large cell of a room, and after another twenty minutes of blind wandering found our way outside through a deluge of traffic, people, trafic and more traffic. (Do not wonder if we asked directions. We did. No one could give us an answer beyond pointing toward a wall and mentioning that buses were on the other side of it. “Look for the “A” bus,” they all said.) We found a small foothold of safety in the stream of cars, cabs, buses, limos and everything but skateboards on a narrow island in the middle of this stream of gas and noise. We were supposed to find that mysterious something called an “A” bus that would take us to all of the foreign terminals.
Above our heads lighted electric signs indicated where to stand for taxis, limos and buses labeled “B” through “G”. Hundreds of yards away from us was our destination, the one “A” bus stop in the universe. On we plodded, arriving just as one of them pulled away from the curb. At least, I consoled myself as I gazed at it’s slowly fading rear end, we will be first in line for the next one to arrive.
HA! The next one did not arrive for more than an hour. Buses emblazoned with every possible letter in every possible alphabet arrived and left with infuriating regularity. The crowd of increasingly nervous and desperate people grew around us until it seemed to be more than one bus full of travelers and tons of luggage.
I had taken to asking the drivers of the other shuttle buses whether or when an “A” bus would come by. Some simply looked stupidly at me, like cattle on their way to the hammer thud that would drop them, closed the door and moved on. I began to ask them if they’d be kind enough to bring something to eat and drink for us stranded here on the island in the sea. I sugested to my fellow “strandees” that we consider hi-jacking a bus; a suggestion that met with growing and more serious approval as time passed.
One of the bus drivers, perhaps the only one with the power of speech, answered me. “The problem is that the shift always changes around this time for the “A” bus; just when it really gets busy.” I shouted, “ARE YOU &*^%*()# KIDDING ME!!!! How stupid do you have to be to become a dispatcher here?” The fellow smiled and shrugged. That meant one of several things to me. Either he had no idea how stupid that was, or he wasn’t yet that stupid but hoped to be and it embarrassed him, or he just didn’t care.
The wait continued. I noticed several cabs parked at the curb behind us and walked over to one to ask what the fare would be to take us to the Air New Zealand terminal. It was within reach, I learned, but I was not yet that desperate. I’d try hi-jacking and face jail first. I wondered whether he had a weekend job leading illegal immigrants over the border and through the desert a few hundred miles south of LA.
When I got back to the milling crowd and fought my way through to where Mariellen was I was approached by a man with a New Zealand accent. He was there with his family, wife and three small children. “How much is the taxi fare?” he asked me. I told him and he smiled grimly. His flight left for Auckland in an hour he said as they gathered up their luggage. I wished him bon voyage and thought, “Another friend for the US.”, as he drove away in the cab, the driver smiling like a Cheshire cat.
When the bus finally arrived about twenty minutes later nearly fifty people piled on in cattle car fashion. The absolutely horrible thing about it, horrible almost to the level of being downright evil is that I do not think we were more than a quarter mile from our destination all the while and could easily have walked there in fifteen minutes or less. We simply drove to the end of the building where all domestic flights arrived and departed, made a left turn around a short curve and arrived at the international terminal, got off the bus and entered. Walking through the garage would have been the easiest thing to do.
Of course, once inside the terminal we had to endure the boring stupidity of the TSA and its procedures. Have I asked God to bless O.b.L.?
We finally arrived at out gate a bare fifteen minutes before boarding time, our time on the ground in LA being longer by almost an hour than the time it took us to fly to LA from San Francisco. I spent that short time composing another “letter I will never send”; this time to the Mayor of Los Angeles upon whose smiling face I looked all during my time as a castaway on that traffic island.
It begins, “Dear Stupid,”