Icarus, the Sequel: Baggage Interruptus

[Recap of Icarus: I try to fly across the Atlantic on Saturday night and fail.]

Sunday

9:00 Check in for my re-booked flight, scheduled to depart at 5:00 p.m. Call the car service and book a car for 2:45, since I just need to go through security, not bag drop-off or check-in. (No TSA pre-check speediness this time though—that’s only on American carriers somehow.)

10:00: Call American Airlines just to make sure my bag was correctly transferred to Iberia. The staffer says that as far as he can tell, they were not. They are to be sent on the same American flight that was cancelled last night. I sigh, but since that flight departs at 7 p.m., and will arrive in Madrid two hours later than my Iberia flight, I can wait for it. Except. Because there’s always an except—staffer says that if I don’t board the flight the bag is supposed to go on, they will unload it. So I’ll be waiting in Madrid while my bag sits forlornly at JFK. My bag with the clothes I need for the conference I’m attending. He suggests I recall it. He’ll ask the baggage handlers to bring it to the baggage claim office, where I can pick it up and re-check it to Iberia. Okay. He promises to call me when he’s located the bag.

10:15: Miracles. He actually calls. (Always a surprise in any context). Says the baggage  people (elves?) have found it and will bring it to his office. I can pick it up there. I send him some secular version of blessings.

11:15: Paranoia has taught me to confirm everything now so I call the office again to make sure someone can physically verify that the bag is there. New staffer. She checks the room and says, no, it’s not here. Says she’ll look for it.

11:30: I call again. Staffer says the bag is still tagged to leave on the American flight. She sees nothing about it being re-tagged and transferred to Iberia or of a request to pull it and bring it to their office. I tell her I spoke to her colleague. We figure out who he is and I ask to speak to him. Would that it were that simple. His shift ended, so he’s gone. She says she’ll put in the same request.

12:00 Pack a few more clothes, something I already regret but can’t avoid doing in case my bag is lost.

12:30: Send a fax to American asking for reimbursement for the Madrid hotel fine I had to pay for being a no-show.

1:00 Eat lunch, shower, find and book another Madrid hotel. Print out new booking.

2:00 Suddenly realize that if I have to retrieve the bag, I need extra time at the airport because the Iberia flight leaves from a different terminal than American. I call the car service and ask if they’ll send the car at 2:30, 15 minutes earlier than requested. The dispatcher sounds deeply skeptical about this happening but makes assenting hmm noises.

2:25: Call the baggage people. Still nothing.

2:45 Wait for car. Call car service. Get the same line as the previous night so drop the request and get a taxi instead.

2:45-3:35: Loooong cab ride. Get stuck in stop-and-go traffic on the freeway. Cabbie insists I must have Bangla ancestry. I explain that I don’t. I don’t explain that no one “looks Bangla”. We talk about hardworking Bangla immigrants, politics in India, Bangladesh, and the U.S., and his kid going to Bronx Science (good work!) I call baggage claim again. Nada. Dropped off at Terminal 8. ($50 extra on top of the hotel $100 I’ve already lost).

3:45: Skuttle to baggage claim office. Staffer re-routes me to another back office. Through the half door, my bag is the first thing I see. Bless Rick Steves and that weird purple colored canvas suitcase/backpack combo he sells. Then I see it’s tagged for Iberia. Huh. Suppress sudden font of rage. Staffer has her back to me and continues talking on the phone. I wait for a moment but finally interrupt and just ask for my bag. She looks exasperated but comes over and gives it to me. Tells me, “look, it was already tagged for Iberia”. I take a deep breath and softly say, yes, but none of your colleagues said that when I called repeatedly today.

3:50 Dash for the Airtrain on the upper level and jump on one just as it’s leaving. Fortunately (for once!) it’s one going counter-clockwise, so the Iberia terminal is the next stop. I run to Iberia’s counter. Hand over bag to check in against all my instincts. Staffer can’t understand my rebooked and return ticket. Consults a colleague several times as I watch the clock. Reviews my visa again. Finally prints out new bag tags and takes the bag. Tells me boarding starts at 4:10.

4:00: Go through security, which moves blessedly fast.

4:10: Stuff Ziploc with liquids and laptop back into carry-on, slip shoes back on feet, and dash for gate.

4:15:  Indications that the flight is on time but not boarding right away.

4:20: Try to call Madrid hotel to arrange for shuttle pick up from airport the next morning. Call won’t go through. Text friends to ask them to call. Message the hotel via facebook and the hotel booking page. Suddenly hear my zone being called to board. Gather assorted belongings and rush to gate. Become one of the jerks cutting in line.

4:20-6:00 Sit on tarmac because the line to taxi and take-off is long. Figures. Welcome to flight in the 21st century. We’re working on it.

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Icarus

One of the greatest triumphs and failures of modern civilization might be airline travel. As a comedian has argued, it is a miracle and we should stop whining if there are some kinks. But on the other hand, it can make you crazy because you’ve been led to believe it is possible and the refutation of that promise feels like utter betrayal.

Increasingly,  it is hard to pretend that travelling by air, especially in recent years, hasn’t become progressively (regressively?) worse. Witness the following:

I am scheduled for a transatlantic flight at 7:10 p.m. on a Saturday. I try to check in online when the pre-departure 24 hour window opens. After navigating American’s website and putting in details like my known traveler number (Global Entry/TSA pre-check), I’m eventually told I have to check-in in person. The reason is not explained. I also get a text saying the flight has been delayed and the new departure is 7:50.

4:25 p.m. on Saturday: Mindful that people who aren’t checked in get bumped off the flight because of routine overbooking of seats by airlines, I leave home to catch the 32 bus that takes me to the E train in Jackson Heights, which pokes along as a local rather than an express most weekends.

5:25: Arrive at the Archer Ave/Sutphin blvd subway stop and go up three floors to the Airtrain.

5:45: Arrive at the American terminal (8), find a self-check-in kiosk, repeat the entire data entry process, and am then refused check-in again. Staff are trying to assist multiple people. Turns out they are tasked with ensuring people like me have a visa to the country of travel. I have to point out the exact page with the correct visa on my passport to the baby-faced staffer two times. He then wants to see my return ticket, and then has to be pointed to the exact place on that page where it mentions the date of departure. He completes check in.

6:10 Drop off checked bag. I have a rule against checking bags, and this trip proves that I shouldn’t break my rules. More on this in a minute.

6:25: Complete security screening in a few minutes, thanks to the TSA Precheck verification on my boarding pass.

6:30: At gate.

7:00: At gate. Flight delayed to 8:20. Allegedly the craft we’re using has been late in arriving from Zurich.

7:45: At gate. Flight delayed to 9:00. Mechanical problem.

8:30: At gate. Flight delayed to 10:00. No explanation but passengers who are complaining about missing later connecting flights are advised to go to re-booking desks.

9:00: At gate. Flight delayed to 11:00. People are getting sloshed at the conveniently placed bar next to the gate.

10:00 At gate. Flight delayed to 11:30. People make a rush to the gate. Turns out to be sandwiches and tiny bags of junk food, not boarding.

10:45: At gate. Flight cancellation announcement via text. I’m rebooked the next day via a long connection through North Carolina. No. I run to the rebooking desk but there are already 8 people in front of me and matters are proceeding verry slowly. I call the number posted on the screen behind the desk. Told that the next day’s direct flights are booked solid. I ask about the following day, since I’ve already lost one day’s cost on my hotel so I might as well go straight through to my connecting flight two days later. Yes, that is available. We make the change and I get out of the line.

11:15: Realize that I forgot to ask about the checked bag. Uh-oh. Both the staffer at the gate and the rebooking desk are mobbed. No way I’ll get an answer within even 2 hours. I call the number again and I’m told the bag will be released (since I’m flying 48 hours later) and I should pick it up . I decide to walk around and find someone else to confirm. Locate another desk several gates away. The staff person is ready to send me back to the previous desks but I explain that I just have a question about what the process is for checked baggage in these circumstances. I’m told to pick it up from baggage claim.

11:45: Staff person happens to be walking in the direction of baggage claim. We get to talking. She advises me not to wait 48 hours to fly because the forecast is ominous. Offers to help. I take her up on it. She reviews and discards several options and finally finds me a direct flight on a partner airline for the next evening. Prints out new boarding passes and asks if I need taxi vouchers to go home and come back the next day. Yes, please. She prints those out. What about checked bag? Pick it up, she says. It’s a different airline now. Okay.

12:00: No sign of bag in baggage claim near belt. Staffer there tells me it will take a while and that I should give the bag tag to her colleague in their office plus details of my new flight. Promises to find my bag and switch it to correct flight. I do as advised.

12:12: Call car service that American uses. They promise to send someone in 15 minutes.

12:40: Call for update. Told to wait a few minutes.

12:55: Call for update. Told to wait.

1:15: Call for update and try hard not to lose temper. Explain that I could have taken the subway if they had been honest about their availability. She promises to send a car in 3 minutes.

1:25: Get a call from driver. Asks me to come up two levels from arrivals to departure. Haul myself up. Find car. Told to sit in front seat. Two passengers in back already. Woman starts to complain that she has been travelling for days and the car is specially sent for them by another airline and she doesn’t want me to cause her details. Her husband tries to calm her down while driver asks me to explain in English that Jersey is not closer than Queens and they have to go past my address anyway.

2:00 Home after 9.5 hours. Could have been at my destination across the Atlantic in less time.

And this is just part I of this story. So no, we’re not there yet.

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10 Things I Hate About NYC

As I’ve done once before, it is time to add some vinegar to the sugary gushing that I usually do about life in NYC. So here goes:

10. Times Square. When I end up here through some mistake of my directionally-challenged brain or because of subway closures, my heart sinks. The militant crowds of tourists and the sadness that is consumer capitalism is a devastating combination guaranteed to shred your soul.

New York Times Square

9. Lack of Cape Cod potato chips. I have no idea why I don’t see these in every grocery store/pharmacy/convenience store. Purple Terra chips and unsweetened plantain chips can only go so far.

8. Traffic noise. To live here is to be whittled down bit by bit under the cacophony that is cop cars, ambulances, and fire trucks. Bonus misery if you live/work near the subway, especially the elevated trains.

7. Traffic. I’ve been on buses that took fifteen minutes to go four blocks because, apart from there being parking on both sides of the street, cars and delivery trucks have double-parked at strategic distances from each other on opposite sides, forcing the bus to thread itself through a snake-like path.

6. Machines that give/take stuff and the people who can’t work them, resulting in crazy, long lines.

paperwork

This includes, but is not limited to, ATMS, subway ticket kisoks, post office drop boxes, secure lobby entrances, paper towel dispensers in bathrooms, motion-sensitive faucets, and water fountains.

5. The post office. Someone needs to tell the postal service that the reason they’re in the red is that NYC post offices are overrrun by folks who just want to talk to another person and therefore take 15 minutes to post a letter. Sad face.

4. Hipster parents. These souls move to “diverse” neighborhoods so the fruit of their loins can run other denizens down on their scooters–to which the mom/dad respond with stern lectures. E.g. “Oliver/Mia, what was the discussion we had earlier about how far you could go down the sidewalk by yourself? Oliver/Mia? Oliver/Mia!” Meanwhile, everyone nearby is nursing bruised toes and murderous thoughts.

3. People who go around blind corners of subway stairs on the wrong side. Stay to the right, you animal.

right-side

2. Citibikes. FFS.

leo

1. Still Williamsburg. At least until the L train shuts down.

1. Bushwick. Because.

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An Armitage Afternoon

Among the many pleasures of living in New York is the possibility of seeing great theater at one of the excellent companies on and off (and off off) Broadway. What makes the experience even sweeter is getting to see an actor you’ve admired on other media, be it film or tv. While I’ve been lucky enough to catch plays with stalwarts like Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Patrick Stewart in the past, I was thrilled this weekend to see a Roundabout Theater preview of “Love Love Love,” starring Richard Armitage (a.k.a Thornton/Thorin/Harry/Lucas North) and Amy Ryan (Holly from the Office and Oscar-nominated for Gone Baby Gone).

Staged at the intimate Pels theater on 46th street, the play by Mike Bartlett is steered by Michael Mayer over the course of about two hours. Fitting half a century of British (and late capitalist) social history into a couple’s interactions in three different homes, it takes us from the 60s to the present in no time.

While much of my starry-eyed watching had to do with Armitage, Amy Ryan gave a bravura performance throughout, and the script bounced and cut its way through snappy line of dialog. Like my fellow viewers, I found myself chuckling at the characters, though often in a sort of appalled fashion.

After the show, I was hoping for a chance to meet the actors, though security was unsure if they’d be signing autographs that afternoon. (They may not if there are two shows on one day.) As luck would have it, Armitage was out within minutes of the curtain, and quickly signed playbills and posters. I snapped a few pictures in profile

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and was delighted with his consent for a quick selfie as well. Swoon.

The icing on the cake was an unexpectedly shy Amy Ryan exiting from the cast door and kindly signing autographs for everyone who rushed around the corner on noticing her.

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She posed a striking contrast not just to the character she had played but also to my image of an Academy Award nominated actor.

I think I’ll be framing my Armitage and Ryan photos, along with the signed playbill and the ticket. *Whistles “New York, New York, What a Wonderful Town*

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A Wishful New York Day

If my father were alive and visiting New York, we would start a day with brunch at some little place in Jackson Heights that serves Udupi food. (When we were kids in Bombay, that’s what we did with him every Sunday morning.) Then we’d head out on the 7 train into Manhattan, switching to the 1/2/3 at Times Square and go up to Columbia.

Though I’ve never been a student there, the university has a mythic resonance for my family because Dr. Ambedkar got a degree there

labour

and there is a small memorial to him at the International Studies building. I can imagine my father delighting in the sprawling quad and marveling at the thought of his (and my community’s) mentor walking the campus paths.

columbia

We’d walk down a little to the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine because I think he’d love seeing the whimsical little (non-religious) architectural flourishes on the columns at the entrance.

stj

Our next stop would be the fountain at Central Park where he’d take photograph after photograph, trying to catch the light on the water and in the sky at every angle.

fountains-bethesda

He’d get my mother to be in some photos and then coax her to smile for the camera. I think he’d love the concept of the group selfie so there would be some of those, with the sprawl of the park behind us. We’d sit on a bench while eating ice cream from a cart and people-watch as visitors and residents from every corner of the world streamed by.

As the lunch hour beckoned, we might get on a bus to Lower Manhattan so he could see the city unfold before us, block after block of office buildings towering over brownstones, neighborhood parks sheltering chess tables and dog runs, schools gossiping next to coffee shops and grocery stores. We’d try felafels near NYU and then amble to the Strand.

12th-Strand

For once, he’d be the one receiving books as gifts as thanks for all the years he took us to a bookstore after Sunday brunch and let us pick one book each.

Weighed down by food and purchases, we’d go further south in a cab. (Growing up with almost nothing, he walked and then took public transport as a young man, so he loved comfortable cab rides when he got older and sprang for them when we were whiny kids, too.) He’d start a conversation with the cabbie and they’d soon be talking politics and religion with gusto.

We’d stop at the South Street seaport and marvel at the water. If the ferries were running (or a sailor friend was working on her tall ship), we’d go out into the harbor. Islanders like us are most at peace when we can step into that liminal crossing between land and sea.

On the way back to Queens, if it was late summer, we’d try to catch a match at the U.S. Open in Flushing, recreating one of the many evenings we watched tennis on tv in India. We’d stop at a hole in the wall in Jackson Heights and get some biryani, and maybe even some kulfi, another childhood treat.

At home, we’d go over all the day’s memories captured on camera. And I’d have some more photographs to look at on days like yesterday, which would have been his 82nd birthday.

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Welcome to the U.S. Sort of.

I travel in and out of NYC more than some people, less than others, and often through the much bemoaned LaGuardia and John F. Kennedy airports. But like Louis C. K., I am always aware that air travel is basically a miracle in which you sit in a chair that floats around in space and moves you speedily from Point A to B on the planet.

So on a recent return to JFK from India, after a 14 hour non-stop leg from Dubai, I didn’t grumble when we landed 15 minutes behind schedule. Nor did I let out more than a quiet sigh when we were told that there was no gate free so we’d be sitting on the tarmac for an unknown period of time. I continued to watch Mother’s Day and fantasize about getting through immigration at a superheroine-like speed, thanks to having signed up for the Global Entry program. When the plane finally started to crawl toward a gate an hour later, I gratefully gave up on trying to understand Kate Hudson and Julia Roberts’s problems in the movie. Instead, I flexed my feet in anticipation of that leap everyone does to reach for the overhead bins as soon as the seatbelt sign is off and then crowd the aisles. I am usually foiled in this endeavor despite my lightning reflexes because I’m too short to reach the bins and have to enlist the support of normal-sized fellow passengers, as was the case here.

Thanks to being in row 2, however (and in an Airbus, which seats the Business class on the upper floor), I was on the gangway as soon as the doors opened and set to speedwalk like a champ. This lasted for all of 20 yards before I came to a complete stop, foiled by a dozen other people who had also stopped in the corridor that led to the immigration pen. For a few minutes, I thought they were just controlling congestion in the hall because of the huge backup of planes that had landed at that point. It soon became clear that this was not the case. Even from my short height, I could see security personnel holding passengers up on both sides of the immigration area entry ways, and the ground crew of Emirates appeared equally confused by the bottleneck. Soon, the flight crew appeared from behind us, and were also sent back by the security guards without any information. People milled about restlessly, some clearly regretting not having gone to the restroom before exiting the craft. A passenger managed to get online and found a tweet about a suspected shooter–in another terminal. An Indian-Canadian complained loudly that he would never fly through JFK.

At one point, I overheard the the pilot telling his crew that perhaps they should get everyone back on the plane as the delay was apparently going to last for a couple of hours. The head flight attendant returned with news that the ground staff would not allow anyone access to the craft now. I was starting to think I was in an old Cecil B. DeMille movie–unwilling to go backwards and unable to move forwards, thanks to mysterious forces outside my control. Miraculously (isn’t that always the case?) we were suddenly allowed to descend down the gangway toward immigration after about an hour. The immigration lines were massive but the Global Entry sign told me to turn toward a row of empty machines, just waiting to clear me through. After some puzzling attempts to scan my passport and greencard, I was able to get myself fingerprinted and photographed. Just as the machine was spitting out my receipt, however, a wave of people came rushing back from the exit, shepherded by staff (I think). The night wasn’t over.

At this point though, I really needed to use the restroom, so I grabbed my receipt and ducked into a roped off one right by the scanners. There were a few passengers in there and no one seemed that worried, so I stepped into a stall. Within a minute, security personnel (I think) were calling us to vacate the premises immediately and go back toward our plane. I resigned myself to being in some other movie involving a bystander sitting on a toilet seat when something crazy happens. Fortunately, I was actually in just an arthouse movie so nothing happened. I washed my hands and went back to the gangway. I was at the tail end of the crowd but no one was going anywhere, so I found a spot on the floor and sat down to wait out the drama. After about a half hour of no more news, staff started allowing groups of 8 people to go down to use the restroom. The remainder sat, stood, grumbled about how terrible JFK was, tried to get a cellphone signal, etc. I worked on a difficult Sudoku and wondered what kind of world we lived in where a newspaper had a Sudoku and that other weird math puzzle but no crossword.

Finally, another hour later, we were suddenly released without explanation. Not looking for one, I sped down the same gangway, waved my receipt at the security guard by the scanners, sped off to pick up my one checked back (sitting forlornly with all the other waiting baggage on a silent carousel), and ran through the empty customs pen to the Border Security agent. He appeared to be in a cheerful mood and just took my receipt and waved me through. Just wait, I thought silently with a pang of sympathy–après moi, le deluge.

Stuffing my carry-on into my checked bag, I stepped out of the secure area and saw that it was midnight. I’d been at JFK for 3 hours after landing, which had been after a 20 hour trip. If there was ever a time to take a cab, I told myself, this is it. The cab line inside the terminal, usually a soul-crushingly long one, was empty. This should have told me something but I was on a high from the rush through immigration and customs. On stepping on the sidewalk, however, I was reminded that nothing is that easy. The usual taxi attendant was missing, as were the cabs. Passengers wandered about in angry disarray. This was clearly not going to be the fast option.

I turned around and headed back inside and went up to the Airtrain. The monitors on the platform said–you guessed it–“Airtrain not in service”. I heaved a slightly louder sigh than the one I had expelled three hours ago and sat on a bench, out of ideas. Finally, about 15 minutes later, a train hove into sight. Now, there are two Airtrain routes from the airport into the city–the Jamaica one that connects to the E train, which goes through Queens, and the Howard Beach line that connects to the A train, which goes through Brooklyn. There was no announcement about which one this was, so I just got on. And then got off at the next station because it was–ding, ding, ding–the wrong train. The following train was also announced as a Howard Beach one first, but then somehow the monitors said different, so I got on it.

As we rode past Terminal 8, everyone took out their cellphones to document the flashing lights of the police cars and ambulances that were still blocking off the access to it. I was too tired to bother. Instead, I eavesdropped as locals on the train tried to advise confused tourists about the subway/MetroNorth/NJTT. From the Airtrain, I hopped on the E, and in the absence of a 7 train or a bus at 74th street in Jackson Heights, took a cab home for the last 12 blocks. I arrived close to 1:30 in the morning.

Over the next two days, information emerged about what had happened that night. In all likelihood, some staff had been watching the men’s 100 meter dash at the Olympics and celebrating, and a passenger in earshot decided that they had heard a gun. Pandemonium ensued. People screamed that “They are coming!” Some ran out onto the dark tarmac that had active runways. I’ll never think of Usain Bolt in quite the same way again.

 

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Homecoming

Returning home from travel is often bittersweet; the warmth of the familiar also signals the end of a period of excitement. But knowing that I have a home to return to, especially in these troubled times of massive forced migrations–I am humbled by whatever stroke of luck brought me here. And yet, this is not what I was thinking on my return to my brand spanking new apartment in March after being away for two months.

Imagine my dismay when I walked in and saw survey-maps of mildew crawling around the apartment windows and occupying huge corners of the bedroom. The paint around those surfaces had bubbled and cracked with the moisture, making it seem like the apartment was slowly turning into a cartoon monster. Turns out that the windows form such a tight seal, that while I was away, the heat from the radiators under the windows had caused moisture to condense on the sills and then gather mildew. It felt like a disaster. Even the presence of an Amazon package at my door (containing the cutest shower curtain ever—a pastel sketch of the NYC skyline) was not enough to ward off a sense of doom.

After a restless night, my call to the super led to his inspection—mostly him looking grim and saying “Yeah, this is not good”—of the water damage. But in a day or so, two handymen showed up to take care of the problem. They scraped off the mildewed areas and appeared to have painted over it with some sort of mildew-eating mutant paint. I suspect I should be more afraid of it than the mildew itself, which did add some character to the starkness. Even so, every time it rains, I worry about the corner of the bedroom that juts out from the building and gets the most exposure to the elements. But so far, so good. Mutant paint 1: Mildew 0.

As for “decorating” the apartment, it’s been a ragtag combination of old Ikea posters, prints picked up from museums and Christmas markets, and framed images from thrift stores. Amazon, Ikea, and furniture stores have made a steady pilgrimage to my door, dropping off everything from spice rack carousels to sofa-cum-beds and dining sets.

For now, I’m getting used to leaving the windows slightly open, tuning out the sirens from the firetrucks that scream down the block, and watching the phenomenal sky afforded by my east-facing view.

sunsetrain

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