Updated: Apr 15, 2021
Covid may have changed airports for good. This could be a good thing. Back in 2017, I traveled to Norfolk, Virginia to do a book reading at the Hermitage Museum where a Burning Man exhibit, The Art of Burning Man was on display. I’ve been traveling by jet since childhood (yes, they had aircraft back then!) and have watched the steady decline of the airline experience from exciting glamour to the depths of human drudgery. UPS packages get handled better. But this trip to Norfolk was a steady slap-down to the point where any fury I had left was shot into exhaustion like dog shit through a lawnmower.
The day after the journey I drafted this list. Misery loves company. Please enjoy:
Leaving out of LA on a morning flight
Load the aircraft – everyone is sitting – announcement comes of severe weather in Chicago – Midway and O’Hare airports are in a two-hour lockdown – everyone off the flight and back to the gate
We load back on the plane after a two-hour wait – still time to make the connection in Chicago – we pushback from the gate – make several turns around and around tarmac then back to gate – announcement of more bad weather - everyone back off and more hours waiting to the collective groan
Load back on the plane after a tornado in Chicago passes – everyone misses their connections
We fly into Chicago – worst turbulence ever with lightning strikes not 100 feet outside the windows
“Sorry, sir. Only one drink per passenger.”
YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME?
My white-knuckled fingers are cramped and exhausted
We land at Midway at 11:30 pm – airline flushes everyone out with no information – I wander the desolate airport glad that I hadn’t checked any luggage – no food, no information, no one to ask - no love. My Norfolk flight is postponed until the next day
With few other options, I find a Hotel bus stop and wait - I take the first bus that comes - it takes me to the Ramada Inn – I don’t care
Starving, I just make it to the hotel restaurant with fifteen minutes to spare – I sit at the bar and order a $20 hamburger and a double scotch
While waiting for my burger, I go to the front desk to book a room. “All rooms are booked, sir.” The storms have displaced hundreds and no rooms anywhere!
Tired, pissed off, and homeless, I go back to the bar to finish my hamburger. I strike up a conversation with an elderly United Airlines pilot sitting next to me at the bar. He tries to help, but the only option is a motel 30 miles away. Our conversation leads to Burning Man (“What do you do for a living?”) and wouldn’t ya know, the guy’s a Burner! Just then a hotel friend of his comes to say hi – calls him ‘Uncle Jim’. “This guy builds Burning Man! Can we help him out with a room?” She checks and finds a cancelation – a room falls from the sky! At a time like this, I will play the goddamn Burning Man card, hell yeah! I take it – $280 god damn dollars!
The next day the airport is a madhouse and my rescheduled flight to Norfolk gets me there with only an hour and a half to get to the reading at the museum – all the airport gates are jammed with displaced passengers from the hell-day before – everyone is pissed and rude - the world has treated us all unfairly - but everyone’s problems are way more important than everyone else's problems.
No place to sit and people lining the walls – kids screaming, couples fighting, everyone trying to escape into their phones
An announcement comes over the speaker for a flight next to ours that’s in the process of loading passengers – the announcement says that everyone on that plane has to disembark due to a swarm of bees preventing the baggage handlers from loading the bags – everyone goes to the windows and sees the baggage crew is indeed SWATTING AND PANICKING WITH A BUNCH OF BEES ATTACKING THEM – it’s completely surreal! People are too pissed to be amused but the humor is not lost on me. I try to film it on my phone but the moment passes. DRAT!
The aircraft is dispatched to a different gate further unraveling the already collapsing house of cards - tempers mount to a collective breaking point. A grumpy elderly war veteran bellows into the room that they should just start the engines and suck the bees in. This is met with a mixture of nervous laughter at the idea of flying on a jet with an engine gummed up with bee guts
Our jet loads relatively smoothly and I make it to Norfolk, rent the car, make it to the Hermitage Museum, get changed and ready in the staff bathroom just in time to read for the Norfolk culture vultures - an experience in and of itself.
After reading, I drag my tired ass back to the pre-arranged Norfolk Day’s Inn motel - it’s located across the street from Old Dominion University on the night before the graduation ceremony. The place is crawling with drunk college kids – I find a college sports bar and eat a $25 piece of meat with fried potatoes as I watch southern frat boys drink themselves puke-blind
I have a meeting the next morning with the museum to settle business – I find a breakfast diner called Hair of the Dog Café and eat an omelet.
I return to my rental car parked on the street and start driving to the museum. A few minutes into the ride I hear the front left tire rubbing on something, the noise becoming more and more severe. I’m on a busy bridge going pretty fast and with the flow when a very large piece of the wheel well comes off and I see in my rear view mirror several bits of black plastic chipping and flying into the traffic behind me – I can’t stop – then the entire plastic piece of wheel well comes off and flies into the front wheels of the car behind me. By then I’m off the bridge and ditch a right turn into a church parking lot - I never found out what became of the car behind me. Turns out my rental car had been sideswiped while parked on the city street at the Hangover Breakfast Café, leaving considerable damage to the front fender! (Still-drunk frat boy?) I call in the damage to Hertz and make it to the museum. The Museum curator is quite alarmed at the damage on the car which they are paying for - hard to smooth that one over!
After the museum meeting, I get to the airport with enough time to turn in a damaged rental and head to the gate. I check the departure board to see that the flight is already delayed half an hour due to more bad weather approaching - the delays mount - the storms are just beginning
I spend the next hours in the Norfolk gate with soldiers and Trump supporters watching Fox news and Sports Channel while a chain of severe thunderstorms blows over. Too exhausted to read I continue to dump money into the bar for unbelievably overpriced shitty food and cocktails while watching the flight status.
The dreaded red letters click onto the flight board - CANCELED!
I race to the service desk along with everyone else in the packed gate to try to rearrange my flights. (Am I going to have to start boxing soldiers and Trump supporters??) The guy at the desk is insanely under-qualified for this job and is drowning - I finally get to the front of the line and he tells me that there are no flights at all – anywhere – for anything. The earliest I will be getting to the bay will be Sunday night! This means I will be missing my gig with my band at the Saloon and all the Father’s day plans that Mel had been planning. My plans are now officially way more important than everyone else’s plans! My blood can’t take much more, especially with this inept guy behind the counter. At one point I actually see an available flight on his screen! He hits a button on his keyboard and it vanishes!
“Oops, it just disappeared. Sorry, sir, there’s nothing I can do.”
I start speaking through a clenched jaw
“So, I’m stranded here at your airport until Sunday?” (it's Friday evening).
“I’m afraid so.”
“Can you help me find a hotel?”
“Sorry sir, all hotel rooms are booked.
I go back to my seat at the gate pretty fuming mad. I calm down and start to think. Why the hell don’t I just go to the Southwest website and book the flight myself? Two days of sleep deprivation denied me that logic - I open my laptop and go to the Southwest website - there is one flight available! - it goes through Chicago and lands in Oakland by midnight - my weekend is saved!
More bad weather - I sit in the Norfolk gate for five hours awash in soldiers, Fox news, sports, more screaming kids, and surrounded by wall hangings of battleships
We finally board an aircraft - any will do at this point
I land in Chicago and my flight to Oakland is delayed until the next morning at 9:30 due to more bad weather. Again I get flushed out into a deserted airport - again, no love, no information - I pull out my laptop - again no rooms! An $18 dollar stale hotdog is the only dinner option. I try to sleep and wait for the flight that gets me to Oakland at 3:00 - my band starts playing at 4:00. There really is no sleeping in this type of situation. You are made to feel homeless and are treated as such. I try to contort myself into a camp setup of gate chairs and sweatshirts that ends in a crumpled spine and sharp pains in critical places - a cacophony of vacuum cleaners and cleaning staff never ends
A very loud and creepy audio tape loop echoes through the concourse to no one
“Caution, the moving walkway is ending.”
“Caution, the moving walkway is ending.”
“Caution, the moving walkway is ending.”
There was no escaping it, and it works into the twitchy half-dream state that my mind is collapsing into.
I try to move to another gate to get away from the ubiquitous and eerie recording - my exhaustion is turning the entire scene into a Freddy Kruger nightmare as I stagger from gate to gate - then I notice the horrid truth - THE WALKWAYS WEREN’T EVEN MOVING! THERE WAS NOBODY TO CHOKE!
I finally give up on sleep at around 5:30 am when the coffee huts started opening, and eat an $8 dollar egg sandwich. Again the terminal is a mob due to delayed flights - I’m too frazzled to even give a shit
I catch the 9:30 flight and, again, have an extremely turbulent ride across the country stuck in the middle seat between very large ugly Americans.
After a very pricey Lyft out of Oakland, I make the gig at the Saloon in North Beach a half-hour late and play my heart out!!
After the show I eat a North Beach steak and go home to my wife and children - I have nothing left to give.
Happy Father’s Day
Will airports ever be the same?
In due time, my friends. In due time.