Traveling to Maine (airport follies) 7-29/30-13

by Richard Grossinger on July 31, 2013

Lindy and I are in the process of moving from our house in Kensington outside Berkeley, California, to our house in Manset on Mount Desert Island in Maine (not really an island because of a causeway). We have done this every year since 2001 after buying the house in 2000, staying in Maine for a minimum of three months. We have usually flown east in the morning because of the three-hour time loss in traveling. For the first bunch of years we had the problem that airlines would charge you for two round trip tickets if you stayed longer than 90 days. Only Southwest halved the fare for one way, so we used its grid and went odd routes like Oakland-Kansas City-Providence or Oakland-Phoenix-DC-Manchester, New Hampshire. Then JetBlue came along with direct flights from Oakland to Boston and half-fares for one-way; we have using them ever since, maybe 9 years.

We have stayed with different friends in Newburyport, Portsmouth, Kennbunkport, and Portland before driving up (or down from a Maine standpoint) to our house. Rental cars have their own problems. If you rent one place and return another, it’s $100-$170 per day depending on the season, and we have to use Hertz because it’s the only company with an office at the Bar Harbor airport in Trenton, Maine. Logan Airport in Boston is 6 hours by car from our house, so we can handle the “one day” issue if we fly in the morning. We rent a car in the evening, stay overnight and get some sleep, then drive to our house, get our car started, drive back to the airport in Trenton, and return the rental before 5. It’s worked every time, sometimes with help from AAA in getting our own car started after the winter.

We only flew the redeye once, three years ago, and that was because we were going to a reunion of Lindy’s freshman dorm floor at Smith on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire, and we needed to take a bus from the airport to Portsmouth and get there early in the day. However, we decided to try the redeye again this year, setting up a plan for our Newburyport friend John Brady to pick us up at Logan at 7 AM. John goes back to the summers when he was a bellhop at my father’s hotel and I was a mail clerk and then worked at a nearby newspaper. Our plan was to spend the day with him; then he would drive us to Kennebunkport where we would stay with our new friends Dick and Nora Tryon (whom we met through their film-maker son in NYC last summer, a link initiated by our author Daniel Pinchbeck). After visiting the Tryons, we would rent a car August 1 and drive to MDI. It seemed easier and more fun than getting up early and rushing to the San Francisco airport.

Flying from San Francisco has become necessary because the direct flights from Oakland to Boston have all but been eliminated. That’s the background Here’s what actually happened on July 29th and 30th.

We got a lift with our baggage to the North Berkeley BART from a neighbor at 6 PM, got to the airport just before 8 (the train has to go through Berkeley and Oakland, across the Bay, through SF and cities south of SF before arriving at SFO—a long ride). By the time we arrived at the check-in counter, the flight had been delayed from 10:37 PM to 12:25 AM. Why?

It’s been a long time since we spent July in the Bay Area, and we had forgotten Mark Twain’s admonition that the coldest winter he ever spent was a summer in San Francisco. Fog everyday. It was even worse on Monday, and they had staggered incoming flights, holding them on the ground at the other end.

By the time we got to the gate, it was delayed to 1:09 AM, and soon after it went to 1:30. Our plane got in at 1:30 or so from Fort Lauderdale. New pilots got on board and we were supposed to leave at 2:15. Yet obviously something was wrong. There was a lot of chatter at the boarding counter, rumors of a cancellation, milling travelers, etc. It gradually got out that the flight attendants from the Fort Lauderdale flight were supposed to go to Boston next (is that even a life?), and they had refused and gone home (I guess they wondered the same thing). Federal regulations were apparently on their side. Anyway JetBlue was trying to recruit replacements. At 3 AM they announced that the flight was canceled.

I have never had a canceled flight, so I had no prior expectation of what would happen. I was not prepared for the absolute dissolution of the whole “traveler” stageset. All the props and rhetoric suddenly disappeared. JetBlue employees turned into civilians on their way home. Lights went off. There was nothing but 200 confused and (in some cases) irate passengers who had thought they were going to Boston that night and had no cognitive model for an alternative.

I had imagined that there was some structure in place for a canceled flight. There was nothing. People were asking where they were supposed to stay, as not everyone lived in the Bay Area. Some people were in fact traveling from Asia with an SFO stopover. We talked to one couple from Orlando; they were bringing their sullen 13-year-old granddaughter from Kentucky in her Taylor Swift Tour tee shirt back to her parents from a cruise in Alaska for her birthday.

The boarding-gate employee said that there were no vacancies, implying that JetBlue would put everyone up in a hotel if they could. In answer to what to do, she said, “Hurry to the ticket counter; it’s first come, first serve.” Many people started running, and by the time we got there, there was a huge line, only one employee still working, and each transaction was taking ten minutes.

Eventually word got out that you could call JetBlue at their 800-number. That was much better, only a five-minute wait, and I also learned a lot: we had to go at once and get our baggage from the carousel. JetBlue would cover any reasonable rebooking; they would not pay for a hotel or ground transportation to get home. (In their favor, I will say that within the next half hour, they emailed all the passengers with a gift of a free future flight.)

I was in the process of getting our exact flight and even seats for the next night (we had already paid extra for a row with more legroom) when Lindy began objecting. I had imagined we could go home and get some sleep, then repeat the ritual, but she didn’t want to go home; she wanted to see it through from there. She was very involved in having prepared our house for the renters and did not want to mess it up at all. I was clearly on a different page, as I was starting to invite stranded travelers I had befriended (there was growing camaraderie) to stay with us and share a cab.

We then had an embarrassing public argument about it (with the JetBlue employee on the phone still) and were shouting at each other because we were quite convinced of our positions. I felt that I needed to get out of that airport the very next moment, and anyway our renters weren’t occupying till August 1. It was perfect, and we could even help some folks out.

Since we could not settle the argument, I handed the phone to Lindy and snapped, “Do what you want.” She booked a flight that I had turned down: 7 AM to JFK in NYC, a five-hour layover, and then a flight to Boston. When I tried, I had said five hours was unacceptable and that Portland was better than Boston. Also Portland had only a 45-minute layover, but the JetBlue reservation lady refused, said Portland wasn’t covered for rebooking and I could pay $600 more for the two tickets. That was more than we had already paid, even with the extra leg room.

In any case, I wanted to go home. When Lindy made the 7AM/five-hour layover reservation, I freaked. I found the situation facing us intolerable. I mainly still wanted to get out of the airport. We continued our argument all way to the baggage carousel and then dragging our suitcases and backpacks through a virtually empty airport with no sense of where to go or what to do. A miserable duo. After a point she was saying, “I don’t care what you do. Take a cab home. Change your flight. I’m staying.”

Again, one is not really prepared for a breakdown of the play in medias res. When the actors leave the stage is empty, it’s hard to know how to proceed or what your real options are. With neither of us happy, I decided to call JetBlue back. Lindy was very worried I was going to change to the redeye the next night and was digging in her heels, refusing, also saying, “What if we get fogged in again? It’s been foggy every night.” A portent of “Groundhog Day.”

Luckily I got a more sentient and empathic employee this time and after, batting around options, she said, “I’m booking you through Portland.” I asked if it would cost more; she said, “I’m waiving that. You’ve been through enough.” Yes, thank you.

We went back to the ticket counter where she insisted on staying on the phone and trying to walk us through rebooking on the kiosk, but it didn’t take except insofar as guaranteeing our seats on the computer. It wouldn’t issue boarding passes. She said we’d have to wait till the airport reopened at 5. It was already 3:40, so that wasn’t a big deal.

Meanwhile lots of people were yelling at the poor guy manning the ticket counter, one of them asking for blankets and pillows for everyone and questioning JetBlue for not just doing that automatically. They were finally produced, and we all wondered where to go with our baggage and just-issued sleeping aids. The one policeman still there suggested we heard for the Food Court. We all did. Lots of people were already camped out there—a Mad Max like environment.

Airports are remarkably unconducive for sleeping. It’s more like intentional low-grade torture as if we were all Snowdens. The furniture is mostly welded to the floor, and you can’t get rid of armrests (in the boarding areas) or move tables away from long vinyl wall couches in the Food Court. The taped announcements about TSA and airport security with “Welcome to San Francisco” keep playing, though the airport is closed. The main habitants are janitors with vacuums, brooms, and mops. The lighting is absurdly bright under the changed circumstances.

What mainly happened was that groups sat around talking. We became tribal, human again. I met a young Marine who was traveling with his friend to baseball stadiums (a different one each year), and we talked Boston sports teams for twenty minutes. I heard about the cruise to Alaska (the animals they saw and circumstances under which they saw them) and more about Orlando than I really needed to know (about the animals too if you get right down to it). We talked with a young couple from Boston (high-school teachers) about our work and life situations, though they were younger than our kids.

We checked our bags through at 5:20, went through security again, had discussions with totally different TSA personnel about whether the machines really had radiation. The party line is that they don’t, but that’s a pretty convenient disinformational tag line. What then is coming out of them if not radiation of some sort? In Denver last year I was on line in front of a woman who said she worked for the company that made the scanners and she knew all about the regulation propaganda; there was no way she would go through one of them willingly. “If it’s not radiation,” she said, “it’s worse than radiation, and no one knows what it does to DNA. It’s completely untested; they rushed it into production, and no agency monitors it.”

The first time through during the prior evening voyage to the boarding gate I had a hip African American TSA dude named Arthur, a bit of an out of place blippie, who talked about all of the pathological pollution in modern life and the propaganda behind it (cell phones, food, beauty products). He was definitely on my side. The Asian guy the second time through agreed that Arthur was one great dude and uncomfortably second his opinions. But the Sikh guy who summoned him really wore me out by repeating, “There’s no radiation, but if you insist, I’m required to get someone.”

The fog hadn’t lifted in days, so it was strange and quite powerful to shoot up through the fog bank and look at a brilliant rising sun that was almost blinding white, especially since we had thought of trip for over a month as a night flight. The whole relationship between night and day, and their intimacy, came into radical perspective. We flew into that sun for hours and, whether it was because I had no sleep or because it was so bright, when I closed my eyes, for one of the few times ever I saw the colors of the chakras. They were almost frighteningly radiant and rich.

I don’t sleep on planes. Every time I begin to doze, I wake with a start with a sensation of falling. It is so uncomfortable that I avoid it. In fact, I didn’t get any sleep for almost 36 hours until the little park outside the Portland airport, waiting for Dick Tryon to pick us up. About all I did was stare out the window and close my eyes when it got too bright, for instance when we were among clouds. I managed to read the Rolling Stone cover article on the Brother Tsarnev, which is brilliant and subtle in capturing the transformation from laid-back All-American stoner to terrorist.

JFK was New York, and I’m from the City originally, so its energy and vibration were comforting. I also got to buy a Brooklyn Nets cap, something I have wanted for a while. Yeah, it’s NBA propaganda, but I’m an addict, and the black and white team colors are great.

I was looking forward to the flight to Portland, but by the time it happened, I was so sleepy that I had a paranoid hallucination. I thought I saw terrorists take over the cockpit before we taxied. Really. It was a low-level, hypnagogic-like hallucination. I got very agitated and wondered why the flight attendant didn’t see it. We had also moved from a large plane to a small plane and the Major Leagues to an A-ball crew, sort of like flying to Kauai after coming from the Mainland to Honolulu. I was reassured, however, when the guy separating the plane from its towing object gave the pilot a thumbs up (they couldn’t all be in on it). Then when we took off and began going in the right direction, I was further convinced that I had had a waking paranoid mirage.

I know the territory between NYC and Portland really well but don’t remember seeing it from the air before. It is totally unexpected and much more wooded and beautiful than I ever pictured from the highway. Once the plane crossed beneath Manchester and hit the coast, it was spectacular. We lived in Portland once (1970-1972). Great to see: the road we lived on, the university where I taught, the harbor, the boats.

I am writing from the Tryons in Kennebunkport. It’s finally summer, summer of old. Tomorrow we head to MDI.

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