Slight change in plans.
Links: Feb 26, 2006

The trip home

Denver International Airport is, what, 25 miles? 30? shrug? by car from downtown Denver. Makes for a huge amount of land available to the airport—it covers some 53 square miles, making it the largest airport by area in the U.S.—but also means strained silence stretches the 30-minute drive into what seems like hours.

Got the car turned in at Hertz (today’s Courtesty Driver was Modibo; I didn’t see the Manager On Duty’s name) and took the courtesy shuttle to the terminal, the usual routine. I had to check in at Alaska Airlines—even though I booked through Delta, the flights were code-shares—and I decided I would, in fact, check my rolling carry-on when the ticket agent couldn’t tell me for sure if the seats in Row 6 on an Alaska 737-700 had any under-seat stowage space or not.

That I checked my carry-on would turn into something of a flaming fiasco at the Seattle end. And the fun in Denver wasn’t over yet.

But those were part of a future I couldn’t see.

Check-in complete and boarding pass in hand, I walked from the ticketing level down the escalators to the security checkpoint. Waited no more than 10 minutes in line; I’m pretty sure it was much shorter, in fact, with the vast majority of the wait in the maze-like arrangement of queue area. After the TSA officer had checked my boarding pass against my ID and my ID in turn against my physical appearance, he directed me to the left-most security line, largely because it was also by far the shortest. It took me longer to fish my laptop out of my backpack, and to take off my shoes and and juggle shoes and laptop and backpack onto the conveyor, than it did for me to walk through the metal detector and gather everything up on the other side.

Off to the trains for Concourse C, then. I think the trains are my favourite part of the DEN experience, because, well, they’re trains—I love trains—and they’re in tunnels—tunnels, woo hoo!—and they’re automated—{S nerd!}. Also there’s all the bings and bongs and amusing little musical interludes when the Authoritative Recorded Announcements inform you of the closing doors or that you are now approaching Concourse A or that everyone has to leave the train now because this is the last stop, and also there’s no boarding on the one side of the platform in the main terminal nor in Concourse C, because of their end-of-the-line status.

The train was crowded as it left Jeppesen Terminal, still crowded after Concourse A, and nearly empty after Concourse B. Concourse C always seems nearly dead, in fact; the airlines that occupy gates there have some of the lowest-volume flight operations at DEN, so most of them have just one designated gate. I was flying Alaska, as I said before, so I knew I was leaving from gate C32, but I stopped by C44 (at the opposite end of the concourse, of course) to sit with Mom for a few minutes before our flights boarded.

When I arrived at C32, they were already well into the boarding procedure but hadn’t called my row yet. They must have just finished the pre-boarding (what a stupid term that is) for first-class and families with small children and anyone else needing assistance with boarding, in fact, because the next announcement I heard was that rows 15 and higher were boarding. The gate agent was a charming young woman from northern England who sounded just like a prim and proper schoolteacher (her own words, those) when she made the boarding announcements. The Podium Agent, by contrast, was an officious little man who took his status as Podium Agent much too seriously. You could, in fact, hear the capital letters when he pronounced “Podium Agent” in his boarding calls.

It was a study in personality differences.

In short order Schoolteacher announced all rows boarding, and I stepped into the line. The couple ahead of me asked Schoolteacher about her accent, and she asked them where they thought she was from.

“Uh... Australia!” the man said, with conviction, but slightly Upspeak? Like he wasn’t quite sure? So he was hedging his bets?

“Close, very close!” Schoolteacher said with a big smile. “I’m from Northern England. But all you have to do is rotate the globe a bit, and turn it over, and you’re perfectly correct!” And she scanned the woman’s ticket and handed it back, still smiling charmingly so the two passengers, faces now deeply crimson, tottered down the corridor while we in line behind laughed heartily.

When she scanned my boarding card, there was a fun game-show-style “You Goofed!” foghorn sound and her computer’s screen flashed briefly:

TSA
RANDOM

She looked momentarily horrified.

“Sir,” she said, ”I need you to step over here for a moment,” and she pointed to the side of the ticket counter. Then she raised her voice to Podium Agent: “TSA!”

P.A. got on the phone and requested a TSA screening team, and gestured impatiently for my boarding pass so he could identify me as a male passenger “last name Nunn, N-U-N-N, first initial D as in David”—“D as in Don,” well, that’s my actual name and they can’t be so obvious—and hung up the phone and ignored me utterly from then on.

Schoolteacher continued checking in other passengers and then made several charmingly accented announcements requesting the immediate presence of Mr. and Mrs. So-and-so at gate C32, your flight to Seattle is in final boarding and the whole plane is waiting on you! She said it with a smile, you could hear it in the overhead pages, the kind of insincere smile learned after thousands of such pages for thousands of passengers whose sense of punctuality is a bit labored.

Then she turned to me as the last few passengers were checked and boarded. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “The computer randomly chose you for the security and we can’t just...” and she waved her hand vaguely toward the jetway, obviously meaning they couldn’t allow me on until the TSA team arrived and cleared me.

“I absolutely understand,” I said. “I’ve been through the random check before, don’t worry.”

She was pleased, I imagine largely because she’s had far more than her fair share of utter assholes giving her grief when they’ve been randomly selected for additional screening.

And sure enough, I was the last passenger, and the TSA team hadn’t even arrived yet. It was only 18:10, however, and the departure was scheduled for 18:28, but I was starting to get a bit twitchy. What if there wasn’t even room in the overhead bins for my backpack? No way in hell I was going to let them check it, with my laptop and PDA and iPod and wallet among the items inside.

At the moment my blood pressure went up a notch at the thought of being banned from flying because I wouldn’t let them check my life into the bowels of a 737-700, the three-person TSA team arrived. The lead was a man, who would do the metal-detection wanding and the body pat-down; the two women would go through my backpack and examine my cell phone, PDA, laptop, several books, and various other items to ensure no contraband.

First I had to sit down, hands resting on my knees, while I raised each foot in turn so the lead agent could wand my shoes while they were still on my feet. Then I had to take off my shoes and remove all metal objects from my pockets, but not my wristwatch nor my eyeglasses or other metal that might be part of any clothing (such as my belt buckle).

I was directed to stand “like an airplane,” my arms stretched out at shoulder level, for the wanding and the pat-down. The iPod shuffle and headphones I’d strung around my neck for easy access (I was paranoid about the Row 6 under-seat storage, remember) went back into my backpack just before that part of the team did their checks.

And then they asked me to describe the TSA agent who’d examined and accepted my ID at the security checkpoint, as well as the checkpoint itself, and first I was panicked because, well, I could’t remember anything! about the checkpoint other than that it was in the main terminal under 607 million square centimeters of fiberglass material stretched all pointy and curved over a bunch of heavy poles in a weird attempt at mimicking the nearby mountains, and/or to spear low-flying aircraft. But I don’t think that was the answer they were looking for, so I thought harder and realized what they were doing. Obviously they were asking me to describe what I’d seen to ensure I had, in fact, gone through a security checkpoint and had not managed to slip into the secure areas by some nefarious means.

And then it came to me and all in a rush: The TSA agent was an Asian man, dark short hair and wearing glasses and a blue sweater. There was a TCBY and a luggage store and a Hudson News and some sort of bar right nearby, and I had gone through the left-most X-ray line, and I’d bobbled my laptop and had to be asked to take off my shoes (I thought they weren’t doing the shoes thing anymore, but they always ask me to take mine off) and I thought I’d set off the metal detector but was the security lane to my right and the TSA agent actually shushed me so he could continue the security screen.

I don’t think I would have recalled any of that at any other time in my life, but I was absurdly happy in the silences of my mind that I could remember such things when getting home after the weirdest damned weekend of my life was on the line.

The wanding and pat-downs and backpack searches completed, the TSA team cleared me, Podium Man printed me up another boarding pass and carefully stapled my baggage check to it, and then the team leader punched the boarding pass with a little plus-sign shape several times, like I was on a commuter train in Chicago or something and this was merely a ticket check.

They pointed me in the direction of the jetway and gave me a nudge to get me started, and then the one TSA agent realized she still had my WA driver license, so she sprinted (four steps, but damned fast) to make sure she got it back to me.

Schoolteacher joked that I shouldn’t have trouble finding my seat on the very full flight, and I said that if I should have trouble finding the only empty seat on the plane, perhaps I shouldn’t be allowed to fly after all, but I was halfway down the jetway by that point and I’d dropped my voice because I was half afraid that anyone overhearing me would pull me off the flight again.

I was in fact the last person aboard—the flight attendants practically yanked me aboard as I rounded the corner to the airplane door, so they could close said door and get us on our way—and the couple seated in 6B and C were very understanding as I fell over myself and my backpack when I maneuvered into my window seat. That’s when I remembered I was in Row 6 aboard an Alaska Airlines 737-700 and I likely didn’t have any under-seat space, so I was about to ask them to please excuse me, I needed to get into the overhead bins, when I saw:

The bulkhead row 6 in Alaska’s 737-700s doesn’t have a wall! The first-class seats directly ahead are in fact just further away, and only a cloth curtain separates the cabins. Joy and happiness, I had my under-seat space and plenty of legroom and the flight attendant practically stuffed me into my seat so they could get the plane moving!

I read a bit, and listened to music, and actually managed to snooze about an hour of the flight away. We were at 38,000 feet with a headwind of 100 knots, making our flight time was 2h40m; I was pleased not to be awake for the entire thing. We also had two trainee flight attendants aboard, one of whom did the beverage service for our row, and he was far more nervous than needed—his hand actually shook a bit as he handed me my Diet Coke and several minutes later, when he remembered our Party Mix packets and the cocktail napkins to go with them. But he did just fine, and on the second go-round when I was just about snoozed out, he didn’t insist on asking me if I cared for anything else, just left me alone.

Exactly what I needed.

:: • :: • :: • :: • ::

The flight touched down at 20:25 PST, about 15 minutes late according to the scheduled arrival time. In short order we pulled up to gate D9 and waited while they aligned the jetway with the airplane and finally opened the door. I could see out my window the problems they were having aligning the jetway just so, the seconds dragging by interminably. When passengers finally started moving, I was off the plane like a shot (dropped my backpack twice as I bumbled with it, in fact) and headed to baggage claim, wherein the real fun began.

ASA 565 was listed at baggage claim carousel 14. The electronic sign over 14 didn’t indicate this for some time, however, and there were no fewer than 400 people milling about the claim area waiting for bags from various flights. It was nearly 20 minutes before ASA 565 appeared on 14’s sign, but only a relative handful of bags from that flight actually came out, and soon enough the flight number disappeared from the sign.

And the baggage-service folks had not the first damned clue what was happening, but still passengers from ASA 565 were standing around, some having received one of their several bags, others like me with nothing to show for it yet. It was more than an hour after I deplaned when I finally had my bag in hand.

The whoops of joy as passengers saw their bags finally drop down the conveyor, well, they were the most pleasantly musical sounds I’d ever heard at that moment.

Katharine had by this time completed perhaps 30 laps around the airport’s parking structure, so when I had my bag finally I called her and (happily) she was just starting another circle around. I got outside to see a tangle of cars and hotel shuttles and SUVs and pickup trucks and idle Port of Seattle Police officers and whatnot, all moving at about 0.0003mph. The PoS cops, whose job it was to keep traffic moving, just stood around, looking into the distance. Finally one of them started waving his flashlight at the vehicles directly in front of me, getting them to move off and circle around the way other traffic had been doing, and at just that moment I spotted Katharine’s car and practically crawled over a Mercedes SUV and two Camrys and under a Chevy pick-up to get out to the edge of the loading zone.

I flung my carry-on into the trunk, my backpack into the back seat, myself into the front passenger seat. It was 21:57, 90 minutes after we landed.

“Do you want to get something to eat?” Katharine asked.

“No, I want to go home,” I said, in the act of dropping the seat back to nearly horizontal. I leaned back with my head resting against the door trip, my left arm over my forehead.

She started driving. “I have a Diet Coke for you if you’d like it,” she said, and pointed to the rear of the two cupholders.

We didn’t speak again until we got to my house and I thanked her for changing her plans, if she’d had to do that, to accommodate my day-early arrival home.

“No problem,” she said. “I hope you feel better.” And because she knows me so well and could read in my face the signs that I needed to be alone, she told me to call if I needed anything and otherwise would see me Monday.

I am wound up so tightly right now. I would like to go to bed but I needed to get this written down and I know I will just lie there tossing and turning anyway. And I just looked at the clock and realized it’s taken me only a little over 20 minutes to type this.

I knew I could type pretty quickly, but I didn’t realize I could manage quite that fast.

:: • :: • :: • :: • ::

Here’s hoping you had a better weekend, and that the week ahead brings some semblance of normalcy.

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