Wednesday, September 26, 2001

On the Road Again

On the Road Again
We left my brother Kevin’s house with plenty enough time to get to the airport, not knowing what traffic may be like. Newark is considered a New York airport, even though it is in New Jersey. The airport was only an hour away under normal traffic conditions, but nothing has been normal since September 11th. There was a pensive feeling in the car as we drove. Although I love to fly, this time was different. This time was preempted by a black cloud; a black cloud that would like a long time to clear. This time, there were more reasons to be apprehensive about air travel than the recent articles about air rage. Air rage I could handle. Ron was quiet too. He was more quiet than usual and he usually has some concerns about flying under normal circumstances.
There were no traffic problems and we retuned the car within minutes, seven hundred and forty dollars for a three-week rental. Initially, we had not planned on needing it for three weeks, and this may be the last time I have to drive for a long time. At Newark, rental cars are all on the airport campus. When you leave the car rental company, you take an escalator to a Monorail station and that transports you to the concourse where your airline is located. We had a two stop ride on the Monorail before arriving at Concourse A.
I have flown in and out of Newark a number of times in the past. Today was different than all of the rest. It was so empty, a tennis match could have been staged in the ticketing area and not be interrupted or impeded. Each airline had at least one employee working their desk with the optimistic hope that they would have customers to serve. U.S. Air had three employees ready to be of assistance. The usual corrals barriers were in place to maintain proper lines without pushing and shoving, since most Americans do not know how to queue. There was no need and no waiting. Three employees and only one could have handled the client traffic and still have time to provide excellent customer service.
“Sir, there is one problem, your one piece of luggage is overweight by fifteen pounds. Your other piece is over by six. You will have to get rid of some of it or pay an extra tariff of $90.00” said the ticket agent. A cornucopia of thoughts stormed my mind “I have had a weight problem all of my life, why should my baggage be any different. Besides after the experience with my father, I have even more extra baggage to cart around. You think it is a problem for you? What do you think I have to deal with? You only need to get it to London, but I have had to carry it around for years. God only knows when I will be able to dump some of it.” My more rational mind looked at Ron and said, “We are reading furiously and dumping books along the way. It will be cheaper to replace them than it will to ship them back home.” He never thought he would hear those words pass my lips that I would want to leave books behind. Then we set to lighten six pounds from one suitcase. If it was going to cost $90 extra, we wanted to really get our monies worth from the one heavy bag.
The agent continued with “Sir, we can get you on an earlier flight to Charlotte and not that it matters, but I would suggest you take it.” If it did not matter, why did he suggest we take it? Ignorance is bliss sometimes and I did not want to know. I don’t think Ron did either, since he did not question it until we had our tickets in our hand. We agreed to take the earlier flight and went out for a cigarette. My mind was again racing. I just e-mailed everyone with the flight information. Was this the right thing to do or not. Would we be saved from disaster by changing or were we putting ourselves in harm’s way by taking this flight. So many things left to chance and no one to give a definitive answer. What if our plane was a dangerous situation and everyone thought we were okay because I said we were on a different one? What if no one noticed that I had stopped writing? That was a worse thought.
No one at the airport was smiling: not the airline employees, not the travelers, not the security personnel. While we were outside, all of the curbside check-in stands were void of employees, though there probably would not have been enough passengers to warrant their salary anyway. There were three skycaps standing by the door talking. Their new role was questionable, as we did not see them doing any work. Their repeated concerns about this being one of the airports where an airline was hijacked from, did not add to our sense of security. Ron and I just looked at each other wordlessly. They were worried they would be cross-trained as security personnel.
When it was time to board, the ticket agent called for those that needed extra assistance boarding and the First Class passengers. This consisted of three people. The frequent flyers with Gold, Platinum or Silver status were next, but no one budged. Rows 25 to 31 were next and again the line was short. Then she called for all other passengers to please board. The plane was a MD-80. Thirty-one rows back with three seats on one side and two on the other. There were no more than 50 people on the plane. Confidence is not returning with any rapid speed in the airline industry.
We arrived in Charlotte, now with four hours to spare, we decided to stop at a Chili’s Restaurant for a meal, not knowing if you would get anything substantial on the next flight. There have been talks about cutting meals on the airlines, due to the risks of using silverware and to save money since they are all hurting financially. Ron ordered a large hamburger and I had a Philadelphia steak sandwich. Both were dripping with juice, onions and mine had roasted peppers. Both were left uncut and fully unmanageable in this state. We flagged the waitress for a couple of knives to cut our sandwiches, but were informed they no longer had knives, not even in the kitchen. It was a challenge to say the least to heave a 12 inch roll to one’s mouth when the hinged side of the roll was saturated with juice and filling was free falling to the platter. Fortunately, they trusted us with forks. The second challenge was to cut the fries that had to have come from the world’s largest potatoes. We had never seen fries so long before, or maybe it just seemed so since we did not have a knife to cut them. I couldn’t help but wonder what Miss Manners would do in this situation?
The flight to London’s Gatwick airport was uneventful. They did provide meals and the silverware was plastic. Although there was a knife, there was no spoon, which made eating the yogurt at breakfast a real trial. We arrived on time at 8:10 am local time on September 27th. It took longer to get through Passport Control then it has in any other country we have been to. It seems that those that were of color were kept at the counter longer than others and there were a large number of people of color. After having a large coffee in the airport, we gathered our things and took a train to Victoria station. From there we had to take the tube or subway to Brixton. The hassles were where there were no escalators or elevators. We each have a bag that is at least 70 pounds, plus each of us has our 30 pound carry-on and I had my computer equipment on a backpack. Even with wheels, these things are a chore. At Brixton, we walked about 10 blocks to the bed and breakfast. We are certain our arms have been stretched at least two inches in the process.
Our bed and breakfast is a lovely converted house and very nicely decorated with a small sofa, bed, private bath and breakfast bar in our room. The neighborhood does not seem to be the most upscale, but it will be safe during the daytime hours. We needed a two hour nap after getting settled in and thought we would try to stay up to assimilate to the local time. There was an e-mail waiting for us from our new friends, Nick and Yolande. They are one of the couples that we met on our cruise on the Nile. They wanted to get together in London since they had invited us to stay with them an hour outside of London, but had declined their kind offer, or to be more honest, with all the problems lately had completely forgotten about it. Mental note to selves: Call them tomorrow.
Around the corner from our B&B is the Hobgoblin Pub and Wychwood Brewery. This was our first authentic pub experience. We sat out in the beer garden, the weather was lovely and in the mid 70’s. Of course, we had our first homeless person sit with us and chat. He seemed to be a very intelligent young man of Jamaican and English background. He story went that he was studying fine arts when he found his girlfriend in bed with someone else and lost his will to continue. Same Social Workers, different setting. Does it ever end? : ) He did offer his condolences when he found out we were Americans, then gave us the low down on what exhibits were available at what galleries around town. He also gave us advice about theft in the area. His name is Dean and he was very entertaining to speak with, but the pub owner did not think so and asked him to leave the property. We spoke in his defense that he was not bothering us, but it seems he has a history there, so has not been welcomed. Across the street is a little Jamaican restaurant that was inexpensive, so we decided to try a meal there. We each had Jerk Chicken, which was quite good, but this was the first time I had ever eaten in a restaurant where I have never been spoken to by the staff. No one said one word from the time we walked in to the time we left. We knew they had voices as they spoke with each other. When we walked by the first time, the restaurant was empty and it was the same when we ventured in. One would have thought that they would be grateful for the business. They may have been, but we will never know it.
We went back to the room where Ron watched a movie and I fought off the Sand Man. At around 9:00, the phone rang. I thought for sure it was our first wrong number in England, but a pleasant surprise, it was Nick and Yolande. We are meeting them for dinner tomorrow night.
Relaxation time starts now!
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