8.13.2020

More photos from my romp around downtown channeling my mid-1970's black and white documentary persona. Cue the G9 once again. And a saga of the worst plane flight home EVER.

 


I love trying new (old) stuff with my G9. The walk I took last week with the G9+60mm f1.5 lens and the camera set to L. Monochrome yielded some of my favorite architectural photos of the Summer. Not aiming for technical perfection but working toward a style is a mentally freeing experience in which one can just sample the scene in front of the camera and try to assemble the pieces of the puzzle in interesting ways. I do find that I play more when I'm knowingly and obviously photographing in black and white.

When I see the mostly empty streets of Austin and look around at the masked people, whose underlying faces hold so much unleashable photographic potential I start pining to take a trip somewhere else. Some place where well dressed men and women converge socially without masks and with knowing and informed expressions. Sitting at serious caf├ęs together, sipping serious coffees and making nuanced small talk. And I would chance by with my little camera all preset to make the perfect exposure...

And then I remind myself that not all parts of travel are so pretty. To quench my misguided and rose colored memories of the glories of travel I have only to remind myself of the worst plane flight/travel experience I have ever had....

We'd just finished a corporate trade show with an IBM subsidiary in Lisbon, Portugal. I was traveling home with two hefty cases of gear and some carry on. I was excited to be heading home because on the day after I was scheduled to arrive back at the house my wife and I had tickets to take our three year old son to see the circus for the very first time...

When I got to the check in counter in the Lisbon airport there was the usual back and forth about the two, large Pelican cases I needed to check. The United agent insisted that they were too large and too heavy and couldn't be checked at all. Which flew in the face of their own rules and necessitated that we get a supervisor involved. After a bit of wrangling and the onset of anxiety about missing my flight altogether we "negotiated" a higher bag fee. It was pure usury and I resented it strongly. But I would have resented even more having to abandon thousands of dollars worth of camera gear. I paid the fees hoping that my client wouldn't bulk at the added cost. 

When I looked at my itinerary I was depressed to find that I'd become a victim yet again of some cost cutting corporate bean counting travel pro from the client side. Instead of a two jump return flight (Lisbon to Miami; Miami to Austin) I was booked on a painful excursion that would in the end take nearly forever and cover almost double that mileage. My ticket had me booked from Lisbon to London, where I would have a long lay over, and then on to Chicago where I would have a very, very short layover and then on to Austin. Of course it didn't work out very well. 

The flight to London was passable. The plane was crowded and even though corporate employees were entitled to fly business class overseas the same courtesy was never extended to contractors who were, of course, welcome to upgrade to business class at their own cost. I didn't want to suck up nearly $9,000 extra dollars for the flights so I crouched in my middle seat, in a middle row of a very large and noisy plane. 

London is always a mess. It was worse back then. When you arrived you de-boarded and were shepherded into buses that move you from one terminal to another with a pass through customs and immigration. Then into a great hall filled with seedy shops and duty free shops but a strange paucity of decent, and decently priced, restaurants. 

As has become routine for me and Heathrow, my flight out was delayed for hours and hours. I was already exhausted from eight days of dawn-to-midnight-shooting and at that point might have considered paying a fortune for some place in which to lie down and take a nap. But that didn't exist. 

Finally we were called to our flight and we lined up to take our places for the great transAtlantic journey. My seat was mid-plane and I felt fortunate to be sitting on one side (the left) and sharing seats with only two other passengers. One was plump and grumpy and seemed to have carry-on parcels everywhere. They overflowed like the fake lava of a child's model volcano. The person on the other side (yes! Middle seat, arggggg.) was gaunt, unnaturally quiet and looked pale, perhaps a bit...ill. 

The flight over the ocean was typical. No one got too drunk and no one raged about the cabin making deranged political announcements. The food service was slow and sloppy and felt less like "service" and more like "punishment" for those having the temerity to actually purchase "economy class" tickets. 

We arrived in the Chicago area around four in the afternoon but we did not land. Instead we circled the two hundred miles surrounding the airport for nearly three hours waiting for a band of huge thunderstorms to abate. At a certain point the continual right hand turns started to make many of the children on board air sick. Finally, our captain decided that we might run out of jet fuel before the weather actually cleared and we were re-routed to the airport in Toronto, Canada. 

We made a bumpy landing (sorry kids!) in a rain storm there and then taxied to a gate....which we were not permitted to use. The plane's captain came onto the intercom and explained that if we exited the plane we would all have to go through customs and immigration to get to the restrooms and the food courts and that there were no planned agents available. Not to worry, he assured us, we were going to refuel and get airborne soon!

Three hours later, darkness having descended over our Boeing 747, and the air getting stuffy and thick inside, the captain had someone deliver bad pizza to the plane to distribute amongst the now starving economy captives. The giant person next to me started to softly cry...

At this point, according to the schedule, I should have been home with my family having a fine dinner at one of our favorite restaurants and catching up on the events of the previous week and a half over a nice bottle of wine. We'd laugh as I told stories about some 'now funny' corporate mishap or another. But this was not in fate's plan for me this time.

The captain came back on the intercom around 9 p.m. and suggested that we "might" be getting ready to continue our flight to Chicago but warned us that the weather had "messed up" a lot of the connecting flights and that there might be a lot of people trapped in the terminals...

He was so right. We finally arrived a little after midnight. By this time I'd been traveling for over 18 hours but we weren't done yet. 

We arrived to an airport in which all the amenities, shops and restaurants were closed up tight. We made a long and painful slog through the entry formalities before entering into a scene of travel madness. Thousands and thousands of stranded passengers. Some slept on their luggage and others begging whoever would answer the phones at Unitied to help them get on a flight. Any flight.

I saw the situation was hopeless so I started calling too. Finally, I found a United agent and asked him about hotel accommodations. He agreed that they airline would arrange for hotel and a meal but let me know that all the hotels within a twenty five mile radius of the airport were sold out. At one in the morning, with no guarantee of a flight later in the day, I was willing to take a hotel room outside that magic circle. 

After a long, long shuttle ride I checked into an ancient Chicago area hotel that looked so much like a scene from Blade Runner. I hauled up two Pelican cases and my luggage to a room on the fifth floor and checked in. The room hadn't been made up but I was willing to put my Pelican cases end to end and sleep on them, using my suit coat as a blanket. 

Within ten minutes of checking in a loud and very physical fight started in the room next to mine and two or three men punctuated the fight noise by screaming, in turns, "You cheating M. F._______er! I'm going to kill you."  Some one got thrown against a wall and when I heard someone say, "Watch out! He's got a knife!" I decided that my insistence on a hotel room was misguided and that this might be my cue to get back in a shuttle, any shuttle, and head back to the airport. 

I dragged the cases backdown the hall and waited, with no little trepidation, for the ancient elevator to come and rescue me from homicidal chaos. And I was very, very hungry. 

The hotel arranged a nice, 4 a.m. shuttle for me and about five other guests who had come to believe that there rooms were also part of a remake of Taxi Driver, and we took the long ride back to the place from which airplanes are supposed to land and take off. 

I stepped carefully around the various piles of people noisily "luggage sleeping" and planted myself next to the gate from which the mythical Austin flight of the morning was supposed to originate. Hours and hours later an agent showed up and as gray daylight oozed in across the piles of airport refugees I began pleading my case with the jacketed dream killer they call: gate agent.

The flights for the next two days were fully booked. I was crestfallen. I asked if they could check on avails for other airlines and the gate agent just gave me a withering look and then gazed over my shoulder at the long line forming. At that moment good fortune smiled on me. A couple walked over and asked the gate agent if they could give me one of their spaces on the flight. They decided to take advantage of the airline's offer to give up seats in exchange for some credits and a nice stay at a local hotel (not my most recent, I hoped). The gate agent relented and got me onto the flight. It was also delayed. 

At this point I was able to scrounge the airport for my first food since the frozen pizza on the tarmac at Toronto. What I found turned out to be a very stale bagel, some iffy cream cheese and a cup of lukewarm coffee. Just a perfect micro-encapsulation of my last 24 hours. 

I arrived in Austin a day and a half late but figured I had time to make it to the circus. I called Belinda from a payphone (the days before universal cell phone service) and arranged to meet at the Performing Event Center at UT. She would bring Ben and the circus tickets. I would show up in a wrinkled and distressed business suit. I'd parked my car at the airport so I dragged the now one ton apiece cases along and put them in the trunk. I started up the car and headed west.

It was 104° at 1:30 pm on the day of the circus. Thankfully, the show was inside an air conditioned space! We waited outside for 20-30 minutes with me progressively dying of thirst and heat exhaustion. When we got in and got seated I went to look for water. The vendors had giant Cokes instead. 

At some point, after the circus started, I must have fallen asleep. Or descended into a light coma. The next thing I remember is a very tiny and young Ben tugging on my sleeve saying in his most excited voice, "Wake up, Daddy!!! ELEPHANTS!!!!!!!"  I wouldn't have missed it for the world. It was good to be home.

So, on days like today, when I pine for places filled with fun people to photograph and ancient buildings to put seductively in the backgrounds, followed by infusions of near perfect cappuccinos, I just remember that dreadful and endless trip back to the circus and I'm just fine sitting in my spacious and airy office watching the deer gambol on the front yard. I can learn to make nice coffee.....