Some days are meant for waiting. There seems to be very little other point to them. But if you’re lucky, somewhere in the endless minutes stretching formlessly into each other, you stumble across something that truly startles you.
Today was one of those hurry-up-and-wait days. I got up at 3:30 to hurry to the Knoxville airport in order to meet my destiny in China. If everything had gone as planned, I would have been a couple of hours over the vast reaches of the Pacific by now–maybe not all the way to Hawaii, but getting there. Instead I am in a tiny hotel room in Chicago, having wined and dined myself–okay, it was onion soup and salad–on the largesse of a penitent–okay, it’s not so penitent–United Airlines.
United has had a tough few weeks. If you remember, it was only a few weeks ago that the video surfaced of United employees dragging a passenger who did not want to yield his seat to a quartet of other United colleagues. Then something else came up, I forget what, and today, well, TODAY, United managed to crowd dozens of people into an airplane that had an engine that refused to start. Now those airplanes have two engines, and I am assured by my pilot friend that you can fly perfectly well on one, but what you can’t apparently do is cool the passenger section with the energetic product of one engine. So as we waited to take off, some people noticed it getting hotter and hotter inside. Several hopeful announcements later (“Ladies and gentlemen, we are having some minor technical difficulties but they’ll be resolved soon”), we were told we must disembark. to waiting area C-15. So we did, not complaining. Perfectly cheerful, in fact. We went tamely to another waiting area, C-9.
Sixty-five minutes later, we all began getting notices on our cellphones. A middle-aged man was the first to speak: “They’re getting us another plane.” A corporate sigh of relief. Departure would take place in another 40 minutes, from waiting area C-15 again.
An hour later, the rumor was flying: “They don’t have a pilot.” Departure was pushed back another 30 minutes. Then it appeared it was the plane at area C-9 that didn’t have a pilot, except it did, or it didn’t. Several confused passengers headed down that way.
Twenty-five minutes later, we could all see a flummoxed-looking crew in orange jumpsuits outside the plane. The pilot’s window was open, as if he had decided to slide down the body of the plane and go get a beer. United told us, “We’re still working on the air-conditioning.” So there had never been a new plane. This was the same plane whose engine had not worked in the morning. Somehow that realization was not reassuring. I wasn’t so sure I wanted the plane to ever revive.
By this time, my feet were sore from standing in an absolutely pointless queue, but that didn’t stop me and probably 50 other people from standing in it. We made small talk. I chatted with my neighbors, a keen-eyed retired United pilot and his dim but pleasant wife. I texted my boss, Is this what Hell is supposed to be?” He did not respond. Perhaps that’s not the kind of question bosses really are itching to respond to.
In the end, my own pilot friend, who cultivates his mystique as a man of action, located a flight for me that would leave next morning and advised me on how to wring the very last possible concessions from United for their crimes. I came out of it with this hotel room and $20 in meal vouchers.
As it turns out, this hotel has two restaurants. One, I can tell you, is overpriced. I don’t know about the other. However, I chose the one that wasn’t a sports bar and soon was spooning up a bowl of French onion soup and wrangling a salad. I still ended up owing $6 that wasn’t covered by the meal vouchers. But the soup and salad were palatable enough, though salty.
I was hungry and not observant, so it took me a minute to scope out my surroundings. It was all redly lit, with a vast floral carpet. A maitre-d’ with an unplaceable accent had guided me to a cocktail table, which he assured would be made ready for dinner in an instant, “like magic,” he winked. And true enough, a couple of young men brought over a curious table-top that had an imprint on the underside the exact size of the cocktail table, which they fitted over it and then draped with white linen. I was being served by a blonde Eastern European girl in a red-and-gold brocaded bathing suit; her set of admirable breasts bounced inside her bustier, and a fascinating little fringed apron was flirting with the top of her thighs. The faux gaslight globes, the massive (at least 15 feet across) crystal chandelier, and the 8-foot high paintings of Renaissance nudes lent the whole an air of Turkish Delight. The piano player was turning his four and a half years of instruction to good use, as his thin soprano quavered through the ’80s era pop songs he was torturing affectionately.
And then I really knew I was not in Knoxville anymore. Not in Shanghai, but definitely not in Knoxville.