airplane

New York, Part I

Wife and I went to New York (and Boston) back in June, so what better time for a patented Wombat Travel Blog. In the past, I’ve done this two ways: writing and posting what we did each day (the “Live Blog” approach), and waiting till the end to post one big summary.

This one will be a hybrid. There was a lot to do, little free time, and as an added bonus, this trip was sans in-laws, so it had alcohol! So I’ll be up front and admit that I’m writing a lot of this after I’m already home. And I intended to get it out quicker, but it’s grown past 15,000 words, so that took a while. But I’ll still split it up into five somewhat chronological and/or logical daily(-ish) posts, giving the faux-impression that it’s live. Hopefully it’s no more confusing than my usual fare.

But yeah, I know “Welcome to Margaritaville” has been closed for weeks and Pride happened a month ago.

As background, Wife’s never been to New York. I went there twice before. But the last time I was here, there were two giant identical towers on the southern edge of the island. I’m guessing nothing’s changed since the nineties, right?They don’t randomly, like, build 50-story buildings on a whim, right?

Oh hey, look what’s going up across the street from our hotel:

plane

One more caveat: We left the child at home with the in-laws. She made us take her giraffe stuffed animal with us. So most of our touristy pictures will feature not us, but a stuffed giraffe. Enjoy!

Flight Redeye. Nuff said. We got a “free upgrade” to the emergency exit row. Not sure how, not sure why. They just called our name over the loudspeaker and asked if we’d be willing to open the door if need-be. I said sure. I know they try to sell those seats as an upgrade, so maybe if they can’t sell them, they give them away. But how do you pick the two people in a plane of 150 for the free upgrade.

Even better, we went from the fourth boarding group to the first. More time to get on that midnight flight and promptly fall asleep. Oh crap, I have to stay awake through the drill so I can answer “yes” when the flight attendant asks if I’m willing to open the fucking door. I’ve been through this rigmarole before. You can’t just nod, you have to say “yes.” To prove you know English. Because, as we all know,  “yes” is one of the last words anybody learns in English. It is the true barometer of English comprehension.If you can say the word “yea,” you are certainly capable of following complex instructions while plummeting toward your death amongst 150 other people similarly circumstanced and taking it all wonderfully in stride.

I read a book to keep me awake until the obligatory “yes,” and when I went to put it away, the seatback in front of me was way too far to reach. So I just put the book on my lap. And nothing helps you get to sleep faster than constantly being worried that you’re going to drop your book. Eventually I tucked it in next to my body.

But here’s the rub. If I’m planning on sleeping the whole flight, the extra foot room doesn’t do me much good. If anything, it made it a bit awkward. The seat in front of me will usually prevent me from slumping too much. Without that natural cocoon, I wasn’t really sure how to position my body to get comfortable. Do I sit straight up, with my legs stretched out in front? Do I curl up and tuck the legs under? Do I open my legs in a whore-pose? I didn’t know then and I still don’t know.

Also, my original “ungraded” seat was a window seat. I had booked it that way so I could lean up against the fuselage to sleep. My wife was similarly planning on leaning against me, but now neither of us had support to the side, and instead we both just lie there like a couple of unwrapped mummies. Plus, now I was in the aisle, so any time my elbow went into the aisle, someone brushed against it.

And all of a sudden I was wondering if my original seat was still available. I bet the rat bastards that were originally in this seat paid extra for a chance at sleep! And dammit, the plane didn’t even crash so I didn’t even get to open the door! Of all the luck.

So while I don’t entirely believe in the accuracy of my Fitbit at tracking my sleep when I’m in and out of consciousness, according to it, I slept one hour and three minutes on my overnight flight to New York. Can we say “refreshing vacation?”

At least Giraffe got some sleep:

sleeping.jpg

AirTrain

After we landed, it was a chore just getting to where our New York experience could begin. We had to take the “AirTrain” from JFK airport to the subway station, then ride the subway into Manhattan with somewhere between one and three transfers, depending on how well I’m reading this map. The AirTrain doesn’t really go anywhere other than the subway, but it still is counts as its own entity with an entirely different ticketing system. We waited maybe ten minutes for the first train.

When the train finally arrived, naturally everyone flocked in. Then some dude got off the arriving train and waved us all away from getting inside. He kinda, sorta looked official, because he was wearing a red coat and who would wear a red coat unless it was required by the job? Plus he seemed to have a walkie-talkie sort of contraption.

Anyway, when he comes out of the front of the train and does his big wavy-hand, don’t-go-in-this-train move, some patrons had already started to sneak into the other three doors of the train. So red-coat dude follows some of those patrons in and shoos them back out onto the platform. Like “C’mon patrons, why the fuck would you just be walking onto a commuter train like that? Don’t you know you gotta be invited first?” This maybe takes two to three minutes. Then we’re all standing there in front of an empty AirTrain, doors wide open, wondering if this is some prank.

Dude talks into his walkie-talkie, gets an answer that seems to please him, then announces that this train is going to Howard Beach. Well shit. There are two spots to catch the subway, and Howard Beach was not the subway that would get me to where I wanted to go. In fact, only about ten percent of the people standing around are going to Howard Beach. They get on the train, red-coat dude goes into the train and pushes a button, then hops back out onto the platform with us and sends the poor souls off to their doom.

At least that’s what I’m guessing. It definitely seemed like a super-villain move.

After that, trains started coming more frequently. And I know they started coming more frequently, because I had to wait for three more of them. The next one, red-coat dude announces, is an inter-terminal train, so it’ll only go around in a loop and never make it to the subway station. The next train, wouldn’t you know it, is another fucking Howard Beach one. But at least this time I can verify it because the electronic sign that had previously just said a very ambiguous “Inter-terminal and Howard Beach and Jamaica Station trains all run on this platform” is now actually saying “Approaching train is a Howard Beach train.” That key piece of information was missing for the past fifteen minutes. We had only a red-coated, walkie-talkied dude to base our information on. And I’m not saying I don’t believe him, I’m just saying in this day and age, I believe the HAL that programs the digital instructions sign a little more than a fallible human.

BART always says what train is approaching and how long you have to wait for the one you actually want, by the way. Probably more on that tomorrow.

So twenty minutes and four trains after arriving on the platform, we’re finally on our way to Jamaica Station. Along with a shit-ton of other commuters.

And this is where the fun begins.

There’s no ticket booth at JFK, so you pay when you get off the AirTrain at the subway station. I guess I understand this policy. The inter-terminal train needs to be free, and the government wouldn’t want to make them accidentally pay for something they don’t need, right? Man, the government HATES when people overpay for things. That’s why taxes are so easy to file.

Unfortunately for me, whereas I could have bought at a leisurely pace while waiting the twenty minutes for our train, now all 150 people had to purchase their exit ticket at the exact same time. There were four ticket machines.

Now I’m totally admitting what happened next was my fault. I could have slowly taken my time to ensure I wasn’t making a mistake. I could’ve told all the people jostling for position behind me to go fuck the right off. I should not be susceptible to peer pressure. But I’m also the guy who looks in his rearview mirror every time I have to make a left turn, and if there are cars behind me, I’m gunning a much narrower gap.

So, while puffing out my back to protect myself from the Black Friday crush behind me, I selected which ticket I wanted to buy. I selected AirTrain. The next screen asked if I wanted to buy a discounted 10-trip ticket. With ten people clearing their throats behind me, I quickly thought it would be a good idea. I had just been looking into subway discounts, such as 7-days, unlimited rides for $32. So when I saw “Would you like to buy 10 discounted trips for $25?” I thought, Sure!

Do you see my error? Yeah. I just bought ten trips on the AirTrain, NOT the Subway. Because I’m clearly going back to the airport eight more times in my five days here… Fuck.

Well, I figured, maybe an MTA card is an MTA card and this one will allow me to get into the Subway anyway, right? Wrong. This ticket allowed me to exit the AirTrain portion and not a damn thing more.

So then I had to buy an actual subway ticket to complete my journey. Woo-hoo!  My first hour in New York, I hadn’t even made it outside of a protected environment yet, and I’d already spent a frivolous twenty bucks on something I didn’t even need.

Bring on Saks 5th Avenue!

Transportation Shithole Assheads

As many of you know, I recently went on a trip to Hawaii.

But this post isn’t about Hawaii, per se.

This post is about to most wonderful part of any travel adventure: the Transportation Safety Administration.

This was the first “long haul” flight I’ve been on in a while, what with a three-year old and all. But I’ve had plenty of short and long trips throughout my life, both before and after 9/11, both with and without a small human in tow. I know the TSA and its procedures well enough. And they’re utter bullshit.

This time through the anal-probe carousel that is Security Clearance, the agent was nice enough to give my daughter a sticker. I have suspicions as to why this time, her eight or tenth time flying, she was gifted a sticker, but at this juncture, I’ll just mention the form of the sticker:

Hawaii TSA

How fitting. Of course she’s a junior TSA agent. Isn’t every toddler? She rifles through bags that don’t belong to her, not bothering to put back or refold any displaced items. She makes arbitrary, continuously-changing rules with little basis in reality or logic. The consequences for breaking said rules, however, are dire. She is also prone to some inappropriate tantrums and is entirely unaware of personal space.

One time I was flying on Christmas and the TSA unwrapped one of the presents in my checked luggage. It was a cookbook. They placed the torn-open wrapping paper inside the front cover of the book. Hopefully you sleep better at night knowing that pancake recipes aren’t falling into the hands of terrorists.

My biggest problem with the TSA is the lack of consistency from one airport to the next. In Sacramento, I have to remove my laptop and my kindle from my carry-on bag and put each in its own bin. In San Diego, laptops come out, but tablets stay in. On a recent trip out of Orange County, all of them could stay in the bag. Same airport, different time? No.

I take back my earlier comment. My three-year old is way more consistent. Her make-believe ice cream stand seems to have squid ice cream every time I ask for it.

I thought the whole point of federalizing airport security was for consistency. If what is allowed or not allowed is based on the whims of the high-school dropout hoping to see ladies’ boobs at the MRI machine, then we might as well return the process to local control.

On a recent trip out of Sacramento, I was asked if I had any food in my carry-on. Food? I know about liquids, but when did food become an issue? The agent said food was allowed, but they would have to take it out of my bag and open it or cut into it in order to make sure it’s legitimate food. My aunt in Southern California has an avocado tree and I was planning on returning with many avocados. If the jackasses cut into each one, that would greatly reduce the amount of time they would be of use to me.

Fortunately, the return trip was out of Ontario, so no mention was made of food. Also, this did not come up the next time I flew out of Sacramento. So terrorists, if there’s some new food-based plan of attack, don’t try to get it on a plane in Sacramento. They might or might not be onto you, depending on who’s working. The other 5,000 airports seem to have missed that memo, though.

Part of it might be personal. You see, I have an Irish last name and a relatively common first name. Which means there’s an IRA terrorist with the same name as me. Hooray!

For most of the 2000s, this meant I was often “randomly selected” for additional screening. Often at the gate. Nothing’s worse than being pulled out of the “first come, first seated” Southwest line and watching all of the window seats passing me down the tunnel.

It happened often enough that I started to wonder if it wasn’t all that “random.” Not that the government would lie to us or anything. But maybe I was being singled out because I was a twenty-something male, traveling alone, usually without any checked luggage. Or maybe it was because I had ordered a copy of “Triumph of the Will,” the Nazi propaganda film, for use in my classroom.

But it was really just fun and games until airlines started using those kiosks and online check-in. You see, Mister IRA-name can’t use either of those methods. Mister IRA-name needs to physically hand his ID to a real-life human being. How many of THOSE do you see at the airline desks these days?

Thankfully, a Southwest Agent (not a TSA agent, mind you) finally told me one time that it wasn’t my Nazi film or my demographics, but my name that was tagged. The Irish terrorist is thirty years older than me, so just seeing my birthdate was enough. I started booking with my middle name and have never had a problem since. Which is nice, because these days, if you can’t check in 23 hours, 50 minutes early, you’re going to being sitting in a middle seat.

With my curiosity piqued, I googled my name and learned more about the OTHER guy. He killed a cop in Belfast while escaping from jail. Yikes. Except it also appears that his whereabouts are fully known. You know, the whole Good Friday Agreement and “What’s a little car bomb amongst friends?” He still lives in Belfast. Meaning it probably ain’t him boarding a flight to Burbank.

But whatever, TSA, good job protecting us from British separatists. Wait, did the IRA want to leave or stay in Britain? I don’t remember. I’m American, and we try to ignore white terrorists. But the 3/8 Irish in me says, “Go Catholics! (or Protestants) Get rid of those rat-bastard Protestants! (Or Catholics) Semper fi, motherfuckers!”

Semper fi is gaelic, right?

All of this talk of “random screenings” and excessive scrutiny brings me back to my recent trip to Hawaii. We got the magical TSA Pre-Check designation. I had assumed I was ineligible, but it turns out that, as long as I’m not the first name on the reservation, it’s all good. “Right this way, Mrs. Smith and your husband, Mr. Bin Laden.”

The reason I could pre-check on this flight was because my in-laws, who booked the reservation, have paid for the privilege of pre-check. And if you’re willing to give money to the government, then you are clearly one of the “good guys.”

So I was prepared for an expedited security process with the TSA Pre-Check. But I figured it would be faster because there were fewer people in front of us. And that was part of it. But wait, there’s more! If you order in the next fifteen minutes, you get…

I was allowed to leave my laptop in my bag. No questions about food. No standing spread-eagle and holding my breath while the perv behind the screen checks out my junk. And, are you sitting down for this last one? I was able to keep my shoes on.

What the fuck? Aren’t shoes non-negotiable? Isn’t the shoe the single most-used weapon in the entire history of hijacking?

No? It was only one attempt made by one dude one time? And it failed? Hmm. Does the TSA know that?

Regardless, how the hell does the purchasing of a security clearance mean I don’t have explosives in my shoe? Wouldn’t someone with the resources to turn a shoe into a bomb also have the resources to pay for pre-check? And, to repeat, we only had to go through the metal detector, not the MRI, and I don’t think C-4 triggers a metal detector.

And maybe my in-laws had to go through some additional screening to get a pre-check validation. But I sure as hell did not. And I don’t even think you have to be a citizen in good standing, because my brother-in-law is British and I’m pretty sure he gets pre-check.

And I know, there is really nothing more American than”money = good.” It is a practice going back over a century, when first- and second-class passengers were able to go through quick look-overs on the ship, while the steerage (human cattle) class had to endure hours of lines and inspections and possible quarantine at Ellis Island.

Not at Angel Island, mind you. Those immigrants were not white, so they ALL had to go through the lines and inspections and quarantine. Wasn’t it Chester A. Arthur that wondered aloud why we have to let in immigrants from a bunch of shithole countries? No? Was it a more recent president?

I hate to go all populist, Occupy loser here, but seriously, what is it about poor people’s shoes and laptops that make them more likely to be used as weapons?

It’s either that, or the TSA would still be able to detect weapons with laptops in bags and shoes on feet. But if that’s the case, why do the riff-raff still have to do the whole rigmarole?

It has to be a marketing ploy. I assume fewer people would buy the pre-check if they still had to do the shoes and the computer thing. And of course, the only thing the government cares more about than curtailing our liberties protecting us is money. So if a terrorist hijacks a plane but there’s a new park in Tulsa, everyone’s cool with that trade-off, right?

All I know is that, if the government treated everyone the way they treat the rich, we’d all be making it through security in a matter of minutes. But would we feel safe if we went through security too fast? Because the TSA’s job is only to make us feel safer, not actually protect us.

If I have to take off my shoes, then cure up the Louis Armstrong, because it’s a wonderful world.

Unless I paid a lot for those shoes. Those shoes stay on. Membership has its privileges, and everybody’s happy.

Including my daughter. She got a fucking sticker!

We never got that kind of kickback in steerage class.