A chapter in an occasional series of posts documenting an autumn 2021 road trip through the Midwest.
September 10, 2021
I’m relaxing, if relaxation is actually possible, in the Delta Airlines boarding area at Oakland International Airport, known in airport-speak as simply, OAK.
At the airport, relaxation is an earned and short lived luxury. There’s a gauntlet to get through before you can put your feet up and read, or take the edge off with an overpriced, undersized cocktail in which the main ingredient, the one that takes the edge off, is often metered by an infernal invention called the precision pour. Bartenders at the airport lounge are not usually given any license to be generous, a constraint cursed by thirsty travelers, cherished by harried flight attendants, and let’s be honest, born of reasonable common sense.
Given COVID’s flighty, on again, off again nature and the dearth of pilots, attendants and every other body charged with getting an airliner in the air and safely back on the ground, a short lived airport stopover can, in the click on an airline app notification, become a protracted, patience sucking ordeal.
Update. Flight 3456 scheduled out of OAK at 0800 has been canceled. You have been automatically rebooked on flight 6789 which is scheduled to depart OAK at 18:10. We’re sorry for the inconvenience. Thank you for choosing our airline.
As airports go, OAK is a runt, which to my way of thinking isn’t a bad thing. It’s certainly smaller than San Francisco International (SFO) but then just about anything Oakland is smaller than its San Francisco counterpart, if not in size then in stature. Sorry Oakland, but someone has to play the supporting role.
OAK marks the starting point of my extended Midwest road trip, but the road part doesn’t begin until I deplane in Omaha, Nebraska (known in airport acronym speak as OMA). .
Starting the drive from home would be ideal but covering the 1600 miles between home and the approximate beginning of the Midwest will add more time to the planned four to six weeks than I’m willing to ask of my wife.
Cora has given the green light to my little fool’s errand of taking a solo driving trip with no itinerary beyond finding a random place on a map, driving there, and then repeating the process over the course of six weeks.
She’d likely acquiesce to an extra two weeks but I’m not willing to pile on the extra two weeks of worry she’ll have to carry.
Omaha wasn’t my initial choice. Early on a friend suggested flying into Omaha and my first impulse was to reject it. I’d been through Nebraska just a few months prior, actually grazing the edge of Omaha, and I was looking for something new.
I really had no initial choice as I seesawed between several starting points.
I gave Chicago’s O’Hare the briefest consideration. It offers the most in the way of flight options but I have no desire to negotiate the O’Hare labyrinth. Years ago I made the decision to try to avoid behemoth airports and stick to the smaller ones when possible. Airports such as OAK.
I have an aversion to big airports that require making a miles long, forced march through jostling throngs in order to get to a connecting flight or the baggage carousel.
I will say this about O’Hare; it does have a lot to offer – that is if you’re in search of a shopping mall. At O’Hare you can buy sunglasses at Oakley or a suit at Brooks Brothers and then have lunch at a Rick Bayless or a Wolfgang Puck creation. No thanks, it’s the airport, I’m (hopefully) just passing through.
With O’Hare eliminated I considered Cincinnati, Iowa City and Des Moines. I even entertained Pittsburgh, even though that would officially have me landing east of the Midwest.
After pouring over the atlas for what must have been the hundredth time I took a closer look at Omaha.
Omaha is just across the Missouri River from Council Bluffs, Iowa.
It doesn’t get any more Midwest than Iowa. What are the first things that come to mind when you hear, “Midwest?”
That’s right, corn and…Iowa.
Iowa just screams Midwest.
Even the airport’s name drew me in. That’s because it’s not called an airport nor is it called the Omaha International Airport. The airport in Omaha goes by the unpretentious name, Eppley Airfield. When I see the word “airfield” I think, “compact.” I think of those little general aviation airfields out in the suburbs. Neither Wolfgang or the brothers Brooks would ever deign to be seen at something called a mere “airfield.” Even Starbucks, which has no shame at all, would demur.
My original idea was to depart on a flight home from a different airport. Pittsburgh? Cincinnati? Cleveland? I even looked into Lexington, Kentucky and Wheeling, West Virginia.
The issue was easily settled when I discovered that rental car drop off fees are extortionate.
And so it came to pass, arrive at Eppley and depart from Eppley.
A month before departure I bought a one way ticket to Omaha and, figuring it would be easier to return a rental car early rather than try to extend the term while on the road, I reserved a car for seven weeks.
Back at the Delta boarding area in OAK, it’s early, way early, far ahead of departure time but that’s the way I like it. I would rather get up at the crack of dawn and get to the airport well before boarding an early flight out.
Ninety minutes in the boarding area by far beats the alternative of arriving late and then shuffling anxiously in place in the TSA line, holding nervous farts at bay and worrying about my flight departing without me.
Getting in the TSA line is like visiting the dentist. It’s unpleasant but inevitable so why put it off?
Come to think of it, TSA is more inevitable than the dentist. You can live with a toothache (more or less) but you can’t get from curb to plane without going through TSA.
My early arrival paid off. The line of fidgety passengers was short.
While the line can be annoying and stressful, it’s what’s at the end of the line that’s really taxing. Here is where TSA goes to work.
It all starts with an agent checking your papers. Once satisfied that you’re who you claim to be the agent points you to a shorter line that leads to a conveyor belt and a mountain range of gray plastic bins. It’s at this place that there is no calm, only storm. It’s here that you grab a few of the plastic bins and frenetically, because you don’t want to be that person holding up the line, partially disrobe and deposit your shoes, outerwear, wallet, loose change, camera, some lint balls from the bottom of your pocket, and of course, your phone which holds your electronic boarding pass and most of your identity.
“Sir, you have to take your laptop out of the case. Is that a camera bag? Open it please.”
Oh look, there’s an empty dog poop bag that you forgot to take out of your pocket after the morning walk. Yeah that goes in a gray bin also.
I arrived at the conveyor and apart from my physical self, damn near everything I am went into the bins, onto the belt, and into the mouth of the X-ray tunnel.
In an act of faith as strong and abiding as any belief that there’s a deity looking down from the heavens, one hopes and prays that the X-ray tunnel will regurgitate your possessions and they will all be waiting for you at the other end.
The scanner, where you toe a line and put your hands over your head, is supposed to reveal anything from contraband such as balloons of cocaine in the stomach to a handkerchief in a back pocket.
When I passed through, there was nothing in my stomach besides a gallon of nervous acid and partially digested toast, but the agent did chide me for not putting my hankie, dried snot and all, into a gray bin.
Allegedly the scanner shows only a generic human outline and none of the dirty bits, or depending on who might be getting scanned, the good parts. I’m not at all concerned about a scanner giving the agent a peep show. I’m 68 and if she (or he) gets excited over looking at drooping balls then, well, have at it.
Most of the agents tend towards courteousness but every now and then you get the one who got too crispy bacon and cold coffee for breakfast and is taking it out on the flying public.
I realize that all of this is a good thing that beats being detonated at 20,000 feet but that doesn’t make the process any less stressful or inconvenient.
Time was when the airport was friendly and exciting. It was a place full of joyous people anticipating the adventures that awaited; a faraway land, sandy beaches, perhaps a big city, an important event, big opportunities, maybe even a new start in life.
The airport was the place where you left the ground bound behind to wallow in their envy.
And it still can be all of that.
You just have to cross the alkaline flats to get to the oasis.
After gathering my things and my composure and putting my shoes back on I made it to the boarding area. Coffee would’ve been nice but the line at Peet’s Coffee was longer than the TSA line.
And so, here I sit, on September 10th (because there’s just something about flying on September 11th), at the departure gate, dividing my time between reading and watching the carnival around me.
Scanning the airport boarding area I spy a panoply of the disheveled.
If it weren’t for the big airplane on the other side of the big window, I could imagine myself at any number of other places. I might be at a Walmart, or the gym, or a construction site, or even someone’s apartment at beddy-bye time. Hell, I could be in the midst of the cast of a Coen Brothers movie (or Fellini, for those of you of an older generation).
Baggy shorts, beach wear and flip-flops (for Omaha?), frowzy sweatpants, and the always popular and grossly out of place jammies (in one instance, complete with fuzzy slippers) have become the uniforms of the day at the airport.
It’s not as if I’m dressed for dining at a three star Michelin restaurant; clean jeans that don’t look like they were used as a target at shotgun practice, a collared shirt and denim jacket. I’m comfortable while retaining a measure of self respect.
There was a time when the accepted fashion on an airliner was a suit but that was long ago, negated by the need to strip in order to get to the plane. I used to wear a suit while flying because it was easier than packing it in a suitcase. I expected that during vacation I might be dining at a fine restaurant, but who wears a suit to anywhere other than funerals and job interviews?
I suppose that the slovenly airport fashion can be a handy thing. You can get a few extra minutes of sleep before leaving the house. Why actually dress when you can jump out of bed, hop right on an Uber and get on that big old jet airliner, all while still in your SpongeBob PJs?
As I scanned the fashion show it dawned on me that the last time that I’d worn a suit on a plane was on a flight from Rome to Los Angeles in October of 1981. Forty years, almost down to the month.
Looking up from my book I scan my fellow passengers laying mental odds as to which one will be throwing the ‘I’m not going to wear a mask and you can’t make me’ tantrum.
Could it be the aging hippie with blinding day-glow green shoes and matching shirt and shorts that highlights the bay window looming above his belt? Nah, he looks pretty mellow, if overly blinding. I suppose there’s a plus to that outfit. If the plane ditches in the ocean (unlikely since we’re going from OAK to OMA and there’s no available ocean to ditch in), the boys in the search helicopter should spot him first.
A guy wearing a sweatshirt promoting something called a 100 proof pickle party sits down next to me.
My inquiring mind wonders, what in the fuck is a pickle party?
Turning my phone so that he can’t see the screen, I Google, “pickle party” and “100 proof pickle party.”
Nothing about “100 proof,” but according to the internet, a pickle party is either a party in which the main course is pickles or “a gathering of four or more people with pickles in their mouths showing off how far they can throat the pickles.”
The former? Well, I like pickles as a condiment but the allure of pickles diminishes the closer they get to being the main fare.
The latter? A pickle throating contest? Has all the earmarks of a porn star training camp and/or an opportunity to practice the Heimlich.
Mister Pickle is wearing a mask so it’s doubtful that he’s going to start raving about Nazis violating his god given rights.
He even warns me, “I have to take off my mask in order to eat my sandwich but don’t worry, I’m fully vaccinated.”
“That’s fine. Go for it,” I respond. “Thank you for telling me.”
If there’s going to be an airport tantrum I’m putting my money on the scowling guy in the Las Vegas Raider gear who’s already flouting the mask rule, which is why I can tell that he’s wearing a scowl.
Why is it always the guys in Raider gear?
Okay it’s not always the guys in Raider gear. Hell it could be anyone. Maybe the elderly lady who looks like she stepped out of Norman Rockwell’s Thanksgiving painting will be the one to lose her shit. .
Why does anyone have an emotional detonation at the airport? This shit didn’t start with COVID. COVID just made it worse.
When did the airport go from a place of anticipation to the nut house?
Was it September 13th, 2001, when air travel resumed after Bin Laden and his associates changed the world forever? Was it after the shoe bomber forced us all to put our shoes on a conveyor belt and then step barefoot through a scanner? Maybe it was when the airlines made their corporate decisions to turn an airliner, which back in the day, had some measure of comfort, even in the cheap seats, into an airborne subway car at rush hour (The day they put hand straps on an airliner is the day that I stop flying).
It’s about fifteen minutes or so before boarding and already there’s a line forming at the gate. It’s not as if anyone really wants to settle into a seat that’s two sizes too small for the average butt.
This is the staging process for the rush to get the most coveted real estate on an airliner; a couple precious square feet of overhead bin space.
Apparently when the airlines decided it would be a good idea to wedge people together to maximize capacity and minimize comfort they didn’t account for the extra carry-on luggage that comes with more people.
And it isn’t as if the airlines are always strict about space limitations. I’ve seen the occasional gate agent give the green light to a carry-on that’s just a skosh smaller than a steamer trunk. Get the right gate agent and you could probably smuggle Jimmy Hoffa’s body on board.
It’s time, and the gate agent announces the boarding order and the passengers in line pull up their seat assignments on their phones.
Which ones will try to jump the line?
It’s a bit reminiscent of the moments before Walmart throws open the doors on Black Friday (not that I’ve ever been).
Instead of falling in line I remain seated, watching the riff raff jockey for position.
I’m not worried about overhead space because I’m boarding first and nobody is going to jump the line in front of me.
You see, I’m flying first class.