Monday, February 8, 2010

Houston/JFK (New York) - The first part of our stay in JFK...

I wrote this on my phone while waiting on our flight in JFK International to get back home to Ireland

Our packing had, for the first time really, been done on the night before we were due to leave. The taxi was booked for 11am and, because we weren't the greatest fans of Houston as a city to visit, there was no sense of foreboding-I was quite happy to be heading home. They always say, whoever 'they' actually are, that anticipation is the best part of everything and to an extent they were correct. When you queue up at McDonalds, which I have just finished up doing here at JFK airport, you anticipate the meal. You stand there, see the luscious pictures on the menu, you smell that odour emanating from the machine they likely have out back marked as 'universal good food smell' and then when you actually receive the food, it’s a letdown, always is. And so McD's thrives on anticipation but yet so do we as people-it is inescapable. It certainly was for me as the taxi rang my phone as it pulled up outside the hostel.
Bags ready and feeling fresh following a shower, shave and a decent sleep (although not in that order), I sat into the taxi. It was from here that I got a real view of just how huge Houston is, something one can't really do on foot for while you do realise its size, you don't quite grasp it in your mind simply because you can only walk so far before the heat kills you. And the heat will kill you. We drove for a lengthy enough period of time but at no point was the city ever becoming smaller or less dense, it seemed that any countryside was very far away. There you have it, Houston has no real planning or zoning laws, you can pretty much build a giant pasta monster building or something else equally silly, anywhere-it's crazy and has brought about a car centric, sprawling city. We passed huge shopping complexes and other places we may have passed through had they been close but they would only have been so with a car. Sprawl had made this city out of reach to those without wheels. Exiting the taxi was exciting; we were now going to complete the first leg of our journey home soon!

The notice boards were showing that our flight was delayed. I wasn't all that concerned, the excitement of it all was probably papering over these early cracks in what should have been a good, smooth day. Having checked in our bags we went through security which was actually easy enough although even our shoes had to come off and I found this strange next to our train experiences. Having done this we went on, explored the place for a little and went to Wendy’s. This place had been recommended to us for although it was fast-food, it'd be good fast-food and it was too. I’d go back. After eating we proceeded to our gate but then the problems began-another delay was announced followed by yet another delay once we had actually boarded the aircraft itself. Jetblue were lucky they had TV's for every seat and that the Hungarian Grand Prix was on although it's hard to follow races on American TV; there seemed to be an ad break every 4 laps. If there weren't TV's then people would have been very angry but there you are, the American consumer is placated by the great mother known as TV. To be fair I was too. The flight itself, once it got going, was rough. Seats were comfy and there was lots of legroom, although neither could compete with the train, but the air outside was not comfy for it was moving like a Vespa through Milan traffic; at pace and erratic. Turbulence seemed to follow us through the whole flight but we should have expected this for a lot of the delay had been caused by bad weather in the New England area which then held up flights going into and out of New York. There was one moment when I became a little concerned, not quite worried because I knew there was nothing I could do, but I was curious you could say, about my fate and whether I'd be making it to New York. It wasn't something that should have entered my mind, my knowledge of aviation matters should have dispelled the notion but not this time. I was glad to land, more so to catch our flight to Dublin rather than of my unease about turbulence but what both of us didn't realise at this stage was that we were racing time, and time had a head start.

Due to a JetBlue partnership with AerLingus our luggage was due to be put straight through to our Dublin bound flight and so we raced from Terminal 5 to Terminal 4. We walked, at pace through T5, stopping once at the restrooms before carrying to catch the AirTrain to T4. This airport is so big, a train brings you between Terminals and so we made it to the train walking through a new section of T5 which meant we didn't, unfortunately, get to go through Eero Saarinen's architectural marvel, the old TWA Flight Centre which I think is one of the world's most beautiful buildings. What we did see though was an information screen informing us that our flight was on final call. Not knowing the vastness of the building, we sprinted to the departures area. Nowhere could we see an Aer Lingus check-in desk and their separate ticket desk was closed. Seeing an electronic check-in machine, we typed ourselves in but boarding was finished, or so it said. Practically grabbing a slight man with an airline uniform on, we asked him, desperately pleaded really, if there was still a way for us to make the flight. He explained there was no point in even approaching security and while we thanked him for his help, help we rushed out of him, we went and approached security anyway. Without a boarding pass though, there was no way the lady was leaving us pass. He was right and we both knew it really but at the time it seemed right to at least try. Frustration was well on its way to taking hold though, manifesting itself when Donal smacked the Aer Lingus desk with a slap he should be proud of. I was too busy trying to understand why a 24 hour airline had a ticket desk open for just about 6 hours a day, a thought the couple we met there who had also had a connection botched were probably thinking also. While trying to comprehend this I was also riling myself up for the biggest fight (I was going to say argument but that's way too light really) of my life.

I picked up the phone to ring Aer Lingus but yet again machines were at the other end of the line and when finally the phone did ring I received a message to say the centre was closed till 8am.The phone would have taken a lot of abuse had this not been an airport for even though my anger was out there, I didn't want to have to explain this to the police. At this point confusion still reigned, we were stuck, lost in a nowhere with no idea of when our time in limbo would finally come to an end. After an encounter with two friendly chocolate shop assistants we were pointed to the general information desk and given some reassuring news. They both were of the opinion that we'd be put on the next flight, which would be the day after, but at least we'd not be charged although when I mentioned weather as the factor in the delay, they were sketchier. All the same, we were better informed now and Donal had used one of their mobile phones to call home. It was here that we began to get our heads together and for that we were really thankful. The information desk enlightened us further while a JetBlue assistant, after heading back to T5, told us our bags were in JFK thus confirming to us that it was impossible for us to have made the Aer Lingus flight no matter what we had done-the original delays had killed us and we hadn't even known. On the plus side she was pretty certain we'd be put straight on the next Aer Lingus flight with no extra charge. Hearing this was a big relief but nothing can really account for having to spend a night here in limbo-I'm typing this on my phone looking out to a rather empty space but even still one person is asleep ten feet from me and plenty more are around the corner. Shops are closed, some food places are still open, lights are all on, life goes on. The place is and yet isn’t, part of the real world. It’s built to pass through, not to spend time in and that's not right. You should enjoy every moment although that's not to say I enjoyed every moment of today and when we speak with Aer Lingus tomorrow it may not be a happy moment either but we live in hope.

Sleeping on a floor is hardly ever a good idea but when it is an airport floor it is probably even worse. In saying that however, when you do it, you know you have little enough choice. Seats are at a premium, especially those you can stretch out on and at times it becomes almost like hunting wild animals. You pace up and down the terminal, remembering where you last saw decent seats, keeping your eyes peeled for any that may be free and wondering suspiciously if that person with the massive wheeled carry-on bag is going to grab that free seat first. Correct me if I'm wrong but there doesn't seem to be a lot of solidarity between travellers in an airport, it’s every man for himself, or woman. Perhaps this is caused by the fact that, as I said before, the airport is a transitional place with no real permanence. I eyed up seats last night and found some without leaving the seat I was scanning from. It was a bench seat, cushioned (you get into remarkable detail when you actually have to rely on these things for a night's sleep) with a few tables by it. Donal took the bench as he became sleepy and when I finally needed to nod off I took my bag and went off into a corner, on the floor. It didn't seem too dusty so at least my clothes wouldn't be destroyed but it was a little cold and not too comfortable. Having rested my head on a bag full of jeans with headphones on I gradually drifted into a sleep. I woke up an hour or so later. When I woke I was cold, it was like I had slept in a fridge, so I got up and saw a free bench with some chairs on which my legs could stretch out. Looking back now I’d hit the jackpot but then my sleep was light, unenduring and basically crap so I just moved a little and tried again. I think I got another hour but when it gets to sleep hours of such a low figure it really doesn't matter because your eyes will be burning in the morning and your head will feel like lead. And yes my eyes are burning and my head does feel like lead. I know I can't shower until tomorrow and even brushing my teeth will be hard-my toothbrush and toothpaste is in my checked-in luggage bag. Donal has a little mouthwash for us both, if we both go easy on it. A decent home cooked meal has been deferred and I'm feeling hungry, I need breakfast. I don't know though if coffee is a good idea for should I wake up now or try for more sleep? Surviving in an airport is all about strategy and this could be a vital call but even though that'll keep my mind occupied for a while, one thing will keep my mind occupied for hours to come-I should be at home, but am instead in an airport thousands of miles from home. Coffee it is I think.

I ended up getting that coffee. After waking from my sleep and coming to the conclusion that I’d be getting no more I listened to a few songs on my mp3 player before Donal woke. The conversation didn't exactly flow between us, there wasn't all that much to discuss really. After a while I got up and walked around a little deciding there was no point in me allowing my arse to get sore because it'd be doing a lot of sitting later on. I stumbled upon the chapel in the terminal and went in, partly because I'd never done this in an airport before and partly because I wanted to pray that I would actually get home. I don't remember much of the rest of the walk although it was certainly a mission to find a decent place for breakfast, a feat I failed at (well the airport did really because no place decent was open) but I did see that Donal had some company and seemed to be engaged in conversation. I didn't want to get involved, as ignorant as that may seem (it was morning, you know me and mornings!), so I walked on again looking for a breakfast place and/or preparing myself to go and join this little talk. Airport food really is never the same as normal food. The only food that stays the same is fast food but then 100% pure fat stays the same everywhere really. Maybe it's just that groggy feeling you get after spending a night in the clothes you wore all day, fake air from conditioning machines all around you and eyes tired from lack of sleep. And airport food is generally expensive too for what it is. I was prepared then for a substandard something-or-other for breakfast at a price I would normally raise hell over and I duly made my way to Au Bon Pain, a cafe chain that began in Paris (I could have told you that from the attitude of the woman at the cash register if I hadn't already known).The croissant, breakfast cereal and coffee came to 8 dollars which wasn't too bad but I would have preferred it with a please, a thank you and a smile. The coffee wasn't to my liking either, what was I thinking when pouring hazelnut coffee? Probably not an awful lot, tiredness and all that...a great, and genuine excuse!

I sat down I joined in that conversation between the middle aged black ladies and Donal. Meeting people on the train was never a bother but not so much here at the airport where, as I already said, it seemed to every man for himself. Talking to these ladies was not only interesting but it made the time fly by, they were very interesting characters who didn't like Republicans (a fact that made me want to buy them lunch notwithstanding that my wallet was now very very empty) and one of them was the first black lady to attend Stanford University. Both had indeed been active in the civil rights movements. There really was so much to talk about but their flight to Dubai was being called and off they went. I wasn't happy to see them go for I was only beginning to get into the conversation but at the same time I'd yet to have had any coffee and was finding I'd to make bigger and bigger efforts to stay in tune with them. I suppose it worked out well for both parties time-wise.
I finally ate my breakfast after this before going out to take a stroll around the terminals, wanting to see the old TWA Flight Centre. And I did although I didn't get to go inside or get too close because security had me spotted and rudely told me to leave. There we are with rules again, I was looking at a building not even used as part of the airport any longer and some woman in a hi-viz vest looks at me as if I've 2 heads and says, and I quote, ‘you want to take photos? Well you can’t, you must leave'...'can I ask you a question?'...'you must leave now'...'ok ok I’m leaving'. Honestly the Patriot Act really has given these type of people all the power in the world and it's not as if public opinion would be at your side either for the police will say 'he was acting suspiciously around the airport terminal' and then automatically Al-Qaeda will be sending you on a recruitment form with details of a pension scheme that says something about eternity and virgins. Needless to say then, I left but I got my photos before she caught me. From here I went on to look through some other terminals including the old Pan-Am WorldPort, a circular building with an extended cantilevered roof which extends out to cover the aircraft from rain. Well it used to, but planes are much bigger now and Pan Am are dead with Delta now in that terminal. Looking around it though it's clear it needs to be done up and I felt quite disappointed that it had been left to go the way it had after it once being the showcase of the world's biggest airline. That’s New York for you though, things come and go, changes happen on a whim and while it is certainly better at looking after history than many other cities, it’s often too busy to care - at least to care too much. Last night as we ran around like headless chickens many in the airport seemed not to care an awful lot which was frustrating but then millions go through this airport and mistakes happen to plenty others, they probably get our type quite often so caring too much really just isn’t an option...

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