The Karmic Gods of Vegas

So the karmic gods of Vegas have a sick sense of humor and decided to get me back from an earlier blog posting. I’d made fun of their city and their guests, and they saw fit to direct my return route to California right to them. Then I got bumped off of flights repeatedly leaving me weak and at their mercy.

My flight originated from a fairly quiet airport where I arrived early for convenience, but waited five hours to board. Traveling later in the day, I knew I was running the risk of not making my intended connection, but I was maintaining a naïve optimism in hopes of being home by 3:00. On the first leg of the journey, I was seated next to a fun young couple that was visiting San Diego for the first time. I used to live there, and I was excited about sharing places to eat and things to see such as Viva Pops, which my good friends Jack and Lisa created and still own. The couple asked me a few more questions and then we settled into the flight; I into my book, and they into their electronic gadgets.

I should’ve known something was up as we made our decent. We bucked and weaved on the wind; turbulence that I haven’t felt in a number of years. I stayed focused on my reading because the one time I glanced out the window, I thought I’d do better not to watch what was happening outside. Finally we touched down with a thud, but I didn’t realize it because touching down had less of an impact on the plane than the jerking we’d experienced in the sky.

Contrary to the facts laid before me, I was still expecting a fifty-minute layover, which is reasonable. You have time to calmly reach the next gate and get yourself situated. However, there is nothing calm about the Vegas airport!

It was a nightmare come true. If I had dreamt it, I think it would’ve gone something like this: I’m on an airplane flying over the desert southwest. I feel a few bumps that cause me to worry, and suddenly I step off the plane and straight into the lobby of a casino. All those ding-ding-ding/dong-dong sounds that I’ve previously made fun of surround me, and I see slot machines cluttering an otherwise nicely laid out concourse. People’s brains have started to melt, and my fellow passengers clog the walkway as they decide to stop and try their luck before moving on. My path is so crowded that I can never seem to reach my gate in the allotted time.

What a stressful dream, but it wasn’t a dream!

The crowded concourse in the Las Vegas airport overflows with slot machines.

The crowded concourse in the Las Vegas airport overflows with slot machines.

I walked the entire length of the terminal at a snail’s pace to find my next gate, and I arrived just as they were boarding. I found one ticket agent servicing two gates, and the entire place was overrun with people in suits. One man looked like an English butler type sent over from Central Casting. This is not what I expect when you consider that most passengers travel in comfortable clothes these days—and in Vegas of all places. People who are flying out of Vegas normally appear much different from those who are just arriving. It’s easy to tell the difference by the looks on their faces, but with professional types in suits, I was trying to figure out what was going on.

I finally reached the frazzled ticket agent with hair falling around her face. This was not a style choice, but due to having been on the job for most of the day dealing with a lot of anxious people. She’d begun to fall apart, which was a sign of things to come. She smiled and said to hold on, as the standby passengers would be called soon. I asked her to tell me the truth. “What are my chances?” She smiled wanly, “Not good.”

At the beginning of my travel day, when I learned that getting out of Vegas was heavier than normal, I’d been advised to see if the ticket agent in Vegas would switch me to another flight and re-route me through Oakland. That would add another leg to the journey, but there was more availability. The bottom line was that I’d surely make it home, and at about the same time as I would if I ended up making that last flight of the night going directly.

I didn’t even get a chance to make the request. The karmic gods of Vegas wanted me to stay a little longer. It started when they announced a gate change, and the entire lounge area moved in a long procession twenty gates away. We must have seemed like the Children of Israel headed for the Promised Land. And like that story, if I may compare myself to Moses, everyone made it in except for me. I was staying in Vegas.

I was automatically rolled over to the next flight home. Even at the new gate with two ticket agents, no one had the time to type in a few codes and switch me to a flight that I could actually take. The best they could do was provide the gate number for the next flight. This time I migrated alone back to my original gate. In more ways than one, I was back to where I started. The lounge area was overflowing with people in suits. I had four hours to wait, and the people headed to Denver were fighting for seats. There wasn’t even anyplace to sit at the slot machines along the concourse, as the non-gamblers had managed to shove many of the diehard gaming junkies out of the way and take over the swivel chairs.

My phone battery was dying after 10 hours of almost constant use. I decided to get out my laptop and occupy my time. I had read over 140 pages of my book since the day began, and I was getting the feeling that I was going to have to pace myself for the final 60 if I intended to have something to do if I ever managed to get on a plane again.

Seating was at a premium, but I finally squeezed into a seat at the next gate over. A short while later, a woman came to the lounge area and took a seat with a brand new iPhone. She pulled it out of the box and started setting it up. This left me with lots of questions that I was not about to ask her: Why now? Why at this particular moment did you decide that you needed to purchase and use an iPhone? Did your other one break and you needed something fast? Is this a burner phone because you have illicit business to conduct at the airport before leaving Sin City? Perhaps this was the particular moment in time when your internal voice said, “Today is the day I’m finally going to give up my flip phone!”

A kiosk in the Las Vegas terminal where you can purchase items to fit all your electronic needs.

A kiosk in the Las Vegas terminal where you can purchase items to fit all your electronic needs.

All of these thoughts were swirling around my very tired brain as she unfastened the little plastic thing around the charger. The cord cascaded down her ample bosom, and she was typing on it furiously with the skill of someone who works at an Apple Genius Bar. Maybe she had been so successful as a drug dealer, a madam or a meth cook that she could finally afford expensive burner phones. I could hear her yelling at her shady accountant who launders her money: “I’ve worked my butt off all these years to become a successful drug manufacturer, and my stable of fillies has served me well with my clients and as a team top-notch drug mules! I make a million dollars a day, and I like nice things! If I have to buy a new, disposable phone every day to stay ahead of the Feds, I’m going to do it with a smartphone!!!”

Her flight left before she could use the phone, so I’ll never know. My flight was eventually called, and it proved to be the waste of time I thought it would be. The karmic gods of Vegas were laughing, but I was still not giving in. I would wait two more hours in hopes of being freed from this eternal layover.

To prevent deep vein thrombosis, and to investigate my food choices, I walked the length of the terminal for a third time. I frequently voice my dislike for fast food. Again, it’s not that I’m totally against the food even though much of the taste doesn’t appeal to me. The real issue I have is that I don’t go often enough to know what they offer, and I do not like reading the menu off a lit marquee while surly employees shout “Sir! Whaddleyahave?!?” I never know at the point they ask, and regular customers sigh and seethe waiting for me to make it through the ordering process. No, I do not want to super-size. I do not want a drink big enough for me to soak my tired, traveling feet in, and I do not need a side dish. Whatever you’ve slathered onto the bread will fill me up nicely, thank you.

When I finished gobbling my sandwich, I moseyed over to the next ticket counter to inquire about the likelihood of making that final flight of the night. I’d already cancelled an important lunch and another meeting for the next morning. Even if I did get home, I wouldn’t get to bed until midnight, and I knew I wouldn’t be in any shape to go after having been up for almost 24 hours.

And who knew where my check-in luggage had gotten to? I was reassured that it was in a locked room at the airport so that I could claim it when I finally arrived, but I couldn’t shake an uneasy feeling based on the numerous news reports after 9-11 where they showed the TSA blowing up unclaimed bags all the time. Everyone has seen me in all the clothes in that bag, but I did get some new books on the trip, which I’d like to read, and I’m actually fond of that piece of luggage. It’s the perfect size, and always comes in under the weight limit unless I over pack. How I hated the thought that some pyromaniac was going to take it out to the tarmac and surround it with explosives.

I looked around to see the weary faces surrounding me. I recognized about eight people who’d been trying to get on all the same flights as I had that day. I was told that one more flight had been oversold because there had been a housing convention in town. That explained why travelers were in suits and why I’d been hearing random conversations about interest rates and the secondary mortgage market throughout the evening.

Someone should say something to the convention organizers because every registrant had decided to go home early. I heard one man say, “I live in Orange County. There were no seats left to go there, but I had to get out! Sure, I could wait until tomorrow, but I couldn’t wait to leave. I’ll have to pick up my car tomorrow, but I want out of this place.”

Now I understood why there were suddenly 82 available seats for the first flight out the next morning. The outlook of flying that night was grim. I started thinking of backup plans. Gary phoned to say that he had checked lodging rates and that the Hooter’s Hotel was offering a special for $45. Karmic gods of Vegas! They were not taunting me. They were terrorizing me!

I was ready to get on my knees and bow down to the pantheon of gaming deities. I would admit to the karmic gods that I was wrong, and I shouldn’t have been so uncharitable to the people who love Vegas. I’d even give them an offering by sticking $20 in a slot machine and losing it right away. Whatever it took to keep me from staying in the Hooter’s Hotel. Then I heard my name called. “Passenger Patrick Brown.” I shouted, got my boarding pass and hurried onto the plane before the vengeful gods could notice. I was going home.

Cheerful Travel

I hadn’t been to Florida since Spring Break of my sophomore year. I had a great time that week even though by most collegiate standards the vacation I had was dull compared to the bacchanalian revelry one sees along the coasts. I stayed with a Baptist family and went to church five times. However, I still had time to water ski, lie on the sand and go to Disney World. I also learned how to play poker from a deacon’s wife.

The opportunity to return to Florida didn’t come for 30 years. When you live in Southern California, you have warm weather, mild winters and access to as much Disney as you want, so Orlando and its surrounding areas are not always among top travel destinations unless your goal is to reach the Caribbean.

We departed Los Angeles on a Friday in early April, in order to land in Orlando that evening. The flight time and the change of time zones kill the better part of a day, but we were prepared for that. We had very carefully selected our travel time to avoid certain things like hurricanes, spring break, election debacles and families vacationing with lots of children. Wouldn’t you know, the one thing we weren’t aware of was the annual cheerleading competition taking place in Orlando.

Gary and I made our way through the LAX terminal, noticing a few teenagers at drop off, then at security. They were fairly subdued at that hour, and they were so sporadic that we had no idea they were forming a herd to end up in our part of the terminal. My mind is distracted on travel days. From the point I close my luggage at home until I find a seat near the gate, I’m on a mission and cannot easily be distracted.

Once we arrived at the gate, there was no room in the seating area, so we piled our stuff in a couple of adjacent chairs before taking turns to get snacks for the trip. Having reached the gate, or close to it, I had begun to get into vacation mode. I had already dived into a book, so my head was down. The writing was smooth and the subject was interesting, so I barely noticed that the teens were gathering at the same interval as Hitchcock’s perching birds. It wasn’t until one of them flapped his wings, so to speak, that I realized what was happening. There was a legion of them, and they were beginning to wake up!

I wasn’t fully aware what fate had in store until the flight was announced. First-class boarding was called along with parents who need assistance with small children. I didn’t worry at first, as these young people were not gathering their things in preparation to depart, and since we had been seated in the adjacent gate’s lounge, I had forgotten that they were standing in our gate’s immediate boarding area.

As we waited our turn to board, I was in denial that any of these noisy kids would be going with us. Ours was a direct flight to Florida, and surely these spirited young people were in school somewhere. It was unlikely that they would be taking such a long trip so soon on the heels of spring break. No, they had to be going on some field trip to Sacramento to study state government. I heard more murmuring and the occasional shout, and with apprehension, I glanced over my shoulder to see 26 energetic teens and their sleepy sponsors lined up behind us. How could this be?!?

Of all the flights taking off that day from LAX, the cheerleaders were on ours!

Of all the flights taking off that day from LAX, the cheerleaders were on ours!

Gary and I try the occasional trick when flying coach. First, we buy as early as possible, and when there are three seats on each side, we buy A and C, hoping that no one will select B. This doesn’t work every time, and on really full flights, it doesn’t work at all. I always say that if someone sits in the seat, I’m going to deliberately spill into his or her space and hold conversations with Gary until the intruder decides to find available seating elsewhere, but inevitably we welcome the poor soul and I get smashed against the window. We usually get a sleeper that can’t be roused even if the oxygen masks drop.

Such was the case of Flight 4355, which by the way spells H*E*L*L on your telephone keypad. It seems that the sponsors were parents, and that these bleary-eyed guardians had decided their job was finished until the plane landed safely. After all, they had had roused their teens out of bed, survived the trek to and through LAX, and had made sure these kids, who were more and more awake by the minute, had gotten onto the correct plane. Getting into the correct seat, however, was the flight attendant’s job.

The parents lumbered down the aisle with large disposable cups of coffee, which I’m positive were decaffeinated. One such mother squeezed into the seat between us, her disposable coffee cup jerking so wildly over our heads that the familiar logo was just a green blur. Without a word, she kicked off her flip-flops, washed down a banana muffin and curled into the fetal position for the next five hours, 99% oblivious to the madness that reigned supreme.

We almost didn’t leave because one of the cheerleaders left her seat as we pulled away from the gate. She was looking for an electrical outlet in the wall of the cabin in order to charge her phone—the one that she, along with the rest of the passengers, had been instructed to turn off. Flight attendants and a couple of the girl’s peers called for her to take a seat. Where was her mother to tell her to sit down? Was her mother even chaperoning the trip? Did anyone know where on the plane her mother might be, or if she was on the plane?

Ah, that would be the woman sitting one row behind the disruptive girl, scrunched next to me, not saying a word. “Ma’am! Take your seat at once,” stated the flight attendant firmly. “But I need an electrical outlet. My phone is dying.” Mother of the Year clearly had a hands-off approach to letting her daughter handle her own business.

Once airborne, it was like flying with the cast of Glee. The noise and enthusiasm never waned for a second. No one instructed the kids not to practice cheers or told them that regardless of how cute they thought they were, the entrance to the plane’s rear galley is not the place to form a pyramid. The flight attendant in our stretch of the fuselage maintained a broad smile throughout though by the end it looked more like a grimace. You know she was seething on the inside each and every time she had to move that drink cart all the way to the back in order for one of the little darlings to get to the lavatory.

Perhaps it’s age, but I really think there’s a problem with too much self-esteem. I think it started with telling kids that they are winners just for showing up. Everyone gets a trophy, and if you attend a party, you get a goodie bag. We’re all winners; there are no losers. I don’t know who thought it up, but it was probably a couple of parents who never won anything when they were kids.

If everyone gets a prize for participation, how can anyone learn that everything that is said and done is not great? I recall the feelings of not winning a particular award, or coming in second or third place—or not placing at all. It made me try harder next time. A ribbon for participation at a grade-school track meet would’ve left me with the false impression that I was an athlete on par with the physically fit and agile. Surely I would’ve seen the truth after placing next to last with only the obese kid to eat my dust, but what if I had received a ribbon when my participation had been lackluster due to an utter dislike for running, not to mention my loathing for our track coach?

I struggle with humility enough as it is. Can one imagine what I’d be like if I’d been told everything I’d ever done was perfect? I’d be writing with way more grammatical errors and thinking every word out of my mouth is comedy gold. Self-esteem can lead to over confidence, and in the case of the non-athlete, it’s a slippery slope to becoming a cheerleader.

Midway through the flight, our seat-mate’s daughter, the one still looking for an electrical outlet, stood up and announced to anyone listening that she was a cousin to the Kardashians. (I love that when you type Kardashian it comes up as a misspelled word. There may still be hope for humanity.) This particular cheerleader didn’t look the type to have sat on a secret like that for the first seven months of the school year, so I was quite sure that she was directing her remark to anyone within earshot even though her head was turned in the general direction of another cheerleader.

She must’ve been disappointed when no one, not even her comatose mother, looked up to see who had announced being on the fringes of pop-culture “greatness.” My nose was in my book so that she couldn’t see me listening. I glanced over at her dozing momma, mouth agape and drool running down the corner of her mouth. With no care for her physical appearance, I deduced that the head cheerleader’s blood connection to the Kardashians was paternal.

Somewhere over the Gulf of Mexico, I was hit with a memory. I was in college, perhaps a year or two after my previous Florida trip. I was traveling with a musical group, and toward the end of the tour, 50 of us disembarked from the charter bus, bursting with energy and the urge to spread out. We had been dropped off at a private school where we would have lunch and a free afternoon. Lunch plans were delayed when the director pulled us together for an impromptu meeting. She told us that she had never been so embarrassed by such insensitive and arrogant behavior. Who did we think we were? Where did we think we were, and how had we ever come to believe that we could walk in like we owned the place?

My co-travelers that long ago day and on this flight were insensitive, and yes, rude. My true discomfort was recognizing my lack of patience when I had once been in their shoes.

©2014 Patrick Brown