In mid-August I went to Kansas City to be Toastmaster (or Toastmaestrix) for the world science fiction convention. I was busy every moment, even when I wasn’t actually busy. No anxiety attacks––adrenaline over-rides that sort of thing. However, while I was MCing the Hugo ceremony, the hot lights onstage inspired an extended hot flash of proportions I feel justified in calling ‘epic.’ Fortunately, I decided to make MCing a double act with writer Jan Siegel. I’m always better onstage with someone to play off but I also knew that if I became incapacitated for some reason (or just dropped dead), Jan would make sure the show would go on. Early in the proceedings, she could see the sweat coming through the back of my dress and took to fanning me. Good thing, as I might have dropped from heat stroke.
But I didn’t, and we got through the ceremony in record time (for this century, anyway). The convention finished the next day and I melted into a limp pool of vegetable matter.
(If the previous two paragraphs don’t make sense to you, you can, as I mentioned in the previous post, Google ‘MidAmeriConII’. However, no esoteric knowledge is required to understand what follows.)
The inbound trip was a comedy of errors––and by comedy, I mean like the slapstick of I Love Lucy. When you fly into the US from outside the country, you have to collect your luggage at your first stop, whether that’s your final destination or not, and go through US customs with it. Then, if you’re going on to somewhere else, you re-check your bags and hope there’s enough time left to make your connection.
I was connecting to my Kansas City flight in Chicago and, because I can’t stand or walk for very long, I had wheelchair assistance. Protip: if you ever use wheelchair assistance when traveling by air, tip the attendant as soon as you sit down in the chair and be as generous as you can. Had I not done this, I don’t know where some of my bras would be now.
My inbound trip was on United Airlines and I regret not asking the convention committee to find an alternative carrier. The best thing you can say about TransAtlantic UA is that it’s uncomfortable––I’m 5 feet three inches tall and my knees were pressed up against the seat in front of me for the entire trip from London. I didn’t feel like paying over $100 to upgrade to an economy-class seat with a few more inches––which is to say, the kind of economy class seat provided at no extra charge by every other airline I have ever flown with, ever.
In the end, I was doubly glad I hadn’t given United any money. As my bag came dropped down from the conveyor belt to the baggage carousel, I saw to my horror that my suitcase was open and all my worldly goods and chattels were slowly spilling out.
I’ll never forget the sight of my favourite bra sailing by on a strange rucksack, heading for who-knows-where. I began hollering ‘My clothes! MY CLOTHES!’ and struggling to get out of the wheelchair. In O’Hare Airport, however, there’s a rule that attendants fasten you into the wheelchair with a seatbelt. So there I was, flailing madly as more of my clothes poured out onto the baggage carousel.
I’ll leave you with that mental image for a few moments while I explain this was not the doing of the TSA. I have had the TSA open my bag and inspect the contents a few times in the past. They always leave a note that says something like, ‘We opened your bag and looked through everything, have a nice day.’ No, I don’t particularly care for that but I never lock my bag because if they’re going to look through it––and they are––I don’t want them destroying the bag to get into it.
No, this time, someone in the United Airlines baggage area decided to have an unofficial look at what I was packing. The bag had a double-zipper on the main compartment and Some United Employee (known hereafter as SUE) was apparently very impatient. SUE broke one zipper, then tore the other off the bag entirely. I mean, it was GONE. The only way to do that is by deliberate brute strength. This caused the zipper it to unmesh and set my wardrobe free. Rather than put the bag in one of those big bins I’ve seen airlines use for damaged luggage, or wrap it tightly in layers of plastic, SUE decided it would be a better idea just to put the bag back on the conveyor belt and let the chips––or bras––fall where they may.
If you get the idea that I hate United Airlines with an intense passion, you’re right. I will walk––I will swim––before I get on another United Airlines flight.
Well, I managed to free myself from the wheelchair so I could try to recapture my bra and other items of clothing. A polite Asian gentleman who had been on the same flight graciously caught some of them and brought them to me, his compassion over-riding his preference not to touch a strange woman’s unmentionables. Meanwhile, my wheelchair attendant had hauled my bag off the carousel and was stuffing everything that had come out of it back inside like a mad chef trying to speed-stuff a turkey in under five seconds. I would have wept for the state of my evening wear if I hadn’t been so glad that it was still in my possession.
I’ll also mention here that the bag has six pockets, also closed by zippers, and not one of them has ever broken. They are also water-proof. If––or rather, when something liquid leaks, it doesn’t go through to the main compartment with my clothes. Ever. It doesn’t go through to the outside, either. You can’t tell anything leaked until you open the pocket and stick your hand in it (yeah, ew, but I have a feeling it’s discouraged more than one would-be luggage-pocket-picker).
‘What do I do?’ I asked the wheelchair attendant.
‘We’ll go to United and talk to them,’ he said, and off we went.
At this point, it was about 9:30 pm. Do you know what you can do in an airport at 9:30 pm? Not a frickin’ thing. The complaints department had gone home three and a half hours earlier. The night shift were already tired. United’s offices were closed but one of the ground staff found a giant plastic bag that I could put my entire suitcase plus mashed contents in.
‘Is there some way to seal it?’ I asked.
‘I’ll tie a knot in the top,’ he assured me. ‘Don’t worry, I won’t leave it open.’
The flight from Chicago to KC was brief and the plane was small. All I could do was hope neither my luggage nor the contents could get into much trouble.
I got lucky. The United ground employee had tied a knot in the top of my Bag-O-Remains as he’d promised. It was still tied but now there were several holes torn in the plastic. Fortunately, none was large enough to let anything escape.
And while I did appreciate the considerate treatment I got from the flight stewards on that leg of the trip, it did nothing to lessen my utter and complete loathing for United Airlines, their shabby aircraft, their twisted idea of passenger comfort, and their utter stinginess in the area of entertainment and refreshments. Plus, if you actually did want to pay for a drink or a snack(!), they don’t take anything except a credit/debit card. That’s right––cash is no good on a UA flight. United Airlines is beneath contempt. But I digress.
The poor MAC2 committee people who’d been delegated to pick me up and had to wait until after midnight for my arrival. I got in something like five hours later than originally scheduled.
Two days later, Jan Siegel managed to completely outdo me. She had to sleep in a Washington, DC airport after her connecting flight was cancelled altogether. Other connecting flights were not, just hers. Do I really have to tell you she was on United?
United Airlines: if you want to know what their business class is like, fly economy class on Virgin Atlantic or Delta.
Anyway, I didn’t get into the hotel until sometime after 1 am. I took inventory––miraculously, all my clothing had been recovered but one of my Irregular Choice Miaow high-heeled boots seemed to be missing. It looked like I’d have to wear either sneakers or Doc Martins with my evening gown, which had somehow escaped being damaged or soiled. I called my husband and sobbed.
After I hung up, I found the missing Miaow and passed out from sheer exhaustion.
This has never happened to me before. I’m actually a pretty easygoing traveller. I never yell at the ground staff. I don’t expect or demand to be as comfortable as I am on my sofa; I can sleep anywhere, even if I’m sitting up straight. Crying babies don’t bother me; I know why they’re crying and I’m sympathetic. I never yell at a flight attendant, not even that time when I found spiders in my sandwich––it was obviously a catering snafu, not her fault, and we made jokes about how I should have taken the vegetarian option. Anything I can do sitting down is usually okay with me. So if I feel cramped and uncomfortable, conditions are pretty frickin’ bad.
Within a day, I was telling this as a funny story. I hadn’t lost any clothing or other belongings and my policy is, all’s well that ends well. But that doesn’t mean I loathe United Airlines any less. United Airlines: your cattle-car in the sky. When they say ‘mash-up,’ they mean you.
I’m not kidding about that. The flight attendants kept assuming the other people in my row were related to me. Friendly skies––maybe it really did look like I was sitting on the lap of the person next to me. Or vice versa.
Don’t ask about the food. Did you ever wonder where food goes after it dies? Good food goes to food heaven; the rest flies United.
Did I mention I hate United Airlines so much, they’d have to pay me to fly First Class with them? And even then, I doubt they could afford me.
Seriously, now: who the hell puts a damaged suitcase on a conveyor belt without even trying to do something about it?
But I’ll say one thing for the whole experience: It kept me too busy to be nervous about anything, including my role as Toastmaster for the convention. I think it also used up all my disaster potential, as nothing in my personal sphere of influence went utterly and completely wrong. Any time I ran into something challenging, I’d take a deep breath and think: Hey, it could be worse––you could be chasing your underwear around a baggage carousel in Chicago with a wheelchair strapped to your ass.
Then a week later, I started my journey home to London––not, thank all of creation, on United, that unfunny parody of a real airline. But I have to rest up before telling you that story.