Saturday, October 18, 2008

Philadelphia International Airport (PHL)

May 17, 2008: In Memory of Eight Belles

I'm in that crappy little bar by gate A9. It is totally packed, but I found one lonely seat near the back beside a guy frantically thumbing a Blackberry.  He asks about beers on tap, and after listening to the exhaustive list (the breadth of which surprised me), he says, "Well, hell.  I'm in Philadelphia, I'd better have a Yuengling." The giant Yuengling spout handle happens to be the one that was practically bumping his forehead. I wonder if things like that annoy a bartender who has such a long list of beers on tap.

I have a merlot.  It's crappy as usual. The guy next to me continues to thumb. I sit back and look up at the screens. All three are tuned to the same sports network.  First it's hockey. But then it's horses.  I suddenly realize it's the Preakness. The woman to my left is sitting on the edge of her stool, her back is ram-rod straight.  She is wearing a black and gray vertically pinstriped suit and gold rimmed, wide glasses.  She carefully sips her beer and wipes up the condensation drips it leaves on the counter with an extra napkin. She is talking to her child on the phone.

"You're going to fill it out NEATLY, right?" She puts heavy emphasis on "neatly."


"You're in English One, right? Did you get the section you wanted?"


"OK, good. Geography? OK"


"Read that part to me again. No, read it,"  Tiny pause, "Read it."

Pause, she shifts in her stool.

"Read it.  No, listen, read it WORD FOR WORD." She is speaking slowly, deliberately and calmly.  I feel a little like smiling at her for encouragement anyway.

"OK, I'll fill it it out and fax it when I get home."


"Well, you can fill it out if you do it NEATLY."


"OK, but you'll do it NEATLY?" Tiny pause. "OK, you can fill it out and I'll fax it when I get home.  Do it really neatly. OK, love you. Bye."  The phone snaps shut.  She sips her beer and wipes up the condensation.  Then she turns her attention to the screens.

We are both squinting to read the closed captions while "Bette Davis Eyes" plays in the bar.

I say, "Do you know what time the race starts?"


Then she grabs the bartender, literally grabs his arm.  The action is so sudden, neat and quick that I jump.

"Hey," she says to him, "Do you know what time the race starts?"

"6:00, I think."

"We're gonna miss it." I say, knowing that at 6:00 Eastern Standard Time, We'll be buzzing though the skies on our way to Chicago.

"In the air!" She says, going for the beer and the extra napkin again.

We watched as Big Brown's jockey was interviewed.

"He just won the Derby, right?" she asks me.


We watch as Big Brown's owners, trainers and Big Brown himself are interviewed.

"The horse I was cheering for in the Derby died at the end of the race." I tell her.

"Oh yeah," she replied nodding, "Wasn't that horrible? That was the one they put to sleep, right?"

Suddenly the lady on the other side of my black-and-gray-pinstripe-suited friend joins our conversation, "What happened?"

"They put this horse to sleep after the Kentucky Derby," says pinstripe woman.

"What!" The new participant is shocked, "Couldn't they save it?"  She is a red head with thick turquoise framed reading glasses sliding down her nose.  She has to push them back up so often it became hard not to watch their downward progress, forgetting to listen to her speaking.

"It broke both ankles," I reply apologetically. "It came in second place."

"There's determination for ya," She says swatting pinstripe on the shoulder-pad.

"Second place?  That's the one they put to sleep after the race, right?" Pinstripe says stiffly turning toward me.

I nod and say, "She came in second.  She ran the whole race and the collapsed immediately after the race.  They had to put her down because she broke both ankles."

"That's terrible," says pinstripe.

"Cruel!" Cried redhead, 'Why couldn't they save it?" 

"When they break both legs they really can't save it." I reply.

"Why can't they put it in a sling?" Demands redhead.  Pinstripe is now turn back and forth between us, pivoting at her hips only, like the way Barbie turns.

"A sling?" I say.

"They could put it in a sling and hold it up until it heals." Readhead says.

"No, no," interjects pinstripe, shaking her head, "That doesn't work. The horse needs to put weight on it in order to heal, right?" She looks to me for confirmation, but I've already exhausted by horse-doctoring knowledge.

Redhead mumbles about the sling until Pinstripe asks her to lean back and read the sign at gate A9.  Redhead leans way back and says, "Saint Louis."

"It doesn't say Dallas?" Pinstripe is concerned, "It should say Dallas!"

"No, Dallas is A3." Says Redhead. "I saw it when I came in." 

"When I came in it said Chicago," I say to Redhead.

"Chicago!" Redhead is shocked again. "I saw it say Dallas!"

"Who was here first, me or you?" I ask (it was a sincere question, I, along with Pinstripe, needed to know if the gate didn't say Chicago.).

Redhead doesn't answer. Pinstripe pivots toward me and asks if I'll watch her stuff so she can check.  I agree.  Pinstripe rushes out.  When she comes back she announces that we are delayed, and that the guy in the white suit further down the bar is also on our flight, "So we can watch when he leaves" she strategizes.  She orders another Coors Light (Her third, but who's counting?).  I get a second merlot, and Redhead leaves for her flight without saying goodbye.

"Where are you headed?" I ask pinstripe.

"Home." She says and asks me the same question back.

"Me too"

"Where's home?"

"Tucson," I tell her.

"Oh I just LOVE Arizona!" She tells me, with wide, doe-eyes, "I just got back from Santa Fe.  it was so beautiful!  I'd only been to Scottsdale, but now Santa Fe too." She is nodding, "It's all just so beautiful" She continues, commenting on the entire southwest.

"Where is your home?"

"Shreveport, Louisiana." She says with the thickest northern accent you can imagine.

"You're not from there originally," I declare.

"Been there 15 years, but I'm from Ohio."  (I knew it!) "I was in Philly for a nurse practitioner conference."

"So you're a nurse practitioner?"

"Yes, but I work for Bayer.  On the phone. I handle one drug."

"One drug?"

"Yes, a leukemia drug.  I handle all the calls about a Leukemia drug."

"That must be difficult at times," I say.

She swigs her Coors.

"Leukemia drug," she repeats, nodding at me, "it's tough."

I nod back, pursing my lips.

Soon we are both paying and gathering our bags.

"Be safe." she says. "Nice meeting you."

'Thanks, nice meeting you too." I respond as we squeeze our way out of the crowded bar, toward the line at gate A3, regardless of whether it's going to Chicago or Dallas.

Friday, October 10, 2008

A fitting poetic interlude

A poem by Naomi Shihab Nye.  Fits!  Doncha think?

Gate 4-A

    "This is the world I want to live in.

    The shared world."

Wandering around the Albuquerque Airport Terminal, after learning my flight had been detained four hours, I heard an announcement: "If anyone in the vicinity of Gate 4-A understands any Arabic, please come to the gate immediately."  Well - one pauses these days. Gate 4-A was my own gate. I went there. An older woman in full traditional Palestinian embroidered dress, just like my grandma wore, was crumpled to the floor, wailing loudly. "Help," said the Flight Service Person. "Talk to her. What is her problem?  We told her the flight was going to be late and she did this."  I stooped to put my arm around the woman and spoke to her haltingly. "Shu dow-a, Shu-bid-uck Habibti? Stani schway, Min fadlick, Shu-bit-se-wee?" The minute she heard any words she knew, however poorly used, she stopped crying. She thought the flight had been cancelled entirely. She needed to be in El Paso for major medical treatment the next day. I said, "You're fine, you'll get there, who is picking you up? Let's call him." We called her son and I spoke with him in English. I told him I would stay with his mother till we got on the plane and would ride next to her - Southwest.

She talked to him. Then we called her other sons just for fun. Then we called my dad and he and she spoke for a while in Arabic and found out of course they had ten shared friends.  Then I thought just for the heck of it why not call some Palestinian poets I know and let them chat with her? This all took up about two hours. She was laughing a lot by then. Telling about her life, patting my knee, answering questions.  She had pulled a sack of homemade mamool cookies - little powdered sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with dates and nuts - out of her bag - and was offering them to all the women at the gate.  To my amazement, not a single woman declined one. It was like a sacrament. The traveler fromArgentina, the mom from California, the lovely woman from Laredo - we were all covered with the same powdered sugar. And smiling. There is no better cookie. And then the airline broke out the free beverages from huge coolers and two little girls from our flight ran around serving us all apple juice and they were covered with powdered sugar too. And I noticed my new best friend - by now we were holding hands - had a potted plant poking out of her bag, some medicinal thing, with green furry leaves. Such an old country traveling tradition. Always carry a plant. Always stay rooted to somewhere. And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and thought, this is the world I want to live in.  The shared world. Not a single person in this gate - once the crying of confusion stopped - seemed apprehensive about any other person. They took the cookies. I wanted to hug all those other women too. This can still happen anywhere. Not everything is lost.

By Naomi Shihab Nye

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Tucson International Airport (TUS)

April 27, 2008: Oh When the Saints

I'm on the way to Saint Louis for the Commission On Adult Basic Education (COABE) conference.  Jim drops me at Downtown Campus where we meet Regina, Tracy and the girls.  Tracy drives us to the airport.  Without lines at the American Airlines desk, we breeze through.  Even carrying my PCC-issue laptop, security in Tucson takes just minute or two and we are in. I've already convinced Regina that we should head straight for the bar. So we do.

Regina heads out for 1) a book and 2) food.  I send a text to Jen to see if she's in the airport yet.  She texts back that she's in the security line removing articles of clothing.  23 seconds later she's on the stool beside me. The bartender, a straight shooting nursing-school student who quizzes herself during slow moments at the bar, recommends a Labatts for Jen.  Jen, on the recommendation, orders a Labatts, which caused out conscientious bartender to be concerned that the Labatts was well suited for Jen. 

"You don't like it."

"No, no! I do!"

And she really does.  Excellent recommendation.

Regina returns with her black forest ham on rye for 12 dollars. It's a rather skimpy sandwich. She settles in on the stool next to Jen. When the bartender sees her sandwich, she tells Regina that the same sandwich cost just six bucks if ordered at the bar. I feel affirmed. The bar is a good place. Then I tell her and Jen about my airport bars tradition, "I love drinking lousy, expensive wine in airport bars, waiting for conversations to come me!" Our friendly future nurse passes by at that moment. She frowns.  I make no apology.  She lets me sample every wine the bar carries.  The pinot and merlot SUCK! I have the cabernet, which also sucks but slightly less. Our future nurse really seems to like us! 

I tell Jen and Regina about the good old days with Fran at the Last Stop Saloon.  It's gone now. The terminal is still under construction. Updated and modernized with fancy coffee bars and uber-modern bar stools, the real heart-and-soul types like Fran appear to be gone. Not that there is anything wrong with our future nurse! But, really, could anyone top Fran?

Jen and Regina tell me I should write a book.  

"Well," I say, "It certainly has been educational."

"And cultural!"  Jen adds.

It's in the 90's today in Tucson and in the 50's in Saint Louis. Frost overnight. Regina is wearing flip-flops.  I express hope that her toes don't get frost-bitten.

"I brought my long underwear." Jen announces, taking a slug of Labatts.

Regina and I both look at her.

"You OWN long underwear?" Regina asks.  I admit, I'm wondering the same thing.

"It's a Minnesota thing." Jen says, glancing at Regina's exposed toes.  "You have gorgeous toenails. Manicure?" 

"Yup.  It was a birthday present back in March, but I just had them done." We all watch Regina wiggle her toes.  Conversation lulls.

Jen cocks her head to listen to an American Airlines announcement, "Are we boarding?"

We decide that boarding doesn't really matter and we order another round.

"You want to hear the joke the homeless guy told us in the Downtown Campus parking lot today?" I ask Jen. She nods. "Why are there no Kmarts in Iraq?"

"I dunno."

"There's a Target on every corner."

This makes the blonde guy sitting beside me laugh out loud.  "Good one!" He says.  About that time, Regina and Jen decide to hit the ladies room before boarding. I sit with the luggage and pay for the drinks.  They return and I head for the men's room.  I'm walking a familiar direction to a familiar men's room.  Things look different with all the construction.  There are no urinals, which gives me pause, but I know this is the right place and use a stall.  When I exit and find myself washing hands with ladies of all sorts, I feel perplexed. I exit, still indignant that this is the MENS room.  But, not anymore.  What was once a men-on-the-right, women-on-the-left entrance is now women-on-both-sides and the mens room is in a completely different location a few yards further to the right.  Who knew?  

I text Jim about this surprise and he responds, "U R Drunk." He's right.  But it makes getting to Dallas so much more pleasant. 

Houston George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH)

April 18, 2008: Turista

Coming home from Merida, we're back in Houston's terminal E.  This time we're sitting under Pappadeux at the food court.  No alcohol.  Jim and I both have serious bouts of Turista and don't want to have to run to the restroom between Houston and Tucson. I watch an Indian family interact at a nearby table. Husband takes the 5-year-old away.  Wife cares for an infant who doesn't want to eat.  No sir.  Black ladies at a nearby table help.  They pick up the kicked off shoes, the tossed bottles, and even the dropped food with coos and smiles and comments like "How sweet." Jim and I sit with out fizzy cokes and gurgle, trying to appreciate it all.  But the closest restrooms are closed for cleaning.  It seems that restrooms in Houston George Bush Intercontinental Airport are often closed.  Clean, but closed.

Houston George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH)

April 9, 2008: Tropical Noises

In Houston, upstairs at Pappaduex, a New Orleans style place in the E terminal.  Jim and I have FIVE hours to kill before our flight to Merida, Mexico.  I'm drinking Pinot Noir, believing that my vacation has truly started while Jim is frantically tying up the loose ends of his real estate business utilizing the last of some iffy internet and cell phone coverage. This is the first time since he's been in real estate that we'll be in a locale where there will likely be NO cell phone or internet.  He's in a panic over it. I can't wait.

A large man next to me orders raw oysters.  They come on a huge plate.  The oysters are embedded in loads of ice, but the plate is leaking like a sieve.  He tells the young bar-boy as water cascades from the bar onto his leather shoes.

"I think this plate is leaking."

"It's just sweating." The bar-boy explains and waves off the concern.

The large man and I exchange glances and then we both laugh out loud. Instead of insisting bar-boy do something (bar-boy is quite busy), the man stands, adjusts his stool and positions himself behind it, out of the splash zone.  The water is making pleasant tinkling and splashy noises as it splatters to the floor. It runs and puddles here and there. From behind the stool, the man leans over, stretching to reach his oyster and slurps them all down one by one. He acknowledges, and even encourages me to watch his process, and we both continue to giggle as bar-boy breezes past, oblivious.  Jim is oblivious too, yakking on the phone. Poor thing. 

Once the oyster task is accomplished, the large man puts some cash into the water on his plate, laughs out loud again, shaking his head and leaves. After a few moments the older and much more pleasant bartender comes by and grabs the plate revealing a huge, gaping hole in the bottom.  The bartender sticks his finger through the hole and wiggles it at me.  Then he looks through the hole and looks to the right and the left.  He shrugs.  I shrug back.

The bar is very crowded, but the stool next to me remains empty.  It's wet and there is a large puddle around it.  I warn many people who approach.  They look around at the mess and quickly find another spot.  The bartenders show no concern.

Across the bar from me is a gay couple in their 60's.  They are on a "leisure trip" I hear them telling the babes around them. The men and the babes are chatting it up. The babes really are babes.  One is headed to Merida and talks glowingly of the city.  She is what I would call "scantily clad" in a halter-top and killer heels. She is traveling alone.  I am fascinated by her--and so are the other gay guys. At some point, a moment of distraction I suppose, the jauntier of the gay guys raises his visor to rub his head. I am stunned as his hair come off with his visor. He rubs his bald head a bit and them replaces the visor.  His hair gives him a very youthful look.  It's grey but wild and spiked.  I would have never guessed that it was part of the visor. I laugh out loud.

"Another Pinot?" Bar-boy points to my almost empty glass.

"You bet."

The bar has quite a tropical theme going on.  On top of the tinkling and splashing oyster plate, there are also random bird chirps and squawks.  But at some point in the five hour binge there is another strange noise.  Many of us do that muppet-looking-at-the-sky-for-God move in response to the sound. From across the bar a woman makes serious eye contact with me and mouths "What was that?" I mouth back, "I have no idea."  We raise our glasses to each other and life goes on.

And then Heather is here! We are fully distracted by her.  The hugs.  The laughs. The catching up. Her layover is just 45 minutes, which means we are so much closer to our flight to Merida! Suddenly SQUAWK!  SQUAWK! The bird noise is deafening!  Who turned up the volume? That woman across the bar is making serious eye contact with me again--but wait--not exactly with me.  I turn, and right beside me, just behind Heather is a man with a huge green bird on his shoulder.  That dude was here with his bird the whole time.  I thought it had been a recording. SQUAWK! The bird says again.

The glass is full again.  Heather and I toast the bird and tropical vacations.  Jim finally hangs up the phone.  And it begins.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (PHX)

June 2007: Illegal Immigrants!  Stealing out jobs!

I just spent a week at the fabulous Wigwam resort in Litchfield Park, AZ on the Department of Education's dollar (it's dirt cheap at the Wigwam when the temps average 115 degrees.). Now I'm at Sky Harbor headed to Philly for a summer visit with the family. I'm in this tiny bar in old terminal two--which seems like the least "sky harbor" terminal now, being little and simple and lacking towering parking garages on either side and above.  The bar has six stools and two tables with two chairs each.  It's packed.  Beside me is a very cute, very Phoenix-looking blonde. He's athletic but not bulked out.  Thin and tan, I'm guessing he's an engineer or in some corporate sales job.  He has the blue-eyed, all American look that could easily sell. It's not long before we are chatting, exchanging the usual where-ya-headed info.  He's going to Winnipeg.

"For work?" I ask.

He chuckles into his beer and says, "Kind of."  He then proceeds to tell me all the trials and tribulations related to being a canadian working in the United States.  He tells me how often he has to go back to Canada to renew his visa, and all the paperwork he has to fill out and how easy it is to forget and fall behind.

"What's you job?" I ask.

"Well, I'm kind of between jobs right now. My last job had to lay me off cause I forgot to renew my visa." It was a computer company, big name like Dell or Gateway or something I forget. Then he's off on a soapbox about US immigration law, but more importantly, how at fault his company was in not doing the paperwork for him. 

I'm nodding, agreeing that it's a tough process. I'm about to begin telling him about my experience with immigrants and the immigration process when I suddenly realize: "Oh my God! You're an illegal alien!"

This is after two glasses of wine and my tactfulness might have been lacking.

"Well, kind of." He says, furrowing his brow and swirling his beer. He looks pensive as if this is a new concept for him.

I am laughing out loud now, "I know quite a few immigrants with expired documents," I tell him, "but none of them would be stupid enough to tell a stranger about it in an airport bar!" He did not seem offended, though I thought he should have been. "Must be because you're blonde and not brown," I said.

He shrugged and swirled his beer.  It was obvious that he did not associate himself with illegal immigrants, and definitely not the brown ones.  I couldn't stop shaking my head, but I did try to muffle the laughter.  He went on complaining about the bureaucracy and how unfair the system had been to him.  Maybe he had no sense of irony, but I simply could not handle it.  I remember reading once, a long time ago, that the highest number of illegal immigrants working in Los Angeles were canadians.  

As I listened to him go on, I couldn't help thinking of my clients, friends and neighbors who have to wait decades for work permits.  Those who are separated from husbands or wives or even children for years and years with little hope of reunion. Those living in tiny unfurnished apartments with eight other exhausted men sleeping on inflatable mats strewn all over the floors sending every cent home, dreaming of a day when their families will all be together and living in houses in some nicer part of town. Each time I try to bring up stories like these, he swirls his beer and resumes talking about himself.  These struggles are not connected to him.  These stories bounce off.

Not only was this blonde 20-something no longer humoring me, I was actually beginning to not like him.  I drained my glass and left the bar without saying adios.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport (DTW)

July 2006, Heaven on Earth

Going home after Nate and Erin's wedding. Gemma and Keith got me to the airport two hours early thanks to good traffic and Keith's nervous pedal foot.  I have to say, as an aside, that Gemma's superpower is seeing road-side animals.  The amount of wildlife we saw on the drive here, while doing 85 mph, was unbelievable. 

After a quick tour of the old terminal at Detroit, I'm in the only bar in the concourse. I sit and order a pinot noir. In a few moments a gentleman comes in and sits beside me.

"Damn flies!" He says to the bartender, smiling, a huge grin really, and waving his hand around his head.

"I will get them!" The bartender declares holding up his fly-swatter. I had been watching the bartender go after flies since I got here. He and the gentleman have a brief conversation about chasing flies. "Clean!  This is a clean bar!" The bartender cries after missing one. SWAP! "Got it." 

"Flies don't bother me compared to those mosquitos in the north woods.  Big as dinner plates!  And can they bite? Mary and Joseph!" The gentleman beside me says.

I like the use of Mary and Joseph without the traditional "Jesus" beginning, and I smile his way.

"Just been to an AWESOME wedding in the north woods of Michigan," he tells me.

"No kidding!  Me too!" I am genuinely amazed.  I briefly wonder if we were at the same wedding.  I didn't know all of Erin's people, but surely I would recognize him. We begin to chat.  
"Where you headed?" He asks.

"Tucson" I say. 

"Me too!  You from there?"

We have the classic not-quite-a-native conversation about Tucson, and we are suddenly great chums! 

"What are the chances?" I say, but we immediately agree that these kind of synchronicities should be expected.

"It was my son Liberty's wedding," he tells me. "Liberty's an interesting name doncha think?" 

I have to agree that it's not common.

"When Lib was born his mom and I couldn't agree on a name. So I grabbed the biggest book from the bookcase behind my desk and we agreed to ask God to give him a name.  We asked God to give him a name that would keep my son free of the nastiness of the world. When I flipped open the book the first thing I read was the phrase 'sons of liberty.' Then, twice more I laid my finger on the word liberty on different pages.  We decided there was no struggling with fate."

He goes on to tell me that his son's middle name is Robertson.  He waits, clearly wanting me to ask about the significance of Robertson, so I do.

"I'm Robert!" He answers robustly and thrusts his hand forward for a shake.  I ask if his son's middle name really is Robertson for that reason and he says, "Yup."

Robert goes on to tell me that he and his wife had a second son, and when Lib was five and the baby was two, the mother was killed in an automobile accident. His life story continues: He was in the army.  He was a musician and a songwriter. Now he is a caterer.

"I've got my own catering company with some other guys," he tells me, "All started from an experiment to find a fat-free or low-fat cheesecake recipe. I ended up creating one.  Seriously, almost fat free!"

"Wow." I say.

He continues, "My buddy really liked it and the company grew from there."

There is a pause and he asks a few more questions about me and my life.

"When I was a kid there was no diagnosis of ADD or anything like that. No drugs for hyper kids. My poor parents just had to put up with me!" He laughs from the middle of his chest.  Loud and deep. I can suddenly imagine him on stage. "My parents tried special diets and vitamins, but I'm just hyper, you know."

I nod.

"The wedding was awesome."  He's staring at the bottles behind the bar. "Man, it was great. I put on this cape and danced as James Brown on the dance floor. I DANCED! Me and Lib, we were the first ones dancing and last ones off the floor."  He tells me that Lib lives in Phoenix, and among other things, he has an internet radio station of '70's funk music. "He has some collection of funk.  Some rare stuff." Robert raises his eyebrows and his forehead crinkles.  I am suddenly touched by how much he loves Lib.  Something in his eyes made me almost want to cry.

Robert tells me many more things about this life.  The amazing thing about his undiagnosed ADD is it gives him the ability to talk, almost monologue.  He completely mesmerizes me. I feel like I say barely a word and yet I'm fully part of the conversation.

He tells me about the religion he subscribes to.  Started by some guy (He told me the name, but I forget) who is responsible for many things in our world today (He gave me examples, but I forget.).

"It's totally nonjudgmental," he says, "and there's a church in Tucson."

I nod.

"You know, I really believe this: Heaven is now.  You have to experience some hell on earth to appreciate heaven.  Hell is now too. But it all depends on you.  If you can find heaven on earth, then there is more heaven to follow. You gotta enjoy it."

That made a lot sense to me.

Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport (CVG)

May 1, 2006: Citrus and Cherry Scents

I was in Kentucky with Jim because his Mom had an emergency hip replacement.  Jim's staying in KY a little longer.  I'm at Cincinnati airport between Lexington and Atlanta flights.  On my way home.   I'm drinking Fosters at Max and Irma's, sitting at the far end of the bar.  When I walked in a very chatty woman with long dark hair and tiny disco ball earrings offered me the seat beside her.  She looks to be in her mid-twenties. A little voice inside told me to decline and I did.

"You'll be able to see the TV better from here," She said patting the bar stool's seat.

"Nah." I said.

She eyed me suspiciously and I half expected her to call me a queer. Then she turned back to the two men sitting on the other side of her. 

She's sitting with two very drunk men.  One is wearing a t-shirt that says "Sometimes I amaze myself." He has a Sicilian look.  He's got a big belly and heavy lidded dark eyes.  His face is puffy.  His hands are often pushing a thin comb-over back into place.  His thick southern drawl is slurred. He seems like a character I vaguely remember from Bugs Bunny cartoons. 

Next to him is a man with curly red hair.  He has blue eyes that remind me of the liner of my parent swimming pool.  Blue pebbles. His black t-shirt says NASCAR Staff. No southern accent.

"I love NASCAR." Chatty lady says to them, rejoining their group.  There is a brief conversation about NASCAR (I gather that a much longer NASCAR conversation has already happened. I also gather that these two men work for NASCAR.). "I can't believe you know Jimmy Johnson! I'm so totally into him!"

Chatty lady seems to refocus on the furniture catalogue the two men are pouring over. They crunch together closer so that they can all get clear views of the images.

"Does that come in cherry?" The red head asks.

"What you see there comes in citrus and cherry." She chirps.

"That'd look nice," the sicilian says to the red head, who nods. One of them turns a page.
"Those have some real cheery colors!  Go to the website, seriously, you'll love this stuff!  One day shipping from Florida!"

This seems to impress the men who nod. The sicilian mumbles something about candles.

"Candles!  Here--" She takes the catalogue and flips ahead. Soon she's off and running describing in detail the company's candles, "They're the best, seriously, no one can beat them.  Go to the website, seriously."

Sicilian says, "I buy all these scented candles at Christmas, but when you burn 'em they don't smell enough.  Pretty soon they don't smell like nothin'"

"These candles will hold their scent until they are burnt to puddles!  Even the melted wax holds the scent!" She's wagging a finger at the sicilian who raises his eyebrows.

They have reached the last page of the catalogue.  

"Check out the website guys.  You'll love this stuff."  Last words. The catalogue is closed and remains on the bar.  All three turn toward the television, which I just notice, is showing NASCAR, and in perfect synchronicity light up cigarettes and blow smoke to the ceiling. 

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Dallas/Fort Worth international Airport (DFW)

June 2005, Flying While Black

I'm returning to Tucson from PA, happy to be halfway home and sipping wine. To my left are three characters who engage me some mild chit chat.  At the far end of our cluster is a large woman with a south Philly accent.  She has a loud laugh which feels generous. She's going to Tucson too and we recognized each other from the bar in PHL. Beside her is a classic Dallas blonde bombshell who is already tipsy and wiggles her manicured fingers over her red zinfandel when she talks. Between Dallas-gal and me is a black man named Derreck with an African-sounding last name. Without Derreck the rest of us would never have become a grouping.

Derreck, who fascinates us all, tells exciting stories about his success that combined with the generous laugh of Philly-lady and the wiggling red nails of Dallas-gal makes me feel incredibly optimistic. 

I order my merlot and Derreck asks the waitress for a napkin.  I get my drink, but no napkin appears for Derreck.

Derreck tells us about how he worked for a small internet company that was bought by Yahoo!! He tells is it so enthusiastically that Dallas-gal actually says "Yaaa-hoo!" and would have waved her cowboy hat, had she been wearing one.  Instead, the fingers wiggle a little faster than normal and don't fold into her palms when she's finished.

"Now I get to travel ALL OVER," Derreck actually beams as he says this. I'm grinning too.  There is something beautiful and refreshing about the way he makes us all feel successful.

He tries to flag the waitress again, and is ignored again.  I notice the frustration on his face. The waitress asks Philly-lady how she's doing.  Derreck leans across Dallas-gal to get the waitress' attention.  I am shocked as the waitress appears to actively ignore him, yet slaps the napkin he was requesting onto the bar without looking his way.  Derreck takes a deep breath while studying the napkin. Then, he seems pleased to have the napkin and shows no indications of anger.

Derreck proceeds to tell us the ins and outs of traveling all the time for work.  Dallas-gal is especially interested in learning about valet parking at the Dallas airport.

"Such a time saver!" Derreck proclaims. Then excused himself from conversation to make a rental car call to Los Angeles. When he hangs up, he drains his beer.  The waitress is refilling Dallas-gal's zin and Derreck asks for a refill, "Please?".  The waitress walks away without acknowledging that she hears him. "Hey!" He calls after her. "Excuse me!" He's standing on the rung of his stool leaning over the bar.  Amazingly, his tone is not angry.

She returns and pours him a beer, saying nothing.

"Thanks!" Derreck chirps. 

I am impressed with his control, and wish I had some of Derreck's characteristics.

Dallas/Fort Worth international Airport (DFW)

September 2004, Who Were Those Masked Ministers?

I squeeze myself in at the end of the bar at the TGIFriday's in terminal C.  I'm standing on my toes, leaning and stretching to shout my drink order to the bartender. Beside me is an older man and a younger man.  The younger man looks too young to drink, but he's holding a beer. Our luggage is piled together in such a stack that I briefly ponder crafting my own bar stool out of it.  I decide it might be dangerous.  I hover over the pile instead.  

The men are talking about "the service." I'm only half listening because I'm distracted by their demeanor with each other. I wonder if they are father and son.  Doesn't seem like it. They have too much familiar ease (Was that an ironic statement?). Maybe they are uncle and nephew. Maybe lovers. I settle on lovers. Older man keeps leaning in to make another point. Younger man nods, looks over, makes a brief response and reverts to gazing at the TV behind the bar.  They are very comfortable together.  Enough to hold a friendly conversation while barely paying attention to each other.

"We're getting ready to leave." Older man says to me, "Do you want this seat?"

"Sure." I say.

"We're headed back to Vermont." Older man continues.

I nod.

"We were here for my mother's funeral." Older man says.

"I'm sorry," I respond.

"Been coming for a long time," he says and finishes his beer. "We're ministers," he tells me.

I nod again, this time adding a "Hmm." to note my mild interest. I note that I was right to suspect they were not related.

"He came down to do the service." Older man indicates Younger man.

I'm dying to ask why, but they are suddenly occupied with slinging luggage on to their shoulders and bustling out.  I watch them go, still filled with questions, and order a quesadilla.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Dallas/Fort Worth international Airport (DFW)

March 2004, Cowtown Bar, I Hope Michael Moore Reads This

"It's not as good as you think." She tells me, taking a big swig of her Molson.


"No. A lot of Canadians come to the U.S. for surgeries."


"Because they don't have to wait," she raises her eyebrows.

"But do they pay for American surgeries?" I ask, picturing the bills for thousands and thousands of dollars.


I gasp. "The cost beats the wait?" This is very hard to believe!  I thought Canadians loved their healthcare!  


"Wow. That's pretty bad."

She is a short haired women in khaki pants and a plain white t-shirt.  She appears to be neat and orderly and wears burgundy tinged rectangular glasses.  She is sitting alone at the corner of the bar when I join her. She starts the conversation by asking, "Where ya headed?"  I respond and ask her the same question.


"Are you Canadian?" I ask.

"I live there, but I grew up in San Antonio.  I was there for my mother's funeral."

"I'm sorry," I say.

"She was old," She says, shrugging and gulping her beer.

We talk about old age, retirement and nursing homes, which leads us to the topic of socialized healthcare.

I take away two morals: 1.) The grass is always greener, and 2.) If you've got the money you can get the services, but you might not want to get them in Canada unless you've got a lot of time on your hands and you'd prefer to spend the money on jewels or trips to expensive places like Moscow.

Tucson International Airport (TUS)

June 2004, Last Chance Saloon

"Do you remember me?" I ask.

"Yes, she says.  "You'd like a merlot." My heart sinks.  "How's your granddad?" She asks.

I could cry.  "Fran," I say, "I feel just terrible."

"Oh!  I'm so sorry!" Her eyes wet with sympathy.

"No, no, my grandfather is still doing OK.  I feel terrible because the last time I was here I asked you to break a twenty so I could tip you and then I left without tipping you!" I'm begging for forgiveness.  I hate the thought of kind and good Fran holding bitterness in her heart toward me.  It would be like Mother Teresa spitting at you.

"You did?" She asks, putting on that sweet smile and lowering her eyes to watch my glass fill.

"Yes!" I proclaim, "So take this, please!" I hand her a twenty dollar bill.

"No!" She says, humbly, waving a napkin at me, "Oh no!"

"Yes!" I insist, "This has been on my conscience ever since it happened. Please. Help me out."

"Well, OK." She blushes as she takes the money and I am released. Still loved by Fran! From then on, when she saw me coming, the merlot was in the glass waiting for me before I even got to the bar, and she always asked about my Granddad.

Tucson International Airport (TUS)

May 2004, The Last Stop Saloon

"My grandfather is dying," I say to the bartender. She tells me her name is Fran.

"I'm so sorry." she says.

Three merlots (my flight was delayed) and a chicken quesadilla later, I ask Fran to break a twenty, "so I can give you a tip," I say.

She counts out five, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen seventeen, eighteen nineteen and twenty and pushes the bills toward me. Fran has the kindest face.  I could fall in love with her. That's not the merlot talking either.

"Thanks!" I say and proceed to shove the cash into my wallet with great effort.  Somewhere over Las Cruces the flight attendant hands me a plastic cup of water, and I realize it.  Of shit! I didn't tip Fran!

Chicago O'Hare (ORD)

July 2004: Out-living My Expectations

My sister calls.  "How's Poppy?" I ask without saying hello. I expect the worst. 

"He's sitting up.  Reading the comics." She says.

"WHAT?" I raise my voice, "he's supposed to be dead!"  

I'm at PF Changs in O'Hare.  I'm drinking Merlot and eating squash soup. Just five hours earlier I was relaxing at home in the hammock with a book, the dog asleep on the bricks below me. The monsoon clouds were roiling along the mountains and some distant thunder rumbles were sounding promising.  Then I got the call, bought this ticket, re-arranged my whole life and left for the airport in less than 30 minutes. Poppy's dying, my sister told me. This is it. Get here now. 

The guy next to me at the bar looks over. 

"Well, that's good, but I can't believe it." I say, lowering my voice.

"I KNOW!" My sister sounds incredulous "We really thought this time was it."

I am suddenly filled with guilt.  I'm glad he's not dead.  He'll still be there when I arrive tonight. I am a little angry though.  The hammock, the book, the pooch and the thunder...not to mention the simple pleasure of being home for a weekend with nothing to do.

"I'm glad I'm coming home." I say.

"I know." She says.

"I'll be glad to see him," I say.

"You will," She says. 

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Chicago O'Hare (ORD)

June 2004: You say merlot?

The bartender, a small asian woman, doesn't appear to speak much English, but she winks a lot. Big exaggerated winks that crinkle up the side of her face and end with broad grins and a quick head nod. Real Liza Minelli winks. I order a merlot.  It arrives with a wink and smile. I begin drinking and take in the surroundings.  I'm in a bar called Prairie Tap, which I think a nice name.  Wholesome sounding.  Makes me think of amber waves of grain, big wooden barrels and Laura Ingalls Wilder. Nice logo too.  I'm staring at it across the bar.  It's very Frank Lloyd Wright. The glass is about two-thirds empty when the bartender walks past.  She stops and gapes at the glass.  

"You say Merlot?" she asks in her heavy accent, pointing at the glass and giving me a look of horror.

I nod. Maybe the accent is Korean.

"Oh shit! This cabernet!" She grabs the glass, dumps the remaining wine into the sink with a violent twitch of her wrist and gives me a new glass of wine. "On house! on house!" She cries and gives me the wink.

A few minutes later as she walks past, I order a salmon burger.  She winks, produces the merlot bottle from behind the bar and sloshes my glass full without speaking. I hadn't indicated that I wanted a refill, but I accept it and think its good prairie-hospitality. She winks again, leaning pretty far over the bar this time.  It's a wide bar, otherwise I might have thought she was being rather forward.

A variation on this event happens five times. One other time she does the "Oh shit! You say merlot!" thing.  Four other times she simply grabs the bottle and gushes wine into my glass without words.  I never protest, eat my salmon burger, and eventually remember that I'm in the airport for more than wine and salmon burgers.  I frantically check my cell phone for the time. I haven't miss my flight yet, but I might have to run for the gate. I ask for a check, suddenly considering that a glass of  wine in an airport costs between seven and nine dollars a glass. This bill could be more than I paid for my rental car. As I try to shake the fuzziness out of my head so that I can do some tip-math with the check, I think, "Damn!  This bartender is good."  I wonder how much 15% is going to be. She gave me good service, but can I afford 20%?

She slides a check my way, leaning in and giving me the wink.  It has one glass of wine and a salmon burger. When I ask her about it, she says nothing. Just winks.

Now that's good prairie hospitality! I tipped significantly more that I anticipated.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Dallas/Fort Worth international Airport (DFW)

June 2004: The Cowboy Couples go to Vegas

One seat left in the crowded TGIFridays in terminal C between two ten-gallon hats. I take it, but feel small and cramped.  I order a merlot. To my right is a beaming cowboy and his big-haired blonde Tammy Faye traveling companion. They're headed to Vegas to get married Smiley Cowboy tells me.

"Ever been to Vegas?" he asks me.

"Not really," I say.

"You can't believe the deals in Vegas," he says into his beer, shaking his head (which is dramatic because of the hat!)

To my left, a more somber cowboy and HIS big-haired blonde Tammy Faye. He stretches his back in order to sit taller and talk over my head. "Chew say y'all 'er goin' to Vegas?"

"Yup. Y'all too?"

"Yeah. Same flight?"  They compare times, gates and finally flight numbers getting increasingly excited by this discovery.

Smiley Cowboy say, "We're gettin' married!"

"Well, hell! Us too!" Somber Cowboy is really loosening up.

Soon the two couples and laughing and hooting over me, slapping me on the back and buying drinks (even for me!). 

"Y'all want to be our wedding witnesses?"

"Hell yes!"

I'm caught up in the excitement too.  I'm even mildly disappointed that I won't get to see the big event(s).

"Where y'all stayin?"


"Hot damn, us too!"  There was a literal "yee-haw" at this moment. I swear to God I'm not making this up. I'm slapped on the back again and nearly spill my merlot on the way to my mouth.  I grip the sloshing juice glass in both hands and offer a controlled toast.  More toasts come.  Soon I'm given another round so I continue to be involved in the toasting.

I not really a part of the conversation this time, and yet I am. I feel like the catalyst.  The link in this joyful meeting. Had Smiley Cowboy and I not started talking, Somber Cowboy would never have known to ask about Vegas and destinies would have been completely changed.  I sip my merlot and think, wouldn't it be cool if these couples become life-long friends?

It's time for their flight and they exit whooping, their snakeskin books clicking on the tile, the ladies huddled as they walked, finally able to girl-talk.  I take a deep breath and stretch my arms into the wide open spaces left by their absence.

Dallas/Fort Worth international Airport (DFW)

September 2004: Florida Hurricane Bitch

I mean that with the greatest respect, love and kind wishes. She has been my favorite bar-pardner thus far!

Sitting in the TGIFridays when this thin blonde lady already holding a martini walks up to the end of the bar, beside me.  She is talking loudly on her cell phone.

"Do you think I'm attractive?" she barks at me.  I'm momentarily confused about whether she's talking to me or to her cell phone.  She stares me down, says, "Hold on" to the phone and commands me to respond,"Do you think I'm attractive?" My merlot actually ripples and I hold the glass with both hands.

"Of course" I respond.

"HE thinks I'm attractive," she says, proving her point into her phone.

The lady, the phone and I continue to hold a three-way conversation.  I'm never quite sure whether she's talking to me or the phone, but I find enthusiastic or sympathetic head nods and an occasionally "of course" satisfy her and we proceed.  I order another merlot.

She tells me that the west wing of her house--her son's wing--has been destroyed and double destroyed by the two hurricanes that hit Stuart, Florida this summer, Francis and Jeanne. They are fleeing to LA to recover. 

"The servants are in a tither," she tells me with a wide arm flourish (actually using the word servants), "but they'll handle the clean-up, contractors and reconstruction." She nods at me knowingly.  I nod back.  She orders a 3rd martini (3rd since I've been with her, at least.)

She is a tennis pro. "Maybe you've heard of me," she says pulling the new martini's olive off with her teeth. 

I had not. 

"I'm also an underwear and swimsuit model," She says, "among other things.  You've seen me" She pokes the empty toothpick toward me, "Really, when people ask what I do, I say, GOD! What DON'T I do?"

I nod.  She's well over 50 and looks it. She has an I-picked-oranges-in-the-sun-when-I-was-young-but-hide-it-with-surgery look. Her facelifts have not held.  Yet she repeats after brushing some of her spilled martini down onto my luggage, "I'm a swimsuit model." in present tense, "you've seen me."  She winks.

I suppose that possible. I'm falling in love with her energy.  She is so bold and brash!  In normal circumstances I'm sure she's be awful to deal with, but in the DFW TGIFridays, she's fabulous!

Her son, an overweight, slovenly young man with greasy black hair slouches in.  He is dressed entirely in black.  He had wires sticking out out of his ears and his hips. He is holding a GameBoy. He orders a beer. She pays. He slouches back out.  I wonder if it's legal to take your beer into the terminal, and I ponder how some folks are amazing confidant breaking rules.

"He's so torn up about the loss of the west wing," she tells me, talking a bit more quietly than before and shaking her head side to side. We watch him lumber back to the gate area with his beer and GameBoy. Suddenly her phone is ringing and we're off on a three-way again.  "It's my agent in LA," she tells me. Soon she is pacing and yelling.  He apparently did not arrange for their limo at LAX.  "Incompetent bastard!" she screams into the phone and dumps the remains her 4th martini onto the bar.

Tucson International Airport (TUS)

April 2005: The Joy of TUS

A contractor named Reeves with bright white teeth is going to Vegas to turn 40.  His family from Massachusetts is meeting him there.  His wife and two kids are standing in the Southwest airlines livestock line-up while he and his buddy (Who says at three times, "I LOVE this guy, but I'm not his wife." Then slaps Reeves on the back.) drink and schlep chicken sandwiches back and forth to the wife and the kids.  

"Vegas!" says Reeves and slaps the bar, "Great deals on southwest airlines to Vegas!  Four people, two nights under a thousand bucks! Love Vegas!" 

His enthusiasm is contagious.  "Right ON!" I have to add.

His kid had an earache coming home from Mass last time and fuckin screamed the whole God-damned trip. He walked up and down the aisle at least a hundred and fifty times. Everyone on the plane hated them so much that they decided to take a taxi to the parking lot instead of the shuttle bus.

He leaves and Fran the bar-maid serves me another merlot.

I love Fran.  I'd guess her age at ealy 50's.  She has permed, salt-and-pepper hair and glasses. Down to earth, calm and friendly, Fran represents the quintessential tucsonan to me. She may be hispanic, or she may be simply old-tucson but she has that native american/mexican accent, so subtle it could be overlooked.  I find the rhythm of that speech lovely and soothing. She never, ever neglects a glass-half-empty. She's going on vacation next week.  She's staying home, but going to finish some projects she started a long time ago.  And she's going to the movies. 

Another merlot? 


Fran, I miss you.

Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport (DFW)

April 2005: Three Characters

The Harley dealership manager from Austin who has "250 choices of rides, (dramatic pause, sips from beer, turns back to me, eyebrows lifting) Everyday." is returning from Kansas City where he'd toured the Harley factory. I think he'd be good in his own local TV commercials.

The Army dude is divorced and "can't see the kids." He's coming home from Iraq where, "Unlike in LA," he notes, raising his glass to the brunette beside him, a car chase ends with a tank running over the car.  He says, "Trying not to shoot people so much anymore.  So now we just stop the car by running over it with the tank, drag the driver out and beat the shit out of him." He leaves his beer only half full because he "can't be stumbling to the gate," but he eats a hot dog in three bites.  Three seconds flat.  Seriously, it was impressive.

Beside him is he LA Chick. The LA chick's Dad produced Bob Hope's USO specials.  Her Mom is Mexican, but she doesn't think that's very unusual.  "So many people say 'wow', but I don't even notice the accent." She's headed to Baltimore to do stage management for the Miss USA pageant where she must insure that the girls are in the right place at the right time.  Cause if they're not the names displayed on the screen won't match.  "It's happened!" She declares. "It's a challenge to manager an event that's judged live."

She nods to the Army guy, "Yes, there was a shooting-out-the-window car chase in LA today." They nod at each other in mutual understanding and she touches his shoulder, "But not in my neighborhood. And no tanks.  Tank drivers would definitely get sued."

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

These Are The Rules

Conversing with strangers in airport bars.  If you've never given yourself this pleasure, I can say from experience there are few places to have more honest and genuine conversations with fascinating people.  There must be something about traveling that makes folks feel free, happy and open to chatter.  It is rare for someone not to strike up a conversation with me in an airport bar.  I have found this not to be true in most other bar genres.  It all started for me after 9/11, when my flight-anxiety raised well above tolerable.  I decided it was either get drunk before the flight, or get my doctor to prescribe medication.  I opted for drink, and found a whole new world!

Soon, I had developed some rules for my traveling-alone-airport-bar games:
1. I must sit at the bar (not at a table)
2. I order a glass of wine (red, and airport wine is usually crappy, but it's part of the experience)
3. I cannot open a computer, book, magazine, newspaper or other individualizing distraction. Cell phones are OK for short calls or texting.
4. I must sit, with my wine, and wait.
5. I cannot initiate the conversation, unless it's clear that the other person has already begun communicating with me (this can happen via gesture, facial expression or some other non-verbal cue)
6. Once conversation has been initiated, I must happily go where it leads.  No conversation, regardless of dullness, craziness or obnoxiousness can be disengaged from until the other person disengages or I must go catch my flight.

Within the boundaries of these rules, I have had many many conversations.  In future posts, I plan to blog these conversations taken from a journal in which I write them all down immediately after take off, usually rather tipsy and often giggling to myself in my window seat. 

Who knows, maybe you'll recognize yourself in one of these stories.  It's rare that I get names or identifying information, so I really don't know who these strangers are. That's part of the fun.  It's humanity at it's best.