Saturday, March 6, 2010

06/03: Swiftly to and through St. Louis, Part 1

About three fortnights ago, it was my pleasure to spend a whirlwind afternoon in the Gateway to the American Midwest, the iconic, energetic, unmistakably-aging St. Louis.

As my blitz-paced trips typically go, that Saturday sojourn was book-ended with flights on my airline of choice, United, was chock-full of visited spots within the destination city, and afforded opportunities for intellectual stimulation, thinking, and writing. Atypically, however, I only committed to Saturday’s wanderings late on Friday night, or about nine hours before I would leap from ORD’s runway 22L en-route to Lambert Field. To be sure, the seeds for a potential journey were firmly planted for some time deep within my brain, somewhere between the neurons that continually push me towards spontaneous, intellectual travels and the brain matter responsible for happiness / fulfillment / etc. Trips do seem an integral part of my raison d’etre, given their revelation of artistic and architectural beauties, anthropological nuance, and a personal level of historical understanding, to highlight but three domains from which I often derive very real intellectual gratification, particularly on trips to fresh locales. And that is not all; travel is also a tremendous aid in re-evaluating my own goals, strategies in reaching them, and in my recently exhibited performance. I can be a harsh critic, and time for intensive, honest, and inspired self-assessment is golden.

Mindful of these myriad of benefits, I was actively considering the calculus of various potential jaunts’ competing value propositions; metropolitan areas under review included New York City, St. Louis and Cincinnati. Vigorously pulsating Manhattan was atop my list, particularly as a midweek edition of the FT brought to my attention an exhibit of Eero Saarinen’s architecture at an Uptown museum. A near-worshiper of the divine arcs, airy and clerestory-like windows, and monumental volumes that the inspired Finn summoned within Dulles airport’s colossal Main Terminal, I was ravenous for a chance to contemplate within a dedicated exhibit his other masterpieces, which include heavy-weights like the St. Louis Gateway Arch and JFK’s soaring TWA terminal. And the show would move to Yale at the end of January, giving further impetus to a NYC daytrip.

Yet pricing was unappealing. LGA could be had for just north of $150 and would afford some 6.5 hours of ground time (whittled down to five, once ground transportation and pre-departure airport arrival would be factored in). While I yearned to see the Saarinen exhibit, I also wanted to diversify with time for a leisurely coffee, opportunities for wandering and possibly making serendipitous discoveries, etc. In contrast, CVG (Northern Kentucky / Covington / a.k.a. Cincinnati metro area) was pricing at $95 for slightly longer ground time. After a few pleasant jaunts through CVG early last year while utilizing my status-matched Northwest Airlines Worldperks Gold credentials, including one odyssey aboard the TANK municipal bus lines into the downtown area, I was eager to return for a bowl of chili and further studies of the quintessentially Midwestern post-industrial decay, depression, and scattershot, fledgling rebirth.

STL -- Lambert Field and its Dulles-inspired (though not nearly as grand or sublime) main terminal hall -- would finally edge-out the value proposition contest. Desiring admiration of Saarinen’s work, the prospect of rigorously contemplating his most celebrated, soaring and iconic achievement -- and in situ, not via two dimensional museum snapshots -- was a major selling point. Fares to St. Louis and its Gateway Arch were a mere $97. The other selling points: STL is efficiently linked to city centre and its near-suburban Art Museum campus, the sprawling and manufactured-bucolic Forest Park, via a light railway with fast and frequent service. I could distill eight or nine hours of ground time thanks to a well-timed flight schedule and a briefer flying time, all the while affording a valuable option of earlier return, if I should have desired to work an evening stint as an O’Hare Travelers Aid volunteer. And I’d never been to St. Louis since coming of age as an enlightened and discriminating individual (if I may take the liberty of saying so). Having solved these differential equations on Friday night (and including many more esoteric variables than I’ve hitherto revealed, including opportunities for taking a so-called ‘bump’ due to a flight over-sale, availability of my preferred seats and upgrade chances, local weather forecasts, the promise of inspired local dives for lunch or coffee, etc.), I decided upon St. Louis! I booked my flights around 11:30pm, set my alarm for 5:15am, and would be pushing back at 8:04am.

The first moments of morning were difficult. Under-rested after a strenuous work week, I recoiled at having to awake at my usual M-F hour, rather than sleeping-in to a luxurious seven or 7:30am. But when a zip on the cute and vibrant Embraer 145 awaits, how can I possibly complain? After the morning routine and a large three-course breakfast were expeditiously accomplished, I motored off -- for my usual leisurely reading of the Weekend FT at Starbucks. Energized by the literary eloquence and substantive political-economic content of the experience, I then commenced an aggressive, full-throttled assault of the John F. Kennedy expressway, bound for O’Hare and recording an average speed that must be near the takeoff gallop of many an aircraft. The silky, southern sounds of Swift beat full-throatedly from the Toyota‘s speakers -- admittedly, a guilty pleasure that can be justified only by moderated intake, given the pantheon of more worthy auditory accomplishment that exists, and that could have instead been contemplated. I know no moderation when positively jazzed by an unfolding trip.

Soon I was approaching the dawn-kissed O’Hare grounds and, eschewing frugality, I shot into the City’s cash cow parking garage. In an apex of decadence, I opted for a ground-level parking spot ($51/day), thus saving a 60 second commute down an elevator, in lieu of the higher levels ($31/day). I shall explain later!

Never has a mortal achieved such supremacy of the airport departure experience -- and I write with the experience of over five hundred thousand butt-in-seat miles under my belt. (I trust that you, patient reader, shall forgive the forthcoming boastfulness!) Leaving Starbucks around 7:20 or 7:25am, I shot across the 10.3 miles of space to ORD’s main parking garage, taking in perhaps two or 2.5 of Taylor Swift’s mesmerizing ballads to youth and love in the interim, before parking in the ‘money’ section, darting the approximately two or three hundred feet to ORD’s employee security screening area (just south of GS check-in, near B5), and then scanning my RFID-enabled, ORD personnel badge, providing a positive fingerprint scan (on the second try), and then positively strolling through the screening lane. Having thus waltzed through the formalities of airside access, I then executed a confident and vigorous walk to the area around F11, savouring the liberation of not needing to unduly rush, and arrived at the gate reader with about 4 minutes of boarding time remaining, or approximately 7:50am. As this is a (true!) tale of the absolute apogee of the human travel experience, the gate agent manning the gate reader was uncommonly cheerful and greeted me by name as I approached. Yes, I was the last passenger to arrive, and the aircraft was ready to depart. We exchanged smiling pleasantries, and I was thanked for my business as a 1K (top-tier) Mileage Plus member. Brilliant!

Executing a controlled descent down the pronouncedly downward sloping jet way -- those 145s do sit quite close to the ground! -- I was exuberant at having seized the opportunity to travel on that weekend day. In particular, after many evenings of late spent at ORD as a Travelers Aid volunteer, I was itching to finally complete the deed, to finish my journeys to the air field with a full-throttled acceleration and leap into the heavens, not with the Blue Line ride home after assisting immigrant laborers from Romania, Heartland Americana folk bound for Cedar Rapids or Charleston, and the odd dead-heading United F/A seeking the local Lego store for her four-year-old‘s edification. Indeed, I do love breathing and living the airport milieu, including parceling out experienced assistance like that just described; but nothing compares to the thrill felt after a tower controller announces “United XXX, cleared for takeoff.”

And soon, so wonderfully soon, I was airborne, where bliss and clairvoyance are invariably but a contemplative thought away. The journey to St. Louis was, objectively, none too pleasant, with a crying baby less than a dozen feet from my eardrum, with cloud above and below our 22,000 feet cruise altitude sullying any potential inspired earthly geography or heavenly sky, with a brief flight time inadequate for serious writing or reading. Yet, my own experience was starkly to the contrary! Our roll down 22L, with torso pushed carefully -- even tenderly -- against the padded seats, the mind accelerating in line with our trusty little flying machine, was mesmerizing, and soon afterward, I was positively surprised to learn that the flight attendant on this short-duration, regional jet -operated flight would actually conduct a proper beverage service. Emboldened to similar feats of productivity, I re-doubled my efforts to polish off the FT, going into sections for which I rarely have time, such as the various essays on the editorial pages. Strictly to aid absorption of said content, I availed myself of the onboard bar -- or, in less flowery language, placed an order during the beverage service that required the support of a United ‘drink chit’ -- and was soon sipping a tomatoe juice and vodka (not a bloody mary!; those mixes further spike the already criminal sodium content of a simple tomatoe juice). Having clearly scoped out the passenger manifest, which has notations for the quantity of a passenger‘s business, the flight attendant singled me out towards the flight’s end by coming to my seat and discreetly asking whether I would like another drink or some other service. While never an expectation, such unscripted extra attention is certainly much appreciated by us frequent fliers!

(Lambert: a Dulles look-alike)

(The Protagonist)

And so, our fifty-seater (well, 54 including 3 crew seats plus a cockpit jump seat) was all-too-soon navigating the ILS glide-slope to 19L (if I recall correctly) at the erstwhile TWA fortress hub. Having pierced the low cloud layer only seconds before touchdown, my first visual impressions of the city and suburbs would have to wait until my forthcoming light-rail commute. But before boarding that navigator of parallel steel ribbons, I performed the obligatory task of retrieving my return boarding pass from a United Easycheckin machine and, determining the next train departure to be some minutes away (I was carrying a printed light-rail schedule in my jacket pocket, created on Friday night during my last minute -- but still solid -- preparations!), I productively used the downtime to snap some artistic impressions of Lambert.

Pleased with my morning thus far, I was nonetheless slightly uneasy during the half-hour roll down the right-of-way of the fin-de-siecle, heady railroad era -- the history was apparent from the incongruously aged stone viaducts we occasionally passed under, which obviously pre-dated the modern light railway to a significant extent. Impetus for the perturbation was a pressing need to do some needed critical thinking, strategizing, and writing, work that I had put off yet which was critically needed. (Us writers are a strange lot.) I had given myself the goal of accomplishing something substantial while in St. Louis, but could I deliver?

(The relic: an overview)

(Lattice handiwork)

Abhorring the thought of perpetuating the unease, I decided to tackle the problem head-on. I disembarked from the light railway at the stop entitled “Union Station” where, presumably, I’d succeed in finding a quiet nook or caffeine-greased dive to tango with my netbook’s keyboard. And I’m pleased to report that I succeeded, with sincere apologies for the sudden anticlimactic curtness. But the real story here is the anthropological experience that was Union Station.

Which will have to wait, along with the remainder of this trip report’s content, to the forthcoming second installment! Cheers for your readership!

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