Friday, March 12, 2010

An extraordinarily inspired account (if I may say so) of intrepid peripatetics

Dear readers:

With the caveat that the following account is just over 11 months dated, I present you with a little gem that I today uncovered. Please be kind enough to pardon the occasionally unedited nature of the work.


1:00p, Monday April 7. Washington.

I’d just learned that my afternoon class – my only one of the day – had been cancelled, and feeling positively restless after a weekend with little in the way of excitement, I pointed my Firefox browser towards ITA Software to check out fares for same-day travel.

Such action surely seems ill-advised, even insane perhaps, but the would-be critic should be cognizant that on my mind’s front-burner was the thought of maximizing potential frequent-flier program benefits, thereby ensuring that the trip’s bang-for-the-buck extend beyond the immediate twelve hours of seemingly reckless consumption.

After a check of the usual West Coast destinations yielded nothing palatable, I focused my attention on the Northeast and struck proverbial gold with New York City. Fares on Delta were in the neighborhood of $120 roundtrip – cheap for an advance-purchase fare, and phenomenal for a walk-up; furthermore, flight times were near-ideal, and upgrades looked highly likely. I was booked moments later, proceeded to throw some belongings into my backpack, and left for the airport via Georgetown’s GUTS bus and the Blue line Metro service. My booked itinerary was:

DL 6676, DCA-JFK, 2:57p-4:20p, CR9 equipment
DL 6787, JFK-DCA, 9:45p-11:15p, CR9 equipment

Low-lying cloud assaulted Washington with rain throughout the morning of April 7, and while enroute to Washington’s centrally-located Ronald Reagan National Airport, my mobile buzzed into life, displaying an incoming call from one of my saved contacts: “DL Res.” The computer-generated voice, after a courteous greeting, shared the news that DL 6676, my CR9 ride to JFK, would be delayed until 5:00p. Of course, this just would not do, especially given the time-compressed parameters of my half-day hop.

(Bravely setting off)

I arrived speedily at DCA, hastened my way through the sparsely-populated security check, and headed straight to the gate of DL 5918, the 2:30p Delta Shuttle flight to LaGuardia (of course, located just across town from JFK). I presented to the gate agent the quandary of my delayed sector and short NYC ground-time, concluding with the request that I take the Shuttle instead, and the agent straight-away presented me with a boarding pass for the flight. After quickly stocking-up on a fresh roasted turkey sandwich and a banana for the flight, and thereafter availing myself of the day’s FT and NYT from the stash that Delta provides complimentary for Shuttle passengers, I took my seat near the gate, where boarding had just commenced. The reason for my reticent disposition towards marching down the jetway was – as many Delta flyers know quite well – that the airline clears upgrades but fifteen minutes before departure.

Now, a word about this chimera. Upgrades, like no other frequent-flier freebie, conjure images of undeserving entitlement and haughtiness of the highest order. Reality, however, is far more mundane. Short-haul domestic first class provides a somewhat larger seat, space at the aircraft’s pointy end, and perhaps a drink or two – hardly bennies that deserve loftiness by the have’s and lust by the have-not’s. In my opinion, the subjective value of domestic First becomes significant only when one flies so much that a degree of tedium encroaches upon the experience. That’s certainly a subjective threshold, different for everyone, and I’ve only rarely gotten there. Per this theory, therefore, I would truly desire an upgrade only, say, after a speedy succession of transcontinental or transoceanic treks; and I do find supporting empirical evidence in my own experiences. To sum up, then, I hope that talk of upgrades does not conjure associations of sickly snobbishness. An upgrade is graciously appreciated, but nineteen times out of twenty, flying in the back – even way, way in the pits – can still be a thoroughly positive experience.

As 2:15p struck – and I could almost hear the clock tower of Healy Hall some four-and-a-half miles to the north-northwest – the gate agent began to move down the list. After butchering my admittedly difficult surname, I had a new boarding pass in hand and proceeded finally towards the waiting Embraer 175.

On a side note, Delta recently replaced their MD-80 “Maddog” Shuttle service with the significantly smaller E75 aircraft, a move that places the airline at a capacity disadvantage but a fixed-cost advantage against their arch competitor on the route, the US Airways Shuttle. Given the present economic turmoil, it seems like a shrewd move.

I stepped into the cabin and noticed that F was about half-filled, but seat 1A, a prime spot since seating in this cabin is one-aisle-two, was unfilled. I proceeded to settle in, and, after enjoying a pre-departure glass of orange juice, noticed that we were beginning our push-back right on schedule.

The flight was absolutely delightful. Our journey commenced with a roll down runway 14 (shorter than runway 19 and used only by regional aircraft only) and a vigorous climb into the unsettled, mostly cloudy skies; winds had already blown most of the land-hugging rain cloud towards the northwest. I made short work of my brought-aboard sandwich and banana, enjoyed a 187.5ml bottle of mediocre merlot, and helped myself to another banana and Delta’s ubiquitous Biscoff cookies from a snack basket passed around by the courteous flight attendant. Soon enough, our pilot-in-command was executing alternating crisp turns to dodge the cumulous giants; we were catching up with the inclement weather and soon enough were taxiing through a persistent shower to our Marine Air Terminal gate at LGA.


3:40p, Monday April 7. New York City.

The Marine Air Terminal is lovely: diminutive and calm, elegant with oozing historicity, enshrined with evocative mural-work and sculpture, comfortable with spacious lounge-seating and club-like atmosphere. Alas, I did not linger to breath-in the milieu, and my dash outdoors, into the precipitation, proved particularly prescient, as my arrival at the adjacent bus-stop coincided with that of the sluggish M60. I was forearmed with a valid Metrocard, from which $2.00 in fare was deducted, and we slowly stepped away into the sluggish weather and traffic. A few minutes later, I changed for the N line at Astoria, and as the New York markets closed at 16:00 I was emerging from the subway at Lexington and 59th.

Here my fortunes temporarily dipped. Increasingly cognizant of a pulsating, hunger-induced headache, I darted into a promising-looking local diner. Per my book, this is as good as it gets; I love discovering dives that are off-the-beaten-path, gloriously unfranchised, idiosyncratic and independent, fiercely local. Yet the “East Sider Chicken Sandwich” I ordered was a risky leap off a sea-hugging cliff – straight into barely submerged, jagged rock of greasiness, excessive saltiness, and over-reliance on unappetizing white bread. I sought to remedy the precarious culinary condition with a new-found favourite: Fage Greek yoghurt with honey, washed down with a lovely V8 (I cannot possibly be the only one that likes this drink!). Alas, the Fage was of the full-fat variety, and I could not stomach the whole container. My final dubious decision of the visit was a last-ditch splurge on grapefruit juice, only to discover it to be pumped full of sugar (it tasted nothing like the Trader Joes grapefruit juice, which is magnificent).


Knocking the establishment’s proverbial dust off my shoes, I ventured into the rain anew, determined to head north along Lexington in search of a Starbucks. Yes, I do think their coffee is generally horrible (though I do confess to having a soft spot for their lattes), but their real value-added is the now-standard AT&T wifi connection, to which I have free access thanks to having the company’s DSL at my Chicago home; I needed the connection to find the address of St. Patrick’s church, where I was hoping to attend 5:30p Mass.

To my disbelief, I was finding myself increasingly immersed in the resplendent riches of the Upper East Side, but there was nary a Starbucks to be seen – or any mass market brands, for that matter. I did chance upon the Hewitt School, where one of my Uni friends was once a student. There were also instances of under-stated, old-money luxury:

(Hewitt school)

(Lexington Ave.)

Having reached Madison and 90th street, a full 1.8 miles away, per god-like Google Maps, I decided to turn back. I was giving up hope on this useless neighborhood, and just wanted to get on the subway (I was a bit cranky, as another hunger-induced headache was budding; this is quite a recurrent problem at times with my high octane metabolism). But then: could it be? Yes! A Starbucks! At no time in history was man ever so overjoyed to spot an inferior product.

I eagerly abandoned the rainy outdoors to enter the coffee shop and ordered a tall drip coffee; indeed, it was burnt and flavorless, probably having been reheated for some hours. But all was well once I successfully connected to the wifi. In no time, I located a nearby Roman Catholic church with a 6:00p Mass (it was already past 5:30p, and I was dozens of blocks from St. Patrick’s). Pleased with my sudden good fortune, I set out.

Mass on this Monday of Holy Week proved memorable at the small chapel beside (insert church name). I’d have never found the intimate, wood-paneled space, located through a side rectory entrance and down a tight hallway, if a grandmotherly septuagenarian had not gingerly guided us along. Inside, Mass had commenced moments earlier (those who know me, know that gentle tardiness is a regrettably frequent symptom of my ambitious schedules). Presiding was an avuncular, thoughtful priest, soft-spoken, gentle-voiced and most probably big-hearted. His cultivated appearance furthered the charitable image; full-bearded, hair tussled, and moderately chubby, he seemed hopelessly focused on a higher truth.

(Distinctive high-rise)

Upon my return to the streets of the Upper East Side after the uplifting service, a pleasant surprise: the clouds had begun to decisively drift away, as they had in Washington around mid-afternoon. Not only was the rain in retreat, but there were even ephemeral peeks of the setting sun’s effervescent rays. All roads lead to Starbucks, some wise sage once declared, and so it was now; I returned to the 87th and Lexington locale to scheme and strategize. Back on the full-strength wifi, I googled for some decent coffee shops and found an excellent NYT blog post with suggestions. One, Gimme! Coffee, is near the apartment of one of my City-dwelling friends, Victoria, and a feeler text was promptly sent to investigate the possibility of a spontaneous drink for two.

Moments later, I was speeding downtown on the express (insert line) train towards Broadway and 14th. So delightful, that the peripatetic party had traverse (insert distance) miles of traffic-clogged city in a mere two-stop subway surge; if only Washington had a way of bolting between, say, Metro Center and Rosslyn, avoiding the too-frequent intermittent stops. Gimme! was the destination no longer, as a different coffee shop was more convenient for V, and I was quite content to simply avoid another Starbucks concoction. We soon met and a great hour of coffee and light supper followed.

8:15p, my provisional time for commencing the return to distant JFK, came and went – my being firmly ensconced within post-modernism’s version of the town square (i.e. the coffee shop) until half-nine. Yet even the quarter-past-eight goal was optimistic, as any Soho frequent traveler would attest, for making a 9:45p departure from JFK. Once I was finally underway, I knew the terminal arrival would be nail-bitingly close.

(Underground tunnel with curious parallel steel ribbons)


I dashed to 34th on the N subway and waited only a few minutes for the next Long Island Railroad (LIRR) departure for Jamaica. Enroute, I consulted the Skyteam timetable for re-route options but found the pickings slim. Not only were there no later Delta flights to any Washington-area airport, I was finding absolutely no domestic Delta flights departing after my flight – until I checked Boston, that is. There was my one, single Plan B: a 10:00p departure, from which I could connect to a 6:40a flight on the following morning to Washington Reagan. Such an itinerary would get me into the District nearly an hour earlier than if flying the first morning nonstop from JFK. Furthermore, I knew I’d be in no mood to take the “ride of shame” – the Airtrain back and then the LIRR into town – after potentially missing my flight, hence making the 10:00p service to Boston a preferred outcome.

I pulled into Jamaica at approximately 9:15p and proceeded to execute a no-holds-barred sprint to the Airtrain platform located some 250 meters away. Departure on the computer-guided railway occurred at 9:20p, with only twenty-five minutes remaining until departure and fifteen until the scheduled closing of the gate.

It must be re-iterated: the situation was not utterly bleak. As I had purchased my $68 ticket earlier in the day, I was entitled to a full refund for any reason, per Delta’s 24-hour cancellation policy. Thus, a missed flight would not entail forfeiture of monies paid. Furthermore, there remained the option of the Chinatown bus lines to Washington; though admittedly unappealing, the bus could get me to my Georgetown University campus bed by the early morning.

The Airtrain pulled into the Terminal 2 station at precisely 9:30p and, needless to say, I sprinted off. Up the escalator with but a curt apology to the right-side standees as I whizzed past, acceleration to full Michael Johnson speed down the moving walkway, an impatient descent down the lethargic lift to the departures level.

Needing the miracle of an empty security line, fate instead dealt the near-knockout blow of closed security check. Not having much prior experience with Delta’s JFK operations, I had not realized that the premium passenger lobby closes prior to departure of the last bank of flights. Now, ever more harried, I hustled down a cruel labyrinth of serpentine turns and poor signage to another check-in lobby at the terminal’s back-side; to increase my travails further still, the relocation even required a dash through the now-pouring rain outside.

Finally through security, the time was approximately 9:45p and, upon quickly consulting a departures board for the identity of my gate, proceeded to run, laptop computer hugged firmly to my chest and backpack plopping around on right shoulder. I ran, rounded a corner, ran some more, took a few tight turns, accelerated further down a moving walkway or two, took a ramp up and another down. My mouth becoming parched, I was firmly committed to this folly and continued to run. And after some five full minutes of working out, I arrived to a gate 25 at which the status monitor proclaimed: “DL 6787, Boarding.” Hazzah!, I thought, but of course, it was too good to be true. Turning hopeful-eyed to the gate agent, I learned my flight had closed up.

Perhaps there’s a mechanical or other delay that would permit me to still board?, I pleaded, but to no avail. Luckily, I still had some wits about me and remembered by back-up Boston plan; as that flight was also operated with regional jet equipment, it was boarding at gate 25 as well! And so, turning back to the gate agent, I explained that I could fly to Boston and then down to Washington the following morning, with the routing allowing an earlier arrival than would a nonstop JFK-DCA sector. Mindful only of closing up the Boston-bound flight, the agent absent-mindedly acquiesced, printed me a boarding passed, and hurried me down onto the tarmac.

Thus, my fortunes had turned on a dime; I’d be heading to one of my favourite cities in the most spontaneous of fashions! The rain was now pouring as from a bucket, and I dashed through the bit of exposed apron to the stairs of the Canadair regional jet, pausing for just a moment to take in the brilliant, charged atmosphere. Push-back would occur moments later and, seated next to a deadheading pilot with whom I’d share great conversation, we were underway to Logan International.

(Disembarking our ship @ Logan)

(Boston, you quicken my heart's beat!)

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