I didn’t sleep well the night before my flight out of San Francisco; I’d programed both of my phone’s alarm clocks for 6:30am, but I wasn’t entirely sure they’d work, so I kept waking up and checking the time all night. When morning finally came, I grabbed my bags and headed downstairs to the lobby, where the woman at the desk informed me that the airport shuttle would be by at 7:15, and they guaranteed I’d be at the airport by 8. My flight was at 9:10. We chatted about the hotel’s long history, well back into the 1800’s, meaning it survived the great earthquake and fire of 1905. Impressive. The place really does have a nice old feel to it, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it for those who are looking for a simple, centrally located room in the city, but who don’t need an in-room bath.
The shuttle van showed up around 7:30. The driver was a middle-aged Latino man, and a middle-aged couple from upstate New York were rhapsodizing about their love of cold weather from the middle seat. The driver was speaking in Spanish as we hurtled up and down the sloped streets, the tops of the old wooden houses glowing with the beginnings of the day’s sunlight, and I was in momentary awe of the New York woman’s Spanish until I realized there was another passenger, a short Mexican woman in the front seat.
Despite roaming the city’s hotels in search of more fares, the driver did manage to get us to the airport by 8-ish. He spent so much time chatting with the New York couple before taking me to the United terminal that I considered not tipping him, but I did anyway. The ways of tipping, they elude me.
Inside the airport, which was obviously no longer San Francisco, I waited in line until I found myself facing an empty counter. I stood there for a few minutes waiting for someone to appear before realizing that I had to actually key my information into a small screen in front of me, upon which I was issued two boarding passes. I then proceeded to the beginning of the security line, only to be told that one of my carry ons had to be checked, as every little thing in the US counts as a carry-on, in contrast with the rest of the world. I went back to check in one of my bags and came back to wait in the TSA line.
I waited for quite a bit. It was really my first encounter with the TSA, and the whole thing seems tacked clumsily onto the rest of the airport; it doesn’t fit at all, sort of like a Jehovah’s Witness camped in the middle of a Gap store. The personel wore uniforms, but that was the extent of their professionalism. They strutted around, ordering scared passengers around and deigning to see the next person in line when it damn well suited them.
I followed the other passengers’ lead, taking off my shoes for some reason, separating my bags, removing my computer, etc. My bags had to be X-rayed twice, and the attendant said this in an ominous voice, glaring around as she took the examination-defiant tray back.
Eventually I cleared the TSA zone and made my way to the gate, where a crowd of people surrounded the gate. Again I was assigned a middle seat. I wonder how one obtains anything but a middle seat here. Apparently they just do it at random at the gate itself, which seems prehistoric.
The planes seem stuck in a time warp as well; every plane I’ve been on has been old, with CRT screens and none of the modern equipment I’ve become used to overseas. The staff had trouble airing the safety video as well as the other videos that followed, and they now sell food instead of offering it as part of the service.
We arrived in Chicago a bit late, and I followed the signs to the terminal for my flight to Lexington. And followed. And followed. It seemed to be at the other end of the facility, but I made it in time to board a tiny little jet with tiny little seats and one short, pudgy flight attendent who was very nice. The clouds dropped below as we took off, very smoothly and quietly for such a small plane, I thought, though the prop job from Vientiane to Luang Prabang, Laos, was also nice and smooth. This time we passed huge cloud formations that resembled the star destroyers from Star Wars, and I imagined we were in a shuttle, flying casual.
Blue Grass Airport in Lexington, Kentucky, was almost empty except for large pictures of impressive horses and signs saying things like, “Buy a few horse farms today!” My brother Kevin was waiting for me downstairs, and we proceeded in his Jetta station wagon to his house in the tiny, quaint town of Midway. I hadn’t seen Kevin in over ten years, so it was really good to see him again, as well as his wife Ann, and I met their two kids, Jack and Avery, that night. They seem like good kids, inquisitive and friendly. They asked me to say various thing in Chinese, and Avery actually almost tripped me up with “chandelier”.
Kevin and Ann are both architects, and their house is very nicely done, with warm colors, and so clean that…it’s just very, very clean. I’m staying in the guest room.
This morning Kevin and I drove to Lexington to join Ann at a motivational speakers’ seminar. I had my doubts about attending such a thing, but the list of speakers included such names as Steve Forbes, Colin Powell, Laura Bush and Rudi Guliani, so I thought it might be interesting.
Ok, so Colin Powell was interesting. Kind of jokey, as if he didn’t really take these things seriously. Laura Bush sounded like she was Reading Every Word From A Script, though her speech was in itself interesting, and the few words I caught of Steve Forbes’ pleas for a flat 17% tax seemed reasonable. Ann said that Guliani was good for the short time he spoke. But the rest of the thing was filled with shysters and shillers propping themselves up and trying to badger people into taking their courses and programs, late-nite TV Ronco ad-style. A huge US flag was waving on the screen behing the logo, and outside the auditorm, surrounding the doors, were many tables staffed by dozens of young black men, all with forms ready to sign in front of them. The shysters on the stage were vulgar, insulting, and plainly ignorant individuals playing the audience like a carpetbagger inpersonating a Baptist preacher. Perhaps it was the modern-day equivalent of the old medicine shows, but I’d have to say the Taiwanese shows selling fake Chinese medicine in between dancing Thai transvestites had considerably more class.
And yet the audience (I’m still not sure if their considerable average girth was representative of the general population or not) was eating it up; that was the biggest disappointment. They would answer the speakers, shouting YES! and clapping at any mention of being married for any length of time or anything military. A man came up and sang a rendition of God Bless America, and most of the audience stood up, their hands on their hearts, as if it were the national anthem. They called on all the members of military to stand up. Single mothers were brought up on stage, seemingly picked randomly out of the crowd, and given prizes, while one speaker told people he was going to heaven, while we were going to hell, and he hoped we would be hit by a bus. Then he preached compassion. Then he called us peckerwoods. There was an almost insane fervor and need to boast their own stupidity as if it were a credit. And it worked.
We left after Colin Powell’s speech and had lunch at a local restaurant. It began to rain, and most of the diners left the open patio, leaving a group of large blonde women holding umbrellas. “Are you making fun of us?” they challenged.
“No, I just think it’s an interesting situation,” I said, but they still seemed suspicious. A while earlier they had been asking if a girl who had tripped on the sidewalk was ok.
We walked back to the car, which was parked in what Kevin said others called “a really bad part of town”, but although it was obviously not well to do, it seemed pleasant enough, small ramshackle houses with porches. That morning, as we had walked through Transylvania College, which is apparently one of the oldest colleges in the US, we asked a student how old it was. “17th oldest college in the US, founded in 1780!” he said.
“Ha! We beat you: 1749!” I said, drawing a dirty look from the student. “That was probably a stupid thing to say,” I added to Kevin, who was probably trying to look like he didn’t know me as we walked on.
After watching Kevin’s two dogs, the typical pairing you see in cartoons of the big dumb one and the small smart one, tearing around the saltwater pool in the backyard, dinner was had in downtown Midway, two rows of interesting old buildings, many containing restaurants, separated by train tracks. I had mini corn dogs, which were delicious AND cute, and a chicken sandwich. We were afraid it was going to rain as the sky darkened, but the walk back was pleasant. Very quiet, very empty, with only one of two people in view at one time. The only sounds were the church bells and the occasional train. We picked up the kids from Ann’s parent’s house, just across the street and designed and built by Kevin, and returned to watch “The Player”, starring Hollywood and very stylized while also being almost completely random. Interesting film; Tim Robbins was, as usual, very tall.