How My First Night In SF Was Spent At The Frankfurt Hotel Airport Bar

On Friday, I participated in one of the classic set pieces of human experience, the Cancelled-Flight-Where-Airline-Puts-You-Up-In-Some-Random-Airport-Hotel routine.

Here’s some timeline leading up to the calamity:

Thurs, 14:00: My travels begin. Wife, son and I set out in the car from Berlin to Prague.

Technically, this is the wrong direction. The explanation is that my wife and son are spending the next two weeks in Italy, at this terrible-sounding Czech redneck enclave there called Bibione. My wife acknowledges that it’s a terrible place, but she because she’s a good sport and her sister is super into it and so it’s a family bonding thing. I’ve announced from the beginning that I’m never going to this place, so I have two weeks or so on my own at the end of every summer. Now, it’s impossible to drive long distances alone with a two year-old, so I’m accompanying them as far as Prague, where the sister can jump in and replace me.

21:30: In Prague, eating dinner at our favorite neighborhood restaurant.

22:45: Driving to drop me off at a metro stop. Instead, we happen to drive by Trafika bar (the bar next to my old studio, described in the Statler and Waldorf post) and I spot my friends inside having an ‘after work’ drink. Quick change of plans!

23:45: Arrive liquored up at Prague bus station, get aboard overnight bus to Frankfurt. Sleep 5 hours despite crushing lack of leg room. (The rationale behind going to Frankfurt is that my buddy works for the airlines and can get me cheap flights out of there).

Friday, 9:00: Wake up at Frankfurt Airport, the blandest destination in one of Europe’s blandest cities. Kill five hours reading Patti Smith memoir Just Kids.

14:00: Get onboard flight to SF.

15:00: Still sitting on runway, waiting for ‘mechanical problem’ to be resolved…

16:00: Still sitting on runway. Curious message comes over the intercom: ‘Flight attendants, prepare for cross-check and arrival’. Arrival? This is weird. We haven’t left yet. Why are they preparing to arrive? And why is the message intoned with dejection? Uh oh…

16:05: Flight cancellation announced. Shock and outrage ensue.

Now, whenever people would tell me about a flight cancellation experience, I’d always imagined that one moment you’re at the airport, and the next you’re magically transported to your hotel room with minimal fuss. I had never thought about the logistics involved in getting 300 people off a plane and transferred to a hotel in the event of a flight cancellation before:

16:06: Everyone herded off plane. General atmosphere of stunned bewilderment: ‘Wait, you mean we’re not getting our luggage back? I have medication in there!’

16:20: 300 people standing in the boarding area, waiting for one lone United representative who is supposedly going to escort us to our hotel. When this person materializes, she turns out to be the tiniest human specimen that United could possibly have roused for the occasion. She’s immediately engulfed by the crowd, such that only the 15 people closest to her can either see her or hear what she’s saying.

16:40: The Tiny Sprite leads us to one end of the terminal where we are supposed to be able to exit. But, security refuses to allow us to exit here, so the entire group has to execute a reverse of direction and go to the opposite end of the terminal. At this point, the guy next to me calls out ‘It’s OK: the people who fell down on the way… we’ve picked them back up now!’

16:41-17:15: The Tiny Sprite herds one hundred people at a time onto the monorail to the another terminal, then across the street to a bus stop where the hotel shuttle bus ferries us to an airport hotel. I assume that 10-15% of the herd perished during this migration, but still the overall survival rate was pretty good.

During this part of the ordeal, the usual social archetypes emerged as always appear in large group dynamics:

The Insatiable Questioner: This is always a woman in her 50s with frizzy hair. Any time any authority figure appears (airline representative, bus driver, hotel clerk), the IQ begins asking a stream of questions that NEVER STOP but just morph into different topical areas of concern. The IQ needs to have it explained to her that a United Airlines representative cannot help her change her San Francisco hotel booking because the airlines rep is an airlines rep and not a travel agent. The IQ means well and will share her acquired knowledge with the rest of the herd, but is ultimately riddled with too much misinformation to be a reliable source.

There were points when I considered the possibility that if the airplane wasn’t properly fixed by the time we got back onboard, at least the world would be rid of the Insatiable Questioner after the ensuing crash.

The Jovial Jokester: A white guy in his 60s or 70s wearing either a straw hat, a cowboy hat or a Stetson hat. The JJ makes good-natured, non-edgy jokes to put others at ease and quickly acquires a small band of acolytes. I usually start out being annoyed the the JJ but eventually come around to the fact that he’s at least trying to engage the situation in a constructive way. Plus, his sunny demeanor helps quell the anxieties of…

The Quiet Panickers: These are the people who are terrified that everything’s going wrong but don’t even have the confidence to articulate their worries in any purposeful way. The QPs look around wide-eyedly, and if you make eye contact with them, they’ll say something like, ‘I think we were supposed to get off at the last terminal!’ or ‘I don’t know how we’re going to find the bus!’ You learn to stop making eye contact with these people.

The Stoic Mummies: This describes most of the people in the group, myself included. The SMs have moments of alert helpfulness but generally are trying to numb themselves and not get infected by the panic of others.

Jack Shephard Wanna-Bes: A few people who are actively trying to play heroic roles, running around and making loud, brave announcements. Screw these people.

The Legitimate Sharpie: Then there’s the one person who actually is really unaccountably good at figuring things out. Your goal is to find the LS and stick with them.

Example: on the monorail, there was extreme confusion because the Sprite had instructed us to get off at Terminal E but had pronounced ‘E’ the German way, where it sounds like ‘A’. It was the LS who figured this out and quelled a potential mass panic.

The Angry Guy: Less said about him, the better.

In the end, it took about two hours to get from the airplane seat to my hotel room, which isn’t too bad. I have to admit that once we were all installed in the hotel, a fun conviviality did emerge, just because everyone (a) is bored, (b) is at the hotel bar, and (c) has a good conversational ice-breaker. It was like an episode of Lost, only if Lost took place at a Frankfurt hotel instead of on an exotic island. Or: like an incredibly upscale version of the New Orleans Superdome during Katrina, except minus the Marty Bahamonde ‘just took a crap with 38,000 of my closest friends’ aspect. (Note: I do actually feel bad about comparing my benign experience to the horrors of the Superdome… but it was what the experience reminded everyone of.) For my part, I struck up a conversation with two San Franciscans, Houri and Will, at the bar. Later, we ate dinner with a fun couple from Discovery Bay who had managed to get installed in a conference room and had taken funny photos of the woman lounging out sexily on the conference table. So, those were my Single Serving Friends for the evening.

Other small upsides of the experience: (1) excellent buffet breakfast at the hotel, featuring the largest tub of bacon I’ve ever seen in my life. (2) Compellingly weird experience of getting on the same plane a day later, in the same seat, with everyone around you wearing the same clothes. (3) Fraternal airplane atmosphere, as people had gotten to know each other by this point. When you walked through the aisle to get to the bathroom, it was like ‘Oh hey, what’s up?’ … ‘Did you ever find your sweater?’… ‘Have fun at Burning Man!’ etc etc.

Major downside outweighing all above upsides: missing Friday night in San Francisco. Plus, the fact that when I finally arrived on Saturday evening, I’d been traveling for 60 hours.

Hi, There!

My son is now a shade over two years old and continues to call me Hi, There!

As far as he’s concerned, this is my only name, that’s his story, and he’s sticking to it. Even if we painstakingly recite ‘Mama… Papa… ‘ with pointing, he’ll happily repeat back, ‘Mama… Hi, There!’ Now that he’s started saying a lot more, there are combinations like ‘Buh-bye, Hi There!’ Even during moments of relative anguish, he’ll wail ‘Hiyyyyyyyy, Theeerrrrre‘ beseechingly from another room.

This has been going on long enough now that I’m forced to confront the possibility that maybe he’ll never grow out of it. I try to imagine a disaffected teenager walking into the room to ask, ‘Hey, Hi There, can I borrow the car tonight?’ or whatever.

Belated Birthday Post: Coulrophobia

This year, I spent my birthday (two weeks ago) in Poland, where I saw an old mailbox (above) but missed the annual birthday tradition where I get to post something random with no contextualizing at all.

After a few days in Poland, we passed through Czech for a wedding, where I was crushed to find that the National Jo-Joo Circus has already left town:

Belatedly, in this spirit of circus arts and birthday randomness, I present to you this video on Coulrophobia, where a woman’s anxiety at facing Mr. Giggles is offset somewhat by the comfort of her stuffed sheep Parsley:

Where Amazing! Means Ordinary

Next week, I’m making my standard pilgrimage back to San Francisco. Only this time, I’m scrambling for accommodation, having apparently overstayed my welcome at the usual crash pad (long story, but it doesn’t include any episodes of vomiting or trafficking exotic animals this time). As a result, I’ve been thrown to the ravenous clutches of, which has been a fairly scandalizing experience:

• First off, the prices people are asking for their dorky studios seem like the crazed ravings of madmen to me. Now: I have been gone awhile, so it’s quite possible that I’m being a naive country field mouse about this. Nevertheless, some of these posts do make me yearn for a jeep full of vigilante Taliban to cruise around the Mission and punish demonstrations of heedless greediness that offend Allah’s sight. The above listing for the $300 sofa, for example, includes this gem:

The couch is a two-piece, so one tall and one short person can sleep. Blankets provided.

Well, then. What about if I try to stack three short people on— does that cost extra?

(Could this— and other posts like it— be a hoax? If so, the author is a comic genius)

• My main grievance is not the price but the fact that people can’t be bothered to update the goddamn calendars that are supposed to indicate when the sublet is and isn’t available.

This means that you’re constantly making bookings that you have to wait a day to find out have been refused. The whole vibe of snooty time-wasting makes the experience feel like a virtual counterpart to the 10 minutes spent waiting at the Beauty Bar for some too-cool-for-school mofo bartender to deign to serve you. And basically makes me start to wish I’d picked someplace to go for my vacation. Let’s just move on…

• If I’ve learned anything useful from this experience, it’s that the word ‘Amazing’ apparently means Absolutely and totally nondescript with nothing whatsoever to recommend it when it’s followed by the word ‘Apartment’ in the English language. As in ‘Amazing Studio at 16th and Mission!’.

In fairness, I have to say that the most insanely histrionic claim I’ve come across during this search was not on but rather in a listing for the San Francisco Guest House:

I mean… OK, so…. exaggerations are par for the course. But would it surprise you if the person who wrote this simply burst into flames on the spot?

So, anyway: see you soon, SF. Me and my short companion await our stay on your magic, separable couch.

In-The-Way Man

Last night, I had the chance to catch up with a friend who’s recently found work after a long bout of unemployment. Here’s his account of his new gig:

“Yeah, I got a job as In-The-Way Man at this new bar that opened on the Kollwitzplatz. You know how every bar has one guy who’s constantly in the way any time the bar is semi-crowded? This new place needed an In-The-Way Man, so I work there a few nights a week when business is good. Right now, I’m just getting in the way a few nights a week, but I hope to work my way up to working the door after a few months of this. It’s not bad: easy work… just not very challenging, and you have to be on your feet most of the night. Only when things are really crowded can you grab a seat and still get in the way.”

In-The-Way Man seems to be a burgeoning new career choice in today’s urban environment of increasingly-crowded bars. While In-The-Way Men often lack prior experience, academic institutions have begun offering two year programs in Getting In the Way.

In-The-Way Man should not be confused with Halfway Man, who is defined by a propensity to eat half a sandwich at a time and wrap the rest up in his pocket for later, or Line-Bifurcation Man, who specializes in walking into situations where people are queueing in a single line for two bank machines and creating a new line in which he conveniently happens to be the first person.

A Social History of Jamaican Album Covers

My latest Smashing Magazine rant is up: A Social History of Jamaican Album Covers.

The intention was to write something that’s enjoyable if you’re a fan of the music, interesting if you’re not a fan, and validating if you hate the music. Accordingly, my favorite twitter comment so far was when somebody wrote, “This looked totally obtuse to me at first, but then I realized it’s actually well-executed.” High praise indeed!