Recent airport sightings

Some silly things spotted in various airports during my recent trip:

World’s tiniest baggage carousel (Vieques, Puerto Rico). Yes, I know I already posted this in the Clichés In Action post… but: I wish I could rent this thing out for children’s birthday parties. I like how the modest tiny wall partition in the middle allows the carousel to maintain a veneer of ‘technological magic’ while some guy secretly stands behind it and loads bags on.

Ghoulishly lifelike Carl Yastrzemski display (Boston, MA). I swear, after Chicago, Boston has to be the most goonily sports-obsessed city in the entire lower 48. You already have to drive through Ted Freakin’ Williams Tunnel just to get to the airport… and now a life-sized Yaz? My friend pointed out that when he flies to Boston, he can always spot his gate from a great distance just by the proliferation of sports hats visible in the waiting area.

Reassuring ‘Focus Safety’ sign (Vieques, Puerto Rico). There’s a lot to like here:

  1. The likelihood that the copy originally read ‘Focus On Safety’, before someone incrementally decided to turn the ‘On’ part into eyeballs.
  2. The fact that the Cape Air signature hawk has been placed inside the eyeball. This is kinda cool, but also creates the weirdly dissonant implication that  Cape Air is the cause of the danger that the poster is urging you to be vigilant against.
  3. Come to think of it, is the poster exhorting you the customer to exercise vigilance? Or is it reassuring you that the airline itself is always focusing on safety?
  4. Given that the entire Cape Air operation consists of about 4 people and 2 tiny airplanes- each of which is the size of a large van- they’d probably be better off not drawing your attention to the safety issue at all. Take it from someone with first hand experience: the less you think about your safety while flying Cape Air, the happier your experience is likely to be.

Clichés in action

In addition to the Belmont pit stop described below, we also made it up and down the east coast during our just-completed month of traveling, making stops in upstate New York, Vermont, Vieques (small island off of Puerto Rico) and New York City.

One of the perks of sampling so many disparate places is all the little regional and situational clichés you run into on the way. A clueless-looking dude pulling off his boot in a ski lodge to find acute frostbite covering his foot (we happened to be watching his foot and his facial expression at the exact moment of discovery). A flight to San Juan nearly postponed on account of volcanic ash. Hassidic Jews tromping around mid-town Manhattan. A flight in a tiny 10-seater plane where we taxied by an iguana sunning itself on the runway.

Things came to a head, cliche-wise, at 6am on our first morning in Vieques. Imagine: we’ve gotten up at 5am the previous morning and taken two planes with my mom and 7 month-old baby to get to the island from Boston, so we’re really, really tired and desperate to catch up on sleep. At 6am, we’re woken bolt-upright in bed by blasting, cheesy Latin pop music that seems to be coming out of the heavens. It’s so loud that you can’t even identify a directional source of the sound– it just seems to be emanating out of the air particles around our heads.

Realizing that kiddo is not going to sleep through this onslaught, and that our prospective morning of sleeping in is dashed, I decide to throw on some clothes and at least make a grumpy harrumph of it. Stomping out into the bright Carribean morning sunshine, I make a wrong turn before correctly identifying the direction of the noise and setting off across a small field towards it. At one point, I look back over my shoulder and see that I’ve been joined by an irate comrade-in-arms, a shirtless, insanely-disheveled-and-outraged-looking guy. He looks strangely like a combination of Robert Downey Jr. and Morton Downey Jr. Finally, I cross the field and near a road where I am presented with the source of The Din and the following sight: about 20 guys neatly lined up on horseback, wearing sort of festive, tricked-out ranch wear. A kind of self-appointed inspector guy is making his way up and down the line, checking out everyone. A truck sits in front of them with a couple heavy-set women bouncing up and down next to giant speakers – the kind you see used for outdoor concerts– that are playing the music.

Of course, it turns out to be impossible to communicate anything in words once you get that close to a loudspeaker truck, much less in Spanish. After lots of irate hand-gestures, I eventually turn around and huff back to our guesthouse, satisfied at least to see that a veritable lynch mob of angry villagers has started to form behind me. At breakfast (served outdoors by the pool), The Din is the hot topic, with one of the guesthouse staff commenting off-handedly that the malefactors were probably just ‘some really drunk guys’. ‘They didn’t look drunk to me,’ I find myself saying. ‘They looked really, really organized, actually.” We never were able to figure out what the whole thing was about, although it seems reasonable to guess that it had something to do with 3 Kings Day, which happened a few days later and apparently is a big deal there.

This is the point where the blog entry veers sharply into insensitive ethnic generalizations… but: I haven’t experienced such an insane, nuisance-y episode of noise-making since, oh… the 10 years that I lived in the Mission District. Once I arrived in Prague, it felt disorienting to actually experience REM sleep, as though I’d been skidding over the surface of it during a decade spent with street noisy and crappy single-ply windows in SF. One morning in particular, shortly before I left SF for Prague, I was woken up at 8am on a blazing hot Saturday by a bunch of drunken guys congregated on the sidewalk outside with a guitar, literally doing the ‘Aye, aye, aye-yi … aye yi, yi aye-yi‘ song. Fuming, I decided to retaliate by filling a garbage pail full of water and dumping it on them from the roof, in much the same way as you train a cat not to jump on a table by flicking water at it.

There’s a big difference between thinking about doing something like this and actually peeling yourself out of bed to do it, but a few minutes later I actually got to the top of the stairs lugging a several gallons of water behind me. Unfortunately, our upstairs neighbor was also there, meditating in a cross-legged position and chanting. Somehow, I couldn’t bring myself to push by him and nonchalantly hurl a trash bin full of water onto people below while he was trying to tap into his inner center. So, I made my egress, feeling thwarted (common theme in these two stories, I guess). It struck me as a specifically ‘San Francisco’ kind of quandary: trapped between drunken noisemakers on one side and chanted Ohm Shanti Shantis on the other.

(Photo: world’s dinkiest baggage carousel at Vieques airport).

Sinister Minister

My wife, baby kid and I have been on the road for nearly a month now and are flying back to Prague this evening. Currently, we’re holed  up in my hometown of Belmont, MA, a town which – despite its close proximity to Boston – was once declared ‘Region’s Most Boring Town’ in a Boston Globe headline that I gleefully clipped out of the paper’s metro region section as a spiteful teenager. Belmont is so boring that, until recently, there was a law forbidding the sale of any booze within the teeny town confines, but that’s a blog rant for another day…

One of the poignant aspects of being home is all the Beavis-and-Butthead-type memories from junior high years that had nearly vanished from memory but come flooding back once I walk around the old neighborhood. This being my first trip back as a parent, these incidents somehow seem all the more comically juvenile and parochial in juxtaposition with my current ‘mature’ state.

Case in point: a few days ago, I walked by the bus stop where I used to idle away interminable periods waiting for the bus to come take me to more enlightened, boozing neighboring places like Cambridge and Boston. The site of the old bus stop immediately brought back a blazing hot summer day in 1989 or so when I was waiting around and spotted a big fat debauched-looking metalhead guy crossing the street with a brown paper bag under his arm and a weird dazed-yet-exalted expression on his face. ‘Hey, man,’ he cheerfully regaled me from halfway across the street. “What town is this?

Always a good sign, I think as I yell back “Belmont!”

“Belmont,” he says, wincing slightly. “Last thing I remember, I was drinking at the Aku-Aku last night and musta blacked out…”

The Aku-Aku was an incredibly depressing-looking tiki bar located in cement mall in a corner of Cambridge near the Belmont border. It had a spinning plastic sign picturing the Easter Island statues that people had thrown innumerable rocks through. The Aku-Aku figures prominently in Caroline Knapp’s tell-all memoir of her years as a Boston-dwelling alcoholic, Drinking, A Love Story.

“… Next thing I know,” continues the metalhead, “I wake up and some fat bitch is on top of me, going… (mimes coitus)… so I said, (with great vigor:) ‘Get the fuck off me, give me some beer, some money and some sandwiches!'” At this point, he happily flashes open his paper bag to show me some  beer and sandwiches lurking inside.

I spend a few minutes talking to this jolly reveler while we wait for the bus, eventually getting onto the subject of music and the Boston-area punk/metal band Bullet Lavolta in particular. He mentions being a big fan as well, and adds that they’ve had a big influence on his band. “Oh, what are you guys called?” I ask. “Sinister Minister,” he answers with great delectation.

At the time, this little meeting provided a much-appreciated rebuttal to the notion (apparently supported by Globe reportage) that nothing of interest EVER happened in this neighborhood. For a while, I would wait for the bus and look at the houses across the street, wondering where this sandwich-and-beer-dispensing seductress might live.

(Photo: corners of Belmont and Grove streets. Above-described incident happened in the left-hand corner of this scene).

Highway to Hellichova

Two weeks ago, we drove down south and met up with the wife’s family in a town called Henry’s Castle (Jindrichuv Hradec). The castle was nice, although I never learned who Henry was or how he came into a castle. Here are some weirdly-named towns and areas we’ve passed near or through in our last two road-trips (this one and the Austrian Alps trip) and their English translations:

• Sobeslav = Celebrate Yourself

• Tabor = Camp

• Pisek = Sand

• Velka Dobra = The Big Good

• Česká sibiř = Czech Siberia. Czech Siberia is a little hilly area near Tabor that tends to get  colder weather and more snow than surrounding areas– something like that altitudinous stretch you hit about half an hour before hitting Los Angeles on Highway 5. To name it after a region that contains 8 time zones and 1/12th the world’s land mass is sort of an endearing stretch in my book. There’s also a ‘Czech Canada’, ‘Czech Switzerland’, ‘Czech Paradise’ and probably some others I’m forgetting.

Photo: short-lived Czech metal band Alarm. If there was really a song called “Highway to Hellichova”, I like to imagine that they would have made it.


Unrelated rant:

This is all pretty subjective territory to wade into… but wasn’t 2009 the worst year for new music since, like, 1894? I was just looking at Pitchfork’s top 500 albums for 2009– off the top of my head, I couldn’t think of anything from this year that I was super excited about, but I figured there’d be a few gems I’d forgotten about. Nope. The Grizzly Bear album was probably the thing I like the most out of their top 50, and I don’t love that one. Like it a lot, but don’t love it. And it’s not like I’m a ‘Bah humbug, recent music isn’t as good as in my day‘ guy (or at least I hope not): 2008 was full of records I loved (Arthur Russell, David Byrne/Brian Eno, Fleet Foxes, pretty good Santogold all jump to mind, and that’s just off the top of my head).

The Lego Terrorist

My friend Patrick once stopped at a Lego store in Hamburg where they sell Lego parts in separate vats. He noticed that there was one vat filled with turbans, another full of mustachioed scowls and a third filled with dynamite-strapped torsos. Voila, the Lego Terrorist was born:


He’s small, but his heart is filled with murderous schemes.

I was first introduced to the Lego Terrorist on a flight Patrick and I took to Portugal (the same vacation, incidentally, that I referenced in the Chestbump post). Here’s the LT evading airport security, boarding our flight and triumphantly guffawing on a seat-back tray.



While on this trip, we happened to duck into an antique toy museum in Sintra just to get out of the rain. Realizing we had the LT along with us, we tried to engage the museum guide person in a discussion of his merits, hoping perhaps that the museum would seize the opportunity to enshrine him. Instead, the woman basically made it clear that she didn’t get it and would like it if we stopped talking to her. I thought this was somewhat prissy and oblique, given that the museum had totally strange installations involving, for example, figurines of Hitler and Moussilini:


At some point, Patrick thought he should tell the Lego people about his creation, so he mailed them a letter along with a sample Terrorist. In this telling, the letter had barely fallen into the post box when his phone rang with a highly concerned Lego representative on the other end. The representative felt impelled to apologize (?), announced that the component parts of the LT had been put out of service and asked a few nervous questions to gauge my friend’s level of interest in publicizing his discovery. Positively reassured, he hung up and mailed my friend complimentary tickets to Lego Land.

You have to figure that somehow nobody at Lego had stopped to rethink the political implications of the Lego selection for a decade or so until this incident happened.

More notes from the field


In last weekend’s Barf/Sick post, I mentioned our intrepid traveller friend Jim who stayed with us for a few days on the way back through various Eastern European and Asian countries. I neglected to write that he was joined by his girlfriend, the able Karen, who is also a veteran traveller in her own right and recently spent a solid block of time teaching English in Libya.

Karen described to us a flight on Libyan Airlines where passengers were treated to a Hollywood film in which an exposed chunk of female arm flesh was deemed unchaste and digitally blurred out by the local censors. Now, it seems to me that trying to digitally censor an arm is likely only to produce a similar, slightly larger skin-colored shape that’s even more comely, smooth, and unblemished in appearance. But, hey, who am I to judge. Whatever blows your holy beard back…

Karen’s accounts of Libya happily reminded me of my dictator-crush on Muammar Qaddafi, easily my favorite contemporary tyrant. Some Qaddafi fun facts:

1. Despite presiding over a strict Muslim society, Qaddafi has a personal phalanx of hot female gun-toting body guards.


2. Despite presiding over a strict Muslim society, Qaddafi is reportedly gayer than a french horn actually, this doesn’t seem to stand up— never mind.

3. A profile in the New Yorker from a few years back passes on this local parable:

Three contestants are in a race to run five hundred meters carrying a bag of rats. The first sets off at a good pace, but after a hundred meters the rats have chewed through the bag and spill onto the course. The second contestant gets to a hundred and fifty meters, and the same thing happens. The third contestant shakes the bag so vigorously as he runs that the rats are constantly tumbling and cannot chew on the anything and he takes the prize. That third contestant is Libya’s leader, Colonel Muammar Qaddafi.

4. A New York Times Magazine article from 2003 describes Qaddafi’s social magnetism thusly:

In photographs taken of Saddam Hussein’s inner circle, his aides appear pale and frozen-smiled, a collection of dead-men-walking awaiting the next purge. Among those around Qaddafi, by contrast, there was an excited air that veered toward the giddy, as if they were in the presence of some A-list celebrity and still couldn’t quite believe their good luck.

5. His recent and much-reported speech to the United Nations, that went on for so long that his translator reportedly shrieked, ‘I can’t take it any longer!’ and collapsed before being replaced by another emergency back-up. (Note: the speech lasted 90 minutes, which is well beyond the 15 minute time-limit that is politely agreed upon in UN circles. However, it was far from the longest speech in UN history, trailing Castro’s 4.5 hour rant in 1960 and some Indian MP’s 8 hour lecture on relations with Kashmir.)

To be fair, one has to mention Qaddafi not-so-fun facts, which include: (1) terrorism; (2) massive curtailment of civil liberties and corruption; (3) wrongful imprisonment of Bulgarian nurses.

Queasy does it

It’s always entertaining when friends blow through Prague on the way home from travels to more easterly countries. Our buddy Jim stayed with us a few days this week on a journey that began in Japan and curled through China, Russia and Ukraine. Somewhere along the way, he picked up a souvenir box of Barf dishwashing detergent:


Honey, I cleaned it with Barf!

I don’t remember where exactly he picked this up, but I like to imagine that it was produced at this curious Sick headquarters building that I recently spotted in Prague for the first time. It’s situated somewhere in Vrsovice– I noticed it while looking south from Havlickovy sady.


Sick: makers of fine products including Barf