Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (holiday edition)

Recent postings have mostly been inspired by travel.  The trend continues, for now, though at this moment the travel is of a different variety, and thus in a different vein.  Or so the story says.


Thanksgiving travel can be the worst.


What with the crowds, the mad dashes, the time constraints, and of course that damned turkey related somnolent inducting situation that infects all on Thanksgiving.


And if you’re flying, add to that TSA, staff not entirely pleased to be working a holiday, and the psychology associated with thoughts and behavior over the holidays.


This can be a potent cocktail.


This year I was able to add an additional wrinkle to an already furrowed brow. 


Rush hour. 


Bad enough that Brettt Ratner got to make three films with this title, now I had to star in my own feature, experiencing just about the worst our capital city has to offer right before I was set to head off on a six hour cross-country flight.


Wonderful.  Just wonderful.


Now you have to understand that I love driving.  I’m damn good at it.  Driving.  Even parking.  Getting from A to B.  Even from A to C.  Can navigate without maps.  Have great stories from the road from over the years.  Even have a great car for driving, one that can hug the road, accelerate the heart, and still be efficient in this time of green.   But fortunately I don’t have to commute for work, so I am able to avoid that daily grind, certainly that grind which involves bumper to bumper traffic for miles at a clip.


Until yesterday, that is.


The day before the day before thanksgiving. 


So you would think the traffic would not be that bad, that people would not be jamming the roads and highways surrounding our fair city.  There was no opera out on the turnpike this night, just a misting rain that slowed us all to zombie speed, testing the patience of those of us with hard flight times, and seriously causing anxiety and a not insignificant amount of stress.


15 minutes to get out of my zip code.  40 minutes to cover what typically takes 10, when traffic moves at what the professionals call ‘highway speed.’


All the way thinking, just a little bit of rain after dark, and the entire region is reduced to a bright series of red and white serpentine steel chains.  While also thinking, are we gonna make it.  And thinking further of John Candy and Steve Martin and about the best road movie ever made, sorry Bing and Bob, and hoping, hoping, I don’t have to end up sleeping next to a fat snoring guy.  Anywhere.


At the 45 minute mark, which should have been the 12 minute mark, a turn onto the airport access road produced the first smile in quite some time.  It was just about all clear ahead, nothing but state troopers and slow minivans to temper the pace.


And with not much time to spare, a few wasted moments searching for a suitable parking spot (don’t want the jalopy doors dinged any more, you know), it was on the shuttle bus, off to the airport, and the pleasure of checking in, stripping down for TSA, and trying to avoid being OJ in order to get to the plane.


Suffice it to say that the system worked, though there are plenty of bugs in it.  Along with a fair number of cars, busses, uniformed security folks, and an occasional pleasant airline professional along the way.


Now, about that rental car operation at SFO.


Oh, yeah, have a happy Thanksgiving.


Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Lost in America (Part Deux)

On the road again.

That’s just about all I know about Willie Nelson. The line from the ‘70’s. That and the fact that he likes pot, and didn’t like the IRS for some time.

Plenty of songwriters have written about traveling.

Jackson Browne had a great tune, also from the ‘70’s, called ‘The Road,’ in which he lamented about the loneliness, even amidst the groupies and acclaim.

Can’t speak for the groupies (does the woman providing complimentary beverages in the hotel lobby count?) or acclaim, or even for loneliness, but the road can certainly wear on the body, and the mind.

On an individual basis, this has been a year of significant travel. To date, two trans-Atlantic trips, one half-Pacific trip, two trips to the west coast, and numerous trips to the Midwest, New England, and the Gulf Coast. And there’s one more trip to California, another to Germany, and a holiday swing through several southern states still ahead.

In total this will mean over 100 nights away from home. Almost a third of the year. Most of this has been work related, though some has been for family, some for fun, and the rest some combination. The combination works out well, even when there are morning meetings, or long mornings traveling in advance of an afternoon lecture, or even a connecting flight to make it to a program or an event.

I was reminded of this, inadvertently, just yesterday. Following a lecture at the University of Missouri, a friend on the Mizzou faculty noted that by years end he will have logged 105 nights away from Columbia. I’m not gonna comment on whether that’s a good thing or not, but it did get me to thinking.

What I first thought of was what I see on the road. Not from 35,000 feet, but from ground level, when walking about, or talking with hotel staff, taxi drivers, guys working at parking lots, even folks on the street. Talking about the economy, and the challenges we all face, is surprisingly easy. People are more comfortable talking about this than you would think. It’s not sex or religion. Those are still tougher subjects. But the economy, and finance, it’s certainly open season.

Amidst our prevailing economic conditions, there are still crowds at airports, lines at restaurants, and congestion at hotel checkouts. But the signs of economic uncertainty, and worse, grow ever more clear.

Just this past week in St. Louis, downtown seemed abandoned by day, the hockey arena was literally half full for a Tuesday night game, trendy neighborhood restaurants accommodated walk-ins, and boarded up offices, warehouses, restaurants, and many, many homes (and even one brewery!) dotted the landscape.

The same could be said for the situation in Providence, where restaurants filled earlier in the year changed strategies by fall to accommodate paying customers, even if they were dancers and drinkers, not diners and wine connosours.

The other week in New York, there were fancy restaurants still crowded with patrons, people coming in for late evening reservations. On a weeknight. Wall Street types still wielding expense accounts. People celebrating the Yankee victory in the World Series, though I’m unsure if this was a temporary blip of spontaneous and public happiness to counter the chilled economy, or just the elation that comes with victory and success.

There were gallery openings, with people spilling out on the street in the East Village, Soho, and across Manhattan. Movie theaters drew film goers, Broadway theaters seemed to still bring them in, and 42,000 strong still came to not only run the fabled New York City Marathon, but to stay a few days, and take in the city and the sights. And that ain’t cheap.

But it’s all still a bit unclear. Unemployment is over 10% nationally, higher in industrial quarters. The stock market has roared back, but is that temporary, or evidence of a real confidence in a stable economy.

The off-year elections seem to portend a significant disaffection with incumbents, with anyone continuing to represent as a politician, and with anything that suggests an affiliation with Wall Street or corporate finance. Just yesterday a traditionalist like Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd, asleep at the switch through 2007 when banking and real estate deals collapsed under his watch as Senate Finance Chair, introduced a huge bill proposing sweeping banking and finance reforms. Even the insiders don’t like themselves any more.

But do we see that concern on the street? Do the revelers to the ticker-tape parade for the Yankees last Friday, the people chanting ‘Wall Street sucks,’ on Wall Street, no less, harbor these same concerns? Or were they just engaging in ironic wordplay?

There’s an odd kindness to all of this. People seem friendlier. Not just in places like St. Louis and Baltimore, but in New York and Washington, DC. We seem more approachable, as though we’re somehow all in the same boat, from the former mid-town trader now out on the street, to the waitress looking for another shift in order to help make her rent next month. Immigrant cab drivers note their appreciation for being here in the United States, so we must still be doing better for those aspiring to make the middle class than for their family back home in Mumbai or Islamabad.

But the road does provide some great visual distractions. From the checkerboard farms you do see at 35,000 feet, to the fantastic cityscape that is Manhattan that is as wonderful on an approach in to LaGuardia as it in entering the Queens-Midtown tunnel. From the Atlantic ocean in fall over the eastern tip of Long Island, and then Block Island and tiny Rhode Island, to the billboards and rest stops that both dot and often mar our landscapes from interstates that criss-cross every corner of the nation.

From those with amusing cosmetic adornments to those who literally wear their team loyalty on their chest. From the tourist traps like Ozarkland in central Missouri, to decent seats at a Knick game at Madison Square Garden.

The sounds too. The accents at airports, the languages from across the globe, more often heard in New York than these other US cities, and the din of everyday life, from 4am garbage pickup in Manhattan, to the appended ‘sir’ heard more often in the mid-west than anywhere else, even to the all Bruce station on XM while crossing the heartland.

Willie Nelson had it right. I just seem to be on the road again. And it’s ok. Hopefully for the economy as well.

Perhaps next time I’ll write about food. You do have to eat when you travel.