Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Just exactly what is a Rutabaga, anyway?

I decided that I would leave the Red Carpet Lounge in time to have lunch at Tomakazu, my little Japanese place on the concourse but that plan was dashed the moment I noticed that I had been running my laptop on batteries, as in not plugged in. The meter was showing a pallid 14% and while I don’t always use it on the plane, I do like to have the option. So I plugged in and resolved to sit there until at least 80%, knowing full well the lunch places would be mobbed by the time I got out there.

The Team USA Water Polo boys made a few more passes to and from the bar, stocking up no doubt for their long haul to Beijing. When the announcement came over that they were now boarding, one passed by telling his friend not to worry, they had plenty of time. That kind of confidence can only come with being young, tanned, blond, fit and tall - the rest of us would be heading to the gate. They finally relented and left the bar when the agent announced final boarding followed by a spirited “Go USA!” A few minutes later I sat and watched as the Beijing flight pulled away from the gate, carrying its load to the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat (yes, I did just say that.)

The computer crested at 82% so I packed it up and headed back out among the rabble. A large group of school kids, early teens, foretold darker times ahead. I crossed my fingers and prayed that they would not be surrounding me on my flight.

I walked past Tomakazu and realized immediately that a hot bowl of soup was probably not forthcoming – it was packed with school kids. Apparently they had emptied the summer camps of California and sent the children to the airport.

Heading down the hall towards the deli at the Lufthansa gates, I set my sights instead on a Panini Caprese, a bread, tomato, mozzarella and olive oil sandwich. But when I got there the line was long and the girls running the counter were not operating at peak efficiency so I headed back to Tomakazu in vain hope that perhaps a table or a seat at the sushi bar had opened up. No luck, in fact that non-eating gentleman was still consuming an entire table as he tried to charm a mother-daughter pair deep into their sushi plates.

I turned around and went back to the deli – more kids, more chaos – so tiring of this yo-yoing I turned around and bought a bottle of water and a bag of cashews figuring I could ride the tide of my earlier (2nd) breakfast until the first meal on the plane.

The waiting area by the gate was uncharacteristically mobbed, with even more kids. Not the same bunch as I had seen upstairs, but a new set composed of multitudes of cute little girls with stuffed animals and a whole pack of EMO-anime-wannabes. It was surreal and it was loud, and all I could think of was that this was going to be a ride to remember.

The din rose and fell with the ever-coming announcements of delays in our departure time. When I had first checked the board before coming to the gate, we were out 7 minutes, now we were down 40. As we neared the purported boarding time I headed up to stand by the gate, figuring that none of these teens were going to be able to follow the boarding patterns and I was damned if I was going to stand behind a throng in Boarding Group 3. Standing there, I had a nice visit with a guy from North Carolina who was deeply concerned by the length of the Business-1st Class line that was being allowed to board while we were being held. We waited some more. And some more.

A guy walked up to the podium and asked after Business upgrades, the agent replied in the positive but he had a ticket that could not be upgraded and so he left dejectedly. His failure and the now really extended length of our wait coupled with the press of antsy children prompted me to ask the same and the answer I got was “30,000 miles.”

“Deal”, I said and the agent went to work just as they began to board the group I had been waiting with. The instant irony of now getting on the plane behind them was not lost on me as I was crushed against the desk by the people I had beaten to the gate earlier. The North Carolina guy took my pretty good seat in Economy Plus as it was not up against the bulkhead where his was and where the closeness of the movie screen is known to cause all sorts of permanent perceptual damage. The agent asked me if I minded being upstairs and I almost swooned - riding upstairs on the big bird has been a dream of mine ever since I first saw the design of a 747 more 30 years ago.

No kids, better food, big seats, upstairs – could it get any better than that?

The 747 attic is a whole different airplane experience - a cozy little nook above the clouds with 7 rows of 4 seats, two lavatories, the pilot and our own private flock of attendants. It’s like your very own mid-sized plane and it was the most wonderful 30 minute wait to take off that I can even begin to remember as I sat text messaging with my phone, letting everyone in the outside world that I had finally hit the big time.

Getting up in the air felt about the same, except that it was really, really cold but the special double thickness blanket took the edge of that. They must factor in the heating properties of the crush of bodies downstairs when it comes to blanket quality. Once aloft the bottomless little tinfoil cups of warmed nuts and a nice Chardonnay, the latter quickly washing away any memory of the whining over in-air drinking that I had been given over to earlier in the day made it just so tolerable. Eventually it seemed to get quite comfortably toasty although at this point it might have been the wine and the blanket doing the talking.

Just for grins I added a glass of ice water to my wine supply and waited for dinner. My row mate, a lumpy nondescript guy with one of those watches that merely looks expensive, sat there unwinding his power cords and concocting plans to make my life miserable. He took a long, long time to decide between the two red wines as neither was a Merlot and he then borrowed my dinner menu, complaining that he had been shorted. When asked he ordered the chicken, the attendant told him he was getting the fish.

The first course arrived – mixed greens salad with orange and ginger duck leg confit on a bed of soba noodles served with a soy-hijiki dipping sauce and sliced jicama. I allowed myself to imagine the scene downstairs where they were almost certainly noshing on either the beef dish or the chicken dish and hoping for the arrival of the drink cart.

The second course – herb-rubbed chicken breast with morel mushroom risotto served with caramelized rutabaga and organic kalamata olive-caper sauce. All quite tasty although the rutabaga came across as cabbage with a sweaty athletic socks aftertaste. In the vision in my perverse mind’s eye, the Downstairs Passengers have just finished eating their little square of German chocolate sponge cake and are wishing they could get rid of the pile of trash on their tray table.

By now completely comfortable inside and outside, you can imagine my extreme displeasure when I discovered that they had substituted cheese cake for the Eli’s Caramel Apple Crisp specified in the menu. I wasn’t quite sure what to do when presented with the choice between that and a fruit/cheese plate so I went with the cake and added a glass of Porto to take the edge of this extreme disappointment.

About this time we hit some turbulence and I was thus presented with the decision of what to save should things start flying around the cabin. I chose the Porto.

Nicely sated and feeling a bit drowsy I switched my music over to some Brasiliano and put my chair all the way back and dozed a bit. It was quite peaceful, the gentle rocking of the plane and visions of the beach in Rio were lulling me off to sleep. True sleep was probably impossible though due to constant lifting of the window shades by the two children one row up, each opening sending a retina scalding shaft of sunlight streaming across my face.

Just as Morpheus was lowering his gray shades over my tired eyes, the flight attendant came by to take away what was left of my wine. I nodded, and just then my lumpy companion decided to help by pouring his red wine in my lap. The blanket caught most of it, but two big tie-dyed bruises were already spreading down the outside length of my right leg. I asked the now animated attendant for a can of club soda to which lumpy replied that club soda takes every stain out of every fabric, a fact that he can speak about with some authority judging from the 3/4 hour he spent earlier in flight scrubbing manically at a 10 square micron chocolate stain on one of the pleats of his tan khaki Dockers.

He was now apologizing at a rate that would make the most obsequious customer service agent gasp with embarrassment. What capped it for me was his offer to “do anything he could do” in order to make it right. Great I thought, go up and tell the pilot to make an emergency landing in Anchorage so that I can run into the local western wear store and pick up a fresh pair of Lee slim fit jeans in Pepper-stone. That folks, is why I bring 2 pairs of jeans on a 2 day business trip.

From that point on I read a bit and slept a bit and listened to some music. Lumpy woke me up a couple of times by lifting the shades to check if the world was still outside the plane. At one point I heard him tell the flight attendant that he wanted chocolate milk. Chocolate milk?

Sleeping was a fitful affair, punctuated by a dry throat due to my mouth hanging open and numbness in the outer two fingers on both hands as the nerves that wrap around my elbows were being compressed by the hard edges of the “traveler’s personal console.” But I got a few winks in and was glad to see at the final time check that we were only one and a half hours out from landing. Depending on how you look at it, breakfast or dinner came about then with the choices being a fruit plate or a steaming hot chunk of pastrami on a linoleum bun. I opted for the sandwich-like meal as I was craving some protein. It wasn’t bad, and it hit the spot which is really all that matters.

My last trip to the lav was held up by the security measures taken to allow the flight deck crew a bathroom break. One of the attendants unhooks and stretches a floor to ceiling wire frame across the hallway and stands behind it while the crew comes out. It looked to me like it would certainly slow down a would-be hijacker whose attack would be limited to reaching through the wires and stabbing at the pilot with a dinner fork.

While on approach, I noticed an atmospheric phenomenon that was new to me. Especially new since it was happening inside the plane. Every 30 seconds or so little waves of steamy air would puff across the ceiling of the cabin. The first time I saw it I thought it was a reflection of the ocean below. The second time I was sure it was clouds and the third time cinched it. Not sure what it was but it was funny to watch. Perhaps some combination of a cold plane landing in a dank swamp and our proximity up there in the attic to the outside world.

We landed and I discovered that if you want to be the first person off the plane, plan on sitting in 18G. Down the stairs and you’re right out the door, just as it opens.

I was the first person from our plane through immigration and out to the baggage claim area where I waited and waited, the fateful words of the Albuquerque check in clerk still ringing in my ears. “Oops, I forgot, I’ll have to walk back there and put a priority tag on your bag.” Yea, right.

Of course, Lumpy’s bag was the second one up the chute and so he beat me out the door by a long stretch.

I came out of the terminal and was immediately staggered by that notorious Shanghai July air – thick, wet and tropical. But in what seemed to be an unending streak of good karma, the taxi line was completely devoid of passengers and there was a herd of cars idling and so I was exposed to the humidity for only a few seconds. The driver I drew actually knew where I wanted to go and so we were off into Shanghai rush hour traffic. I casually commented to the driver that it was hot and he immediately rolled up the windows and turned up the air conditioning. Looking at my watch, I thought I had a good chance of being in by 7 which would just be wonderful. But the karma train was about to be derailed by China’s ever growing automobile population.

My driver took a slightly different way than I was used to and we slid into a traffic deadlock that was without a break as far as the eye could see. We inched along for quite some time before I finally recognized where we were and the proximity to our destination cheered me up a bit. We were close.

A bit more sitting and finally we broke through and made the merge onto the Ya’an Elevated Road. The hotel hove into view and 5 minutes later I was out of the car, $30 poorer but on my way to my room and having a nice chat with the new manager on the way up.

I dropped off my stuff and headed back to the penthouse where my new manager friend welcomed me by my first name. Smart guy. Snacks were still available so dinner tonight is tapas with a beer and a nice relaxing view of Shanghai on a rainy night.

And oh yea, the traffic is still deadlocked down below.

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