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Slackjaw by Jim Knipfel

United We Sit

The flight out of LaGuardia was 45 minutes late, which meant that it arrived in O'Hare just as my flight to Green Bay was beginning to board. That flight, of course--as these things are designed to happen--was boarding on the opposite end of the airport from where my flight from LaGuardia had arrived, and by the time I reached the gate, despite the most valiant of efforts and a number of small contusions, it had pulled away already.

Up until that point, things had been fine. The guy driving the car actually knew how to take me to the airport, and once there, I had very little trouble (except for the security guy fondling my crotch).

Now, though, I stared at the woman behind the counter, ticket clutched in my sweating hand. "So what do I do now?" I asked, never having missed a flight before.

"Need to go to customer service," she said, pointing vaguely. I squinted in the direction she was pointing, said "uh-huh," grabbed my bag and began stumbling back down the concourse.

All airports smell the same, I noted as I walked. Little ones, big ones, all the same.

A few moments later, I found what I presumed to be United's customer service desk and was thrilled to find only one man in line in front of me. When he left and I stepped up to the counter and began explaining my situation, however, the clerk looked at me blankly. In a scene straight out of dozens of cartoons and sitcoms, he shook his head and said, "No, you need that line."

I turned and looked to see a line I'd never noticed before, a line which stretched much further than my eyes could see, a line made up of what seemed to be hundreds and hundreds of people, maybe even thousands. If circumstances had been different, I might have laughed at this. Instead, I picked up my bag again and trudged alongside the line of increasingly angry United passengers until reaching the end.

For the next two and a half hours I stood there patiently sweating, shifting from foot to foot. Behind me stood two 20 year-olds trying to figure out how to finance their garage band's CD--and better still, how they might actually go about getting a real gig someday. In front of me stood a woman who periodically (and unexpectedly) sat herself down on the floor.

I rarely, if ever, speak to the people around me in situations like this, and saw no reason to start. After some time, I saw that the line was leading to a counter and not just into a big open pit in the floor through which we would all be dropped (which is what I expected).

Behind the counter sat two tired but patient-looking women. Best that they get patient types to sit there, as their job was to listen to the complaints of every pissed-off United passenger in O'Hare.

The last two people in front of me, as it finally neared my turn, seemed to have enough troubles and complaints between then to make up for everyone else in the line (which, though now behind me, still stretched back to where I started and perhaps further still). By this time, my own anger and frustration had faded away, and listening to these two--the sitting woman and a bald man trying to get to St. Louis--improved my mood even more. (I do seem to feed off the rancor of others).

The woman was doing a lot of screaming and counter-thumping, and the bald man was refusing to budge, insisting that he be booked onto a flight that had already left. I could hear the patience of the two women behind the counter wearing thin. That's when I knew exactly what needed to be done.

When the woman finally stomped away, I strolled up to the counter, smiled, and said hello. I was sweet as fucking pie.

"Well, ma'am," I said, "It seems my flight from LaGuardia was delayed, but my connecting flight here was…well…it was not." The woman smiled back, I said "Please" and "Thank you," and within 60 seconds, as the bald man stared on in mute horror, I was handed a new ticket for a flight that left in half an hour. As she handed it to me, the customer service rep whispered, "These people can be such assholes." But I already knew that.

While I waited to board the plane, I heard what sounded like an infant screaming. Thing is, it sounded like it was screaming outside, by the plane. This was very odd. Then once in the plane, I heard the infant screaming again--though it still sounded like it was somewhere outside of the plane. Knowing that this wasn't possible, I decided instead to accept it as a bad omen.

Turns out I was right--but not about that particular flight, which went quite smoothly. No, the flight that baby's wail was warning me about took place four days later, after a weekend of family reunioning in Green Bay.

I was sitting with my dad in Green Bay's Austin Straubel Airport, watching helplessly as my noon flight got pushed back to 12:20, then to 12:35, then 1, then 1:30, then…

The line of people at the check in counter attempting to arrange new connections in Chicago never changed. It moved, but it never changed. We were like Sneetches--stand in line, arrange for a later connection, then go to the end of the line again, to wait and make arrangements for an even later connection once the Green Bay flight was delayed again.

As I waited, an ancient woman on a payphone yelled into the receiver, "How am I dying?….Oh…How am I dialing…"

I finally boarded the small twin engine at about 2:30 and was informed by the captain that we were running late because of the weather and what he called "some mechanicals."

The last thing you want to hear when boarding a twin engine plane about to fly into bad weather is the captain talking about mechanical problems. But I decided to ignore that, glad, finally, to be heading somewhere. Sort of.

As it happened, we landed safely (through I did hear a few odd pings and wheezes coming from the left engine along the way), and after another stumblebum sprint across O'Hare, I actually made the connection with a full 20 seconds to spare.

I settled into my seat to find myself next to a Japanese man with the Biggest Elbows in the World, and a pair of strangers behind me who discovered, much to their surprise and delight, that they were both reading Harry Potter books! (My response to that, as recorded in my notebook, was "Can you fucking imagine the chances of THAT?!")

And there we sat on the tarmac, waiting. The skies were gray, but no rain was coming down.

After 45 minutes, the captain announced that all East-bound flights had to be rerouted on account of a storm over Detroit. He admitted that he had no idea how long this would take. A trip that should have taken six hours door-to-door had just passed the 7 and a half hour mark, and I wasn't even halfway there yet.

Twenty minutes later, the captain admitted that we'd be there at least another hour, and probably much, much longer than that, so in order to save fuel, he shut the engines down and told people to go ahead and use their cell phones. I winced at that, as suddenly there was the sound of a hundred scrambling hands and frantically punched buttons, followed by a hundred voices all saying exactly the same thing.

Admittedly, though, it was times like that--and only times like that--I wished I had one of the damn things. Morgan was waiting for me, and I wanted to let her know what the fuck was gong on.

I eyed the airphone tightly lodged in the seat in front of the Japanese man.

"Ummm, excuse me," I said, after much contemplation, "Do you have any idea how to work one of those?"

He reached out and tugged at the device, but it wouldn't move. Tug and tug as he might, it would not yield. He gave up, shrugged, and apologized. "That's okay," I told him. "But thanks."

Then the woman in the aisle seat who'd been yapping on her cell phone since even before the captain said it was clear to do so offered hers to me, which was very kind, I thought. Then I had to ask her how to use it.

Stewardesses came through the cabin offering tiny bags of party mix, which at the time seemed a fair enough bribe.

"It's a party in every bag!" she promised. To a certain degree, I agreed with her.

While we waited, the captain decided to show the in-flight movie, even though we weren't anywhere near being in-flight yet.

"I'm not sure how wise this is right now," he said before hitting the play button, "but our in-flight movie today is Anger Management."

Shortly after 7 a child began to scream near the back of the plane. As if triggered by the scream, the engines kicked in. Half an hour later, we were airborne.

People have certainly had much more harrowing and aggravating ordeals than this in airports--that bald guy at the counter, for instance, or those several thousand people less than a week later when the power went off. Still, by the time we reached cruising altitude, I'd about decided that maybe I'd try someone other than United next time.

I'm not sure what time we landed at LaGuardia. I was dazed, sweaty, scratchy, cranky, exhausted. I stopped at a payphone on my way out to try and call Morgan again but got an answering machine.

Following the crowd and the signs, I was just about to step outside to try and find my way to the taxi stand (it was dark out by this time, so this worried me) when I heard someone call my name. I looked up, and there was Morgan, who'd been at the airport, waiting, all this time. It was the first chance I had to smile all day.