“So, Sean,” said the day shift manager at Hopewell Tri-County Airport. “I understand that you have been making our airport announcements for third shift for some time now?”

“That’s right,” Sean said.

“And are you aware of any…complaints…regarding the content or tone of your announcements during that time?”

“Not a one,” said Sean.

“Uh-huh.” The day shift manager said. “I’d like to read some feedback that I have gotten, if I may. ‘I was greatly confused when your airport announcer said that Flight 1066 to Brussels was departing from the vegan restaurant on Concourse A.’ ‘I heard that all cars parked in the structure after midnight would be subject to towing by a pair of angels armed with grappling hooks, but I did not find this to be the case.’ Shall I go on?”

“I’m sure I don’t know what they’re talking about,” Sean said. “People get a little loopy after midnight, don’t they?”

“Ah, I see.” The day shift manager did his best to keep a poker face but a vein could be seen quietly throbbing on the side of his large and domed forehead. “I have in my inbox, in addition to those complaints, a recording of an announcement made last month someone took on their cellular telephone. If you don’t mind, I’d like to play it for you to see if it jars anything loose, memory-wise.”

“Please do,” said Sean.

“Attention passengers for Edinburgh,” said what was unmistakably Sean’s voice, wavering as if besotted and filtered through a cell phone’s tinny speaker. “I regret to inform you that, due to black magic, your pilots have timed out and turned into lemurs. Columbia Airlines apologizes for the inconvenience but will be unable to provide lodgings during the estimated 97-hour wait before we can take off.”

“I don’t know who that is, or where it was recorded, but they clearly need to lay off the sauce,” said Sean earnestly.

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“Hold on, let me recycle this.” Jenna, being a considerate earth-first type, moved to put her empty water bottle in the nearby recycling bin:

PLASTIC
ALUMINUM
ONLY

“Hey!” A nearby airport security guard cried. “What do you think you’re doing?”

“I’m…recycling a plastic water bottle?” Jenna said.

“Can’t you read? That bin is for plastic aluminum only!”

“Um…isn’t this plastic water bottle plastic enough?”

The guard narrowed his eyes. “Plastic. Aluminum. Not plastic, not aluminum. Plastic aluminum. Read the sign. Because you know who has to pick out the stuff that isn’t right from that bin? Me. That’s who.”

“Okay! Geez.” Jenna pulled back her bottle and walked off. “What does that even mean, plastic aluminum? Weirdo.”

Another woman approached and deposited a pop can that was somehow both brightly injection molded and metallic into the bin.

“Thank you!” the guard exclaimed. “Finally, someone who can read!

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The great irony of the mobile revolution is that as the devices become more common, their batteries are less and less removable, less and less replaceable. So even as we’re freed from cables to connect to the internet, we’re often reshackled just as quickly by power cords to recharge the first-party nonremovable rechargeable battery buried deep in our cell phone or computer. Newer places with high portable power needs, like airports, are often built with dozens more outlets than would have been de rigueur before the iPhone revolution.

And older places? Things can get ugly around the few places to plug in.

Take for example Terminal 1 at New York’s JFK airport (a misnamed aerodrome if ever there was one, as Kennedy’s famous nasal Massachusetts accent makes clear). It was built, and renovated, long before the advent of modern post-9/11 security, much less iPhones. That’s why the giant x-ray scanners are floating in the middle of the ticketing area instead of behind the scenes, and why the security checkpoint overflows into the presidium between Korean Air and Japan Airlines.

It’s also why duels over the 8 recharging stations in the food court overlooking said presidium are always so fierce.

First you’ve got your campers: people who move in on an off time and take all four outlets at one of the two “Recharge Here” stations for themselves. iPhone, iPad, iBook, the i’s have it and they all need juice like hyperactive toddlers. And using them for even an instant brings the level of that precious juice way down–the last thing you need before a 10-hour transatlantic flight. So why not stay plugged in, all four devices, your entire 11-hour layover? The JFK people try to discourage this camping with their Marquis de Sade brand chairs, whose backrest is only comfortable if you don’t have a spine, but if people can master the seats on a subway they can master anything.

Then you’ve got the abandoners. They slip in and plug in a single device–a phone, usually–and then vanish for hours, possibly days. Secure in the knowledge that the campers will call out anyone who tries to take their stuff, the abandoners feel free to wader the terminal, the city, and the state unfettered by the vulnerable electronics slowly charging in the food court. While others often hope that some purse-snatching lowlife will help themselves to an abandoner’s iPad, they never seem to.

The snipers are also prevalent. They’ll swoop in and unplug someone else’s gizmo when they’re not looking–an abandoner, usually, but sometimes a camper. They try to nip into an outlet quickly, grabbing only enough charge to make one phone call or play one game of Angry Birds, but usually won’t replace the plug they’ve co-opted. Only when the camper runs out of juice near the Azores or the abandoner returns from Mongolia do they learn of the unpluggery that went on behind their backs.

Finally, the beggars. They will approach the campers or snipers, looking forlorn, and choose whichever one looks the kindest, most gullible, or most awake. Then they’ll pour out their whole life story, weaving a tale of woe and despair to try and guilt their way into power. Even though the worst thing to happen to them in years may be a slightly burned order of McDonald’s fries, the beggars will nevertheless speak of their recent arrival from Auschwitz, their debilitation brain tumor, the callous way a Mercedes driver ran over their pet nutria. If their victim isn’t moved, additional woe is added until they give in.

Naturally, JFK being JFK, the aforementioned types will not speak the same language, use the same body language, or have the same conception of personal space. The occasional violence, such as the Great Plug Brawl of 2012, is due as much to this as the aforementioned subtypes.

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Airports were such seas of harried and unfriendly faces. Maya was shy at the best of times, but in major airports she tended to look at the floor while hurrying from gate to gate rather than risk getting a nasty look from someone having a bad day. It occasionally disconcerted other people, but on the other hand she tended to find a lot of change on the floor, even if it was often too hazardous to retrieve.

Raleigh-Durham wasn’t the worst offender among the airports she frequented; that was O’Hare, or as she sometimes called it, O’Harried. But with a divorced parent on either coast and a scholarship to Southern Michigan’s pharmacy program, airports were an unfortunate necessity of life, as were the frequent layovers at various hubs.

Near Gate A13, Maya noticed an earring on the floor near one of the peoplemoving sidewalks crowded with those who probably could have used the exercise. It looked like costume jewelry, with three bright crystal beads around a central wire and a bangle of black-veined red at the end. Maya thought of picking it up and turning it in to the docent at the nearby Super Executive Platinum Club, but the swarm of people about it, and the notion–somewhat irrational, in light of that interesting bangle of stone–that it was a cheap fake. She passed, and continued her downlooking way toward distant Gate A113.

After passing about three harried families shouting in foreign tongues, Maya came into an open patch between throngs across from the River Rock Books by Gate A31. She was startled to see, nestled between a discarded ticket stub and a gum-filled wrapper, the earring’s twin. Curled up around itself and dusty, but unmistakable.

“Huh,” Maya said to herself. “If I’d picked up the other one I’d have a set. Oh well; who cares about an earring on the floor anyway?”

Eighteen gates later, she nearly collided with the hurrying form of a man in a kilt. Maya muttered a passive-aggressive threat and continued on her way. Ulberth the Stone-Shaper of Dumfries did the same, frantically searching the ground. How could he have been so careless?

The Chaos Earrings were lost, and the fate of the universal balance hung on their safe recovery from the Raleigh-Durham airport’s cheap tiles.

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This post is part of the February 2012 Blog Chain at Absolute Write. This month’s prompt is “second chances.”

I had prepared very carefully, from packing everything days in advance to dropping the dog off at the kennel early to renting a car to get me to the airport as well as run those last few crucial errands. I even bought an extra waterproof camera the night before I left, remembering that I’d used up all my shots early last year.

Yet as I got up at 4am to be at the airport bright and early for my 7am flight, I had a vague feeling that I was forgetting something. It wasn’t until I was at the airport, staring at the electronic ticket kiosk, that the circuit finally closed.

My passport was sitting in a drawer at home, 90 minutes away.

I was trying to board an international flight.

People who work the ticket counters must get a lot of sob stories (even if most probably come from people trying to avoid paying a $25 baggage charge). I think the fact that I was trembling uncontrollably from sheer overwhelming stress did a lot to lend credence to my tale of woe. As my house was a 120-minute round trip away, and I had an hour until boarding, you can probably see where I was coming from there.

I hoped that the Dominican Republic might be like Mexico at El Paso in 2000, when all I needed was a driver’s license–but no, not in this age of international shoe and underwear bombs. The lady at the counter instead booked me for the second and final flight from the USA to Punta Cana, which left from Philadelphia at 10pm.

“I’m shocked that there’s another flight,” I said, with no small measure of relief.

“I’m as surprised as you are,” she said. “You have three and a half hours to get back here with your passport.”

Lucky for me I’d chosen to rent a car instead of taking a taxi–I really would have been out of luck then. Even if I’d been able to hire another ride, I doubt that any taxi driver would have been willing to violate the speed limit as flagrantly as I did on my way home. The trip usually takes 90 minutes one way; I did a round trip in nearly the same amount of time. I actually only missed my original flight by about a half-hour.

I introduced myself to the baggage handler as “the unfortunate with a tale of woe” as she reflected how quick my passage had been. The gate agent had changed shifts, with the matronly and helpful agent who rebooked my flight replaced with a male agent more or less my own age.

“You’re lucky she did that for you,” he sneered as my itinerary printed. “Normally, ‘I forgot my passport’ isn’t an excuse for waiving a rebooking fee.” I was able to make it to the gate without injuring him, an action which I believe qualifies me for a Nobel.

That aside, I wasn’t out of the woods yet. Bizarrely, my path took me further away from the Dominican Republic–first to Charlotte and then to Philly. Each connection was super-tight, less than 45 minutes from arrival to boarding. A delay of any kind would have stranded me overnight.

Amazingly, both flights were not only on time, they were early. 30 minutes early, both of them, a feat probably never equaled before or since in this age of delays and just-in-time arrivals. I had enough time to buy lunch and dinner and keep my family up to date on my progress via text.

Whoever scheduled the USA-Punta Cana flights clearly did so under the influence of powerful narcotics. There were two a day: one from Charlotte arriving around 5, and one from Philly rolling in around 10pm, long after the airport had basically shut down. When my flight landed (also 30 minutes early!) my tour company had long packed it in. The only fluent English speaker I could find (other than my fellow passengers) was a German expat working for another tour company who confirmed that a $70 taxi ride to my resort was the only option.

I split the ride part of the way with a couple from Connecticut (interestingly both academics, like me) but once they were dropped off at their rented Punta Cana townhouse it was just me and the driver with only my high school Spanish and his handful of phrases between us. I was, understandably, a bit nervous.

It didn’t help that he clearly had no idea where the resort was. We stopped three times for directions–a gas station, the Connecticut townhouse, and a police post–and most of the route looked to be raw, howling wilderness. I felt like I was being driven to the ends of the earth, and it was all I could do to maintain a cheery facade by tapping my bag along with the Caribbean beat in the van’s speakers.

Needless to say, I was so relieved when my resort appeared that I paid the asking fare, $80, without even haggling. The driver attempted to negotiate an airport return in a week, but I left him at the front desk while I went to my room, where my brother was already checked in, and basically collapsed.

But you know what? Aside from my slip, which I attribute to lack of sleep more so than anything, I was extraordinarily lucky. I got a second chance at my long-awaited tropical paradise vacation with my family, and I seized it. The rest of the week seemed like a beautiful waking dream, made all the sweeter by the fact that I almost missed it.

Check out this month’s other bloggers, all of whom have posted or will post their own responses:
Turndog-Millionaire
Ralph Pines
magicmint
Tomspy77
MamaStrong
in_one
LilGreenBookworm
Literateparakeet
Diana Rajchel
sambgood
Bogna
writingismypassion
kiwiviktor81
AFord
randi.lee
Areteus
Domoviye
pyrosama

“No, that’s not it at all. Costs are going up and profit margins are shrinking, so over the last couple years all the major airlines have been operating under the principle of ‘just in time.’ Planes arrive just in time to take off for another city, crews get there just in time to take off. Computerization has made that level of precision theoretically possible. It ought to be a ballet of jets, gas, and pilots.”

“That doesn’t explain why the flights are always late.”

“Yes it does. Let me paint a picture for you: there’s bad traffic in Los Angeles. The flight crew is late getting in, so their plane is late to Indianapolis. The same plane is going to Detroit with a different crew, and the old crew is flying to Atlanta. Now you have three delayed flights due to one fender-bender on the beltline. A complicated system with a lot of moving parts and a lot of humans will break down, and those breakdowns create ripples throughout the system. So, inevitably, ‘just in time’ becomes ‘never in time.'”

“How do you know that?”

“Used to be a pilot.”

“Why’d you quit?”

“You mean aside from the stress that drove me to the hospital three times in my last six months? Aside from the one frequent flier that was so angry about the delay that made him miss his daughter’s wedding that he stabbed me with a fountain pen? Aside form the fact that my dream of seeing the world wound up being crashing in a Hilton on six different continents?”

“Umm…”

“Aside from all that? I just needed a change of pace.”

“Look at that rusted-out piece of garbage,” Neil said, examining the DC-3 hulk with a jaundiced eye. “Why don’t they clear it away?”

“Nostalgia, probably,” Gus replied. “Midwestern Airlines is the reason this airport’s here.”

Neil twirled one of his loader’s gloves. “There comes a time when you just have to let it go.”

“Let it go?” Gus said. “Midwestern Airlines was the first company to fly commercially west of the Smokies, the first company to run airmail to regional airports, and the first company to introduce first-class service!”

“What are you, a tour guide?” Neil sniffed. “Not many tourists out here on the tarmac unless their gate’s full and they need to be walked in. And even then they’re too grumpy to listen.”

“I started out working for Midwestern,” said Gil. “Worked for them for two years before they went bust and were bought up in ’85. They made all of us sit through a training video talking about how the company started with just a single Curtiss Jenny barnstormer and built it into the third-largest airline in the country behind Pan Am and Republic.”

“Two more airlines that have done just as well,” said Neil.

“Bah,” said Gus. “I don’t think forty-five counts as old, but you kids today make me feel it. Don’t think there were any airlines at all before the ones you flew to Disney World on.”