23 April 2006

Guantanamo and Culture Shock

The only disappointment in our first St. Barths season was the rough seas. It was always a tough day on the water, and made fishing a real chore—especially when, after all that work, we still had to go to le supermarche to buy our dinner. But the seas did flatten out, and the Carib became a lake—two days before our departure for New York. By then, we had travel chores up to our eyeballs, and all we had time for was to look at the flat sea and pledge that next year we would stay longer and get one or two of those “summer” months on the water. The conundrum is that the flat water season is in almost perfect confluence with the hurricane season. At 17 degrees North latitude, the hurricane season starts in June. So while I am in the process of taking my boat out of the water for the hurricane season, many locals are just putting theirs in for the boating/fishing season. Oh well, if you want to win the lottery you gotta buy a ticket, and if you want to be in Paradise when the sea is calm, you gotta go there when the sea is calm. Seems reasonable enough when you think about it.

But for reasons that escape both Pinks and me, we came back to NYC on 20 Avril, and we’ll deal with it. The trip was not nearly as difficult as we feared. All our concerns centered on Frank, the 75 pound aging Black Lab,who would make his second-ever lengthy trip in the cargo hold of an airplane. This time, however, he was to be loaded at the southern end of the journey, on a very hot day, and was in his kennel somewhere in the un-airconditioned American Airlines cargo area at Princess Juliana airport for an hour and a half before take-off. What’s more, the charter pilot on the sbh-sxm trip had insisted that Frank be in his kennel on that earlier plane too.

Frank was much calmer than we throughout the entire day-- even when we went through the absurd procedure at JFK: When AA delivered the kennel at the luggage carousel, we let Frank out. He pranced, drank some water, and was delighted to stroll about on his leash while I chased down our suitcases, which I then loaded on the trolley ($3 apiece? What happened to free?). We proceeded then with two trolleys, one with bags, the other with Frank’s empty kennel, until we approached the customs officer who takes your confession about the cost of the T-shirts you bought for your grandchildren. The uniform insists that Frank be in the kennel when crossing his station. So back in the kennel goes Frank, the customs guy takes our paper, we walk about 25 yards to the doorway, and Frank is sprung again. I sleep better knowing Homeland Security is ever vigilant. You can never tell, I mean suppose Frank was really a Hamas dog trained at an Al Queda camp in the Gaza Strip, to attack Homeland Security officers charged with the responsibility of checking on foreign t-shirt purchases? That’s right. Keep em behind bars. I am only grateful they didn’t send Frank to Guantanamo.

You want culture shock? So we are out at the curb waiting for our ride. The scene outside the AA international terminal is pure New York. It is a new terminal, and designed for efficient passenger pickup by private vehicles. Therefore, no private vehicles are permitted in the roadway adjacent to the terminal to pick up passengers, efficiently or otherwise. (Only yellow cabs are allowed there—you know how available they are when several jumbo jets arrive in a short span of time .When our flight discharged some 200 passengers to the curb, there were eight cabs.)

Passenger vehicles are permitted to load their passengers only on the other side of an island. But not really, because they cannot wait there for their passengers. There are two uniformed guys blowing whistles, waving lighted wands, arguing with drivers to keep the area clear of cars. (Actually, only one of them was doing that. The other was, for 30 minutes, chatting with a comely lass illegally stopped at the curb waiting for her mother.) But all the other drivers were permitted to stop only if their passengers were already waiting at the curb. If they were not there, the driver was required to drive all around the airport and come back, cruising very slowly, one hand on the wheel, one hand holding the cell phone, one side of his mouth talking on the phone, the other arguing with the traffic pushers.

All this would be solved it there a close-by garage or lot. There is: A huge garage immediately across from the terminal. It is closed. Locked tight. Hey, it’s New York, right? This is the place of non-functioning parking garages and back-up tram generators..

Back at the loading curb there is an almost universal mismatch of cars and passengers. It is a perfect fury. The Port Authority has figured out how to keep EVERYBODY angry at everybody else—except for the smiling guy hitting on the babe in the unlawfully parked car. Beautiful. What talent it must have taken to accomplish this. Now and then the airport management is frustrated by a passenger actually hooking up with his ride. But not very often.

There was a sweet elderly couple--for these purposes “elderly” means “fifteen or more years older than moi”-- waiting at the curb with us. A long wait. They had only hand luggage and looked as if they had been in some sunny place for a few days. When their dial-car finally arrived, we were treated to this touching bit of Big Apple dialogue:

Sweet Elderly Gentleman: Why weren’t you inside waiting for us, with our name on a placard?

Driver: I was told to pick you up at the curb.

Sweet Elderly Gentleman: Who told you that?

Driver: The dispatcher.

Sweet Elderly Gentleman: The dispatcher should be shot.

Now Pinks and I are still so inebriated with our island experience, we watch all this as if in a thorazine-induced state of relaxation. Our own driver got LOST in the airport, and found us one hour later. If I said we were relaxed about that, I would not be far from the truth. I certainly was not the lawyer of recent incarnation who too many times stood outside an airline terminal, or an office building, or a courthouse, railing at the dispatcher because my car was ten minutes late. A different Martin London. Vivre la difference.

Because the airplane was two hours late, and the driver one hour late, there was no traffic back to the City. The trip took 50 minutes. That is the first time in four months we have been in an automobile for more than fifteen minutes!

Obviously while were away, some awful catastrophe has happened to this metropolis. Honey, they shrunk our apartment.

Ah, we’ll adjust to it all. I’ll probably be back to normal in a couple of weeks and be snarling at the taxi drivers and, for that matter, all the drivers who cross my path. But for now, believe it or not, when I walked to the office yesterday, I did not dodge busses and cabs, I crossed at the green not in between, and actually paused to look at an interesting brownstone which has been on my route for ten years but which I never before noticed.

At the office, many ask the same question. After the obligatory greeting to anyone over 70 who still moves under his own power, “Gee, Marty, you’re looking great,” comes the question, “So how does it feel to be back.” That one is really hard. It’s very much a mixed bag from the first minute of the day. Taking a shower and letting the water run while you are soaping up seems criminal. It certainly is guilt-inducing, especially when you think about the fact (and I do, obsessively) that the water going down the drain is ultimately going into the sea and not being used again for irrigation, as is our waste water in Paradise.

And getting dressed is so much more complicated: In Paradise there are three pieces of clothing: bathing suit, t-shirt, and flip-flops. That’s it. For the beach, add a straw hat.
Now I must deal with socks, hard leather shoes, underwear, pants, belt, shirt, tie, jacket, and I carry keys, wallet, credit cards, etc. I suppose if it rained I would have to add a coat and/or umbrella, or maybe both. I feel like the only thing I am missing is my cartridge belt and steel helmet.

And day Two, at Westhampton, was rainy, 42 degrees Fahrenheit, and, in case you hadn’t noticed, there is definitely something wrong with the sea here: it is dark gray in color. Yuch.

A bientot.

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