At security, I’m selected randomly for a screening. The guard asks my age. “Twenty…”, I begin, trying to remember if I’m 27, 28, or 29. “Twenty. Okay.”, he says, cutting me off. Somehow, he believes I look nearly a decade younger than I am. For two days, I’m packed light, with no checked baggage. In my rush, I forget to get some American money. This worries me.
I take off from Ottawa at 6:55 in the morning, which means I’ve been up since 4:30am1. There’s no snow on the ground, and it’s mild out, but there’s ice on the wings, so they de-ice the planes by spraying some kind of hot, viscous liquid from a crane-on-wheels onto the plane. The man who drives the crane gets out and puts his hand on each section of the wing to check for missed spots of the person operating the arm.
It delays the flight, and I nearly miss my connecting flight in Chicago, being the last one to get on. There, they de-ice the plane, but the liquid is soda orange and turns lime green. I guess that’s how they tell which parts of the plane have been covered (much better than the tactile test used by their Canadian counterparts). The temperature changes from -1°C in Ottawa to 34F in St. Louis, which is about the same.
A VP picks me up from the airport in St. Louis to drive us to his work, along with another colleague from Boston. My name is on a plaque in the lobby of the building, welcoming me to the company. I feel important. I’m in meetings all day. Introductions, conference calls, names of people coming and going.
We finish in the evening and go for dinner. The VP knows his area, and I choose an Italian steakhouse for some red meat. It takes me ten seconds to decide on the perfectly sized 8oz. filet mignon in mushroom wine sauce. He asks me how old I am, and I tell him I’m 29. Our colleague says he has ties older than me. Afterward, if it weren’t for the weather, he’d take me to see the arch, but I’m neither dressed for sightseeing in this weather, nor filled with enough energy to do so.
The hotel is nice. On the elevator up, a poster proclaims, “THANK YOU! Highest in guest satisfaction among mid-scale limited service hotel chains, four years in a row”, and for a second I wonder if they’re selling cars. There’s a working, old-style popcorn machine in the lobby, and this makes me believe the poster.
I’m not expecting my life to change this time around the way it did the last time I was in the States for business. Not in two days. I take a bath, and before taking a picture, make sure my naughty bits aren’t caught in the reflection of anything shiny. Maybe I’ll find some answers.
For some reason, the windows have no blinds, just some transparent sheets for privacy. I wonder how anyone can sleep like this. With the king bed is five pillows, each of varying firmness. I surround myself with all of them, and pretend I’m home for a moment.
In the morning, I put on a dress shirt. I decide to tuck it in, but do a double-take in the mirror. I’m not accustomed to tucking my shirt in, and it looks fucking weird, but I figure it’ll offset the casual nature of my favourite hoodie that I brought for security.
The complimentary continental breakfast is worth what I paid for it. I suspect the scrambled eggs have been made from powder, and the sausage patties look depressing. A serving bottle labeled “maple syrup” for the waffles and french toast contains Aunt Jemima. They can’t fool a Canadian.
More conference calls and meetings, and back to the airport again in the afternoon. Louise sends me a message about the snowstorm in Ottawa, informing me that a lot of flights there have been canceled. I’ve been checking the status of my flight until I get to the airport, and it’s still on time, so I decide to take the chance. My colleague has a different connecting flight and says, “As an old road warrior, I’m going to get to Pittsburgh and pray.” I decide to let someone else do the praying for me.
I get on the airplane, and it’s so full they’re asking people to keep their coats with them instead of stowed in the overhead bins. We back up onto the runway, then back into the gate again. Half an hour goes by, and the pilot says, “The plane has been sitting on the ground for a while, and the right engine is too cold to pull any air. The mechanics are taking a look at it right now. Hopefully, we’ll be in the air in five to ten minutes after they’ve filled out their paperwork”. In another ten minutes, he updates, “The mechanics are still taking a look at the right engine. There’s something with a plug or intake system. Hopefully, it’s the former because they can replace it and we’ll be in the air in five to ten minutes. If it’s the latter, they’ll need to replace the entire system in the engine”.
The woman sitting next to me forces my arm off the armrest we share. Not out of malice, but inconsiderateness. She pulls out a bag of grapes, and alternates between spitting the seeds onto a napkin in her left hand, and rigorously sucking on her teeth. I pray one doesn’t land on me.
Another half hour goes by, and the captain chimes in on the intercom again, “Don’t shoot the messenger2. The good news is that the engine problem has been fixed. The bad news is that there’s a ground hold in Chicago, and they’re not letting anyone fly in. We’re receiving status updates every hour, so I’ll be able to tell you more at 6. People start turning on their cell phones, and making calls. Some people stand up and get comfortable. Others get off the plane and return with personal pizzas. The woman next to me fumbles around for a box of Tic Tacs in her bag, pops two in her mouth, and begins shaking in an unsettling manner with her hand to her mouth.
After sitting on the plane for two hours, I look at my watch. It’s 5:10. I look at the boarding pass for my connecting flight. It’s for 6:30, and with the time difference, I’ll miss it if I’m not in Chicago in 20 minutes, with a 50 minute flight in between. I get off the plane, and decide to stay another night, instead of flying to Chicago and being stranded at the airport. Good thing I was expecting something like this to happen. Otherwise, I’d be disappointed.
I get on the phone with our corporate travel agency to reschedule my return trip home. I tell the agent about my cat, and how I just want to get home to make sure she has enough food3. She takes care of me, and books me a hotel close to the airport.
Another night is another chance to talk with this fascinating VP. He picks me up from the airport and we have dinner. He’s proven to be a very balanced man, who has an eclectic taste in movies, literature, and music, and grew up with a worldly Jesuit education, having read the sacred texts of most major religions, including the Tao Te Ching. I ask him if he likes Leonard Cohen, and to my delight, he does. He recounts the story of how he was introduced to Cohen; in his first year of college, he had a roommate who was trying to learn guitar, and so Cohen’s first two albums going on the record player the whole time. Most people find Cohen depressing, but he finds him intense. I realize his eclectic tastes come from the root as mine; an appreciation of anything well done.
I’m dropped off at the hotel after dinner, which is clean, but otherwise unassuming. There’s a charge for everything, including an hourly rate for TV. The people in the room next to me are watching something, and I can hear it through the connecting door, reminding me of a song by Cohen. It makes me wonder what sounds they’re trying to mask.
I take a shower. The water here is hard, and the skin all over my body feels dry. No wonder they include single-serving bottles of body lotion with the shampoo and conditioner. I never have the dedication to moisturize anything but my hands and lower back, but here I’m stuck until I’m tired enough to fall asleep.
I’m up again at 4:30. It’s completely dark out, and the weather is unforgiving. I’m early again for the flight, waiting to board at the gate. Over the intercom, the generic female voice drones on like a dystopian Eve every ten minutes, “Welcome to the Lambert-St. Louis International Airport. We ask for your assistance in reporting any unattended baggage and any suspicious behaviour to the airport transportation security administration. Thank you.” By the time we board, I know this by heart. I’m exhausted, but I stay awake to watch each take off and landing, because they offer views that I don’t know when I’ll get a chance to see again4.
As you near civilization again, the lines get denser. The scale of lights and activity make you believe in energy conservation.
I’m home. The world has dumped 20 cm of snow on Ottawa. When my taxi pulls up to my house, I see my car, and spend the next 20 minutes digging it out of the snow in yesterdays clothes, and head to work, exhausted. When I get there, my boss shakes my hand.
There were no epiphanies in the last two days, aside from the fact that I’ve been pronouncing it Saint Looey, instead of Saint Lou-iss, which probably made me come off as a tourist.
- Half an hour to get ready, half an hour to get to the airport, and 1.5 hours to get through security and US customs for international flights. [↩]
- Words that I’d just as soon never hear from the pilot of my plane. [↩]
- I left about five days worth, but Dolly has no self control and eats it in about 2 days. [↩]
- And not recordable, due to the policy of shutting off all electronics for those parts of the flight. [↩]