Recently, Sam and I took our annual trip to Florida’s “Forgotten Coast” to join my parents in their ridiculously well located and appointed rental house on St. George Island. The Island, and the closest “big city” Apalachicola are balm to my soul after the hard winters we have around here; they are havens of natural beauty, blessed inactivity, and readily available fresh seafood. Not tropically warm in March, not even sunny all the time, but an unexploited beach is just as lovely to me when it’s cloudy and 50 degrees. I am going to tell the heartbreaking story of our misadventures in travel; if you find such stories tedious, skip down to the “*” where I start talking about food.
Sam and I have made the trip at least eight times that we’re sure of, and while we’ve experienced the odd lost luggage or delayed flight, we have never had a trip to Florida to rival, in sheer unadulterated badness, the one we had this year. (Not the time we were actually in Florida, mind you; just the getting there). We left from Grand Rapids Michigan, intending to fly from there to Detroit, to Memphis and into Tallahassee. What we did not anticipate was that when an inch of snow falls in the South (by which, in this instance, I mean Memphis) the world comes to an end. Those of us in the frozen North are accustomed to conducting our business after several feet of snow have fallen, and our airports, municipalities and drivers are all used to maintaining the necessary equipment and supplies (shovels, salt, snowplows, airplane de-icer) required by cold weather and snow.
In Memphis, some snow fell. Our plane sat in line for three hours waiting to be de-iced, after which we were informed that they didn’t have enough de-icing fluid at the airport, and anyway, there was no longer enough fuel left in the plane to fly to Tallahassee. We were told that we would return to the Memphis airport and “deplane” for 45 minutes so that we could eat and stretch our legs. About 47 minutes after we left the plane, while most of us were just returning to the gate, Rob called me from home to say that he was tracking the flight on his computer, and that it had been “cancelled.” While the gate agents swore that they had announced this, I didn’t speak to a single fellow passenger who heard this announcement, and the sign above the gate was never changed to indicate a cancellation. According to the Northwest employees present at the scene, the flight crew was going into overtime, and during the 45 minutes during which we were “stretching our legs,” they had all been sent home for the day. The fact that I did not begin my career as a sniper at that point attests to my sterling upbringing.
We were all then consigned to an endless line for “re-booking,” and word spread quickly that all flights to Tallahassee for that day were already overbooked. We were offered an “opportunity” to fly out the following morning to Ft. Lauderdale. We would have a 9 hour “layover” in Ft. Lauderdale and then depart for Tallahassee at 6:00 PM. As a tiny tear of sheer, unadulterated frustration welled up behind my glasses, Rob called to say that he had booked us on a flight on another airline leaving at 6:00 the following morning, and taking us to Charlotte with a connection to Tallahassee. We accepted our voucher for a “reduced rate” stay from a Northwest employee (not a free stay, mind you, because it was an unavoidable “act of God” that they had elected to send their flight crew home for the night) and moved on to get our luggage, which we were told would appear on Belt B.
Unfortunately, due to the horrific weather conditions (33 degrees and an inch of snow) Northwest decided that they could not spare any staff to unload luggage, so we were informed that they had our luggage, but would not give it to us. It would, we were informed, be “sent on to our final destination.” We were provided with an adorable little packet containing mini toiletries and a “Flight Crew) T-shirt by which to remember the occasion. We called the number to book a “reduced rate room” and were informed that all of the reasonably priced hotels had already been booked due to the number of passengers stranded due to the Major Storm, and that we could pay $80.00 to spend the night at the Marriott. It was 9:30, and in order to make our 6:00 flight we would need to be at the airport at 5:00 AM. Our 7.5 hours of possible (and expensive) sleep were further reduced by the fact that the Marriott, having promised to call us and tell us when the Courtesy Van was approaching the airport, sent three vans without calling. After nearly an hour of standing outside in the wind and snow wearing our “Florida” clothes, we finally, desperately paid a cab $20.00 to take us to the Marriott. We booked a 4:30 AM ride back to the airport, and slept in our clothes for the remaining 5.5 hours.
We made the 6:00 flight to Charlotte, but we were 2 hours late in departing because of the difficulties involved in removing the ice on the runway that was blocking not the plane, but the “tug” necessary to push the plane forward. We missed our connecting flight to Tallahassee, and spent most of the day in Charlotte, waiting as standby passengers for a 2:40 flight to Tallahassee which we did not make, and finally getting on the 6:00 flight because I cried after having been told that Sam and I were “the first two standbys” and then watching the agent call an entire list of other names. After some mechanical delays which, by that time, were a mere bagatelle, we were on our way to Talahassee.
*In the midst of all of this trauma, we ate some things, some good, some bad. On the Detroit to Memphis flight we tried out the $5.00 “A la carte Snack Box” now available because there is no longer any complimentary food on Northwest flights, not even a little bag of pretzels. The boxes included several edible items including pretzel chips, Stoned Wheat crackers, Milano cookies, and a peppermint, and several inedible items including cheddar and Swiss flavored cheese-like product, and pre-made chicken salad in a can which tasted much as I imagine cat food would taste if one added sweet pickle relish. For the same money you would do better to buy a bag of trail mix and a bottle of water.
In the Memphis airport, we ate barbecue at Neely’s Interstate Barbecue, and it was good. It was good compared to “real” food, by which I mean food obtained when one is free to choose ones food, as opposed to the unnatural limitations imposed by being trapped in an airport in an unfamiliar city. We ate sliced barbecued pork sandwiches on white bread, with a lovely sweet, red sauce and good coleslaw. The servers were incredibly friendly for airport food service personnel (!). I can honestly say that I would choose to eat at the Interstate, either in the Memphis Airport or at one of it’s non-airport locations in Memphis.
In Charlotte, we had a more franchise-y, but nevertheless pleasing meal at Einstein Bros. Bagels. I was not expecting to find authentic, New York bagels served in an airport in the South, and I didn’t find them. I found bagels in varieties which, to paraphrase Woody Allen, cause Jews to die every time they are eaten (for example, Cheddar Jalapeno and Blueberry). Unrepentant, and telling myself that my Yiddeshe ancestors would forgive me if they knew what I’d been through (oy!) I ordered us each a Cheddar Jalapeno bagel and a cup of cheddar broccoli soup. It was a reaxing space, there were plugs for our laptops, and we spent probably the pleasantest hour of the Trip from Hell sitting and eating our lunch, facebooking and IM’ing, and feeling some relief from the sterility and alienation of airport living. [Edited to add: Sam has reminded me of the highly significant fact that the Charlotte Airport had free wifi everywhere, and Memphis does not]. I might or might not choose to eat at Einstein Bros. if I were in a setting where I could choose from among more interesting offerings, but I am eternally grateful to them for that good hour.