Dispatches, thoughts, and miscellanea from writer Jon Konrath

Back in the big smear

I’m in a hotel at 49th and Lex in the Big Smear, the island I could not escape for eight years but finally did. And now I’m back, for the first time since I bolted Westward to Denver and points beyond in 2007, holed up in a way-too-much-to mention-per-night suite with all the amenities except square footage. And in the city that never sleeps, I arrived an hour after everything shut down, and went to a nearby bodega to buy some days-old sushi shrink-wrapped by Chinese forced labor in a work camp in some shitbag Queens neighborhood that has smelled like rotting fish since 1927. Mahalo!

Today was quite the travel day, starting with the double-strike of the usual klaxons sounding at five AM, plus two feline monsters desperate for their morning carnage delivered in their bowls chop chop. Shave, shit, shower, pack, and into the Yaris for the quick zip to the Oakland airport, where the fun started. I got to the OAK with time to spare, fired up the iPad, and found the free wifi functioning without a hitch. You never can trust these free networks, not because of the hacker script kiddies stealing your packets and transcribing your Bank of America PIN numbers, but the more insidious corporate entities that hype of “free” wireless either as a bait-and-switch for some $29 a minute access plan that only works in 7 of the 9000 worldwide airports, and is fully incompatible with the other hucksters offering the same deal. Either that, or they have some horrid web portal that pumps ads at you at a rate causing seizure in most epileptics, in pop-ups and pop-overs and pop-unders and roll-overs and frames and banners and trays, all of them only working if you’re running Windows ME and a copy of Internet Explorer 6, otherwise it fails with some horrible Engrish error message and forever damages two dozen registry keys on your system, requiring three successive clean installs and the purchase of two new Windows full licenses. But it all magically worked on the iPad, and it even skipped the stupid Flash commercial you are required to watch, probably for some nameless corporate monster that offers business-to-business integration solutions in this modern world – you know, the kind of stuff nobody can buy or name or explain, but it’s damn important for the company to shell out six or seven figures’ worth of ad imprints so we can identify their logo in a lineup.

So I get on the plane and get headed to Phoenix, fully aware of the fact that Amelia Earhart took off from this same airfield however many years before, never to be seen again. And of course there’s some deaf-mute aging fucker spilling over halfway into my seat. He’s covered in liver spots and technically died five years ago, but he’s still alive because he’s gotta eat twelve thousand-calorie meals a day or he won’t be able to roll into High-Fructose Heaven. He’s downing homemade lard and white bread sandwiches the whole flight, Just Like Mom Used To Make, and I’m trying to read, or trying to scribble into notebooks my various ideas on how I can build my serial killer themed putt-putt course on my fortified compound in Colorado.

Here’s where the fun begins, in Phoenix. Unbeknownst to me, there was a slight drizzle off of Long Island, but it’s enough that all of the flights are stacked up and pushed out, and air traffic control is giving vague and irrational estimates to the droids at the front counter. They come online every fifteen minutes to tell everyone the flight to Newark is five minutes late, or pushed back four hours, or wait – no, an hour, and so on. It’s in that indecipherable, scratchy, and somewhat demeaning tone, the kind of announcements they play at Abu Ghraib to sleep-deprived prisoners to break their will. Only those prisoners didn’t pay $1047 for a one-way non-refundable ticket that they’ll have to eat if the plane doesn’t show, because that common perception that “oh, the airlines will put you in a hotel and feed you and give you free tickets and get you on another flight, because they HAVE TO – it’s A LAW” is of course just as big of an urban legend as the various rodentia that Richard Gere and/or John Wayne had impacted in their colons. The only legally binding clause in the ticket agreement these days is that they can charge you for any damn thing they want with nothing in return, and Never Forget 9/11, or the terrorists win. Read the fine print, although you now have to print it out yourself on your own dime with your inkjet at home, or they charge you an extra $75 documentation fee, so be careful.

I walk over to CPK and order a pizza for roughly twice the cost of a ballpark mini-pizza (I hope I can expense this crap) and wait for #32 to get magically called. A bright blonde woman who first looked twenty and then looked forty smiled at me, while juggling a small child. I noticed a lot of this phenomenon – these women who were 19 going on 37, or maybe the other way around. It could be all of the various strains of high-test melanoma from the two-barreled punch of higher altitude and unrelenting sunshine. Maybe all of the people under eighty in Arizona who weren’t trucked in by the burros to mow lawns and build crappy tract houses by the dozen are this same sort of creature, the down-and-out woman who either has their looks to go on, or knows how to brew up a mean batch of speed in her bathtub, because there’s no other way to make money out in these parts unless you’ve got fifty years of 401K and pension sending you annuity checks out of your fixed income every month. Arizona’s a place you end up, not a place you aspire to, and aside from the obviously out-of-place strangers transferring from one plane to another, you could tell on the faces of these people what the deal was. It was like looking into the eyes of a South Vietnamese mother who is trying cling to the skids of your Huey helicopter as you leave the Saigon embassy rooftop in 1975. There is no noble escape from this hellhole.

And on that day, my escape was not guaranteed, regardless of the prepaid papers e-given to me by the corporate travel agency. As I sat in the concourse, tapping away at this iPad, the flight to JFK right in front of mine boarded, got ready to push out, and then the flight crew railroaded everyone back off the flight, like the eleventh hijacker was in the back row waving a pair of mini-Uzis with extended clips and praising Allah. After everyone poured back out of the AirBus, they cancelled the flight, and I got to listen to a full load of human intolerance bitch out the ticket agents, each one blue in the face screaming about what they were going to do, every one doubting the legitimacy of any pretense that said agent’s parents were legally married at the time of their conception.

And here’s the deal: everyone’s heard an endless tirade on how the TSA is groping and prodding and touching and juggling and scanning and detaining this holiday season. But the only hostility I saw were the passengers, taking down the airline employees like a late-eighties Mike Tyson in some tune-up fight against a no-name amateur that owed their booking agent too many favors. I cleared the security area in record time, probably faster than I’d get in and out of the average Taco Bell during a light lunch hour. Maybe it’s because I wasn’t trying to carry on a fully decorated christmas tree, a 14-piece ginsu knife set, and a completely stocked 500-gallon saltwater aquarium without taking off my shoes first. People need to own up to the fact that they may be the broken gear in this machine that fails them.

But yes, I panicked a bit, wondering if my flight would likewise get shafted. And the worst of it was not the vague attempts at clarifying the situation, or the inaccuracy of the weather channel’s maps, which are generally good with a +/- 50 degree tolerance. It was the CNN loop playing above my head. I could not pop in the earbuds and launch some Slayer at max volume to drown out the propaganda channel, so I got something like this every five minutes:


[Tip: if you pair a bluetooth keyboard to your iPad, either unpair it or shut off the bluetooth before you pack it all back in your bag. I locked the machine and stuffed everything in my messenger bag, and ten seconds later, the buttons on the keyboard depressed and launched the iPad. Of course the first track in my iTunes listing is an Anal Cunt song that’s about eight minutes of feedback and verbal destruction, and of course it started playing at maximum volume. Good stuff, unless the idea of being marched off by TSA air marshals and thrown into some kind of military tribunal as a terror suspect isn’t your idea of good, in which it’s not good stuff. End of tip.]

The flight times vacillated endlessly, and finally two hours after our original departure, they told everyone to cut the shit and line up and act like human beings so they could get all passengers on the damn plane and get in the air before ATC changed their minds again, which was 100% likely. I was, of course, in group 5, the last group to board. And all of my gear was in a carry-on, which meant that right before I boarded, the flight attendants announced all overhead bins were filled and “anyone with track boards would have to check them at the gate”. At that point, me and the 47 people behind me all said “what the fuck is a track board?”, except it was a completely asynchronous event, with one person asking, no clear answer, the same thing repeated, another person asking, etc. Then a woman with a roller bag (track board, whatever) zipped past me, at which point I said “there’s no more room overhead”, at which point she snapped and said “THIS IS GOING UNDER MY SEAT” with the same level of contempt a Rockefellar heir would give a Pakistani street urchin attempting to shoot homemade crank into his unwashed scrotum.

I checked my bag, fought my way to 15C, and of course there was an empty space in the overhead above my seat. Not only that, but my winter coat, my various medications I use to sleep or not sleep at any given point of the day, four Armani suits, and a small deep-sea diving harpoon pistol were in the roller bag/track board (unloaded, of course – I read their stupid web site before leaving) and I almost knew I would never see it again, or this would doom us all into being loaded and then unloaded, to be forced to sleep in the airport for days until we got routed to Ann Arbor, Michigan on propellor planes like the ones used to kill Buddy Holly and so on. This seat was next to a somewhat less morbidly obese woman and husband, both flipping through the Sky Sausage catalog of extruded meat products and gifts, not a single one containing less than fifty grams of fat per serving. After taking off, they ordered two reubens and two cheese plates each, which were the last edible items on the “you now have to pay for your damn meal, and we’re talking Yankee Stadium prices” food cart. I managed to pay $16 for two packs of saltines and a small can of what appeared to be a cranberry/tuna flavored cat food.

Not much to report on this five hour jump, except that I have been obsessed with this Catan game on the iPad, and I finally figured out why I’ve been having the piss beaten out of me by the robot players on a regular basis. I had no understanding how harbors worked, and building a good harbor is like being an arms salesman who happens to also have been in a college fraternity with the State Department employees responsible for handing out no-bid contracts. I crushed the robot players twice, and finished my paperback book with time to spare. I did get some shit for spending too long in the head, trying to put in some new eyedrops my opthomologist gave me. (She promised me they were way better than the stepped-on codeine pills I bought in the Bahamas, from a recreational point of view. I’m sure my insurance won’t pay for a script, but what the hell.) Another tip for today: never try to put in eyedrops while on a plane that’s plummeting through high-turbulence wind updrafts on a choppy December day.

I got to JFK in record time (plus three hours), my bag was the first one off the conveyor, and I got a cabbie that realized that a flat-rate fare to Manhattan is essentially a license to speed and dodge through traffic like you’re on one of those stupid level-up missions in Grand Theft Auto and you need to get the AK and kill the Hatians in 60 seconds or it’s game over. He dropped me off at the hotel, I checked in, then I promptly ran into an old coworker I hadn’t seen in years, who was drunk off his ass and adamant to explain to some newer members of the team that I was the REAL Konrath and not that other Konrath on Amazon, and that all the real tech writing at our gig ceased when I left for the Rockies back in 07. So as much as I hate the “energy” (read: noise pollution) of the big city, in many ways, it’s good to be back.