Sunday, September 14, 2008

A Wild Trip, May 2008

Just before we left to visit our daughter in Chicago, my wife’s cell phone recorded a message from the airline. “Your flight from La Guardia to O’Hare has been cancelled, call 800 644-4000 to reschedule.” Although we did not sense it at the time, this simple transaction flipped a cosmic switch from green to red. Thereafter our travel ceased to observe any semblance of order.

Calling the 800 number deployed an automated answering program. “To make a reservation, press one; to check flight schedules, press two; if you are calling from a rotary phone, stay on the line, and an operator will assist you.” Through trial and error, I learned that the third choice eventually leads to voice recognition software that identifies the caller and his problem. “Say your confirmation number,” chirped a perky sounding robot voice that followed up with examples of suggested syntax. “For letters, say ‘A as in Alexander;’ for digits, ‘the number five.’” My speech proved unintelligible to the machine, and after three failed attempts, the program switched me to a location somewhere in South Asia where Ms. Patel took over my case. Now speech recognition became my responsibility. She haltingly summarized my interaction with the computer and determined that our flight had, indeed, been canceled. Then in a cheerful voice, Ms. Patel announced that she could get us seats on a flight that left the next afternoon. “It’s the Memorial Day weekend,” she explained. Though she admitted that the cancellation was due to a mechanical problem, Ms. Patel stubbornly refused to consider flights other than those of her employer. Feeling myself wearing out, I disingenuously played the paternity card. “We’re going to see our daughter graduate from college; tomorrow afternoon won’t do!” With that a supervisor intervened and authorized us to fly outside the network. The upshot was two reservations from LaGuardia to O’Hare at the crack of dawn-- only one night lost.

Bad weather at our point of departure gave my wife a chance to talk to an airport reservation agent in person. Soon we had abandoned LaGuardia altogether and had tickets in hand to Philadelphia with a connection to O’Hare scheduled to arrive at midnight. We felt pretty cocky; all it took as face-to-face communication. But not so fast.

As we walked down the ramp to board our flight in Philadelphia, the gate agent called out: “sir, oh sir.” The computer showed that though we had tickets and seats, we were not checked in. Our arguments that we had tickets in hand failed to trump the computer’s silent authority; we were stuck in Philadelphia for the night. Actually, sticking in Philadelphia would have been a blessing. Turns out that the airline uses a motel in Glouster, New Jersey, for its distressed passengers. After waiting twenty minutes for the motel van to arrive, and learning from others in our situation that they had been waiting for nearly an hour, we crossed to the other side of the airport and hailed a taxi. The ride took twice as long as it should have. The driver did not know the way; his GPS was on the blink; and he refused to communicate in any meaningful way with the four people in his automobile, two of whom had directions taken from their Blackberries. A part of the problem, perhaps, was that the driver had ingeniously equipped his steering column with a tiny TV on which he was watching soap opera reruns. We finally reached the motel at 12:30. My wife and I dashed to the checkin window-- the motel locked its lobby at midnight and refused to open the front door. However, our traveling companions decided that the accommodations were not to their liking. The male of the two was very concerned that all the rooms had “exterior doors.” They struck off for points unknown in the taxi, and we set off to bed. With four hours sleep under our belts, we took the shuttle to our 7:30 departure and reached Chicago without further ado.

I’m writing two days later on my way to New Orleans, and both of my flights have been right on time. Maybe this time an invisible hand has flipped the switch.

New Orleans, June 2008

Water defines New Orleans, so much so that the natives use “riverside” and “lakeside” to refer to the cardinal directions of north and south. In August 2005, water, roiled by Hurricane Katrina and abetted by faulty engineering, entered the city. A year and a half after the deluge, when a group from our church went to work in the city, New Orleans still struggled to regain its footing. It had roughly a third of its pre-hurricane population, a severely-damaged infrastructure, and an economy too weak to change the status quo.

New Orleans is one of the country’s premier cities. It commands the vast river network that drains North America from Pennsylvania and Montana to the Gulf of Mexico. This strategic location, the particularities that cotton, cane, oil, port-of-call and tourism bring to the local economy and the rich mixture of language and ethnicity, subsumed in the deceptively simple expression, “creole,” make it one of the most distinctive locations on the planet. Katrina’s waters, and the nation’s inability to completely repair the damage they did, add another note of distinction to New Orleans’ repertoire.

I’m back in the city now, a year after the work crew from Ithaca visited at Easter 2007. Things look better but not good. The city’s principal gateway, Louis Armstrong International Airport, has a freshness created by paint and cleaning that removes the hurricane look-and-feel and smell. The roadways seem less a work in progress, too, even during the morning rush hour. According to official statistics, the city has regained 2/3 of its pre-Katrina population, but that part of the recovery has stalled. New Orleans is a long way from recovery, and there’s not much visible construction underway.

I’ve come for the SALALM meeting, hosted by Tulane University and taking place at the Monteleone Hotel in the French Quarter. Wanting to see how much flood damage had been repaired, and wanting to add my drop in the bucket, I arrived a day early and spent the day before the sessions volunteering at St. Paul’s Homecoming Center, a group with an appealing web site. I was the old guy in a crew that, with a dozen middle schoolers from Maryland, cleaned up an overgrown lot in the Lakeview area northwest of down town.

The day began with a cab ride from the hotel to the worksite. The driver was Haitian, her knowledge of the city, sketchy. St. Paul’s provided directions from the French Quarter to their headquarters that involved only an exit from the freeway and two right turns on surface streets. I must admit that I was not paying attention, watching the neighborhoods rather than the road as the driver missed the freeway exit that was our primary point of reference. After a time she started to ask me for directions. We just avoided a disaster, taking the last exit off I-10 before the highway passes over the swamplands that separate New Orleans from Baton Rouge-- twenty miles without a turn around. As we headed back south, the driver and her dispatcher carried on an animated discussion in patois about where she went wrong. It began with screaming but gradually transformed to laughter; all’s well that ends well, and armed with new directions we found the work site pretty quickly.

The work group’s task was to mow and rake a large lot where flood-damaged houses had been demolished and removed the season before. The clean up has now moved past gutting houses to making neighborhoods more attractive for the people who have moved back into them. That is certainly an improvement. The abandoned houses are much fewer now, and unkempt lawns stand out as eye sores rather than the status quo. Like the RHINO group last year, St. Paul’s, an Episcopal organization, furnished the logistics. We volunteers received standard garden tools-- two lawn mowers, rakes, clippers and large plastic bags. In addition, the organizers provided a flock of gasoline string trimmers whose two-cycle engines mimicked the sound of angry wasps. The teenagers swarmed to these.

The temperatures reached the 80s by 10 AM but did never cracked 90, and the humidity was a relatively low 47 %. High pressure has kept New Orleans unseasonably dry, a good thing for us gardeners. By two o’clock, we had finished the lot and even did some extra work on a house across the street that retained its spray-painted “X” on the door and water stains on the exterior walls.

The taxi back, by a New Orleans native, was a very different experience. First, because he knew the way to the hotel; second because he had lived in the city for some forty years and saw Hurricane Katrina in a larger perspective. He remembers other storms, especially Betsy that hit the area more directly, caused extensive flooding, and brought more wind damage. The difference with Katrina was, of course, the levee failure. His take on the “recovery” is that most of the work has been done by volunteers (this may have been for my benefit), and he is very angry that government at all levels-- he was particularly unkind to Bush and Nagin-- have done practically nothing. At the end of the ride, he confessed that he has essentially given up. He is staying in the city because his attempt to change his life with government-underwritten training as a long-distance truck driver was no life at all.

No matter how much you know about the Katrina, you have to come to New Orleans to appreciate its huge dimensions. On my Haitian trip, I passed several landmarks: the Superdome, where storm survivors led a miserable existence; arching sections of I-10, once desolate refuges for flood survivors; and the infamous Industrial Canal that channeled flood waters into the Lower Ninth Ward. We also saw several maps that document the flooding. With the exception of the high ground deposited by the Mississippi, “the sliver by the river,” the entire city went under-- from a few inches to several feet and from a week to forty days. The water is gone now, but it left its stains, on the facade of any building not yet repainted and on the conscience of anyone with eyes to see.