Thursday, April 30, 2009

24 hours in the life.

Last Friday I picked up my eight-year old from school a bit early, as we were going on a trip. Walking hand-in-in hand along 22nd Street we passed Salman Rushdie enjoying a a late lunch with a couple of women at a sidewalk cafe.

One thing about living in Manhattan is that you get to see various celebrities in their natural element all the time. How the natural element of a guy who looks like Rushdie is amid women like that .... but I digress. After passing within a couple feet of the man and moving on a couple paces, I quickly spun around towards him, threw my arms in the air, yelled out ...


... and boy, did he jump! Well, in my imagination. Tempted as I was, I didn't actually do it, because if it had resulted in having to spend time explaining my unfortunate sense of humor to someone in a uniform I might have missed my plane.

Visitors to NYC often ask, how long does it take to get out to the airport? The answer for all three airports is about the same: 25 minutes if there is no traffic, but give yourself two hours in case there is. And Friday at 4pm, the beginning of rush hour ... it took three solid hours to get to the departure gate at Newark airport, a distance of 13 miles from my apartment's front door. Then the plane sat in traffic for 45 minutes working through the line to take off. So it took more time to travel those 13-and-a-tad miles from my home to the plane's takeoff point than it did to fly the 1,500 miles from there to Austin, Texas.

After taking off the fellow sitting next to me on the plane started reading a book, "Modern Quantum Field Theory". Geeze. I thought, oh, in high school I was good at math, I could be reading a book like that too if I hadn't gone the law school route. Then a little while later he started reading another book, "Innovation in Financial Regulation in Common Law Jurisdictions". That was the title, the text was in Mandarin. Geeze. Who's going to take over the world?

The Austin Airport Hilton is pretty nice, I can recommend it, although it is unusual as airport hotels go. It's the converted former headquarters of Bergstrom Air Force base, a cold war Strategic Air Command base that was home to nuke-carrying B-52s. (My wife wanted to stay there because her father worked in the building as an Air Force officer.) It's built in a circle (like a round Pentagon). "Why in a circle?", I asked the people there. "To make it more defensible against attack", I was told. OK, I can see that with a round building it's easier to shoot out the windows at attackers, like if there were still hostile Indians around. But who was going to launch a ground attack against an Air Force SAC base in Texas in the 1950s? Mexicans?

Since the hotel is built like a giant doughnut, half the rooms have windows with an interior view over the central courtyard, which has a dome over it and is filled with a waterfall, indoor-outdoor cafes, and so on. All very nice indeed, except for the grackle flying around.

New York has pigeons, Texas has grackles. If New York had grackles New Yorkers would carry guns like Texans do. They are black, ornery-looking things, and screech. When one landed a couple feet away from me and started eyeballing my breakfast buffet the restaurant manager explained, "When it gets hot they occasionally take the door to the hotel as a cave and fly in, and it's not so easy to get them out". But if you are a bird lover, that's no complaint.

After saying goodbye to the grackle I had to drive out into the Texas countryside amid the longhorns -- and Texas cattle actually do have long horns, you just don't see cows like that in New Jersey -- to meet some people at someplace on some back road. I asked, "How is a tourist from New York City in a rental car like me supposed to find this place?" They said, "Don't worry, well hang a balloon by the side of the road, so you can't miss it."

But they forgot to put the balloon out there. Still, I probably could have found the place with no trouble, because there was a jet fighter there, if only they had told me. The fighter had been helicoptered over from Bergstrom when the base closed, and dropped at the turnoff I was supposed to take. But it didn't occur to them to tell me that.

That's another difference between Texans and New Yorkers. If a visitor is going to have to find a local turnoff where a jet fighter is sitting on the corner, a New Yorker would probably say, "There's a jet fighter sitting there, you can't miss it." But to Texans weapons of all kinds seem to be, oh, indistinguishable. So they think about it a minute and say, "We'll hang a balloon there." On the fighter.

Well, I finally found the place and got there. And had a beer to celebrate the end of my troubles doing so. And then another. And that pretty much marked the end of that 24 hours.