Saturday, March 18, 2006

Travels With My Angst

In 2001, I was among the planeloads of optimists who flew into Manhattan on commercial airlines shortly after September 11th. The airports had only just re-opened. Mine was to be a simple day trip from Tampa, a meeting-followed-by-lunch junket that I’d arranged in late August. I arrived at Tampa International shortly after 3:00 am, fully expecting a lengthy interrogation, if not a flat-out Spanish Inquisition.

“We have ways to make you tell us about the contents of that carryon bag…bring on…the comfy chair!”

Oh no, not...the COMFY CHAIR!

All I encountered, however, was a near-empty airport peopled with dozens of uniformed security personnel. There were approximately three such officials for every one passenger. They x-rayed my bag and waved me through the scanner, just as before. No-one said anything about my stiletto pumps, lethal on so many levels; no-one made me remove the chopsticks that were holding my hair in a fat bun (and as martial arts movie fans—as well as their mothers—will tell you, a swift chopstick-to-the-jugular move can take someone out very nicely, thank you).

No, it was smooth sailing, so to speak, all the way to the deserted Starbucks kiosk, where I spent the next three hours reading before boarding my plane.

Within minutes, a dark-haired, olive-skinned and muscular-looking man in a black jacket glanced around the cabin and sat down right next to me.

Bon jour, Madame,” he said, before launching into several sentences of rapid-fire French. He couldn’t have been talking to anyone else: there were only fifteen-or-so passengers on the Boeing 727, and the others were scattered throughout the cabin after having laid claim to entire banks of seats and stretched out to take advantage of the unprecedented luxury. The pleasant-sounding French seemed to be directed at me, and I wasn’t sure why—I wasn’t reading A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu or even Paris Vogue, nor were there croissant crumbs on my lapel (if I’m going to splurge my meager middle-age calorie allotment on a croissant, it bloody well won’t be one of those Starbucks cardboard imitation croissant-flavored products).

“I’m sorry, I don’t speak French very well…” I was scrutinizing him now, having suddenly remembered all the French-speaking countries where Muslim extremists were said to be lurking.

“You’re English!” he said, in very good English. “Only we foreigners are flying right now. The Americans are too scared.”

“Aren’t you?” I said. “I am. A little bit. Worried, anyway.”

“It’s probably safer to fly now than ever before,” he declared. Then he promptly contradicted himself: “Yesterday, when I fly from Africa to Miami, I sit next to a Bin Laden.”

Really?” I said, not sure what to make of that bit of information. I looked at the man’s briefcase, a slightly worn and extremely beautiful Hermes. The engraved nametag read “___ Mercier”. Perhaps he was related to Laura, creator of one of my favorite lipsticks. I decided not to ask.

The engines began revving, and the plane wound its way around the runways until it reached the long stretch used for speeding up and taking off. As is my habit, I closed my eyes and said a silent prayer. Call me a hypocrite, call me a fox-hole convert; I won’t mind. For in my case, years of childhood Catholic school indoctrination were followed by a couple of grades’ worth of Mennonite Missionary dogma which, in turn, was replaced with a bout of college atheism that later, when I felt my first son’s first embryonic kicks, morphed into a grudging, if vague, belief system involving an unnamed but benevolent and (probably) genderless Creator with limitless patience and no small sense of humor. And the magical thinking encouraged by this Church for One dictates that during the takeoff process, I must always ask God to bless the pilot and deliver us safely to our destination. So I did, and still do, despite the likelihood that every doomed flight in the history of aviation surely had at least one such favor-requesting believer, or quasi-believer, on board.

The flight was uneventful, as they say. Viewed from thousands of feet in the air, the smoldering World Trade Center’s remains were surreal and horrific. Everyone on board gathered on one side of the aircraft; no-one said a word. We just looked and looked, stunned by the enormity of the devastation.

Later that day, I flew home and unpacked my tote bag. There, beneath the notebook and files, lay my trusty Swiss Army knife. I had completely forgotten about it, and it had escaped the notice of not one but two gauntlets of security experts—most disturbingly, that of Newark Airport, the departure point of one of the doomed 9/11 flights.


I recently purchased a new Swiss Army knife—the sixth one in four years. Having them taken away (and, I’m certain, sold en masse by some entrepreneurial eBay merchant) is as predictable as it is annoying. Everyone I know travels with the little red-enameled gems; they come in handy for all manner of travel emergencies: zip-tied suitcase zippers (“This is to notify you that your luggage was opened and searched by TSA personnel…”) that need to be snipped open; wine bottles that need uncorking; eyebrows you forgot to tweeze before leaving; magazine pictures that need to be cut out for collage projects that are due the day of your return and that someone was supposed to finish last week, but didn’t.

I always forget to put the damned pocket knife in my checked luggage, and the TSA goons find it in my handbag and confiscate it about 50% of the time.

Sometimes they make me take off my shoes and shuffle barefoot through the scanning machine; sometimes they let me keep my dignity—mine are not the prettiest feet in the world, though looking around me at airports, I often wonder whose are? More often than not, and more often than I think is fair, the officials pull me aside for what some of them call Additional Scrutiny. I haven’t been asked to strip completely, but I have had to remove everything except my jeans and camisole and endure lots of patting and prodding. This begs the question, Are blonde, fortysomething English mothers suddenly being recruited to hijack planes? Did I miss a memo or something?

“They think you’re a Terrorist’s Bitch,” said my husband after having to wait while I submitted to yet another Additional Scrutiny session. “They watch all those Bruce Willis movies where the guy with the bomb gets helped out by his tall blonde girlfriend in leather and boots.” He pointed to my beloved motorcycle jacket and spike-heels.

“I always get cold, and besides, if I try to squash this jacket into the checked bag it gets all creased and nasty,” I sniffed.

“I’m just saying…”

“It’s ridiculous,” I countered, my caffeinated self-righteousness now fully awake. “They’re wasting time they should be spending looking for the real evildoers. I’m the biggest pussycat in the world; hell, I don’t even eat hamburgers,” I said, logically distancing myself from the probably-carnivorous terrorist bastards who, I was certain, practiced their knife skills on big slabs of red meat.

“No, darling, you’re ridiculous. It’s all part of traveling now; get used to it.”


We’re flying to Los Angeles for the boys’ Spring Break. The plan, insofar as we have any plan, is to stay in the city and make sorties to outlying hamlets like Fontana, where my husband will oversee the loading of plants he has purchased onto climate-controlled tractor-trailers, and Carlsbad, home of the fabled Lego Land.

“When we get there, we’re going to Lego Land?” Son Three is asking.

“No, my love. When we get there, we’re going to the car rental place,” I tell him.

Then we go to Lego Land?”

“Then we go to the hotel.”

“And then…”

“And then, the hotel bar. Followed by THE COMFY CHAIR!

Would that it were that easy. When we arrive in L.A., it’s only 9:30 am, thanks to the miracle of time zones. The boys are hungry. The rental agency’s shuttle bus is nowhere to be seen. Finally, it chugs toward us, and though it’s as tightly-packed as a rush hour subway car, we somehow manage to fit three boys, their parents, their nanny Jade, and six massive suitcases on board.

“The computers are down,” said the young, uniformed man standing outside the sliding doors. “It might take a while.”

When people in L.A. tell you something might take a while, you must listen to them. It’s not for nothing that the nickname La-la land has stuck: Type-A Manhattan-born souls like my husband cannot believe how laid-back and, well, relaxed the pace is here. Today, a while translates to over two hours as the line of people seems stalled in front of us even as it grows visibly behind us, spilling out into the parking lot and toward the street. Eventually, though, we get our vehicles and make tracks toward the hotel, a refurbished Mid-century building on Sunset Boulevard.

Despite the now-late afternoon hour, the rooms aren’t ready. “It might take a while; we can store your luggage, and if you like, you can sit outside, you know, have some lunch and cocktails….”

We like.


Apparently, driving south to Carlsbad on a Monday would be a bad idea. Everyone—well, everyone to whom my husband has spoken, at least—says the freeway traffic on Monday is Pure Murder. Fair enough.

“Today we go to Lego Land?”

“Uh, no sweetheart…today we, um, go shopping. New sneakers for everyone!” I say brightly.

The Puma Store in Santa Monica is great fun, but Lego Land it most certainly isn’t. All the same, Sons One and Two find great shoes and pretty girls with whom to flirt; Son Three chooses a pair of royal blue suede sneakers that are heartbreakingly cute. Jade snaps up a wonderful retro-styled racing jacket. Even I, a woman who regularly promises They’ll bury me in my high heels, am enjoying walking around in a new pair of extremely cool-looking sneakers with Velcro closures that remind me of the boys’ multi-colored toddler shoes, only considerably larger.

On Tuesday, we pile into our politically incorrect rental-SUV and head for Lego Land. The southern California sky is Windex-blue, as always, and there’s a gorgeous breeze. Of course, the traffic is breathtakingly dreadful, in every sense of the phrase, and by the third hour, the three adults are more than a little weary of answering the same questions over and over.

“Yes, we’re almost there.”

“Yes, Lego Land is in California.”

Finally, we take the Carlsbad exit, cheering wildly, and turn into the amusement park’s flowery driveway. There are two steel gates in front of us, and there is a sign on one of them.

The park is closed on Tuesday and Wednesday.

No. NOOOOOOO! I close my eyes and picture the colorful Lego Land Website I’d visited when we first discussed this trip.

“There was nothing on the site about the park being closed…” I say.

“No way. No way. This isn’t for real…" said Son One.

“What was that National Lampoon Vacation movie, you know, the one with Chevy Chase?” I ask.

“Fucking Wally World,” the husband is grumbling. Everyone else is either crying or swearing. We are not exactly a laid-back, accepting kind of family.

Quick…think….what to do, what to do….

I dial Jo, also known as Tart, who lives nearby and whom we’d planned to meet for dinner post-Lego Land.

“Jo…Hi! It’s Deborah. We’re outside the gate at Lego Land, and the place is closed. It’s unbelievable; I mean, who ever heard of an amusement park being closed for two days, and in the middle of Spring Break…”

“Oh no! I’ve never heard of that, either. That’s terrible,” she says, as the din behind me grows.

“It’s like that National Lampoon movie…”

“…Wally World!” Jo/Tart says, laughing.

“Wait, didn’t they bribe the park owner to open the place?” I say, gesturing toward my husband’s pocket.

“No,” say my husband and Jo simultaneously.

“The Chevy Chase character pulled a gun on the guy…” remarks my husband.

The crying and screaming is now deafening. “Well,” I say, “Are you packing, darling? I mean, of all times to be caught unarmed.”

Finally, we decide to visit the San Diego Zoo instead; Lego Land will happen later in the week, sans our Patient Patriarch.


One panda, two crocodiles, and several orangutans later, we meet Jo for dinner in a part of San Diego known as Little Italy. As soon as we open the doors of the SUV, we’re feeling much better: the sun is setting behind the harbor and the scent of garlic floats on a light breeze. Heaven.

“Tomorrow we go to Lego Land?” Son Three is asking me between mouthfuls of pasta.

“We’ll go to Lego Land, pumpkin. I promise. But it might take a while.”

Tart and Litbrit share stories and sauteed eggplant.


  1. Stephen Benson3/18/2006 3:59 PM

    even though it is an occupational fact of life for me flying has become more of a chore. the shoe thing, having to part with traveling neccessities, pocket knives, nail clippers (as a harper i always have nail clippers), it just is getting to be more and more needless hassle. too bad about lego land, it's one of the better ones as far as theme parks go. but our san diego zoo is well worth a look isn't it? right outside the zoo entrance is an antique carousel that was my favorite cheap date destination for years. rides were 10cents with a chance at the fabled brass ring. a few bucks brought an evening's entertainment to calliope music. then, across the pedestrian bridge was the rose garden where nail clippers and pocket knives produced the bouquet . . . san diego's little italy is a gem. although i usually try to steer out of towners to our fish tacos at point loma seafood. . . but all in all, it's a fine city. i tell my friends from elsewhere who complain about our lack of seasons that we do, in fact, have seasons. . .baseball season springs to mind, but we also have fire season, earthquake season, mudslide season, nature makes you pay for her beauty where ever you go. glad your trip was a success.

  2. Thanks, Stephen! We did have fun--we always manage to, somehow. But yeah, the idea of travel being something exotic and enjoyable is a thing of the past.

    I absolutely loved the Zoo. I might post a few animal pics--they turned out beautifully! And you're right: San Diego is beyond gorgeous. So what about the no-season thing? We have that here in Florida. The difference is, your One Season is cool-sunny, with blue skies and low humidity. Our season(s) are all humid, and go from Hot to Hot With Hurricanes. Boooo.

    I'd move to SoCal in a heartbeat.

  3. Stephen Benson3/18/2006 6:57 PM

    we do get into hot, although san diego doesn't ever get murder hot like it does for me here in the desert. but even then i tell folks that i've never had to shovel hot sunshine out of my driveway. i loves me some SoCal. some of my best days are the ones pondering huge decisions like should i go to the beach before or after golf . . .tough life? yeah but i can take it. there's a lot to offer from the culture standpoint too. in the same park that houses the zoo is a replica of the globe theatre, there are many small theatre operations including the la jolla playhouse which is a popular proving ground for broadway, there's a vibrant live music scene (my own favorite is croce's where jim's widow ingrid presides). on the other hand, there is entrenched corruption in the city and county gov't (they don't call it enron by the boy for nuthin') the police force is more of a uniformed street gang. but, there's a high concentration of colleges which help keep my faith in our future alive. trade offs? sure. worth it? for me, you betcha. next time ya'll are out this way, let me know and i'll find a way to get you some of my famous chocolate truffles from palm springs.

  4. next time ya'll are out this way, let me know and i'll find a way to get you some of my famous chocolate truffles from palm springs.
    Oooh, thanks, Stephen; consider it done. I have a feeling Tart will want to join in the truffle fun, too. Yum.

    And not to play one-upmanship, but corruption here in the Tampa area is so bad, they've made movies about it. Tampa was a bootlegging town back in the day, and it remains a big, um, family town.

  5. Hi Brit! Thanks for commenting on my blog. I've become a bit lame lately, not enough mental stimulation to get me writing. Blech.

    Your trip sounds like it worked out well, and I'm happy to hear that you went out to dinner with tart. She's fantastic, although i think she is far prettier than in the pic you posted.

  6. Welcome, Eric! Thanks for visiting. Mlle. Tart is indeed a beautiful girl--just ask my boys. Incidentally, I thought this was a lovely photo, as did Shakes and my husband (the photographer). In all the other shots, we had gnocchi and gelato in our hair (kidding).

    Keep us posted as to your blog--I'd love to see some pics of that beautiful, beautiful part of the world. I keep telling my boys they must form a rock band and make billions so they can buy Mama a nice little place in Provence.

  7. I have a cousin who lives in Point Loma. The one time I visited him (while sort of being in that part of the world on business), his then wife made the observation that it was as though they had two seasons - spring & summer.....


    - oddjob

  8. Oddjob, keep thinking horrible traffic, horrible traffic. Because that's the main thing--the only significant thing--that I would say is wrong with SoCal. Otherwise, the entire coast--San Diego in particular--is frighteningly beautiful and the climate is exhilarating (warm sun and cool breezes all bloody year from what I'm told).

    Maybe living there would be more feasible if someone were to come out with reasonably-priced versions of those flying Jetsons-style cars?! On second thought, a large number of SoCal drivers appear to be struggling with plenty of mental dilemmas simply navigating dry land...

  9. Actually, I have two ways of countering it. The first is to look back at the mountains rather than out to the sea. When you do that you can't help but the see the orange-brown haze the wind is pushing over the mountains to the desert beyond. If I remember correctly, the stuff Los Angeles generates has even damaged some of Arizona's bristlecone pines, the oldest living plants on earth!

    The other way I counter is even more poignant. Despite the weather I'm not sure I could ever live in SoCal. Have you ever read about what happens to the Colorado River Delta as a result of the way we use it here in the USA?

    Much or most of that ecological nightmare is thanks to the residents of SoCal, and their insistence on things like golf courses in places that get 12" of rain a year or less.

    No thank you.

    - oddjob

  10. I agree completely--I am very disturbed by the wanton development you see in the area (the root of all that traffic), which is just as bad here in Florida, referring in particular to those neighborhoods and resorts with huge golf courses and massive lawns that require not only water, water, water but the use of all manner of harmful pesticides and fertilizers. Also, a glance around you when you're on the freeway confirms that every car, other than those in the carpool lane, contains only one person. It would seem SoCal, like Florida, is a perfect place for high-speed rail such as that used in Europe and Japan, but my husband tells me Americans won't use mass-transport and insist on having their own cars.

  11. Your husband is basically correct. I have a Swiss friend who works for their famously efficient and effective rail system who points out that even in Europe this is true, the differences being the (overall) greater population density on that continent and also the more left wing sensibilities about things like public transit. He uses the rails a lot, but is very interested in doing so (would be even were he not working for them). He once pointed out to me that you won't get people to use a public transit system unless it gets them where they want to go, ideally picking you up at your doorstep and dropping you off at the doorstep of your destination. The closer the public transit's connections get to that ideal the more people who will use it.

    In theory there is no doubt that the Northeast Corridor (DC - or maybe Richmond - to Boston) could support a high speed rail such as TGV or the Japanese Bullet, the trouble is the inertial bias in the federal government (& in the society) assuming that such a thing won't work well enough to justify its expense. I also suspect one could justify rail between San Fran. and San Diego, and maybe even Tampa-Miami (or maybe including Orland and Ft. Lauderdale somehow).

    I wish we had more access to good rail travel. I find it immensely civilized!

    - oddjob

  12. Dan Wheldon perhaps.... ?
    that was so totally OS ...but an answer nonetheless ....

    ..."Yesterday when I fly 'from' Africa 'to' Miami, I sit next to a bin Laden" ...that is an unusual bit of information...bin Ladens were entering the country so soon after 9/11.....have to wonder if anyone was paying attention don't we ....

  13. Yes! That's his last name: Wheldon. Thanks.

    As for Bin Ladens, they're a huge family, true, and before the airports even re-opened, Tampa airport permitted a private jet loaded with Bin Ladens and assorted other Arab men and women to fly out, picking up at least one more person in (if I remember correctly) Kentucky, where he'd been buying race horses, and on to Boston, at which point a chartered plane took them out of the country and home to the Middle East. This was denied strenuously--by local and Federal officals alike--but eventually corroborated (and admitted to, well after the fact). What bothered most people is that these people, many of whom were relatives of Mr. BL, were scarcely asked a thing by officials, much less interrogated. It reeked of Special Favor, much like the armed guards the US provides the Saudi Embassy in DC.

  14. Special Favor...honor among thieves ...bidness id bidness ..

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