Thursday, May 1, 2008

9 Hours at SFO

If you are going to be stuck for 9 hours in an airport, San Francisco’s International Terminal isn’t a bad place to be stuck.

Here’s how to spend 9 hours at SFO without losing your mind:

Hour 1: Try to change your ticket. This used to be pretty easy even when traveling internationally. Arrive early? Try to fly standby. And if they had lots of empty seats they might just make the change for you right then and there.

Not any more.

The woman at United told me I had to talk to Lufthansa. The woman at Lufthansa said that the woman at United was crazy. “The ticket was issued by United. They can change it if they want to.” I spent an hour pestering the ticket agents, but I was unsuccessful.

Hour 2: Take a shower or get a haircut. There is a nice little salon – the Hair Port -- in the international terminal where you can have a haircut. But the better service for international travelers: a shower. For a modest $10 you can relax in a hot shower and feel human again. What a delightful concept!

Hour 3: Watch for celebrities. My closest celebrity encounters have all been in airports. I talked to Julie Andrews once at MSP. I once saw the Miami Heat plane at DFW. The most gorgeous crew of miscreants -- Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, and George Clooney – was rumored to be at ROM on their way to film Ocean’s 12 (I am doubtful of that rumor, however, as the Rome papers had photos of them at Piazza Navona the next day).

Plenty of celebrities live here in San Francisco. And we know how much those famous people like to travel – San Moritz, Cannes, Morocco, India… SFO is the gateway to the world. I am always on the lookout for Robin Williams, Steve Jobs, and Francis Ford Coppola.

Jennifer Connelly was paged as I sat at SFO. The famous Jennifer Connelly? Probably not. But maybe…

Hour 4: Prevent kidnappings. Now, I should preface this by saying: my own half-sister was kidnapped in a wicked custody battle. She was flown from one state to another, and the airline did not do its due diligence in making sure she had the right paperwork with her. So, this is a topic about which I have very strong opinions.

As I was standing in line at the ticket counter for the umpteenth time, I overheard several ticket agents having a very animated conversation. “The baby does not have a passport,” one of them said. “I can not let her take that baby on the plane.” Another woman replied, “No. That’s right. The baby has to have a passport.”

It became clear that somehow a woman with an infant got through security and to gate before anyone realized that the baby did not have a passport. The gate agent came back to the ticket counter holding the woman’s passport and ticket as well as what looked like a handwritten note. “She says this is from the father allowing the baby to go,” she said, “But I don’t think this is enough.”

I agreed.

Who knows what the story is on the baby, but I am glad they didn’t let the mystery woman on the plane.

Hour 5: Listen to Gregorian Chant. A great way to chill out. Smell Chinese food in the food court and listen to some Gregorian Chant.

Hour 6: Count the blocks. I love the art at SFO. Airports often have art installations, but most of them are rather blasé. SMF, for example, features local artists largely, but the airport was designed before art shows became popular, and the strange plane-shaped mobiles and ceramic pieces look rather disjointed and out of place.

But SFO is shiny and new and has beautiful, intentional art. My favorite piece: “Gateway” by Ik-Joong Kang. “Gateway” features 5, 268 individual canvases, tiles, resin blocks and wood carvings – all 3” x 3”. They are arrayed along a long wall. From the check-in counters, the piece looks like a tiled wall. But standing at the glass railing, the textures and dimensions are breathtaking. And the grid is perfect. As someone who can’t even draw a straight line, the beauty of geometry overwhelms me.

There is a GI Joe doll stuck to one block. And a stone on another. On the stone the artist has written, “Colombo,” and I wonder: did the stone come from Colombo? Did he bring it back from a trip? There is something decidedly joyful about the piece, too, though I am not sure what it is. Perhaps the choice of phrases. “Happy” is repeated over and over – painted on some blocks and carved into others. Usually paired with a noun.

I haven’t actually counted the blocks. But there is still time…

Hour 7: Go to the spa. Travel is stressful. And SFO now has several spas in the airport where massages, facials, and spa products are available. How very civilized.

Hour 8: Walk the dog. I often travel with my pooch, and SFO is one of the only airports with a pet-friendly area. Even without a dog along, it is nice to sit and watch other dogs at play, too. There is something so soothing about hanging out with the animals – and they are generally better behaved than the other passengers. Well… except for Truffles.

Truffles is a miniature poodle. I spent a few hours waiting at a gate (not at SFO) with Truffles one evening. I love dogs. But Truffles – well, Truffles was trouble. Sporting a pink rhinestone collar and a pink studded leash, Truffles wandered around the gate area nosing into one woman’s bags, greeting a guy’s crotch enthusiastically, and generally being a nuisance. Truffles’ parents? Oblivious. Truffles needed some valium, frankly. As did her parents. Unfortunately, we were at an airport without a pet area or a pharmacy.

Hour 9: Watch the baggage wrappers. I understand the paranoia. I don’t want my suitcase to open up during transit either. But the concept of wrapping my suitcase in plastic wrap – well, it’s a bit much for me. First there’s the machine itself. I have to wonder: who invented this? Who looked at a roll of Saran Wrap and thought, “I could just wrap my suitcase in this?” But I see the anxiety in each customer – afraid that their belongings will be spirited away. And I do identify with them. After all, my suitcase disappeared once, too. But no amount of plastic wrap would have prevented that from happening.

But it is fun to watch the machine twist around and around… especially after hours and hours at the airport…

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