The next morning, huddled under my airline blanket in the freezing terminal building, I awoke for no reason beyond the impossibility of remaining asleep for more then twenty minutes at a time. Perhaps it is better, in fact, to say that the coffee shop reopened, and so I gave up trying. Our newly invented flight to Montreal was listed as leaving from gate 25 at 08:00. Also leaving for Montreal, at 09:00, was a second flight, at gate 23. Time ticked slowly on. After a while it was announced that due to unspecified technical difficulties, the 08:00 flight would be delayed until 08:15. The unspecified difficulties turned out to be mechanical problems, something involving the oil, and the flight was further delayed until 08:35. This would necessitate a gate change, from gate 25 to gate 23, in consequence of which the regularly scheduled flight to Montreal would be moved from gate 23 to gate 25, and delayed by ten minutes. Then it was announced that “the flight to Montreal” was now boarding at gate 23. Everyone, for both flights, descended on gate 23, where, it transpired, nothing whatsoever was happening. No flight to anywhere was boarding, and the two staff people at the gate asked everyone to go away and be patient.
At this point a further announcement was issued, to the effect the mechanical problems with the (by now) 08:45 flight to Montreal had proven serious, and the flight would be delayed until the late morning, or perhaps the afternoon. In virtue of this, and in its generosity, Delta Airlines would provide for each passenger a lunch voucher, if they would present themselves at gate 24. A rush on gate 24 ensued, where it turned out that vouchers for $7 (almost enough for a coffee and a muffin, at airport prices) were indeed being handed out. About half the passengers had received their vouchers (good for twelve hours, at this airport only, service not provided or guaranteed by Delta Airlines) when another announcement informed us that a new aircraft had been located, and that the 12:30 flight to Montreal had thus been advanced to 08:55, and the flight to Montreal was boarding immediately at gate 23. An intelligent passenger shouted, “around the corner they sell sandwiches to go!” and a great wave of passengers, with me, unexpectedly, at its head, rushed to the sandwich counter, bought sandwiches, had a quick and inexplicable discussion about Susan B. Anthony dollars, and sloshed back to gate 23 just in time to collide with a second wave of passengers arriving from gate 25.
At gate 23, once again, the staff averred that nothing was boarding, and so two announcements, in different voices, were made in quick succession: first, that all passengers for Montreal should be, not at gate 23, but at gate 25; and second, that all passengers for Montreal should proceed immediately to gate 23. At this point the passengers divided neatly into two groups; sadly, these groups can be characterised as (a) those running in all directions and (b) those standing in one place and shouting.
At this moment the cabin crew showed up at gate 23 and said to the counter staff that they were going to Montreal. A certain amount of discussion ensued, and some boarding cards were examined. Brows were wrinkled and new shouting started.
Bravely, I stepped in.
“Excuse me,” I said to the lady in the uniform, “but are you aware that there are two flights to Montreal this morning? There is a regularly scheduled flight at 09:00, departing at 09:10, having a flight number starting with 5; and there is an exceptional flight at 08:00, departing at 08:55, having a flight number starting with 9.”
“Well that explains a lot,” said the lady. She went to her terminal, typed a few lines, stared at the screen, and picked up the microphone. “Will all Montreal passengers please check their tickets! If your flight number starts with a 5, please proceed to gate 25, immediately! If your flight number starts with a 9, please proceed to gate 23, immediately! Both flights will be boarding as soon as their flight crews have signalled that they are ready.”
And we did.
My seat was by the toilet. At the back. Where it smells funny. The special seat that doesn’t recline.
After sitting in the aircraft for quite some time, with the engines starting and stopping, it was announced that there was a slight difficulty, in that one of the passengers was lost. The crew of the flight beginning with 9 opined that this passenger was on the flight beginning with 5, while the crew of the flight beginning with 5 averred that the passenger was surely on the flight beginning with 9. Once it finally became clear that the passenger was in neither place, safety regulations required them to take all the baggage off the plane (a routine precaution occasioned, no doubt, by a reduction in the number of shoes to X-ray) and kick it around a bit in case it exploded, a simple process taking only half an hour or so. The passenger in question, I am sure, had long since given up and taken a bus, and was already back in Montreal—sans, perhaps permanently, luggage.
The stewardess observed that since our plane, unlike the other, had only fifteen or so passengers on it (a testament, or not, to the airline’s diligence in contacting those who had had their travel disrupted), practically everyone could move to more desirable seats. We all did so, and waited. I was beginning to realise that the whole plane, and not just the seats at the rear, smelled of turpentine, benzene and vomit.
But eventually, luggage suitably reassorted, we trundled out onto the tarmac, turned onto the runway, and reached, as it were, for the sky. The flight to Montreal was short and uneventful, the stewardess was seasoned and competent, there were few passengers and many peanuts, and we flew straight into Dorval airport and landed. Then it was up four flights of stairs, along the infinite corridor (not that one, the second one) to the immigration hall.
Now, you may recall my documentation problem. I was starting, once again, to be nervous, despite my overall numbing fatigue.
And at this point I shall tell you of my wondrous new discovery, of great relevance to those of you who may fly into Montreal from the States from time to time. As you come into the huge room with the huger queue where you wait to have your passport inspected, you descend an escalator. If, upon reaching the foot of the escalator, you resist the urge to push ahead for the best possible position in the queue and instead look behind you, there is a passage of dubious invitingness, and at the side of that passage are some of the nicest bathrooms in the airport. Ahhhh.
And by the time that load was off my mind, the queue was short and I walked up to the man and handed him my passport. He said, “Where are you coming from?” and I said, “Barcelona, via New York.” He said, “Where do you live?” and I said “Montreal.” He said, “Are you a resident of Canada?” and leafed pointedly to the place in my passport where the little card in its little envelope was not. I said “I am, but the little card does not appear to be in its pocket. I am hoping that I somehow left it at home.” He said, “Hm. I think you had better have a talk with the immigration officer,” and doodled a magic code upon my paperwork. I said, “I understand completely.” He said, “Behind me, to your left. Thank you.”
And so I went into the back for an interview.
Of course, this happens to me whenever I come back into the country, on account of the flag I seem to have on my file, and in this case I was expecting it, prepared for it, even seeing it as the solution to my problem. So I walked up to the counter (where there was no queue, for a change!) with good cheer.
“Hello, sir. May I see that? Thank you. Now, why are you here?”
“I seem to have mislaid my permanent resident card.”
“Do you know where it is?”
“I am hoping that it is on my desk, by my computer. I don’t think they even looked at it in Spain. You see, when I was leaving last week, my flight was cancelled, and when they sent us back from the gate to rebook…”
“The short version of the story, please, sir.”
“Um, last time I was here I was told to check the status of my citizenship application on the website. So I took the card out at home. Perhaps I didn’t put it back.”
“Ah. These things happen.
“I notice, also, that there is a flag on your file. Did you once voluntarily surrender your landed immigrant papers?”
“Yes, well, you see, I first came to Canada when I was ten or eleven, and…”
“The short version of the story, please, sir.”
“Um, yes. It says in your file that I did. Although it is really more complicated.”
“Good. Now you must establish to my satisfaction that you actually reside in Montreal. Do you have your wallet handy?”
“Please be so good as to empty it onto my desk.”
“Yes.” He watched me as I turned out my wallet. “Thank you.”
And so he started to pick through my small change and my pocket fluff, my credit cards and my work ID. There was a library card from the library up the street (“that’s good”) and a Metro ticket from a decade or so ago (“hm, prices have sure gone up. Do these old ones still work, do you know?”). And then we came to the little stack of coffee shop ‘loyalty’ cards—one, it seemed, from each shop along the entire length of St. Catherine Street West.
“Ah. That’s what I was looking for. Yes, you live here, without doubt.
“So. Well. These things happen. All right, no problem, if you find that you really have lost your resident’s card, remember to apply for a replacement as soon as possible. Over there, through the door, turn left. Have a nice day.”
(There was also a place during this conversation where we shared a laugh about the competence, or otherwise, of Delta Airlines. But I can’t, at this remove, figure out how it fit in. Suffice it to say that I almost had fun.) And so it was off to the baggage claim area, where my suitcase popped out of the thingy just as I arrived, and thence to the Long White Hall of Doom, where the customs trolls lurk. And of course, on examining my paperwork and the magic codes thereon, it is me that they pounced upon, and they sent me down the side passage into the room with the long queue.
And there I had to wait; and I wait, and I wait. And while I was waiting I was observing the customs officers, and they were three: on the right, there was the immense bald customs officer who looked like a biker. In the middle was a middle aged lady who looked like a Nazi. And on the left was the roundish smiling gentleman with the most immense beard, like a ruff, completely encircling his head. And all the time I was in the queue I was thinking, I do hope I get the one on the left.
And I did.
As I trundled my luggage up to his station, one thought was running through my head: my, what a nifty beard! But remember, Stephen, do not get cute with customs officers. Never get cute with customs officers. Do not say anything personal. Do not speak until spoken to. And don’t mention the beard.
Then, as I arrived at the station the man looked up and said, “Well, hello! May I say what a fine beard you are wearing? I am truly, truly jealous!” And I said, “Well, they say you should never say anything personal to the customs officer, but all the time I was waiting in line I was thinking, what an excellent beard you are sporting, sir. A wonderful beard. I wish I had one like it.” And so we chatted about beards for a while, and whether it is better to look like Santa or Rasputin.
And then it was time for business, and he asked me where I had been and why I had been there and what exactly it was that I thought was worth $50, as I had written on my customs declaration; and I said that I had been to Spain and I had been there for a conference and they had given me this bag, and looking at it it seemed to me that it was worth more than $20, but it couldn’t sell for as much as $70, so I had written down $50, but who could say for sure. So he said, “May I see this bag?” And I said sure, let me dig it out, and I dug it out of my suitcase and showed it to him and he said, yup, 50 seems reasonable, and look! It’s full of phone books or bibles or something, you really did go to a conference, and I said yup, and he said that’s all right then, and he asked me what line of business I was in, and I said software, and he said, that’s interesting, let me tell you about all the new regulations I just had to learn last week concerning when a laptop is a tool of the trade and when it is a display material and when it is a personal item and when it is an import. So I said ok and he did that and I barely understood a word and retained less. But he was friendly and chatty and eventually he finished and we were done and he said, “Have a very nice day,” and I said “Have an awfully nice day yourself,” and that was that. I walked out the door into the public area of the airport.
And that left me with only one task: to get a refund on my ticket to Guatemala.
So up the stairs I took myself, to the departures level, looking for a Delta Airlines ticket office.
Well, there isn’t one.
So I looked for any random person in a Delta uniform and I found a random person in a Delta uniform, and I asked, and she said, “But we are all ticket-certified, sir. Just wait in any queue.”
So being tired by now and feeling Delta rather owed me one, I interpreted this literally and stood in the special queue for the first class passengers, which was empty, and a big friendly man with a warm smile wandered over and said, “Come over here sir, where are you going, and how can I help you?” and I said, “It’s not like that, actually, I’ve just arrived, and I have a ticket to Guatemala that I would like refunded.”
“Let me see, let me see,” the nice man said, taking the ticket and turning to his terminal. “No problem with that, the ticket is refundable, yes, I do this and this and … oh dear. This ticket was paid for in Euros. I don’t think I can make a refund in Euros. Dollars yes; the other dollars, yes; but Euros, not in Canada.” His head sank in thought. “But ah! I don’t need to refund it, I can cancel it. Then the payment will be reversed, you get your money back, and see, yes! It has worked. There you go sir, all done, and have a really nice day.”
So I said, “Well, thank you. And thank you also for your competence, efficiency, good cheer and wonderful attitude. I would, however, like to remark that my enthusiasm for your service does not extend to the entire rest of the company that you work for.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, every flight I have taken with you on this trip has been delayed or cancelled, and usually both. And on top of that, I came here through New York, and, well, the entire operation there seemed to be being run by a bunch of schoolkids!”
“Hm, yes. I know what you mean. Whenever we phone them up, they are confused. And if we so much as laugh, they tell us that we are being ‘inappropriate’ and hang up. How are we supposed to maintain a proper attitude if we can’t laugh? I ask you. All I can say, sir, is that I have been a supervisor here for decades, and those people at JFK, they are still young. If you fly Delta Airlines again in, say, ten or fifteen years, perhaps we can hope that the corners will have rubbed off, and you will have an acceptable experience. But for now, what can we do?
“But at this minute, as I say, have a truly wonderful day. And … thanks for your patience.”
Later, I got my credit card bill. There was a charge—quite a hefty charge—for a one-way ticket from Montreal to Guatemala City. On the following day there was a credit. In between, the Canadian dollar had weakened, so I made a profit of $20 on the adventure, or a little less.
And that is the story of how I didn’t go to Guatemala, at all.