While I was leaving Europe behind, I was not headed straight home. I was off to Texas to cover MotoGP for Canadian magazine Motorcycle Mojo. Thanks to United changing my connecting flight from Munich to Austin via Newark, New Jersey - 5 times - I had seven hours to kill.
When I first booked the flight there was a two hour layover. Given that I was an international traveler for a change, and knowing I would have to go through customs I figured that was a very reasonable amount of time. I still don’t know how they knew there would be problems causing a 7 hour delay three months ago, but the first change happened less than 24 hours after booking when they foreshadowed a three hour delay, then after some careful calculations they moved it back to two. Then it was bumped to four hours, then five, and finally, two days before I flew out to Munich (17 days before the connecting flight) they dropped the seven hour layover on me.
Fine, whatever, as long as I still got to MotoGP on time.
“What was German TSA like, Max?!?”, I imagine nobody actually asking me with a level of excitement that motivated me to tell the following story, but I suck at segues, so there ya go.
Before I even had a boarding pass in Munich the very nice and friendly woman at the ticket counter asked a very thorough series of questions such as to where I was coming from, where I went, what I did, where I stayed, and for some reason “if I had packed any meat this morning”.
Kinda personal, there Wanda.
I also had the guy who checked my passport prior to going through security ask those questions and more, although he phrased the meat packing one a little less suggestively. I wondered if I smelled like Doner still as I moved through the very well thought out TSA area.
Once I got to the x-ray portion of the security process in Munich I was met by the familiar pile of bins, and asked the question I always do about removing my cameras. Most of the time as long as I have the bag open they tell me to leave them in the bag, and today was no different. I also was not required to remove my shoes making things that much easier. When I asked why I could keep my shoes on, the German gentleman told me that the scanner can see foreign items, none were detected and that I was free to pick up my stuff that had just rolled out of the x-ray machine.
Security was no more than 5 minutes total.
I then boarded my flight to the land of the free, and ended up in Newark 20 minutes ahead of schedule, bringing my layover to 7 hours and 20 minutes.
Once I went through customs I found out that I would need to go through security again, which seemed counterintuitive to me given that we were still mid pandemic at this time. So instead of going straight to the terminal and waiting out my now extended layover I asked the first person I saw in an airport uniform how long it would take to ride a train into New York. She looked at me like I asked for a piggyback ride there and, after an unnecessarily aggressive eye roll, she didn’t answer my question. She just pointed at a sign telling me how to get to the train station staring at me like I should know the commute times.
“Thanks, Vanessa is it?” I replied after reading her nametag, “I can read signs, but that one does not tell me how long it takes to get there. Let me rephrase. Responding in hours and minutes only, about how much time will it take me to travel to New York City via the train that I will find if I follow the signs that I have already discovered guiding me to the train station?” This snapped Vanessa to attention, and after telling me how much I am going to love “her city” she, eventually, informed me that I had about an hour of travel one way.
An hour there, an hour back, plus an hour or so for a late lunch still left me plenty of time to get through security and still have time to kill. The plan was to ride over, get a slice of New York Pizza, maybe see a landmark, and leave. Should be an easy task in a city that has a style of pizza named after it, right?
I wandered around for about an hour before I found a place that wasn’t Sbarro. I walked in, ordered a slice of pepperoni and a beer. After the poor dude behind the counter fumbled with the tap for a minute and then yelled “yo, how does dis work” I figured it was wise to change my order from anything on tap to a bottle. Pro Tip: If they don’t know how to pour a beer, they don’t clean their lines. If they don’t clean their lines, you will likely be producing “chocolate rain” about an hour or so after drinking a beer from those lines.
I paid more for that bottle of beer and a slice of pizza (that made a Hot-n-Ready from Little Caesars seem like it came from a Michelin starred restaurant) than I did when I bought lunch for three people at the Brno circuit. At some point in my wandering I did find the Empire State Building which ended my self-guided walking tour of an underwhelming New York City. I am sure that someone is going to chime in that I need to spend more than a couple hours walking around New York in order to appreciate it, and they are probably right.
I didn’t need more than that to fall in love with Munich, Brno, or Prague though… Or Barcelona... Or Chicago,.. Or Austin… hell even Oakland was easy to like in under an hour. Granted I didn’t almost get kidnapped in New York, but I couldn’t afford to get as hammered there as I was in Prague if that pizza place was an indicator of things. In the spirit of saying something positive to offset the negative comments about NYC, there was a bit less human shit on the sidewalk than San Francisco.
I hopped on the train back to Jersey and soon found myself in a ring of hell that Dante himself couldn’t begin to imagine.
The security checkpoint at the Newark Airport is the absolute worst attempt at fixing a problem that will never have a solution, and creates more chances for theft, disease spreading (even outside of covid) and delays.
You know how there are places that will make a stuffed animal out of a drawing that your kid does? It seems that the same service applies for slightly more advanced children that sketch TSA checkpoints for fun.
Instead of a single line of weary travelers waiting their turn, keeping their various bins of carry-on contents together, the Newark TSA procedure is more of a huddle designed to separate people from their belongings in the most convoluting of ways.
The process begins almost like any other airport, by waiting in a line to check your ID. After getting your boarding pass checked, a second person points you to a numbered area where you pull a tray out from a conveyor belt that runs below the normal area where you load your bins. This was convenient, as I was going to need more trays than I used at SFO and Munich combined, granted I didn't know that yet. Above that there are two rows of conveyors, where a third guy tells you to empty your pockets into trays, remove jackets, hats, sunglasses, and that “anything electrothmic” bigger than a phone has to be removed from your bags. I made him repeat that last bit a few times, and the native Jerseyman was consistent with his pronunciation, bless his heart.
Thanks to some evidently inferior to the German body scanners the whole area smells like 1000-people-that-have-just-spent-half-a-day-on-a-plane’s feet, as it seems that shoes are somehow still a threat to national security in America.
Even though there are two rows, the third guy instructs you to not push your tray onto the second conveyor, as those two conveyors merge into a single line while persons four through six view the x-ray and somehow move bins around like a Penn and Teller card trick in a Run DMC video.
So there you stand with your shoes, wallet, watch, change, hat, sunglasses and whatever else you didn’t put in your bag in one bin, but you still have to put your laptop in a second bin, which you can’t do yet because there is no space on the conveyor. Eventually he tells you to push it forward, and while I loaded my laptop into the next bin he sent my wallet, watch, jacket, and sunglasses off to a crowd of 15-16 people that are huddled together like refugees, all waiting for the second half of this fiasco to climax. Unlike when I left SFO or Munich, I had to pull both camera bodies out into a third bin, and then my mostly empty bag went into a fourth bin.
When I said that I was not comfortable watching my valuables roll towards the moshpit at the end of the line, the less than helpful TSA agent said “It wouldn’t be a problem”. The woman a (less than optimal for social distancing) foot to my right said “BULLSHIT, my laptop got stolen last week from this exact spot.”
My confidence in ever seeing my belongings again at an all time low, I went through the full body scanner thing, and was greeted on the other side by person seven who proceeded to frisk me for a full minute, and person eight who just liked to watch I guess.
Person seven seriously frisked me in front, then in back, then had me turn around and repeated the process. He took his time, and was a rubber glove away from the most thorough groping I have ever had. I was wearing a t-shirt and shorts, by the way, not cargo pants and a trenchcoat. All lightweight material that you can tell which side I dress if you look close enough. I am pretty sure that person eight at one point made eye contact with person seven and mouthed the word slower to him, but I might have hallucinated that.
Back to the Three Card Monty game happening with the bins.
The whole time I was getting my freedom fondle people were slapping the bin with my wallet back and forth like it was an air hockey puck trying to get at their stuff. Oh, yeah, despite the merging of the two conveyors at the x-ray machine, there were two rows again after scanning. Why? Not sure, really but my bag was on the other side of a glass wall, and it was somehow 11 bins behind from where it hit the x-ray machine.
So after thankfully getting my wallet, hat, sunglasses, and jacket back from my first bin I went to collect the rest of my wayward belongings. The third bin that I loaded came out of the x-ray machine second, somehow, so there I stood holding two cameras waiting for my laptop and shoes. When it arrived a couple bins later I had to set my cameras down to grab my shoes, then holding two cameras and a laptop I waited for TSA person number nine to take everything out of the 11 bags that jumped the line in front of mine. It was like a lane was closed on the freeway, but when it reopened my laptop and shoes forgot to accelerate while my camera bag was texting like an asshole and got stuck behind a big rig in the slow lane.
Once all my gear was back together I decided to head to the airport bar for an overpriced beer. The place was absolutely empty, which should have been a red flag. I walked up to the bartender and asked for a Heineken. The bartender pointed at a QR code on the bar, telling me that I need to order through the app.
“But you are standing right there in front of the cooler that has the beer in it. Why can’t I just hand you 10 bucks, tell you to keep the change, and then when I order a second one I leave a bigger tip?” I asked.
“Because a beer is fifteen bucks, we don't take cash, and you gotta use the app. It's to stop covid.”
I wasn't sure if he was referencing the price of the beer or the contactless payment option when he brought up stopping covid, if I was going to get the 'rona at the Newark airport it would have happened at TSA.
When I told him that I could buy two liters (or more) of beer in any European city I just visited for less than the gouged pricing of the undersized standard American beer, he pointed at the security line and asked if I wanted to go through there again.
After a very polite fuck you to the bartender, I walked away and found the terminal that I would be taking a nap while waiting for my flight to leave. It ended up not being the terminal that my flight actually left from as there were more delays in my future.
Of course there were.
It seems that Texas was getting pounded by thunderstorms and quite a few flights were getting delayed. As such, my gate got moved. Twice.
When we finally took off about two hours after the scheduled flight, we had to land in Houston due to how shitty the weather was in Austin. We were given the choice to either stay on the plane or to get out and walk around. Being that I am 6’ 1” and too poor to afford first class, I got off the plane and took advantage of all the free snacks that they rolled out for us. It also gave me a chance to straighten my legs and take a quick nap on the floor.
Eventually it was time to board and on the jetway I was behind a bunch of people carrying Patronas backpacks.
I asked the relatively short person in front of me if he was with the team, and he said yes. I asked him if he knew my friend Matt who, at the time, was with them in Moto2. His eyes lit up, and in an accent I should have fucking picked up on he told me that he knew Matt, and was on his team for the Aragon round.
When I asked him what his role was on the team, I took note of how his mask was held in place via straps over his quite recognizable ears.
It wasn’t until he said “Rider” that I realized that I was talking to John McPhee. I would have made a shit detective.
I totally fangirled out, which made his fiancee and him both laugh harder than they should have, and left the people behind me absolutely perplexed as to what just went on. We talked a bit about traveling, the garbage security at Newark, and overpriced airport beer.
And by we, I mean me.
I get chatty when I am sleep deprived, and I was working with a collective 6-8 hours sleep in the last 72, and I just had about 9 packs of fruit snacks and a Red Bull so I was also on a sugar high. Sorry, John.
The flight eventually made it to Austin, the races happened, and I found myself out and about in downtown Austin Sunday Night with my buddy Matt as per tradition. I was retelling him the above story, and as if on cue when I said the words “I will never not recognize John McPhee”, John and his fiancée walked into the bar, up to the table, and said hi to Matt and I. He told Matt that we met on the plane, and then bought me a beer to “make up for the one I didn’t get at the airport”. If you are reading this, John, thanks for being a great human as well as a fast one!
Somewhere after that I called it a night and got into a car with a stranger to take me home.
Don’t worry, Mom, it was an Uber this time.