In Which Our Favorite Geek Attempts to Travel to San Diego, California; Encountering Several Galactic-Scale Annoyances Along the Way

I’m at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in San Diego right now; I came out here to teach a seminar on e-activism as part of a week-long communications class that legendary ocean scientist Dr. Jeremy Jackson organized for his graduate students, to help these future scientists be better communicators as well.

The class has been great fun — the students are uniformly smart and creative, and it has been a great pleasure to meet Dr. Jackson in person.

The trip from DC? Not so much. Here’s how things shook out as I traveled from DC to SD.

  1. I get to Dulles 2 hours and change before my plane is to leave. Plenty of time one would think. EXCEPT that apparently JetBlue is pioneering a new form of customer service at check in that works like this:

    1. you go to an automated kiosk and check in
    2. the kiosk prints you a boarding pass and tells you “now take your bags to the counter to be checked in, please”
    3. you take your bags to the counter and the counter staff ignore you. FOR 45 MINUTES.

    Yes. 45 Minutes. This was apparently caused by the people checking in at the counter next to mine; I have no idea what they had in their bags (rare jungle fruits? edged weapons? a live lemur?) but it required the full attention of every single JetBlue employee in Dulles Airport. All of whom walk right by the rest of us who are waiting without even saying “sorry for the delay, we’ll be with you in a few minutes” — they just blew by us like we weren’t even there. It was eerie, I tell you.

  2. I get on the plane and find that I’m sharing a row with — wait for it — an almost comically obese couple. They have the window and the middle seat and I have the aisle. Or rather, when I get there, they have ALL THREE seats (using the middle seat to hold all their stuff, and to keep them from having to press together too much) and I have to ask the woman to move to the middle seat so I can take my seat. She obliges with some grumbling.

  3. As we take off, she turns to me and says, “you might want to ask if you can switch to another seat. My husband has the flu.” As if to remove any doubt that she is telling the truth, the husband picks that moment to start a great wet hacking cough over in his window seat. I consider the proposition but remember that when I checked in the seating diagram showed the plane practically full, so switching seats would be more trouble than it would probably be worth; so I decide to stick it out where I am.

  4. Insert three hours of great wet hacking coughs here.

  5. To pass the time (it’s a 5+ hour flight), I decide to watch the DVD I got from Netflix that I grabbed on my way out the door on my laptop’s DVD player.

    The movie? “Super Size Me“. The irony of watching this while sitting next to two grossly obese people is not lost on me.

  6. Somewhere over Missouri the man decides he needs to use the restroom. This requires him to get from his window seat to the aisle. I get out of my seat and step into the aisle so he can get out. His wife does not do the same, so he tries to squeeze by her. This results in (I swear) him getting temporarily wedged between his wife and the seat in front of her — a position from which he eventually extricates himself, with much great wet hacking coughing.

  7. Half an hour or so later, the wife decides SHE needs to go to the bathroom. I get up to let her go by. Fifteen minutes later, she has not returned. I am beginning to wonder if something is wrong.

  8. Finally my concern/morbid curiousity gets the best of me, and I shut my computer down, take my headphones off, and peer down the aisle to see if she’s coming back. She’s nowhere to be seen. So I decide I might as well go to the bathroom and see if I run into her. On the way back I see her in the rear of the aircraft, chatting with the flight attendants in a very animated fashion. Mystery solved.

    … OR WAS IT???

  9. Upon my return from the restroom, I’ve been back at my seat for a few minutes when the pilot comes over the PA. “Ladies and gentlemen, we have a minor medical emergency on board, so if any of you are doctors or registered nurses, come on to the back of the aircraft and introduce yourself to the flight attendants.” Two fellows get up and head toward the rear of the plane very determined-ly — as does the man in my row whose wife had disappeared into the back of the plane earlier. I turn around and see them all conferring around the wife, who it’s pretty clear now is having the unspecified “medical emergency”.

  10. I cross my fingers for her and go back to spiffing up my presentation for the class. For 5 minutes, until a flight attendant comes up to me. “Excuse me sir. We need to empty this row so that the person who’s having the medical emergency can be laid out. Would you possibly be willing to switch seats?”

    So yes, the woman did eventually get her way — I ended up moving to another seat on the complete other end of the aircraft. And all she had to do was have some kind of huge medical crisis to make it happen. That’s initiative!

  11. I’m in my new seat for about 15 minutes when I notice a parade of people making their way from the rear to the front of the aircraft. Apparently they’ve decided it would make more sense to move Medical Emergency Woman to the front. So there was no reason for me to switch seats after all…

  12. We land. There are fire trucks and police cars (???) waiting on the tarmac. We all wait for the combined emergency services of San Diego to whisk Medical Emergency Woman away (no matter how annoying she was, I hope she’s all right — I’m still trying to figure out what could happen to you to take you from feeling fine at liftoff to needing all that assistance a couple of hours later) before we disembark.

  13. Baggage claim. I go down to get my bags. Apparently JetBlue is pioneering a new method of handling baggage pickup too:

    1. you go to the baggage claim
    2. you stand around with your thumb up your ass for an HOUR, because Lord knows there’s nothing better after a five hour flight
    3. they eventually send out your bags on a DIFFERENT CAROUSEL than the one they announced and marked on all the displays


  14. Rental car pickup. At this airport, to get to the rental-car agencies you have to take a shuttle bus; they’re not in the terminal. I find the bus for my company and get in. There’s one other guy on the bus with me, along with the driver. The driver is listening to a country music station that’s playing a sappy pop-country ballad that, I find now, is written by Garth Brooks and called “The Dance“:

    Our lives
    are better left to chance
    I could have missed the pain…
    But I’d have had to miss…


    Anyway… as we’re driving to the rental car company (which turns out to be about 4000 nautical miles from the airport), I notice that BOTH THE DRIVER AND THE OTHER GUY ARE SINGING ALONG to this silly ballad. Not belting it out together like a duet — just kind of singing it quietly, like they think they’re singing it under their breath but they’re not very good at that. So the end result is that it still SOUNDS like they’re doing a duet, only the most tentative duet ever performed.

    And it’s not awkward at all that of 3 people on this bus I’m the only one not singing along, right?

    “One of us… one of us…”

  15. I get to the rental car place. As has happened every other time I have traveled to California, the rental car I have “reserved” (a compact) turns out to be unavailable. All they have left are minivans and trucks. “But don’t worry sir! We’ll give you a FREE UPGRADE to either one!”

    “I don’t consider that an upgrade.”

    “What do you mean?”

    “I don’t want to drive a big fucking car. I hired a compact. If you give me a big car, that’s a downgrade, not an upgrade.”

    “But it’s FREE!”

    So, forced to choose between a minivan (i.e. checking what remains of my tattered masculinity at the rental counter) and a truck, I choose a truck. How bad could it be, right?

    Oof. They don’t just give me a truck. They give me a big ol’ shit-kickin’ are-you-ready-for-some-FOOTBALL!!! Chevy Silverado 4 door:

    Big Honking Truck

    America! Fuck YEAH!

    So now I’ve had to tool around San Diego in this ridiculous Little-Man-in-a-BIIIG-Car mobile. And drive it to give a speech to a classroom full of ENVIRONMENTALISTS on HOW WE CAN BETTER WORK TO SAVE THE EARTH.

  16. So yeah, the trip was… interesting. (sigh)



August 7, 2005
6:34 pm

Think of it this way: if you would have gotten into a car accident in San Diego, your chances of escaping without injury would have been much higher in a Chevy Silverado than in a compact car. Take it from someone who has hit a tree in a Chevy S-10 Extended, the smaller version of the Silverado. 🙂

Jason Lefkowitz

August 7, 2005
6:47 pm

Actually, that ain’t necessarily so:
Not to mention that even if *I* would be safer, it’s only because I’m transferring the risk to whomever I was unlucky enough to hit — since the greater weight of the truck would mean more damage to the other vehicle, and its passengers.
Glad you walked away from your accident OK, though.


August 7, 2005
9:40 pm

Who cares about the passengers in the _other_ car…as long as you don’t get killed? Just kidding. 🙂
While you are correct that larger vehicles do cause more damage to the other vehicle when you are in an accident, it often does keep the occupant of the larger vehicle safer…so I’d be more likely to buy something that would keep my own body from being mangled. You have to understand that I form my opinion based on not only experience but being witness to several horrible accidents myself because my husband pulls people out of car wrecks on a regular basis. I’ve been with him when he’s responded to several car accident scenes with the volunteer fire/rescue dept., and the people in tiny little cars are more often trapped inside their vehicles because the cab is small so the dashboard and/or engine ends up in their lap. In front end collisions especially, larger vehicles are not going to collapse as severely in the front. Maybe I’m letting emotion drive this belief a little too strongly, but once you’ve seen gray matter splattered all over the dashboard of a Geo Metro, you tend to let that drive your opinion more than research.

Jason Lefkowitz

August 7, 2005
10:29 pm

I hear ya. But scientists have a saying, “the plural of ‘anecdote’ is not ‘data’.”
Definitely read the Malcolm Gladwell essay I linked to above. One of the key points Gladwell makes is that trucks & SUVs offer “passive security” — i.e. you’re more protected once you get hit — while smaller cars offer “active security” — i.e. since they are more nimble, you don’t get hit in the first place.
That’s why you shouldn’t generalize too much from your husband’s experiences — he’ll see terrible accidents with small cars, but he doesn’t see the small cars that _don’t_ get into accidents because they swerved out of the way in time. Every time he sees a vehicle, its “active security” will have failed.
Also — in reference to large vehicles not collapsing as severely in front — take a look at that crash-test comparison between a Ford F150 and a Mini Cooper that I linked to.
Of course, sometimes things happen and there’s nothing you can do to get out of the way. My accident back in 2002 (when my Ford Escort was totaled by an idiot woman who blindsided me at night, ‘cuz she saw no need to turn her lights on) is testament to that. But no approach to security is perfect — armoring an SUV and moving the driver up high just makes it more prone to roll over, for example — so you take the good with the bad.


August 8, 2005
6:53 pm

Jeez – ya gotta stop booking your travel through the Marquis de Sade travel agency! You’d think this was a trip I was resonsible for as it’s exactly the sort of fun I’ve had on a number of DC-SD trips!

Jason Lefkowitz

August 8, 2005
7:03 pm

As bad as it was, it could have been worse; I could have booked it through Orbitz:


August 11, 2005
9:36 pm

Or US Airways!

Matt Forrest

August 20, 2005
11:29 pm

Many thanks for the great lectures at Scripps. You are a great speaker, and really brought the blog world to life for a lot us.
Fun times at the West End too…
Matt Forrest