Outside The Bubble

For those of us lucky few living in San Francisco, traveling outside The Bubble can be an alarming experience. As Herb Caen famously wrote, “San Francisco is seven square miles surrounded by reality.”  Nowhere does this strike home more than a trip to The American South.

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I’ve recently returned from the Gulf Coast of Alabama where I went to spend a long weekend with my father and his wife.

Once upon a time, this coast was a sleepy backwater of fishermen, pecan farmers and easy living off the land.  All of this life is gone.  Ugly condominiums hastily thrown up over the past twenty years line most of Alabama’s pristine white beach Gulf Shore.  From the beach road there are few openings where you can even see the water. Originally a haven for lesser snowbirds who couldn’t afford or didn’t care for the tonier parts of Florida, the Alabama Gulf Shore today has become the vacation mecca for nearby residents of Mississippi, Louisiana and Tennessee who lack their own expanse of “sugar sand” beaches. This coast isn’t called the Redneck Riviera for nothing.

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Every chain known to man lines the coastal strip, along with local honky-tonk competitors hawking t-shirts, surf boards (I’ve never seen anyone actually surfing), the “best gumbo” in town, bottomless beer bottles, girls in bikinis, fun parks and arcades, even a new zip-line attraction soaring over little more than a parking lot.  The only thing missing is gambling.  You have to drive over to Biloxi to lose your money.

Much like Las Vegas, the coastal tourism industry has spawned a burgeoning local population, which in turn has brought the commercial infrastructure to support the growing needs of a new community.  And, as with my father, those early snowbirds who came to the Gulf Coast thirty years ago to escape the harsh winters of the Midwest, have now retired to golf course enclaves benefiting from low taxes and hot weather.  The occasional hurricane doesn’t seem to dampen anyone’s enthusiasm.

Then there are the churches.  There are miles and miles of roads where every other building appears to be a church. All the usual suspects are well represented: the prevailing Baptists, along with Catholics, Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, 7th Day Adventists, Pentecostals, Christian Scientists, and countless churches of unknown-to-me sects—the New Life of Christ, Family Revivalists, New Beginnings, Family Tabernacle, White Dove Ministries, Victory Life,–the sects are endless. Most are poor looking with dire signs proclaiming things like “Eternity is a long time to be wrong.”  Fundamentalism appears to be rampant.  Crosses are everywhere. I’ve never seen a synagogue.

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Yet there are a few places that resemble the old, original Gulf Coast before it was spoiled by progress sand developers.  Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge is one such sanctuary:  7000 acres of bird watcher’s paradise, nesting sea turtles, and humid trails snaking under the scrub pines and along the sea-oat dunes, a reminder of what the Gulf Coast once looked like. There are backwater rivers where alligator eyes sparkle at night.  Even in the manicured golf resort community where my father lives, nature breaks in. Osprey, Great Blue Herons and Ibis fish the man-made lakes; alligators occasionally emerge on the fairways, Cottonmouths curl on sunbaked patios.  Gruesomely, by father’s Bichon was taken by a coyote from his backyard.

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Leaving The South turned out to be as depressing as the ruined Alabama coastline.  I was scheduled to depart Pensacola on a noon flight, connecting in Dallas, and arriving at 5:20pm in San Francisco. As we approached the airport I was notified by American Airlines that the 1:00pm flight had been cancelled due to mechanical problems, and I was rebooked to depart at 3:15pm, with my Dallas connection also changed to coordinate with the later arrival.  My new arrival time in San Francisco was 7:45pm.  No problem.

My fellow passengers and I boarded the small American Eagle plane for the 3:15 flight.  Before the plane left the gate, the pilot announced that there was a small mechanical problem, requiring the airport engineer to replace a switch.  The repair would take no more than five minutes.  All good, except that it took over an hour to find this engineer, and during the wait one of the flight attendants had “timed-out.”  She had to be replaced and, adding insult to injury, her replacement was in Dallas and had to be flown into Pensacola.  Dallas!  We were on our way to Dallas.

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We then had to leave the plane.  Because the plane was so small, all carry-on luggage larger than a briefcase had to be valet checked.  We had at minimum a three-hour wait, meaning of course all Dallas connections were missed.  Nearly all of the sixty passengers had connections.

Are we having fun yet?  Oh, no—fun began when we discovered that American Airlines had only one representative supervising two different gates.  So, instead of checking new flights to replace the missed connections, the unfortunate woman had to deal with arriving and departing flights from both gates, running back and forth between the two.  During the intervening minutes, she attempted to take care of us, searching for late connecting flights out of Dallas.  Meanwhile there were passengers who wanted to bag it and just go home.  But they couldn’t because there was no one to take all of the checked bags off of the plane.  These folks were not happy campers.

Outside a gale force tropical monsoon was raging.  Rain was coming down in black sheets obscuring the far side of the runway.  The airport was close to shutting down.

Eventually, the Dallas based flight attendant arrived and our flight was now going to take off.  Only a few people had had their Dallas connections resolved.  At this point the frazzled—but stupendously patient and friendly—AA rep announced, “Please just board the plane and deal with your connections in Dallas.  There’s nothing more I can do.”  This AA rep deserved the highest possible commendation!

I arrived in Dallas long after the last flight to San Francisco departed. American provided a voucher for a night in the airport Ramada Inn, surely the worst one in the Ramada chain.  The only dining option was a 24-hour Denny’s across the highway.

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I’m not sure it’s even snobbish to say I’ve never eaten at a Denny’s.  To me it represents the nadir of American restaurants.  My imagination however wasn’t even close to the reality.  Never, ever, have I been to a more woeful, doleful, sorry approximation of a roadside eatery.  I’m willing to entertain the possibility that this particular Denny’s was not representative of the chain in general.  After all, it matched the wretchedness of its near-neighbor Ramada Inn.  Perhaps this was American Airlines’ idea of a joke on its stranded passengers: pay for lodging and a meal, but make the experience as miserable as possible since the circumstances that caused the unexpected overnight were so bad the traveller was never likely to fly AA again anyway.

My Denny’s was vast, empty, cold, not very clean, and staffed by very tired and rundown women.  These ladies—all were women, telling in and of itself—had all seen better, younger days.  Their hearts weren’t in it anymore.  Glacial slowness prevailed.  My waitress lacked affect, expression, much less a smile.  Her speech was as slow as her gait.  I felt badly even ordering.  It seemed possible that this Denny’s was exploiting those who might not have been able to secure a better job.

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A Denny’s menu is illustrated with photos of all the food items.  I assume this is because a portion of its clientele can’t read.  Not wanting to consume 1500 calories on any of the entry items, I chose the “healthy choice” option of an avocado and romaine salad, along with a cup of delicious looking chili.  My waitress informed me they were out of avocados, so I switched to the apple and spring mix salad.  When the chili arrived it looked nothing like the picture in the menu.  In fact, it wasn’t really chili at all.  It was chili-flavored broth with a few desultory kidney beans floating around.  The salad, arriving about twenty minutes after the chili, had no apples.  I asked the waitress what happened to this key advertised feature, and she said she didn’t know, perhaps they were out.  AA’s $11.00 coupon was more than sufficient to cover the cost of the meal.  By the time I left, I was the lone diner.

I was booked on the first flight out of Dallas to San Francisco the next morning, departing at 7:00am.  All went smoothly until once on board.  First the safety video had to be played three times because during the first and second showing, a passenger had been in the rest room and the FAA requires everyone to view the safety instructions.  Then, the pilot comes one and begins his message with, “I don’t know how to even tell you this…”  Based on some complicated logistics necessitating the plane’s computer program being updated once a month, and this plane having to proceed on to Tokyo from San Francisco, there was no time to switch out the program so it had to be done in Dallas.  This would take three hours, during which time we had to remain on the plane.  So three times in two days I was on consecutive American Airlines planes troubled with mechanical problems.

Finally we took off, making our way to San Francisco, albeit three hours late.  Despite cold, foggy weather, The Bubble never looked better.  With all the joys of the city back at hand, I was grateful to be home.  I wish I didn’t have to leave again tomorrow morning for two weeks in New York.  At least it isn’t The South.

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