Houston, do you copy?

by Maria on December 15, 2009

Time was when I associated Houston with space travel and dire urban planning. That’s all changed. Houston has now elected its first openly gay mayor, Annise Parker, who seems a very capable administrator. Secondly, I was recently lucky enough to transit successfully through Houston’s George Bush International Airport from a late flight to a tight connection. If it weren’t for the good people of Houston (and my fellow passengers from Costa Rica), I’d never have made it. So, thank you Houston, very, very much.

I’d been on holiday in Costa Rica before taking the bus north to go surfing in Nicaragua with a friend. While I was away, I received an invitation to a job interview in Paris. The only way to get there in time without completely mucking up my friend’s short Thanksgiving break was to attempt a less than 90-minute transfer in Houston. The first leg – 10 hours by bus from Granada to San Jose – went fine, though the border crossing was a sweaty shambles and we both picked up a lingering tummy bug, or D&V as soldier boy calls it. The second leg was when the trouble began.

Continental had just joined the Star Alliance (I do most of my travel on United. I know, I know. The worse they treat me, the more I fly.). They hadn’t yet figured out how to offer online check-in to other customers, or maybe it was just another of the many travel ‘perks’ non-Americans enjoy when flying into or through the country. My shiny 1K card got enough attention from the check-in guy to successfully re-route me (except for the leg with Lufthansa who can’t possibly trust their partner airlines to issue boarding passes), but couldn’t get me a seat with my friend. Which is not a deal-breaker on a packed plane I was just happy to be boarding. But, knowing I had an extremely tight connection, they put me in the second last row of the bloody plane. And then, for no obvious reason, the plane took off half an hour late.

Now picture the scene. The plane is landed and I am stuck in the back of it, with less than 50 minutes to get me and my hand baggage off, through US immigration, more security, find the gate and onto another plane. I’ve had to shell out two and a half thousand dollars for my new ticket and I already know I’m going to be unemployed very soon. Forget about the career prospects. My very kind prospective employer has agreed to reimburse me, but if I don’t show for the interview, I’ll never see the money again. One of the last and sticky few off the heaving plane, I find my friend and we sprint up the gang plank and into the building.

Right into the back of two lines of over a hundred people, each ambling achingly slowly towards a rent-a-cop who is examining everyone’s passport and arrival documents but who does not, himself, constitute a formal checkpoint. He has no obvious purpose other than to make people wait for another 30 minutes before they join the long immigration lines. He’s bored out of his mind and he’s not even an agent of the state. And I’m not having it.

We walk apologetically to the front, wait for the person he’s dealing with to be done, smile, state our case and ask if we can skip the line. He gives the indifferent answer beloved of officialdom around the world; ‘Sure. If everyone else in the line says you can.’

This is the right thing to say if you are a surgeon in rural Ireland who keeps receiving letters from members of parliament asking for their constituents to skip to the top of the line. Then it is perfectly correct to respond; ‘Of course, Public Representative X, Mrs. Ryan can have her gallbladder done next week, if you’re quite happy for me to write to everyone else on the waiting list and let them know why.’ Hospital waiting lists are opaque. You don’t know who’s ahead of you and have to trust that only urgent cases are dealt with first. Not so in the airport.

So I turned around to the couple of hundred travelers, waved and said ‘excuse me’ very loudly, and then something along the lines of the following;

Folks, I have a really tight international connection and I’m going to miss my flight. I’m going to Paris. It’s for a job interview. I’m getting laid off and I really need to be there. Is it a problem for anyone if I cut the line?”

I was hoping for silent assent. What I got was a response worthy of a Richard Curtis film. Dozens of ‘yes’s’, a cheer of encouragement and good luck, and even a couple of ‘you go, girl’s’. And out of the line popped a German woman on the same flight as me who we managed to whoosh through the control as well.

There was no time to say thank you properly or savour the moment, but I’ll admit to enjoying the sullen acquiescence of the airport guy. The German woman and I did a couple more sprints, begged our way through the US citizens’ immigration channel, flashed the ridiculous 1K card to get quickly past final security, and did the walk of shame as the last people onto Continental’s overnight plane to Frankfurt. Which then sat on the tarmac for over an hour.

So, the main thing I have to say is ‘Three cheers for the kindness of passengers on Continental flight 1490 from San Jose to Houston on 30 November!’.

The second thing is that lots of people will be stressed out and running around like lunatics in the next couple of weeks, and we would all do well to treat fellow shoppers, travelers, drivers etc. with a little generosity. Sometimes a little kindness can go a very long way indeed.



Hidari 12.15.09 at 3:57 pm

So….did you get the job?


Maria 12.15.09 at 4:02 pm

Dunno yet. But I have a couple of irons in the fire. More anon – it’s a slightly delicate situation.


J 12.15.09 at 4:25 pm

Er … not to rain on your parade, or anything … but if you ask

Is it a problem for anyone if I cut the line?

and the response is

Dozens of ‘yes’s’ […]

that doesn’t sound so good! :-)


Daniel S. Goldberg 12.15.09 at 8:29 pm

We copy. And as usual, a surprisingly large number of us are glad to help.


Ken Brociner 12.15.09 at 9:42 pm

I have a question for the moderator(s) of Crooked Timber. How does one go about posting or submitting an article? I looked through the website – and while I may have missed it – I didn’t see any policy for submissions.

I would like to share some thoughts about something I read in today’s NY Times – but since what I have in mind wouldn’t be a “comment” on any of the articles/postings that are up on CT, there doesn’t seem to any opportunity to do so. Please advise.

Ken Brociner


engels 12.15.09 at 9:50 pm

You were lucky there weren’t any CT commenters in the queue.


freight train 12.16.09 at 1:14 am

My best ever was a year or two back, returning from Brussels to San Francisco with my then-4-month-old daughter. We had to transfer at JFK, which means clearing customs, getting your baggage, going through security again, etc, etc, all in huge crowded dingy low-ceilinged depressing rooms. Our plane had been delayed getting to JFK, there were various other holdups, and we found ourselves, 15 minutes before our connecting flight, at the back of a 45-minute line. Everyone else in line was special-pleading to jump the line to make their flights, and everyone was getting denied. Now, my daughter had been a sweetheart the whole trip – great on the plane, fine in the airport, really never a problem. But all of a sudden, for no apparent reason, she started howling. I mean, howling. And within moments, a group of attendants descended on us and rushed us to the front of the line! Apparently no one wanted to hear a baby howl for an hour. And we made the flight with about five minutes to spare! (I swear I didn’t make her cry on purpose… but I can’t swear I wouldn’t try that next time.)


Joshua Holmes 12.16.09 at 2:18 am

The South gets a bad reputation as a nasty place. It really isn’t.

But it is definitely really fucking hot.


De selby 12.16.09 at 2:41 am

Congratulations on the success of your ploy.

I would liken it to “breaking the fourth wall” in theater – you stepped outside your role, breaking the rule under which everyone was subserviently queued, awaiting Judgment of Authority. Your audience probably enjoyed the deviation from the expected nearly as much as you did.

I also like that this happened in Houston, which is a mad, woolly, freewheeling, gun-toting, reckless, open-ended kind of town. It really does seem to harbor a bit of what the Legend of Texas was supposed to be about, although it’s a horrible place to live.


Substance McGravitas 12.16.09 at 3:01 am

I agree with de Selby, except about accretions of black air and such.

Good luck Maria.


anxiousmodernman 12.16.09 at 4:06 am

as a native of Houston, now transplanted to the East Coast, I can agree that it’s a horrible place to live, mostly because of the dire urban planning. The last time I spent an extended period of time there was late 2007/early 2008, when gasoline prices in the United States experienced quite a spike, and Houstonians realized what a car-oriented prison they had built for themselves.

The people are friendly, though. I’m proud that that was your experience.

Did you catch the bronze statue of George Bush? HA!


Chris Bertram 12.16.09 at 12:44 pm

Great story Maria. Really pleased for you.


rageahol 12.16.09 at 3:17 pm

Texas has no redeeming qualities. What you experienced was a fluke, nothing more.


jacob 12.16.09 at 3:53 pm

Avoiding work, I read through much of the thread that engels links to above about queue-jumping while waiting to buy an iPhone. I’m trying to account for the starkly different intuition I have in this case–where of course I cheer for Maria–and the other story–where of course I cheer for the person who told off the line-jumper. I don’t think it’s just a question of narrative, which is to say that I don’t think the difference is just because the line jumper is the protagonist in this story and the teller-off was the protagonist in the other story. I also don’t think it’s because Maria asked permission from everyone in the line behind her (as Eszter demanded in the earlier thread that we do), since we, or at least I, was already on Maria’s side in this story when she was hoping for mere silent assent, or even when she asked to jump the line in the first place.

I think, rather, that it’s because we all sympathize and agree that it was really important for Maria to make her connection. That highlights a point made in the earlier thread by a few people, but which was largely ignored: that you can’t analyze queue-jumping while waiting to buy an iPhone without acknowledging that the line was to buy an iPhone. (See, for instance, the comments of sharon and Bernard Yomtov in the earlier thread.) Line jumping to buy a luxury electronic consumer good is noxious; line jumping to make a connection, especially when that means making an important job interview, is not. That’s because we all recognize–even those people who stand in iPhone lines–that making flights (and making interviews) is more important than getting an iPhone sooner.

Am I right here in my figuring out the difference in our reactions? Or do we sympathize with Maria here because we “know” her by virtue of her being the story-teller?


Gray 12.16.09 at 4:54 pm

I read years ago, somewhere that the rules for successful travel were
1. Never refuse sex
2. Get your laundry done at every opportunity
3. Never eat a place called “Mom’s”
4. Never play poker with a man named ” Doc”

I would suggest a 5th despite your success in Houston;
Avoid air travel through or to the USA


Salient 12.16.09 at 5:11 pm

I also don’t think it’s because Maria asked permission from everyone in the line behind her (as Eszter demanded in the earlier thread that we do), since we, or at least I, was already on Maria’s side in this story when she was hoping for mere silent assent, or even when she asked to jump the line in the first place.

Nah, I don’t think that follows. Asking permission, and getting even silent assent, is very different from trying to sneak/con your way in to a superior position. While your second paragraph makes sense and is important, had the iPhone guy asked permission of the crowd and received silent assent, nobody would judge him harshly for cutting line. Had Maria not received assent and jumped the line anyway, then maybe folks might judge her according to the standard set forth in your second paragraph, which is much the same way we’d judge someone who sped through a residential zone and cut some red lights: how necessary was that? In the same position/circumstance, would we feel it necessary do the same thing? Etc.


Andrew 12.16.09 at 5:25 pm

Nice story, and with luck, a version of a happy ending.

I lived in Houston from 1995-2007 (I’m now in Calgary). Houston summers are horribly hot and humid, but modern air conditioning does help. Like most places, the people you meet determine whether it’s a good or bad experience, not the layout of the town or the cultural attributes (also, while I was there, the Astros rocked, the Rockets were pretty good, and the Texans sucked. As far as I can I can tell, mass suckitude now).

I’m not surprised, but I am cheered by the response of the folks in line. By appealing directly to them, you were able to make a human connection – and norms gave way to abnorms.

engels’ link at #6 is a very nice counterpoint – Lance Arthur’s dickhead linejumper was making no attempt to connect with the people in line. Quite the opposite – a kind of stealth infection. Maria gave people a chance, in a very small way, to make life measurably better for someone they’d never met and would never see again, and they took it. IPhone line jumper was making life a tiny bit worse for a whole host of people he’d never met and would never meet again, and materially worse for anyone bumped.


Esteban 12.16.09 at 7:12 pm

Houston has an “openly gay mayor” … what’s that 50,000 votes? With a gay community of … maybe … 100,000 that’s not so surprising. Dog catcher or Sheriff that would be hard for a gay to win.
That the official said … ‘Sure. If everyone else in the line says you can.’ Is not so surprising. I’ve heard it said a dozen times as I’m wheeled past.

What surprises me is that with such tight connections you didn’t phone ahead to the airline to tell them you’d had and accident and would need a wheel chair. With a wheel chair you’d have been one of the first on the plane and they’d have given you a seat at the front if you’d pushed … then you could sprint off … get any wheelchair insight and get some airport employee to push you through the immigration gate with the cabin crew.
Is that job interview for the non-profit sector?


Jeffrey D. Rubard 12.16.09 at 9:03 pm

Well, indeed, we are free to move about the country. One might well ask a character of the likes of Jeanine Walker, and not Donald Barthelme, for “references” though. And of “color changing cliques” less more anon, *although* if something once was in Southern Precincts, America could handle it and might have a difficult time doing without it.


john b 12.16.09 at 10:41 pm

I’m surprised at that – last time I had a delayed international connection in the US, AA actually stationed an AA guy in the immigration hall at JFK to ensure that all the people on ultra-tight for my flight were shepherded immediately to the front of the immigration queue. And another one in baggage retrieval to check when I’d retrieved my baggage so they could radio to the second flight’s ground crew that I’d made it through that hurdle and would be with them shortly.

I’d assumed that was US carriers’ new standard way of dealing with the silly “everyone must immigrate & claim baggage” rule in a world of competition from sensible airlines based in sensible companies – maybe it’s just AA/JFK/combination.


novakant 12.17.09 at 12:36 am

Let’s not overcomplicate things: it’s all about the screaming child.

There must be thousands of people on any airport everyday who actually do or pretend to have a dying grandmother at home, have to close a mega-deal or need to keep somebody off death row. But a screaming child is a factum brutum, can be a hearbreaking sight and many people will go to great lengths if they can avoid its audible range.


novakant 12.17.09 at 12:40 am

“hearbreaking” – Freudian slip I guess

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