Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Land of Mean

I’m in Ohio with a small production team. We’ve just finished shooting a corporate video and are driving to the airport to fly the hell home. We’re on I-275, an interstate that circles Cincinnati. We’ve been warned that I-275 crosses both the Indiana and Kentucky state lines, and not to worry, keep following it and we’ll get to the airport.

Sure enough, we cross into Indiana. Our director has to use the ladies room, and we need to fill the rental car with gas, so I get off at the first exit advertising a gas station.

I can see right off the gas station is an odd affair. Most of the vehicles at the pumps are either rusting out, are pick-up trucks, or both. In the distance, some kind of multi-smoke-stacked power plant or factory spews what I hope are clouds of steam into the atmosphere. There’s a mini-mart attached to the gas station, which is not at all unusual, but next to the mini-mart - a pawn shop. That’s a new one on me. There’s a line of guitars hanging in the window of the shop, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t tempted.

I fight off the urge to browse guitars and pump the gas, using our producer’s credit card to pay at the pump. I get the pump started, hand the card back, then fill the tank. But when I’m done and try to print a receipt, the machine ain’t working, and directs me inside.

Have to have a receipt, right? So I dutifully march into the store and ask for one. Unfortunately, I’m told by the cashier, who obviously has a less than regular relationship with her dentist, that I need the credit card to get the receipt.

No problem, I run back out into the parking lot, ignore the siren song of those guitars hanging in the window (after all, how in hell am I going to get a guitar home with me?) and get the credit card back.

Into the shop I go again, only now, magically, a line 12 people long has appeared at the register. Not only that, but everyone in line looks profoundly pissed off. Several of them are muttering curses under their breath. One particularly desperate looking woman bursts in through the door behind me, makes it a few steps into the shop, mutters “Oh, fuck this” under her breath, then bashes back out through the door.

That weird vibe I sensed before has been pumping iron. It’s like someone managed to distill hostility into an energy drink and these people have all just downed a six pack. That or it’s something in the white clouds those smokestacks are spewing.

A woman gets on line behind me--a particularly tough looking customer. Her age is indeterminate, but with the frown lines etched into her face and her lips pinched, she might as well have “don’t fuck with me” tattooed on her forehead.

I avoid her fires-of-hell eyes and survey the counter. Some local entrepreneur is selling his homegrown horror novels in a little display box set between the cheap cigars and what is perhaps the most dubious looking container of beef jerky I have ever seen. (And I’ve seen some pretty damn dubious containers of beef jerky in my days, let me tell you.) I pick one of the books up. Lots of nice blurbs on the back. One of them is attributed to the editor of “Horrow World Magazine.” Awesome spell-checking on that one. That or someone’s publishing a horror magazines for three year olds. I’m thinking of buying one, then see the price if 13 bucks.

I put it down and decide I want some candy instead. I’m a Peppermint Patty guy, but don’t see any. The nearest relative is Junior Mints. Okay, fine. But the Junior Mints are behind me, and behind the angry looking lady. I smile at her. “Excuse me a moment,” I say, implying as best I can that I’ll be taking my place in line back in just a moment. I duck around her, and seize a box of junior mints.

She promptly steps forward into my place in line. Her body language is clear. You move, you lose. I’m suddenly glad as hell she wasn’t my first grade teacher.

Okay, fine. She’s only got a pack of gum, no biggie. I fall in behind her, I’m not going to get in a tussle with her as she definitely has home field advantage and looks like she could break me in half with little more than an angry glance.

The line creeps forward. The door bangs open and that strange, desperate-looking woman darts in again. This time she makes it as far as the display stand of Ho-Hos before she mutters, “Oh goddamn him, goddamn him” and stalks back out again.

The line moves. The woman who was once behind me but is now ahead of me reaches the counter. She slaps her gum down with a gunshot crack, making everyone within 25 feet flinch.
Then she starts asking for something. Her voice is low and husky, three packs a day husky, a dry croak that sends shudders through my bones. “Ten on number 16, twenty on number 12, ten on number 1.”

I have no fucking clue what she’s talking about, until I notice the giant display of lottery tickets mounted above the counter. Each type of ticket is contained in its own little plexiglass box with a number on it. Number 16, for example, is a scratch off game with a top prize of $75,000, each ticket costing five bucks.

The higher payout tickets, the ones that could potentially net you a cool million, cost $20 a piece. I’m shocked—20 bucks for a fucking lottery ticket. Robert Heinlein once correctly stated that there are more optimists than mathematicians, but this is insane. I mean, how fucking optimistic is it possible for a Hoosier to be? Why not just set fire to that twenty, at least you’ll get some light and heat out of it? Clearly someone at the Indiana Lottery Commission has cojones the size of basketballs, plated in solid brass.

But back to the lady’s order. The cashier isn’t getting it. She thinks ten dollars on number 1 is an order for gas. She’s trying to punch it up on the pump when the runner up in the Little Miss Evil Pageant, 1962, hisses “No, goddamn it, I mean ten bucks of the number 1 ticket.” She reaches past me, (for a second I think she’s going to punch me) then raps her knuckles on the lotto display so hard the plexi shudders.

The clerk gets it, grabs a ticket for her. Another mistake. The woman glares harder, her voice hardens. “I said ten bucks, that’s two tickets, tickets are five bucks each. What the hell is wrong with you?”

The clerk scowls, but doesn’t retort. I glance behind me; everyone else on line is scowling as well, deeper scowls, as if feeding off the lady’s hostility. Menace gathers in the atmosphere; this place could break out in a bar brawl any second.

The door slams open again. Guess who? This time the desperate woman vanishes into the snack aisle, lost to sight, but still muttering loud enough the for the whole store to hear.
“Goddamn it, fuck, goddamn it, fuck.”

Evil lotto lady gathers up her purchases, shoots a closing “dumbass bitch” to the woman behind the counter, and huffs out, lottery tickets clutched in her sinewy fists that I somehow sense have strangled more than their share of kittens. I see her stop by her car and start scratching furiously at the tickets. The lottery may be, as a friend of mine calls it, “a tax on stupidity,” but I ain’t going to be the one to break the news..

My turn. I pay for my Junior Mints and get my receipt, being as nice as possible as I can be to the counter woman without offering to wash her car.

Then I flee. Fuck the pawn-shop guitars. Evil lotto lady is still scratching, and I sure as hell don’t want to be within fifty feet of this lady when she finds her scratch offs are all duds. I want out of this crack house, now.

We drive on, crossing briefly into Kentucky, finally reaching the airport and, hopefully, sanity.
We unload at the curb. I have one of my lighting cases with me, a big ass thing made of formed plastic, heavily padded to protect the fragile contents inside.

On the flight out it weighed in at 50 pounds, right on the nose to prevent an excess weight charge.

There’s a scale outside, next to the skycap station, so I check again just to make sure the case hasn’t been eating chocolate covered avocados and put on a few pounds. Yep, 50 pounds on the nose.

I head inside to the check-in machines. Now the curious thing is that I actually shot a corporate video for the airline we’re flying on when they first introduced these machines, so I know them inside out.

Yet as I stand there punching all the right buttons, one of the attendants comes over to “help.” Help, in this case, consists of hovering next to me, looking over my shoulder, a deep scowl on her face, telling me which buttons to press a micro-second before I press them. It almost becomes a game, me trying to get to the goddamn button before she can tell me what to do. I lose. She’s clearly a pro at this, lots of practice.

The weird thing is, as she instructs me, she doesn’t sound nice or happy about it, she sounds mad as hell that she has to stand there doing this. I don’t want to tell her she doesn’t have to help; she might be related to the lady at the mini mart.

I get checked in, then take my bag over to the counter for the checked-bag tag. The mean lady asks me to put it on the scale, and I dutifully do so.

“Oh no, we have a problem,” she tells me with barely disguised glee. “This bag is overweight.”
I look at the scale. 51 pounds.

She gives me this grin of evil satisfaction. “You’re going to have to take a pound out, or I have to charge you for an overweight bag.”

Okay, it’s one fucking pound. ONE FUCKING POUND. But there’s something in the air, this woman is pissed at me. I search my memory banks for some offense I might have committed. Did I date her in high school or something then take someone else to the prom? Do I look like her ex-husband? Does she think I’m the guy who backed his Hummer up over her dog? I mean, what the fuck?

I smile. “Weird,” I say. “The case weighed 50 pounds when I left New York, and weighed 50 pounds outside.” Then I make my crucial mistake. “Let me try it on this other scale.” I lift it and transfer it to the scale next to the one she was using. Yep, 50 pounds on the dot.

She scowls. Now I’ve done it. Instead of just humbly taking a pound of something or other out of the case and putting it in my carry-on bag, I’ve gone and proven her wrong. I can see the gears whirring behind those beady eyes. She wants me dead, skinned, and hung on the wall behind her, but the best she can do is charge me for something, anything.

She studies my case, thinking, then her eyes light up with slick malice. “Okay then,” she says. “I think maybe the bag is oversize.”

“Oversize?” I ask.

“Maximum luggage size is sixty-two inches, width, length, and depth combined.”

Now I’ve flown hundreds of times with equipment cases, to almost every state in the fucking union, on pretty much every airline still on this side of solvency, and I have never in all those hundreds of flights heard of an oversize bag charge. Overweight? Yep. Excess bags? Sure. But oversize? Nada. (Turns out this is true, airlines do have luggage size policies, written in blood on the human skin pages in a forbidden book stored in a locked vault a mile under the Vatican, but somehow this lady got wind and wants to be the first person in human history to invoke the policy.)

She spins from the counter, opens a drawer and grabs a fucking tape measure. I’m flabbergasted. Why does everyone hate me today? Did I accidentally wear my I’m From New York, So Fuck You, Hick tee shirt? No, pretty sure I left that at home.

She starts measuring the case. “Twenty-one inches wide, fourteen inches deep, and...” she takes her own goddamn sweet time, measuring the length, “thirty-two inches long.” She sounds like she’s handing down my sentence for multiple homicide. I add it up in my head and know I’m toast, but she’s got to do it the official way. She punches the numbers in on her computer and practically screams in triumph as it displays the results. “Ah hah! Sixty-seven inches.” She crosses her arms, grinning at me. “Five inches over the limit.”

I take a deep breath, one of those deep, cleansing types of breaths they talk about in Yoga classes. I have to get through this. I have to pass through the gauntlet of insane airline clerks and get on the fucking plane home. My one goal.

“Okay,” I say. “What now?”

She stares at me, not saying anything. I have no idea what to do. I get the sense she’s expecting me to just say screw this and leave the case behind. Maybe that’s her scam. Maybe there’s a room somewhere filled with oversize cases people have abandoned at her station. She then takes her booty and sells it at the pawn shop attached to that creepy gas station.
“The case is oversize,” she says again.

“And?” I prompt.

“It’s oversize.”

“So then...?”

She doesn’t say anything again. I want to scream. But I don’t. Screaming won’t work. I’ve worked for her airline; everyone on camera talked about how nice their employees were supposed to be. I’m with the one that didn’t get the memo.

We just stare at each other awhile, a standoff. I decide my only move is to smother her with politeness. She's made of Corbomite. Any hostility shown is only going to come back at me doubled. (That's a classic Trek reference for you young-uns. Google it if you're confused.) If I protest, she'd going to decide that the case is not only oversize, but the color clashes with the cargo compartment, entailing a bad interior design fee.

I take out my wallet, calm, steady. “All right, it’s oversize.” I say as kindly as I can. “How much is the oversize charge.”

She scowls in disbelief. She clearly wants a fight. Maybe she’s mad at someone and is taking it out on me, I don’t know, but she’s looking for a row and I’m not giving it to her.

But she doesn’t say anything. She won’t give me a fucking answer.

I remove my credit card and offer it to her. “Just put the charge on this.” My smile is so sweet you could spread it on toast.

She looks at me, at the case, then back at me, chin and lower lip twitching, then sighs. “Okay, I won’t charge you. This time.”

She slaps the routing tag on the handle. I do a quick check to make sure she’s sending it back to New York, and not to Port Au Prince. Then she makes a big deal about getting the other attendant to help her carry it over to the oversize belt.

I start to tell her the case has wheels and she can just roll it, but the look I get in return sends me scurrying.

I get the hell out of dodge before she changes her mind. I’m stunned. What in God’s name is wrong with these people? (And for the record, I looked it up, the stdard oversize charge is a whoppoing $175. That works out to $35 bucks an inch. )

Into the terminal I go and find my gate. Just before we board the plane, I decide I need a cup of tea. There’s a coffee shop nearby, so I trundle over and order a jasmine green.

Sure enough, my luck holds, the woman behind the counter fixes me with an evil stare, sighs as if I’m her deadbeat cousin who’s always mooching 20 bucks off of her, and asks in a voice that could not be more uninterested in the answer, “What size?”

“Medium,” I respond.

With another heaving sigh, she turns to fix my drink.

I thank her and pay. There’s a tip jar on the counter. By no valid metric known to man did this woman earn a tip from me, but you know what, I’m not gonna play that way. Sure she was surly, but fuck it, I put a buck of my change in the jar.

I don’t bother to see if this elicits any sort of positive reaction, because at this point I know it won’t. I’ve pretty much figured out that every other human on the planet is a raving asshole.
Lost in my misanthropic musings, I go to put some sugar in my tea, and as I remove the top, I knock the whole goddamn thing over. Every last drop of it spills out across the counter in a fragrant tide.

Fucking awesome. I dump the cup, and grab handfuls of napkins to clean my mess up. Then I have a decision to make. Do I really want to drop another two bucks on another cup of tea, or should I just forget it already.

Fuck it, I want tea. Back to the counter I go. “Could I have another jasmine green, please.”

“Why?” she demands.

I sigh. “Because I just spilled that one.” I shrug. “One of those days.”

She spins to the urns, makes another cup. I dig more money out. I’m holding it in my fist, ready to pay up, when she turns with the drink. Something’s changed. Maybe she heard the desperation in my voice, saw the plea in my eyes, but she’s not angry at me anymore. She’s almost smiling now, like the sun about to peek from behind the clouds. She hands me the cup, waves my money away. “You’re good, hon.”

That’s all it takes. Life is good again.

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