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29 May 2010

A Day as a Jet-Setter

I had an important meeting to attend. This meeting was in the Bay Area. It was on a Thursday. I needed to be at work on Wednesday and Friday. A dilemma?

No, it was an opportunity: I flew to the Bay Area in the morning and returned back to LA that afternoon.

Even though it was simply a visit to the Bay Area, where I'd been many times before, the timing and circumstances of this trip really made me feel like a jet setter. This was my first time flying somewhere and back on the same day. It was also the first time I parked my car at an airport lot, and the first time I flew on a plane without packing a change of clothes!

I got out of bed at 5:58 AM. But I was awake well before then. Travel days are a sure way to get me up early. I frantically shoveled down some breakfast, showered, and prepared my things.

My flight was scheduled to depart at 8:15.

I left the apartment at 7:10.

I didn't realize how little time I had until I drove onto the 405 (during morning rush hour). I'm going to miss my flight, I thought. I cringed when each wave of brake lights rippled through traffic. I swerved and tailgated, and luckily the freeway cleared up past Venice. And luckily, my apartment isn't very far from LAX.

It was 7:30 when I pulled into the parking lot at the airport. I had looked up parking lots the night before and chose Park 'n Fly, because it's right next to Terminal 1. This convenience turned out to be what saved my day. I pulled in, grabbed a ticket (just like using any parking garage), and found the first parking space I could find. I then grabbed my small side bag and did an awkward run/jog to the terminal.

I entered the terminal and there were probably 25 passengers already waiting at ticketing. My heart sank as I stood at the end of the queue. But soon I caught another lucky break: Southwest had probably six ticket desks open, and so the line moved. Within 5 minutes, I was checked in. I rushed upstairs, running past as many people as I could to get ahead in the security line. There was a long queue curving around the corner, but my discerning eye saw a second security screening with hardly any line at all. So I squeezed past at least ten people in line to get there. And as soon as people saw what I was doing, they too began to jostle to get into the shorter line. I passed everyone except for a woman who seemed as rushed as me. Seeing me, she curtly exhaled, "What time's your flight?"

"8:15," I replied.

"I'm at 8:05"

"Well then, go ahead! Go!" I urged her in front of me.

I was as swift as George Clooney's character in Up in the Air. Bin, shoes, keys, bag, belt, boom: And I was through. I checked the time - 8:00. I had 15 minutes to spare.

I refreshed myself in the bathroom and found my gate. As it turns out, my flight was delayed for a few minutes as well. As much as I abhor traveling through LAX (it's still the worst airport in my experience), I have to admit that everything is really cooperating with me today!

The flight itself was pleasant. Southwest has a new boarding system, in which you have a number - I was B-27 - and each passenger lines up in order according to their number. It does seem to relieve the tension between passengers trying to be the first onto the plane. As the plane took off, drizzle had begun to fall on Los Angeles. There was rain in the forecast today.

From my window seat, I had a good view above the clouds of the California coast. I also had the entire row of seats to myself. I drank my orange juice, and the flight attendant had an extra cup of orange juice, which she gave to me.

San Jose Airport was clean, modern, and convenient - all that you could ask for in an airport. An improved version of Burbank and Oakland airports. I could quickly tell that I was in Silicon Valley because as I walked out of the airport, I quickly saw three people using iPads! Soon I was reminded that I was even more of a luddite, as I wanted to confirm the time and location of my meeting but had no way to access my email. I asked a man to use his laptop. He graciously allowed me to.

People are just friendlier in the Bay Area. Fact.

I had a rental car arranged, and so I went to the rental car lot. There are a lot of cars; it's not like a small neighborhood car rental agency. The cars are parked in a gated lot, and the keys are left in the car for you; to exit, you just show the guard your rental agreement and drive off! That was easy.

The weather was cool and breezy as I explored the South Bay in my freshly rented Mazda 3. The landscape was distinctly suburban, with strip malls and fast food restaurants repeating every few blocks. If it weren't for the redwood trees and cool oceanic air I would have thought that I was driving through Orange County.

Long story short, my meeting was good. Nothing relevant that I'd want to write about here. I did have a few hours free in the afternoon before my flight. I couldn't let a good rental car go to waste, so I drove. I drove from Palo Alto north onto 280, a freeway that swoops along the hillsides and open space of the San Francisco Peninsula. The skies had cleared up, and a cool fresh wind was blowing off the Pacific. On either side of me, spectacular vistas opened, allowing me to glimpse the verdant spring landscape of the Peninsula. I exited at the second Vista Point I passed, eager to take in at least a moment of nature. There was a pleasant cul-de-sac atop a hill, and I walked a short trail through the grasses. I hurried back to the car because I had set a new goal for the afternoon: Drive to Half Moon Bay.

Half Moon Bay is a small seaside town along the Pacific Ocean, and only 8 miles over the mountains from where I was on the freeway. So I drove. The drive would have been quicker if not for a large truck moving along the one lane road. I arrived and found Half Moon Bay to be quaint. It wasn't directly on the beach as I had imagined, and so the main street reminded me of a small town in the Midwest, except with more art galleries and crafts stores. I went for a short walk around a couple blocks and didn't find anything to really captivate my attention. And that sums up my attitude toward the Bay Area at this stage in my life: It's pleasant, relaxed, and a very easy place to live - in most measures much nicer than anywhere in Southern California. But there is little about it that I find exciting. Perhaps the three years of my life living in the Bay Area has made it ordinary and mundane to me. But outside of SF and Oakland/Berkeley, the clean air and pleasant suburban landscape just isn't for me right now. Maybe when I'm 35 and ready to settle down.

Back to my journey: I left Half Moon Bay somewhat disappointed but glad to have it checked off my list of towns to visit. I stopped once more at the top of a ridge to take in the view once more, as the sun was shining more warmly now. I returned to the freeway and drove back to San Jose, a longer drive than I had expected (nearly 40 miles!). The traffic began to thicken as I entered San Jose, a symptom of the early stages of rush hour. The plan in my head was to check out SJSU, so I exited and followed signs toward Spartan Stadium. I didn't know that the stadium was separate from the campus. So there I was: Driving around the streets of what looked like the neglected side of San Jose, looking for a place to grab a quick bite to eat before returning to the airport. The few Google Maps printouts I had didn't cover the area where I was now. So I kept driving in the direction of where I thought the freeway was. And I found the freeway, got on it, and drove towards the airport. I saw downtown San Jose, and with about 45 minutes to spare, I detoured through downtown and ended up stopping at a Foster's Freeze about a mile away. A cheap chili burger and fries filled me up mostly, and I took a corn dog for the road. I topped up the gas in the car, and a skeezy (there is no word more appropriate) girl approached me and tried to sell me men's cologne. I then asked a man gassing up next to me how far the airport was. It wasn't far at all - I was actually just one exit away.

Returning the car at the airport was very easy - just drop it off. The shuttle bus left one minute later. This was definitely a day of good timing: There were no delays getting to the flight, although a lot of people in the airport were gathered around any available TV screen, watching the Lakers play in game 5 of the NBA Western Conference Finals.

The flight back was uneventful; although the plane flew right above downtown LA, allowing me to gaze at the bright lights emanating from Staples Center (I must've had the nosebleediest seat of all). Back at LAX, I briskly walked through the terminal, not having to worry about any bags or waiting to be picked up. I walked directly over to the adjacent parking lot, picked up my car, paid the $10 or whatever it was for one-day parking, and tried to make a quick and easy escape home. I say tried because the exit from the parking lot led me to a series of dead ends and half-empty parking lots used by shuttle and limousine companies. It was just past 8 PM and getting dark. I was not really in a mood to explore, so I quickly doubled back and ended up on Sepulveda Blvd south.

When I returned to my apartment, I was not tired at all. Flying on a day trip was just like another day at the office. I think I could grow to like this...

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