Normally these lounges, especially international lounges, have a full buffet set up for their patrons. They can be pretty lush affairs with a variety of hot and cold entrees, salads, crackers and cheese, soups, desserts. These buffets are usually greeted by the people who frequent these clubs as if they have never seen food before and don’t expect to see it again for several weeks. There is often sharp elbow play in front of particularly popular dishes and plates are almost always heaped beyond capacity. Seconds and thirds portions are common.
There is no chance for traveler gluttony today. The buffet table is tucked into a corner and covered in plastic. This makes sense. Buffets would be factories for the virus with the sharp elbow play, lack of social distancing and multiple hands touching items. It reminds me of why I don’t eat peanuts in bars any longer.
Which of course makes me look for the bar that is usually the natural accompaniment of the buffet. In many of these clubs instead of a bartender they just place top shelf bottles of spirits on the table and let travelers apply what ever amount of liquid courage required that will allow them to carry on. To be honest, despite the fact that I rarely drink when I travel (short term gain for a double hangover the next day), I feel, given the current circumstance, a little liquid courage is what is called for. It has, after all, been a frightening day, will be a frightening flight, and I have six hours to kill. There is no bar. In fact, when I inquire about alcohol from one of the intermittently masked staff, I am told that the Covid 19 policy is for no alcohol in the clubs at all. Only closed containers are to be served such as water, soda, and beer. Unfortunately, they are out of beer.
Good one God.
I ask for a Guarana (a Brazilian Soda) and a water. When they are brought to me, and the server has walked away, I quickly douse them with alcohol gel. This may seem a little excessive especially considering that most scientists believe it is difficult to get Covid from food but hands touch faces and the nose and eyes can provide egress for the Virus into you. Trust but verify. And it is not paranoia if someone really is trying to get you. When my drinks are finally ready to be quaffed, I realize that I have another problem. How do I drink, or for that matter eat without taking off my mask ? This is something I loathe to do especially with the two other travelers not wearing their masks and the staff only intermittently doing so. I ponder my dilemma for a few moments and come to the conclusion that you have to eat, you have to drink, and that the only thing you can do with this virus is minimize the risk, not eliminate it.
I drink quickly, replace my mask and then immediately spray my hand with alcohol gel. It stings. My hands are now chapped from the amount of cleanliness, I have forced on them today.
Now what to do for the five and a half hours until my plane boards. With nearly 4 million real air miles flown I have spent more than my fair share of time waiting for flights and, over time, developed strategies for coping with boredom of long waits. I am never without a book or something to read. Today is no different. My ipad has three books downloaded that I am currently reading but I don’t feel like reading because for the last three months reading has been my primary source of entertainment. I have read on average four books a week. I am burned out from reading and as importantly my current stress level will not allow me to focus on the words. Books were out.
A game my mother taught me as a child is another device I use to relieve the monotony of waiting in airports. You look at your fellow travelers and try to figure out where they are from and their backstory. When you have a lounge that only has two other people in it this is not much of a distraction.
I could nap. That certainly makes time pass far more quickly but due to the situation I find myself in, senses on overdrive, and a near continuous supply of adrenaline flooding my system, nappage is off the table.
There is no television. As a consequence I cannot treat myself to watching endless looped cycles of news from CNN .
I am left with Netflix. It is the only streaming service that works out of the country. As such the last 90 days have winnowed down my choices for new programming. I have already binged watched everything from the Crown to The Unbreakable Kimmy Schimdt, from Brooklyn 99 to the Chef Show, from The Office to Arrested Development. To compound the problem, I don’t want to watch anything that actively engages me in anyway. I do not need to think right now as I am already overthinking most things. I want programming that just entertains or distracts. After dithering for what seems like an exceptionally long time, I make a terrible decision and decide to watch the remake of “Dynasty”, the classic ‘80’s evening soap opera. The show features a predictable and badly written script, mediocre acting, and a distinctly millennial “woke” vibe. Its chief attribute is that, similar to watching a car accident, you cannot avert your eyes. You want to see how disastrous it will become.
Between episodes I manage to eat what the menu calls a Pizza Margherita. I am not sure who translated the menu for the club, but it is not a pizza. It is a melted cheese sandwich with tomato. Not bad as a snack but definitely not a pizza. At some point I become the only person in the club. What makes it creepy is that the staff, some without masks, are staring at me. I amuse myself by thinking about how Stephen King would write this short story. Would a staff member take off a mask and reveal himself to be a clown? Would the airport suddenly be engulfed in fog? I decide that he would likely write this story as is. Being at an airport at the center of the Brazilian Pandemic is scary enough.
Time passes slowly. But it passes. After 4 episodes of Dynasty. Two pizza Margherita (they were small and I hadn’t eaten since breakfast) and 7 hand cleansings, it is finally time to board my flight. As I leave the club, I see there is a cluster of employees at the front desk engaged in “bate papo” or jaw flapping. Half are not wearing face masks. They are paid to be a safe haven for travelers. They are actions suggest they do not care and it pisses me off. I leave without thanking them or wishing them a “boa noite.”
My gate, 308, is a ten-minute walk from the American Express Lounge and for the majority of that walk I do not see another living soul. Stores that normally would be packed with passengers buying last minute gifts, souvenirs, and knick knacks are either closed or completely empty. The only sound is that of my footsteps and the wheels of my rollaboard. I wonder, albeit briefly, whether I am the only American fleeing tonight. I am not. When I get within, what was called spitting distance previous to the pandemic, of the gate I see that there are quite a few people who will be escaping Brazil with me this evening. I am happy that most of them seem to be wearing masks although many seem to be using them as mock turtlenecks or faux earrings as opposed to the more traditional mouth and nose coverings. It makes me wonder why people do not take this more seriously. Even if you don’t believe the virus is going to harm you why wouldn’t you do something innocuous and simple, such as wearing a mask, that would protect your neighbors, friends, and others who may have a less robust immune system than you. Four hundred thousand are dead. You are leaving a country that has the second highest rate of infection in the world without doing any testing. You are leaving a city that has the highest infection rate in that country. Why won’t you wear a fucking mask? I really want to scream sense into these people, but I realize that is tilting at windmills and would likely only get me thrown off the flight. Instead I try to find a place, out of the flow of foot traffic, and away from clusters of people to wait for boarding. But the situation is difficult to manage between more people arriving for the flight and those who feel more comfortable pacing than standing still. So I move from one place to another trying my best to maintain social distance in a challenging system.
Fortunately, I win the lottery when boarding the flight. Not only have I booked a business class seat but in Brazil if you are older than 60 you are entitled to board the flight first. I am the second person on board the airplane and quickly make my way seat, 1K. The configuration of business class on this airplane is 2 x 2 x 2. I have read in the days leading up to this trip that United Airlines in addition to requiring those traveling to wear masks they will try to accommodate social distancing by keeping adjacent seats open.
My first thought as I settle into my United Polaris Class pod is that I have done everything I can to protect myself from the disease. I am wearing a mask, in the first row so I will be exposed to less people. I am as socially distant as one can be in an aluminum tube. I have wiped my area down with alcohol gel wipes. I sit back in my seat and close my eyes when it hits me. After nearly 90 days in Brazil, five flight cancelations, endless news consumption on Brazil’s losing fight against Covid19, the sturm and drang of leaving my wife behind…not knowing when we would see each again and near constant stress for the past 12 hours, I am going home. I am overwhelmed by the moment and begin to weep.
I am blowing my nose when I hear “Excuse me.” I turn to see a petite woman in a white hooded Tyvek coverall accessorized by wrap around sunglasses, surgical shield and mask and blue latex gloves. For I moment I fear she has come to escort me off the aircraft. God the prankster once again pulling one of his jokes out of the Job handbook. But it is not that. She wants to know if I am sitting in the correct seat because she is booked into 1L and does not want to sit next to another passenger. I assure her I am and she proceeds to have a meltdown in the aisle yelling at the Flight attendants that she has been promised that she would occupy a row by herself. I turn away as this is a fight I don’t want to get caught up in but I am secretly rooting for her as I don’t want anyone sitting next to me as well. When they find her a row by herself, I am relieved.
The relief does not last long. As I am exploring the entertainment system, I feel a bump on the back of my pod, then hear the noise of luggage being placed in the overhead compartment directly behind me and finally the booming voice of a Texan saying to one of the flight attendants “How are y’all doing today? I would love a bourbon and the rocks when you can?” It is clear from his inflection and lack of volume moderation this would not be his first drink today. I am grateful when the masked flight attendant tells him that he is required to wear a mask at all time and that due to Covid 19 regulations no spirits will be served but if he would like a beer or wine they would be available.
He loudly apologizes for not wearing a mask and talks to himself “Where did I put that durn thang” as he struggles to find his mislaid mask. He then asks, in a muffled but still unmodulated tone “You got any American beer?” And when the flight attendant brings him his libation, he his loudly effusive in Texan “Aren’t you the prettiest thing. Y’all are so nice. Thank you so much. This probably going to be the best beer I have had in weeks. You see me getting low you just bring me another. God bless!” I hear the flip top lid pop open, and then the sound of the beer being poured in glass and then a very loud “ahhhhh.” It is not long after that when he begins to whistle.
Couldn’t cut me break, could you God?