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Special San Francisco edition

As I walked down to the new Embarcadero plaza at the end of Market Street, I stopped in at one of these Left Coast coffee places for some serious, snap-to-attention Left Coast coffee, and goddamn if Otis Redding’s “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay” wasn’t on the speakers.  And I really was sitting on the dock of the bay, too.  I suppose they have the tune on 15-minute tape loop.  If I start hearing Richie Havens’ version of “San Francisco Bay” in stores today, then I’ll know itÝs all about the tourism.

So what am I doing in San Francisco?  Officially, it’s the convention of the American Literature Association, at which I appeared on a roundtable on teaching Don DeLillo’s White Noise.  Unofficially, I’m hanging out with Bay Area friends and writers Joseph Lease and Larry Gallagher, reading about the history of affirmative action, and (at the moment) planning on taking a ferry across the bay.

The sun is out, the air is clear and crisp, and the bay is beautiful beyond belief.  But I’m not blogging about those things.  That would only generate envy and resentment at us jet-setting academics who flit from conference to conference having a grand old time.  (Actually I’ve never been to the ALA before; I don’t go to very many conferences, now that I think of it.) And I don’t want your envy and resentment.  I want your pity and horror!

Really.  I’m serious.  I have flown on exactly five occasions since October.  On four of those five flights, including this one, I have arrived without baggage.  Gainesville, Florida: a four-hour delay in State College, and no bags in Gainesville.  Atlanta: no baggage.  St. Louis: one-hour delay in Pittsburgh, and no baggage.  San Francisco, no baggage.  What the hell is going on?

On two of those flights, I knew perfectly well what was going on: my connecting flight was one of those Brazilian needle-nosed jets, the kind in which one crawls into the fuselage on all fours and is strapped into one’s seat in fetal position.  They were full flights, leaving the northern climes in late winter, which meant that according to the laws of physics, the combined weight of the passengers and their bags would bring the plane down in some catastrophic manner unless my garment bag were unloaded from the plane and put on a later flight.  (I’m not kidding˝ two different airlines actually told me they were doing this.) Well, I’m happy to be inconvenienced slightly if it keeps forty or fifty of my fellow beings from dying a most gruesome death.  But on the St. Louis and San Francisco flights, I wound up being the only passenger whose luggage was mishandled.  This I do not understand.

The irony is that the only reason I travel with a garment bag is to bring a suit for a public presentation.  When the bag doesn’t arrive, I wind up having to speak in my travelling clothes, so that when the bag arrives the next day, I have no real use for it.  I might just as well have brought a tiny overnight bag or small suitcase that would escape the attention of weight-conscious baggage handlers at hubs around the nation.  Now, this isn’t a terrible thing in itself, because academics (yes, even those of us who teach cultural studies) are allowed to appear in public rumpled and disheveled to some degree.  But when you fly for seven hours, arrive in San Francisco at midnight (3 am Eastern), and have no toiletries and nothing fresh to wear for your conference presentation the next day, it’s downright unhygenic.

I do want to acknowledge that US Airways took such pity on my abject state that it issued me a little overnight bag (razor, deodorant, toothbrush-toothpaste, etc.) and even a small clothing allowance.  This allowed me to stop by the Gap yesterday morning for some lightweight˝ and clean!˝ summer clothing, so that I was not an offense to the sensibilities of my fellow panelists and conference interlocutors.  I think the fact that this was my fourth bagless voyage may have moved even the heart of the lost-baggage clerk, who, of course, hears nothing all day except complaints about lost baggage.  (My demeanor is this:  I am not an angry airline passenger.  I am merely abject and weary, especially at 3 am Eastern time.)

Anyway, things are all right now.  My bags arrived in my hotel˝ the Hyatt Regency at the Embarcadero Center, which should be familiar to all you Mel Brooks fans for its role in the film High Anxiety˝ only 21 hours after I did, at 9 pm last night, and now it’s Saturday at noon, and it’s a beautiful day.  When I get back to Pennsylvania, though, I will have to sit down and think this all out: as Freud (and, before him, folk tales) taught us, you only need three occurrences to establish a pattern.  Four is just eerie.  Maybe my bag is being flagged for a reason?  Maybe, just maybe, I should remove all these stickers I put on it last summer?

Posted by on 05/29 at 09:57 AM
  1. Michael,
    Alas:  bad things happen and you ask ‘Why me?’ and then go looking for textual resonances. 

    Freud turned to Greek mythology for his examples, so you might look for a travel-gone-wrong narrative in the literature (I almost wrote ‘canon’wink.  Hmm?  Perhaps like Oddysseus you have offended one of the gods through some sin and are being punished.  If so, be glad it was only your luggage that was lost--and for only 21 hours.  Maybe it was only your choice of clothes.  (See the discussion on academic dress at chronicle.com/colloquy/98/fashion/fashion.htm)
    Perhaps this is a cosmic hint that you’re a candidate for “What not to Wear.” Ask your friends.

    Or in a more Christian vein, perhaps you’ve ticked off Saint Anthony of Padua, finder of lost things.  Is your lost luggage a metaphor for lost faith?  If so, who can blame you?  Then again, maybe it’s time for a novena.

    Lots of good ruminations left, too.  The whole Brooks/Hitchcock thing:  “The Luggage Vanishes.” Cary Grant in “North by Northwest” gets on the 20th Century Ltd. with no luggage and meets up with undercover spy Eva Marie Saint who ‘takes pity on his abject state’ and lends him her tiny razor.  NbyNW also has a dirty suit and a couple of airplanes, one of which crashes, and a great ending.

    Fun, but of little practical value, these connections.

    What you should be asking is “how am I the cause of this problem?” (This is a phrase I learned from one of my early mentors in retail management, and I think she got it from one of her therapists.) Despite ample evidence to the contrary, you continued to trust that a complex system designed to deliver you and your luggage to the same place at the same time would--deliver. 

    This raises three practical issues:  Are there steps you can take to avoid potential complex systems failures, such as wearing your presentation clothes on the plane or carrying your luggage (or, with other systems likely to fail miserably to deliver the intended result, say, avoiding having to vote in Florida)?  Then, are there actions you can take as a consumer or member of the polity to reduce the likelihood of this system failure--bringing a punitive law suit, for example.  And finally, is there something amiss with your way of thinking about problems that makes you less likely to recognize and respond to patterns in the real world and more likely to seek solace in the familiar patterns of literary and psychological confabulations?

    Posted by  on  05/30  at  03:40 AM
  2. Hey, you need to get on the academic blogger meetup circuit. When you’re going to a conference you’re supposed to *let people know in advance*! Then you can meet other bloggers in the hotel bar and talk about ... um ... blogging.

    Posted by George Williams  on  05/30  at  04:26 AM
  3. Michael, they were pulling your chain on at least this much: cold air is denser than hot air (go look it up) and airplanes can lift MORE in cold air than in hot air. Ask any licensed pilot. The worst lift is on a hot, humid day.

    Posted by  on  05/30  at  01:51 PM
  4. Chuck, just one thing about yanking the physics chain-- they weren’t talking about the air (hey, I know cold air is denser!  that’s why it sinks and creates those low-pressure things and those isobar things!), they were talking about the tons of baggage on winter flights.  And invoking “weight considerations,” they yanked my bag-- but not my chain.

    But thanks for the reminder about humidity-- I’d completely forgotten about that.

    And Barry, I swear I wasn’t wearing anything outlandish.  Marsh-colored sports coat, short-sleeved light green checked shirt, jeans.  Nothing that would interest the Chronicle (or anyone else).  I think it’s my big, heavy garment bag that has offended the gods of aerodynamics, and now that I’m home I have burned it in an offering to St. Anthony (thanks for the tip!).

    George, next time I promise I’ll blog in advance, and get in on the discussion of . . . um . . . blogging.  So far I’ve managed to distinguish my blogging from the rest of my life on the grounds that the latter contains almost no conversations about blogging, but I suppose there’s no reason to confuse that distinction altogether, and then blog about it. . . .

    Posted by  on  05/30  at  05:42 PM
  5. Michael - I always carry the garment bag on the plane, so I can at least look good talking about Henri Lefebvre and Vladimir Nabokov - Was your garment bag checked luggage?

    I’ve never had a problem with an airline pulling my carry-on luggage and placing it on another flight (would be too much hassle for them I suppose) and the carry-on baggage checked planeside is basically in the same compartment as the checked baggage. 

    Now here’s an issue for you:  when selecting seats, do you go for the back of the plane, which allows you to get on first, find ample room for your CARRY ON LUGGAGE, or do you go for the front of the plane, which allows you to get the heck off the plane as quickly as possibly, but usually results in a serious lack of overhead space?  That’s my constant dilemma…

    Enjoy San Fran’!

    Posted by Marianne  on  05/31  at  05:02 AM
  6. Michael, I was at the conference too.  We probably passed each other a few times.  Anyway, I was in the hotel last week and used the wi-fi hook up for the first time and visited the site.  I wrote a comment asking you to post about ALA (saw your name in the catalog).  Never sent it.  Glad you posted anyway.

    Posted by  on  06/02  at  06:04 AM
  7. I am not really sure if best practices have emerged around things like that, but I am sure that your great job is clearly identified.
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