Thursday, July 30, 2009

It was only an RV, in old LAX...

When I was a child, one of my favorite books was Blue Willow, a novel about a girl whose father was an itinerant farm worker.

Daydreamer that I was (and probably because the protagonist was, like me, a blue eyed blonde), I spent plenty of time imagining that I was that little girl, and what it would be like to live in a camp for farm laborers.

Fortunately, I haven't had to find out. No Hoovervilles, no Tent Cities, no shanties in old shantytowns for me.

Lap of luxury, maybe not. But lap of solid, middle class comfort, indeed.

These days, there are plenty of folks, mostly men, who are living away from home - under fairly poor conditions - so that they can support their families, and not spend much of their earnings in the process. (In fact, a few weeks ago, I blogged about one such fellow.)

The LA Times reported recently on an encampment that's grown up in a parking lot at LAX, where:

100 trailers and motor homes that form a colony of pilots, mechanics and other airline workers.

Some of the fellows live relatively grandly - Jim Lancaster, a pilot for Alaska Airlines, whose "real home" (and wife) are in Washington State has a luxe rig known as the Chateau.

It has satellite TV, plush carpeting and walnut-stained cabinetry.  Lancaster's wife, a teacher in Seattle, likes the Chateau as well and occasionally flies down on Friday nights to explore Los Angeles over the weekend.

Lancaster is in his particular spot because of the financial troubles that Alaska Airlines in particular, and the airline industry in general, are experiencing. He was downsized from captain to first officer, losing 20% of his pay and his close-to-home assignments in the process.

On the other end, a younger, more junior Alaska first officer, Todd Swenson hangs his pilot cap in a small, cramped "metal box", complete with bathroom the size of an airplane lav. (All the comforts of work...)

The trailer's windows are blacked out with foil and brown paper bags so Swenson can sleep during the day. To muffle the constant din of aircraft, he bought a white-noise machine -- a small tape player with a recording that sounds like a washing machine.

For Swenson, living away from his wife and son is "the cost of being a pilot today."

And lest you think it's just employees of mutt, regional airlines who are suffering, Doug Rogers was a $35 an hour United Airlines mechanic working in Salt Lake City, where he still makes his "home home." Now he's a $30 an hour who, for the last seven years, has called a "26-foot camper built on a Ford truck chassis" his home away from home.

Sure the commute's ideal, but living in a camper, in a broiling parking lot, on the tarmac, with the constant roar of jet engines, can't be any picnic. But it's only $60 a month to rent a space, and there's a waiting list with 10 names on it.

The airport screens applicants. A few years ago, a couple of working girls - camper followers, as it were - moved in. There were other undesirables, including a few who tossed human waste on the pavement. (Apparently there were no "gutter your human" signs around. And perhaps no gutters, either.)

The bad parking lot dwellers were forced out, and the airport now has rules against what one might consider the potential niceties of camper life: no lawn furniture, no barbecues, no parties.

In many respects, of course, it's completely depressing to think of people living under such conditions.

Just the thought of no shade, no green, and all that shimmering jet fuel makes me twitch.

And don't get me going on race-to-the-bottom wages.  Sure, I want to pay $79 plane fare (round-trip) to somewhere far away, but I really would be happy to pay a few bucks more so that a first officer like Todd Swenson could make more than $70K a year to co-pilot a plane.

But there is something rather fun-nish about this. Maybe not swinging bachelor pad fun, but these campers are certainly the ultimate man-cave, no?

And there's definitely something just a tad bit noble about someone living in a crummy little sweat box so that his family can live better somewhere else.

And a wiggle of the bi-plane wings to my sister Trish, who pointed this story out to me.

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