Thursday, March 09, 2017

A stroll down memory lane –make that memory runway

Over the course of my long and distinguished business career, I ended up doing plenty of business travel. Oh, except for occasional periods of intense travel, I wasn’t exactly a road warrior. But I did travel enough to make me at least a semi-pro.

I came to realize very early on that business travel is decidedly unglamorous (note to self: travel stories as future blog topic). After all, my first trip was to Newark, NJ. Can’t remember who we visited – an insurance company? something to do with AT&T? But I do remember that it was cold, grey, and dreary.

My most “exciting” trips were to Amsterdam and London (a quasi-day trip, believe it or not). Other than Newark, my least exciting domestic trips were to Topeka, KS and Lynchburg, VA. But I did see a lot of the USA over the years. I regret that my trip to Frankenmuth, MI was snowed out.

I estimate that, over the years, about half of my business trips were to NYC. Fine by me! (I still get a thrill when I come in over the 59th Street Bridge.)

All those business trips – and plenty of fun trips (my husband was even more of a New York-ophile than I am)  – means that the airport I’ve logged most of my time in (other than Logan) is LaGuardia.

Of late, my preference is Amtrak, so it’s been a few years since I’ve been there, but I do fondly remember LaGuardia, even though I understand full well that the best way to describe it is to quote Bette Davis (alas, not referring to LaGuardia), “What a dump.” 

I mean that in the most affectionate of ways, but every trip in and out of LGA was pretty much a slog.

At one point, as I settled in on the shuttle  - I think it was the 7 p.m. back to Boston, but it may have been the 6:30 a.m. to LGA -  I looked around the cabin and realized that, although I recognized some of the folks as regulars (this was when I was weekly+ to NYC), everyone was pretty much indistinguishable. Men and women alike, we all had on menswear suits. We all had light khaki trench coats. We all toted oxblood-red leather briefcases. Ugh, ugh, a thousand times ugh!

The Eastern Shuttle, which was at one point the get-thee-to-NYC way to go, used to guarantee that, as long as people showed up on time for the hourly shuttle, the would put on sections to accommodate them.

My husband and I, when we first started to going to NYC – fun trips, and we went pretty often  - tried to game it so that we got on the second section, which back in the day, was a prop jet with some areas that were set up like little lounges, with comfy chairs facing each other. (All was not fun in those days. On one of our very early on trips, when we were still in our getting to know you phase, there was a bombing at LaGuardia – eleven people were killed – while we were visiting NYC, and we ended up driving home. Oddly, I remembered this as a “bomb threat,” not a bomb. I believe that, in its wake, airports stopped having lockers.)

When I traveled on business, it was generally during the prime business hours (6:30 a.m. down, 7 p.m. back), so there were always extra sessions. What they used to do when you got to the airport, was put a little colored sticker on your boarding pass. They’d then call the sections by color. On a Friday evening, there could be five or six sections, and when they called blue, half of the purples would surge forward. Ditto for red and orange. People would be screaming – “I’m a blue, not a purple,” “This is clearly red, not orange.” Not quite the last helicopter out of Saigon, but as close as I ever came.

We’d all get on, eventually, but when you see hundreds of business folks, late in the day on a rainy Friday, milling around in our menswear business suits and light khaki trench coats, jockeying for position, brandishing our oxblood red briefcases and our color-stickered boarding passes. Well, it is something of a sight.

Over time, the Eastern Shuttle got some competition. I don’t know if I ever took the Trump Shuttle, but I did take the Big Apple on occasion And People’s Express. In later days, PanAm got in on the action. Delta. Continental.

One of these airlines – was it Big Apple? – gave out “breakfast”, a tiny cold no-taste bagel or (yuck) a cold hard-boiled egg in a little plastic cup.

When the competition was intense, Eastern started really heaving up the frequent flyer miles. (Jim and I got a few upgrades and European trips out of them.) And one of the airlines did raffles. I once won a bottle of cheap champagne. Fortunately, it was on the way home. For those who won the cheap champagne on the 6:30 a.m., there was nothing to do with that cheap champagne other than leave it at the airport. I recall seeing a row of bottle lined up outside the men’s room.

Speaking of the men’s room at LGA, at one point, there were some improvements going on, and they temporarily moved the ladies room to the lower floor, and relo’d the men’s room to the ladies room. I was so used to hitting the bathroom before I got on the plane, that I charged right in to my good old ladies room, only to find that it had been reconstituted as a men’s room. Oops…

That reno didn’t do all that much for the LGA look and feel. I don’t recall there was ever much by way of food – desperation fare, only – and as for shopping, maybe a place you could get a candy bar or mag. But who cared?

Anyway, most of my LaGuardia memories are fond. So I enjoyed an article I saw on Bloomberg the other day entitled “Why You Should Love America’s Worst Airport.”

Although I might not go so far as to say, as she does, that LGA is my favorite airport, but I’m pretty much with writer Claire Suddath on this. Sure, it’s always been, as she notes, “a dilapidated hellhole.” It was a dilapidated hellhole that you could get in and out of pretty darned quickly. And there’s just something about it.

Much like the city it’s a gateway to, it’s bustling, gritty, purposeful, no-nonsense, surrounding by honking yellow cabs, and exhilarating in its own way. (Hey, I even saw Barbara Bush and her daughter there once. How’s that for exhilarating?)

Now LaGuardia is in for a Glamour makeover.

Last year, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owns the airport, began an estimated $8 billion renovation that will tear down LaGuardia’s terminals and replace them with a central hub.

They’re not adding another runway or two, which is what LaGuardia could really use.

Instead, LaGuardia will get upscale shops and eateries for travelers to check out while they wait and wait. I guess this was inevitable: There’s already a Korean barbecue truck at Los Angeles International and a bakery that makes sourdough in adorable animal shapes at San Francisco International. Most airports are owned by cities or municipal governments, and they’re rewarded financially by leasing gates to airlines and retail space to restaurants and stores. When airlines co-fund terminals, as Delta Inc. is doing at LaGuardia, they can reap some of the rental profit. Fancy terminals beget fancy retailers, who pay higher rent. It’s hard to persuade Bulgari to move into an airport without locks on every bathroom stall.

It’s been a few years since I’ve flown in or out of LaGuardia, but I hate the idea of it getting tarted up. Who needs another Wolfgang Puck fast food joint? Who wants to go shoe-shopping at an airport Johnston & Murphy?

I want the good old days, pushing and shoving to get on the blue shuttle, even though we had a purple sticker. A pack of Chuckles and a NY Mag tucked in the side of that oxblood red leather briefcase.

Yep, part of old-aging is getting nostalgic for places that probably aren’t worth getting nostalgic about.

But to think of a LaGuardia that looks like Heathrow, Frankfurt, or one of those other shopping monstrosities. Oh, boo-hoo.

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