Book me

August 27, 2006

I’m not very good at getting library books back on time. In fact, my fines have probably bought various library systems more than 20 new books over the years. However, I was very surprised to get an e-mail from Alexandria (Virginia) Library several weeks ago telling me I had a book overdue. I’d returned that particular book, and I even knew the exact date. I borrowed the book for my French book club, and I returned it the day after the meeting through the book drop because the library had closed by the time I got there.

So I phoned the library and explained. The librarian was very understanding. The book must have been mis-shelved, he said, and he took it off my record.

Last weekend, I finally moved the tottering pile of books on the floor by my bed instead of vacuuming round them, and there among them was—that’s right, the missing book. The book I had returned. The book I clearly remember dropping through the book drop. The book some idiot in the library had mis-shelved, thereby temporarily impugning what’s left of my reputation as a responsible book-borrower.

A better person than I would have gone to the circulation desk, ‘fessed up, and paid the—by now quite large—fine. Instead, I sneaked the book in and mis-shelved it myself. It wasn’t one of my finer moments.

When I noticed, on the way out, the sign saying that security cameras were in operation, I immediately pictured the library police sitting in front of a bank of screens, watching me furtively slipping Les bouts de bois de Dieu in among the Raymond Chandler mysteries. (I can be so stupid—I could at least, for the sake of verisimilitude, have shelved it with the authors beginning with “S.” I almost went back to do that, but then I remembered what usually happens to a criminal who revisits the scene of the crime.)

I braved the library this afternoon, fully expecting to see a blurry video capture of my face on a “Wanted” poster taped to every wall and o be cuffed and frog-marched off to the dungeons when I handed over my books and library card at the check-out desk. “Okay, guv,” I would have said. “I dunnit and it’s a fair cop.”

But nothing like that happened. So far, I am still at large.


August 22, 2006

I don’t believe in angels, but I wanted a picture for today’s post, and a guardian angel seemed appropriate. I could have stopped and photographed the place that’s the subject of this post on my way home this evening, but I was in the wrong lane, and anyway, a parking lot is a parking lot.

I was driving home one evening last October. I’d stopped at a red light, waiting to turn left. The light changed, I put my left foot down, and nothing happened. The clutch was stuck. In true Washington fashion, all the drivers behind me leaned on their horns. I tried again. Nothing. I put on my hazard lights and called AAA road service. I gave my exact position.

“So you’re on King’s Highway?” said the AAA representative.

“No, I’m on northbound Richmond Highway in the left turn lane at the traffic light that is at the junction with King’s Highway,” I repeated patiently.

“Okay, ma’am. I have you on southbound Richmond Highway.”

We went around like this for a while, and in the end, AAA said they would have a tow truck to me in three hours. I pointed out that it was 6 p.m., rush hour, and I was blocking traffic. AAA said they couldn’t help that and recommended I call the Alexandria police.

I did as advised. The Alexandria Police Department said they’d dispatch someone. Fifteen minutes later, I called again. This time I told the police that I was standing on the median waving traffic around my car (which was true) and that I was scared (which wasn’t, but I thought it might get action). Five or so minutes later, a police cruiser showed up and pulled broadside to the traffic to block the road. The two cops pushed my car, with me steering, into the parking lot—the one I didn’t stop to photograph today. I coasted to a stop in the entry way to the parking lot and looked in my rearview mirror for the cops. They had already gone.

So there I was, the only car in a large parking lot for a Chuck E Cheese children’s restaurant that obviously isn’t doing well and a recently closed craft supply store. It was getting dark. The best thing to say about the area is that is it’s marginal. Two men, who’d been sitting on a curb at the side of the parking lot, started walking towards me.

At this point in the story, my friends start to roll their eyes.

The older of the two men (I am not good at this but I would say in his fifties) said, “We saw the police push you in. What’s wrong?” I explained.

“We’ve got to get you to a safer place,” he said. So I steered and the two men pushed me into the parking lot proper.

They asked me what I was going to do. I said I’d called AAA.

“Mike and I’ll stay with you until they arrive,” said the older man. “It’s not safe for you to be here alone. Some of the people around here are on drugs or they’re drunks.”

I said that it could be as long as three hours.

“That’s okay,” he said. “We have nothing else to do. We’re homeless.”

Then Mike said that he used to work for a AAA-affiliated garage in Alexandria and he could see if their tow truck was available. I handed over my cell phone and he called, but the tow truck was already committed.

Ron, the older man, said he knew a little bit about cars and would I like to open the hood and let him take a look. Why not? He told Mike to get in the car, and he fiddled under the hood. Between the two of them, they got the car started (and Ron, incidentally, correctly diagnosed the problem).

“How far do you live?” Mike asked. I said about four miles. Mike said he thought he and Ron could get me home. If the car crapped out, they’d get it going between them—however many times it took. He showed me his driver’s license.

“But how will you get back here?” I asked.

“We’ll take the bus,” said Ron.

So we set out, Mike driving and Ron in the back.

“I haven’t always lived like this,” Mike told me. He said he had enlisted in the Army, and he’d be in basic training the next month. His recruiter had told him he’d be ahead because he had some college credits.

Mike nursed the car home, second gear all the way.

“Most people wouldn’t have trusted us to do this,” said Ron.

“How could I not?” I said. “You are such gentlemen.”

We shook hands, and they went off to catch the bus.

Somewhere in the middle of all this, I gave them all the cash I had, which was $30 (and I wish I’d been carrying more). But I am absolutely certain that they would have helped me even if I’d had no money to give them.

In the course of my telling this story, my friends’ eyes roll more and more. They ask if I wasn’t afraid. The answer is no, not for a moment. Maybe I am naïve, but when I saw them walking towards me, I had no apprehension, and until my friends pointed it out to me, it didn’t occur to me that there was any reason to.

“Most people wouldn’t have trusted us.” I am so very, very glad I did.

Rescue isn’t always a knight in shining armor on a white charger. Sometimes it’s a pair of homeless men.

What friendly skies?

August 17, 2006

With all the latest restrictions, I can’t imagine how awful transatlantic flights must be now, especially those originating at Washington-Dulles International Airport (whose parking lot is pictured above, reflected in the main terminal building). In my recent experience, Dulles isn’t at its best in a minor crisis, so I shudder to think what it’s like getting out of there now.

I was booked to fly out of Dulles to London-Heathrow one Tuesday in late June. My flight was 6:03 PM, and I arrived at Dulles at 3:45 PM. The airline I was flying is at the end of the terminal, and the line to check in was around the corner into the lobby—the check-in desks weren’t even in sight. As time wore on, I (and other increasingly anxious passengers) repeatedly asked for updates from employees ambling about with clipboards. After I’d been standing in line for 1.75 hours, by which time it was 30 minutes before my flight was due to depart and I was about 25 passengers away from the front of the check-in line, someone came by and called for all the passengers for the London flight.

Typically when passengers are called out, it is because it is critically close to their flight time, and they are placed at the front of the line to be processed quickly. All the London passengers dutifully followed the employee to another line. The passengers who were behind me could get out more easily, so everyone who had arrived at Dulles after me was now in front of me. So having arrived in what should have been reasonable time, I was now close to the end of the line. After 10 minutes or so, it became clear that we had not been placed at the front of a line to be checked through fast; we had simply been placed in another general line. People in front of me were on later flights to other cities. I’d have been better off staying in the other line.

Once again, I and the passengers around me tried to get the attention of the clipboard-toting employees. Those who would deign to stop and speak, claimed to be trying to get something done. For the most part, they huddled in groups chatting to each other or scurried by avoiding the passengers’ signals for attention.

Eventually I and two or three other passengers grabbed a uniformed employee who said he would check us in. He moved us out of the line to another area, then promptly wandered off and started messing about with the temporary barriers in an empty area, moving the posts an inch or two this way and that way. We hauled him back and insisted that he process us, and eventually he started to do so. By the time I got to the ticket counter in the main terminal it was 6:15 PM, so I had missed the flight on which I was booked as well as the next one, which leaves at 6:27 PM from another terminal to which you must be bused. I was put on standby for the 9:53 PM flight.

During this entire process, airline repesentatives were not only incompetent, they were also rude. One passenger said that she had been standing in line two hours. The employee snapped, “Two hours isn’t long enough in advance to arrive at the airport” and hurried off. A passenger asked if the airline would be giving any compensation (for the fact that we had missed our flight). “You wanted to be compensated for what—waiting in line?” was the sneered response.

At the gate for my 9:53 PM flight, organization was no better. Gate agents continued to take walk-up passengers for standby, finally closing the flight to standby passengers when the list was 130—more than could conceivably get on a flight that was already, technically, fully booked.

Ticketed passengers boarded and the agents began to call standby passengers. The agents became more and more frazzled and unpleasant because standby passengers crowded round the desk. However, passengers had no option because the agents almost never used the PA system, so if you weren’t standing up close, there is no way you could have heard your name called. I must have been one of the last four or five people to get on the flight. I was called, handed a boarding pass, and told, “Run.”

I wasn’t going to risk anything on my return. I got to Heathrow at 8:15 AM for my 10:50AM flight. Fortunately, Heathrow is better organized than Dulles, and I got to the check-in desk in under 10 minutes. That was the good part.

The bad part was that there was no record of me in the computer. I was not listed as on the return flight I had booked. I showed the reservations agent my ticket. She explained that if you miss a flight, your return flight is automatically cancelled—something no one had bothered to mention to me at Dulles.

Fortunately, the concept of customer service has been explained the British end because, thanks to the concern of a very solicitous agent, not only did I get on the flight, but I even got the window seat I had requested.

Okay, it was high season. Okay, flooding and weather issues in the United States had closed some airports so that many passengers at Dulles the day I flew out should have flown in and departed on their connecting flights one or two days earlier. Okay personnel were stressed.

But those are problem for the airlines to solve, not an additional inconvenience for passengers to suffer. Pull in extra staff and open additional check-in desks. Call people in to work double shifts and pay them overtime. And train your staff so that whatever the situation, they are polite to passengers who have paid hundreds of dollars for their tickets.

I wrote in detail to the airline. This past Monday (three weeks later), I heard back: a pro forma apology and a $100 voucher towards my next flight. It doesn’t cut it.


August 13, 2006

According to the law of the United States, at 18, you can vote; you can have consensual sex and your partner won’t be accused of statutory rape; you can die for your country; and you can buy cigarettes, which will possibly help you die sooner than otherwise, but for one of your country’s strongest lobbies rather than for your country itself—but hey, dulce et decorum anyway.

But you can’t legally have a beer.

Here’s another interesting alcohol-related anomaly.

I went to the supermarket this evening and bought, among other things, a bottle of wine. The cashier set aside the wine and scanned and bagged everything else. Then she scanned and bagged the wine, after which, she picked up her intercom phone and called for a manager. “Sorry to keep you waiting, ma’am,” she said to me and, by extension, the people behind me, “but I’m not 21. I can’t ring up alcohol.”

A manager eventually arrived and pressed the key that rings up the entire sale.

So the under-21 cashier can handle the bottle of wine, she can scan it, she can put it in the shopping bag—but she can’t press the key that actually rings it up. In other words, she can’t technically sell it to me, though after someone else has facilitated the sale, she can accept my payment.

How silly is that?

Will that be all?

August 10, 2006

I stopped at Dunkin’ Donuts yesterday on my way to work to buy a cup of coffee. Ahead of me were a man, then a woman, deep in whispered conversation with a boy of about 10. We waited two or three minutes while the man ordered his coffee, received it, and paid. Then it was the woman’s turn.

DD employee (indicating two bottles of water that the woman was carrying): “Will that be all?”
Woman: “No … er … let’s see …what do you want, honey?” (More whispered conversation with child.) “Umm … .”

Now the woman and boy didn’t walk across the parking lot in front of me, so they hadn’t just got there. They’d been there long enough to get the bottled water from the fridge, then we waited for the man to finish up being served. It never occurred to them, during their sotto voce chat, to start discussing what they wanted?

Woman: “Plain bagel, toasted, with cream cheese.” (Yet more whispered conversation with child while DD goes off and prepares the bagel.)
DD: “Anything else?”
Woman: “Yes, another plain bagel, toasted, with cream cheese.”
DD (goes off and prepares the second bagel): “Is that it?”
Woman: “And a chocolate cream donut.”
DD (having fetched and bagged the donut): “Will that be all?”
Woman: “One small coffee, cream, no sugar. And the water.”

Halfway through this, the man behind me gave up and left. I stayed out of a kind of ghastly fascination with how much longer it could go on—and the fact that the alternative for coffee was the new Starbucks around the corner that I walked out of last week after waiting for five minutes, during which time one customer’s transaction had still not been completed. (As Dave Barry would say, I am not making this up.)

Do you know the scene in Cabaret where Sally Bowles (Liza Minelli) takes Brian (Michael York) under a railway bridge, and when the train goes over, she screams at the top of her lungs (of course, unheard over the noise of the train)? Well, I badly needed that railway bridge. My other impulse was to push the woman up against the wall, tell her she was the most stupid person I’d ever had the misfortune to encounter in my life, then grab her by the neck and squeeze the life out of her. Fortunately I didn’t act on it, which is how come I am sitting here writing this and not in the pokey paying my debt to society.

Anyway, the rest of my day was better. Oh, except for walking out of the Starbucks next to the Chinese restaurant where I had lunch because I got bored with being ignored while the barrista polished the espresso machine and chatted with a friend.

Is the message that I should stop drinking coffee?

Je roule

August 9, 2006

Back in April, I posted a photograph on my other blog of a Washington, D.C. bus running on natural gas, and I was very happy to see that Lille, too, is concerned about the environment and has buses that roulent au gaz naturel.

We said au revoir to Lille after a very brief stay—just three days—and for the time being, I am saying au revoir to photographs of my trip and moving on to some other observations.

Palais des Beaux Arts

August 8, 2006


It was Napoleon who ordered art treasures to be stripped from the walls of palaces and private galleries throughout his European empire and brought to Lille, where they are now displayed in the Palais des Beaux Arts, which is considered France’s second art museum after the Louvre. The museum houses paintings by Goya, Rubens, Picasso, Lautrec, Monet, and other famous artists. I don’t know what Napoleon would have made of these helium balloons, but I loved them.