Houston, Revisited

Leaving Key West

After my travel disaster story from last week, I felt like I needed a follow up of how it all ended. Yesterday, I made my way back to Denver from Key West — Key West to Houston to Denver. It was a much different experience from my last. After a few lucky breaks, I knew my good travel karma was back… and in spades. For starters, adding two days onto my trip meant changing my flights, resulting in an $80 credit because the flights on the day I chose to return home were cheaper. The new flights, the ones I frantically booked in the chaos of the Houston Airport a week ago, were cheaper but my connection in Houston was tighter than I like. Shortly before landing in Houston, the pilot gave us our arrival terminal. Not only was it the same as my departure for Denver, but it was only three gates away. My United app told me I would be able to make it in less than a minute. Then he announced that we’d be arriving 30 minutes early. Houston was looking better and better.

When I walked to my gate, two gates down from arrival, I recognized it because of the signage and the bar that was directly across from it. C32. It was the same gate I had slept in. Out of all the gates in the Houston Airport, there I was again. It felt eerily familiar, yet very different. The nearby bar, the one that people had been using to charge their phones and change travel plans was now filled with people eating and drinking and sporadically cheering or booing at the football game on the TV behind the bar. Normal bar activities. I found the chair I had spent the night in, which was not hard as it was directly in front of a sign with a dinosaur on it. There were many other chairs available, but given that United Airlines had already connected me nostalgically to the same gate, the chair felt like it was beckoning for me to give it another chance. I looked down at the floor in front of me, littered with bits of popcorn and a candy wrapper and was disgusted that I had laid down on it with only my thin jacket as a barrier for the upper half of my body. I was too exhausted to care much about hygiene that night and in desperate need of sleep, whether in a chair or on the dirty carpet on the floor. As I sat there remembering, the same airport custodian that had awakened me with his sweeping broom, came by with the same task at hand. I didn’t want to make eye contact, afraid he’d recognize me, but then realized there was no way he’d recognize me. He probably sweeps around thousands of people in a week, whether in chairs or on the floor.

Normal airport scene. The guy in the light blue cap is where I slept a week earlier. Right about where his suitcase sits…

I had enough time before my flight and was just steps from my gate so I went over to the bar and had a glass of wine and watched the beginning of the Chief’s game. I was pleased that everyone at the bar were cheering for my hometown team. The bartender told me it was a good thing I was traveling when I was as they were expecting ice in Houston the next day and sometimes that can lead to cancellations in Houston. I nodded without comment. I knew a lot about what ice does to Houston, Mister. Too much.

Passengers were making their way from gate to gate, not mad, not waiting for their turn with the gate agent, not on cell phones with the on hold song playing on so many phones that it was audible background noise. People weren’t one upping each other with how bad their travels had been and gate agents were not exasperated. It felt normal. Like airports usually feel. And so different from my last time in the Houston airport. There was something very full circle about returning to the same spot at the same gate and having a different experience and I was glad I got to revisit gate C32 while it was still so fresh in my memories. It felt like the Houston airport was apologizing to me and graciously, I accepted the apology.

On a side note, while googling the IAH to see if the terminal transportation had opened, I saw a link to “sleeping in the Houston Airport” so of course clicked on.
“The seating in this busy airport is disappointingly limited. If you can grab a seat or two, it will likely have armrests, making a comfortable sleep position nearly impossible. Overnight, you might be able to get away with pushing some seats together for makeshift beds. Your best bet is to seek out a quieter corner or nook and lie on the floor for some shuteye. Travelers recommend Terminal D the most often, but Terminal C is likely the next-best option. Bring an extra layer for warmth and cushion, especially for floor sleeping.”

It also went on to mention the chapel, in terminal C, which had pews that could be good make-shift beds. I remember passing the chapel as it was in the vicinity of where I was, but it didn’t dawn on me to sleep there. I also had to wonder how many people pack cushions in the carryon bag when they travel in anticipation of sleeping on the floor.

We left on time and arrived in Denver 30 minutes early. I checked my bag because my new ticket had me in the back of the plane and I doubted there would be overhead space available. Arriving early meant I’d make my airport shuttle and wouldn’t have to wait another hour if I missed it. When I got in the van, the shuttle driver told me the first stop would be me, in Boulder, then to Longmont for the 2 other passengers. Boulder is NEVER the first stop. I am usually the last person in the van to be dropped off. Everything that could have gone right, did, and then some. The long arm of time and distance that perspective offers, softens the edges of disasters and they are never as bad in the recounting as they were the moment they happened. Otherwise, I would have shared my story with the line up of people at the bar and the women seated next to me at the gate. But unless they were there and felt the frantic, angry, frustrated energy and tried to sleep in a chair or on the floor with the TSA announcements first in Spanish then in English all night long, it’s just another travel story told by yet another weary traveler.

I’m glad I’ve made my peace with you, Houston, and I felt your apology, but I still like Atlanta better when it comes to layovers.

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