Fun at the AWP Conference

(Editor’s note: Listen, this was going to be all about my trip to Austin, Texas, for the AWP Conference, all about the trip out, my reading as part of the Primeros Libros panel, the whole AWP experience, and then the trip back, but it didn’t exactly work out.)

Yeah, if you’re one of my homies, you know that I’ve always been dismissive of AWP Conferences; every time that I'd been told that I should attend or that I’d been asked to come with, I had always said something along the lines of “I can’t imagine anything sadder or more boring or more soul-annihilating than being at AWP.” Honestly, it seemed like the last place that I would ever want to be. For example, I’ve also previously and derisively described AWP as a literary ass-kissathon because, seriously, who gives a damn?

But then I was asked to be part of the Primeros Libros panel, and I was contacted through one of my all-time favorite professors and I have a hard time saying no to people. Can I use your car to run these forged checks to the bank? Uh, okay. Dude, it’d be sweet if I could borrow a grand in order to maintain my growing cough syrup addiction. What’s a grand? I’ll just eat ramen for the rest of the year. Do you think it’d be cool if I housed these endangered monkeys in your apartment? Yeah, sure.

Okay, that was a bit of an exaggeration. It was only $500, and those monkeys were only threatened, but you get my point. So, I was asked, and, in violation of my beliefs, I had said yes. Then the scary part of the whole thing began: the planning.

I’m no good at planning or at keeping track of stuff. I find all of that shit to be terribly overwhelming. For example, I once went almost two years without balancing my checkbook because the prospect of having to gather all of those records and sort them into a sensible order made me want to crawl under my bed and beat my head repeatedly against the floor until a strange and lovely calm settled over me as I entered the first phase of sweet unconsciousness. And I had been a math tutor and written and graded math tests at a junior college, so I’m highly skilled with numbers. When I finally did manage to balance the checkbook, I had to take a long and troubled afternoon-into-evening-until-my-ringing-phone-woke-me nap. Right now, I’m going on fifteen months without balancing my checkbook. That’s right, America, I’m trying to beat my old record.

For AWP, I now had to register at the conference, book a hotel, book a flight, get coverage at my regular work and at my Saturday gig (That’s right, I’ve got a second job. Why? I really don’t know; I was asked and I said yes, and now I’m trapped, probably until the day that I die.), and figure out what I was actually going to read. That last part’s easy: I just post-it all the decent poems in my book (there are about five, six if you’ve got iffy taste) and then freestyle it when I start reading. I read my mediocre poems and I tell my stupid jokes and you already paid and you can’t get your money back and then it’s over and then you’re in your car and then everybody goes home, so who cares?

I manage to pull off all of that planning, and the months go by. Then I’m one of many recipients of a scary/presumptuous mass e-mail, telling us newbies to dress “professionally,” which only confirms my suspicions that this AWP Conference is going to be a crashing and spiritually deadening bore, but I manage to ignore the e-mail.

I had thought that the tricky and screw-upable part was behind me. (This, kids, is what’s called foreshadowing.)

(Editor’s Note: I’m going to cut and paste what happened next from the March Poker Report, on which I am also currently working. Donald Hall, one of my favorite contemporary poets [his Without is a heartbreaker], writes, in either Life Work or Principal Products of Portugal, that it’s a good idea to try to find as many different ways to use source material as you can [Maybe that poem can be extended into a short story. Maybe that magazine piece can become a book.], so that’s what I’m going to do here. Not because I’m lazy (I kind of get off on writing), but because I think that I pretty much nailed it [in seven single-spaced pages] in the aforementioned Poker Report. Also, it’s going to be mostly in the present tense because I had had the idea of posting live to my little website during the entire trip. So much for that idea.)

America West Airlines Can Bite Me: 9 March 2006. I’m at the airport with plenty of time to spare. I check my bag (more on that later), go to my gate to listen to my iPod and read a New Yorker (I’ve finally gotten through the summer of 2004; I can’t wait to see how the presidential election turns out) while I wait for my 9:15 p.m. departure. Soon enough, and on time, we’re on the plane and rolling to the runway. Then the pilot comes on and tells us that there’s “severe wind” at Las Vegas’s McCarran International and we’re going to stay on the ground for a short delay.

Cool. At least we’re on the runway, so when the conditions get better we should be the first ones up and out. Not so much because soon the pilot comes back on the intercom to tell us that we’re headed back to the gate in order to refuel. Still cool. Then it’s the pilot again, telling those of us who are connecting out of Las Vegas to get off of the plane and go back to the counter to see about what’s happening with our connections.

Yeah, now I’m starting to get worried. I’d had an hour in between landing in Las Vegas and flying out again, and that was more than enough time, or so I had thought. But now I’m leaking minutes, and if I miss my connection it’s going to turn into a real hassle.

Originally it was supposed to be like this: Leave Fresno at 9:15 p.m., land in Las Vegas at 10:00 p.m., fly out at 11:00 p.m., land in Austin at 3:35 a.m., and get to the hotel and sleep for about four hours (not a problem because I’ve got these dynamite caffeine pills on which I rely to get me through my busy life) before meeting with my fellow readers for an 11:00 a.m. lunch so that we can prep for the 3:30 p.m. reading. A doable plan.

Now, however, it’s starting to come apart. We connectors are lined up at the gate, waiting to talk to the America West employees who are going to tell us whether we are screwed, and how badly. By the time I get to the front of the line, I've got my little speech prepared. I tell him that, at the latest, I need to get to Austin by 2:00 p.m. so that I can make my reading, even if I have to skip the lunch. The dude at the counter tells me that I can catch a 7:00 a.m. that goes to Phoenix and then onto Austin, with a 1:43 p.m. arrival time. Before I commit to this new plan, I ask him if it’s certain that I’m going to miss my current Las Vegas connection, because, if we get up in the air in the next few minutes, I’ve still got a shot. He says that if we can’t fly in, then there’s a chance that they can’t fly out, which makes sense to me. This is when I asked him what, in his professional opinion, was the best thing for me to do. He said to stick with my current flights because I could always switch to the 7:00 a.m. flight out of Las Vegas when I touched down in Las Vegas. I say “okay,” and, shortly, we’re back on the plane.

By the time we’re in the air, though, it’s clear that I will have to catch the 7:00 a.m. flight. When we land at about 11:45 p.m., however, I see that the flight to Austin is still listed on the board as “currently boarding.” Sweet. I’m in Concourse C and I have to haul ass to Concourse B, but I don’t care, because it’s all going to work out as originally planned. Even as I’m running, though, I know that my checked bag will never get onto the goddamn plane with me and that I’ll have to do the reading in the clothes that I’m wearing, and not in my lovely navy three-button suit that looks killer with a ark gray shirt and navy tie. Not that big a deal; I did that big-deal NBCC reading in alternative clothes and in my street shoes, so doing this reading in a sweater is not going to break me.

When I get to Concourse B, though, I see that the plane isn’t there but that it’s still listed as “currently boarding.” I say to the counter person that I’m there for the midnight flight to Austin, and she tells me semi-discourteously that it has already left. She’s already turning away before I can even say another word, but I have to ask her where I go to make alternate arrangements. Without even looking at me, she tells me to go to America West customer service, and, because I don’t have the magical ability to read her mind, I have to ask her where that is.

Shortly, I’m in the customer service line, which has already snaked far down a corridor, ready to switch to the 7:00 a.m. flight. I’m about twelfth in line, when some middle manager fuck comes and tells us that we need to go to the main check-in counter to make our new arrangements, and that it will be faster if we do. I look at the number of people in front of me and quickly decide that I’m better off if I just stay where I am. Nobody in front of me moves, and a few people immediately behind me don’t, either. Then the middle manager says that he’s cutting off the line with those who are in customer service proper, and not in the corridor. What a bastard.

There’s a mad dash to the check-in counter, but I’m naturally a fast walker, so I don’t lose any places in line. That’s a good thing because the line at the check-in counter is incredibly long and I know that that middle manager guy has just jobbed me and everybody else who had been standing in the line at customer service.

I’m in that line until 2:00 a.m., but I do get a seat on the 7:00 a.m. flight. I don’t, however, get tickets. The guy at check-in gave me an itinerary for the new flight, but he told me that I’d have to come back at 5:00 a.m. to get the actual tickets. Whatever; I’m going to be up all night anyway, so coming back will just entail walking over from wherever in the terminal I’ve found a place to sit.

I grab some snacks and water at one of those little overpriced convenience stores that you find in airports, then find a bar where I can open up my laptop and work on whatever it is that I think I can work on at 2:15 in the morning with a not-exactly clear head.

It turns out that McCarran has free wifi, so I get online and send an e-mail to most of the people with whom I’ll be reading later on that day so that I can let them know that I’ll be missing lunch but that I’ll be there in time for the reading. I write a few more e-mails, read the NY Times online, but, because I’m tired and a little freaked out (I need everything to be perfect all of the time and I’m not good at not having things go exactly like they should), I don’t get any real work done.

So far, except for the middle manager jerk and the rude lady at the gate, there’s not much about which to be upset. If there are severe winds, there are severe winds. Force majeure. That’s how it goes.

At 4:00 a.m. I get back in the check-in line, and by the time I get to the front, it is almost exactly 5:00 a.m., so I think that everything’s working out now. A woman calls out for “next, please,” so I walk over and show her my printed itinerary and tell her that I just need to get my tickets printed. The woman is named Liz, and she starts keying something into her computer, and I’m waiting for my tickets to print shortly. Then she keys in some more stuff. Then she keys in some more stuff. I am starting to suspect that there’s a problem.

Finally, Liz looks up at me and says that I’m not on the flight. I ask what she means, and she says that the flight’s booked solid and that I don’t have a seat. I say that I do, in fact, have a seat, that I had been told that all I needed to do was come back for tickets. She says that the flight’s “locked,” but that she can put me on the standby list, where I would be the ninth person down the standby list.

I wonder how many people would fall for that “I can put you on stand-by” line because, with all of the people that America West has screwed tonight, all of their remaining flights are packed and only a mass suicide, involving at least nine people, could ever get me on a plane.

I tell her that I don’t need to be on stand-by, that I need to be on the 7:00 a.m. flight just like I was told that I would be.

We’re at an impasse, because it’s pretty clear that I’m fucked, even though I’ve done nothing wrong, and that she can’t un-fuck me.

What probably happened: America West is a horrible airline (I only found this out after my NYC flight and the failed Austin Trip seven days later) and they had many upset customers that night, all of them frantic to get to their destinations at a reasonable time. Some of them, I guess, fought vigorously to get onto an airplane, any airplane, mine included, and, since I didn’t already have tickets in my hand and wasn’t around to defend my seat, it was easy to take my seat away from me. They probably just figured that I would just have to take whatever flight it was that they finally assigned to me. I wouldn’t have a choice, really.

It was at this point that I retraced for Liz how I had had a flight at 11:00 p.m., how I was then supposed to be on the 7:00 a.m., and how I was now a man without a flight. This was when Liz said to me, “We can’t do anything about the weather.”

What am I, a schmuck? (Forming that sentence in my mind and then typing it is, by the way, the closest that I will ever get to living in NYC.) I know that she’s just mouthing what she’s been told to say—blame the entire thing on something for which they, themselves, can’t possibly be blamed—when a customer has gotten screwed and is demanding satisfaction, in the hopes that I’m not smart enough to figure out that weather only screwed up my original plans, not the ones that I spent over two late-night/early-morning hours standing in line for and/or putting together with one of their counter persons.

Then, after more keyboarding, and without letting me know what she’s doing, Liz prints out my tickets. I think that she’s taken care of everything and that things, thankfully, will now proceed smoothly. She tells me that I fly out of Las Vegas at 10:35 a.m.

10:35 a.m.? The math’s not hard. If my lost 7:00 a.m. flight got me to Austin at 1:43 p.m., then a flight leaving three-and-a-half hours later will never get me to my panel anywhere near its 3:30 p.m. start time.

I ask her what time a 10:35 a.m. departure gets me to Austin. She says that I land in Phoenix at 11:40 and fly out at 12:11 p.m., but she hasn’t answered my question. I can tell, in fact, that she’s gone out of her way to not answer my question. I can tell that this dodge is related to the one that she had tried earlier about the weather. She’s not going to be honest if she thinks that she can get by with a lie or an evasion.

Because I still don’t know what time I get to Austin, I have to ask again. She looks at the screen, almost as if she’s not sure. “You arrive in Austin at 4:29 p.m.,” Liz says.

I couldn’t believe it. Liz had just printed tickets that were useless to me. She had just printed tickets that she knew were useless to me. I had told her repeatedly that I needed to be in Austin by 2:00 p.m. for a 3:30 p.m. panel, but she hadn’t seemed to care.

Why’d she do it? To get rid of me. To have me walk away while she hoped that I didn't  figure out what time I was landing in Austin until it was too late. It’s one of the most fucked up things that I've ever seen. She knew that my panel was at 3:30 p.m. and she was just going to let me get on a plane that would arrive after my panel was over. She was going to let me fly there and back and ruin any chance that I’d get a refund for my $500+ flight. I was stunned, that anybody could do that to a fellow human being. I wondered if she had been trained to do what she had done to me, or if it was something of her own invention. I wondered what part of her had died that had allowed her to do what she was trying to do to me.

I had already decided that if there was no was for me to arrive in Austin on time that I would just request the earliest return flight back to Fresno. I told her, “Forget it. Just get me on the next plane back to Fresno.” Liz looked utterly surprised, like she thought that I was just going to let myself be loaded onto a flight like a piece of luggage. I told her that there was no reason for me to go to Austin if I were going to arrive too late for my panel, and, get this, she seemed to get upset with me, to get a little frustrated and/or exasperated. I was the one who had just had his plans wrecked, by her, and she was making a face at me and shaking her head in anger. At least she didn’t roll her eyes, though she probably wanted to.

I told her that there wasn’t any reason for me to go, and that was when she said that I “was choosing not to fly.” Jesus, man, it’s so transparent what’s now going on. If I choose not to complete my flight, then America West is off the hook for all that has happened, and it’s all my fault if I don’t complete my trip. More importantly, America West will get me to eat the ticket, to pay for a trip to Austin that got as far as Las Vegas through their ineptitude and dishonesty.

I tell her that I’ve already missed my lunch meeting, that I’ll arrive after my panel is over, that it would make no sense to fly to Austin just so that I can stay the night in a hotel room and then fly out sixteen hours later without having accomplished anything, that I, in fact, have had very little choice in what has transpired over the last nine hours.

At this point, Liz has been keyboarding and lying to me for almost exactly an hour. A supervisor walks over to see what’s going on with Liz, and Liz explains her version of what’s going on. The supervisor didn’t, by the way, ask me a goddamned thing; it was as if I were invisible.

The supervisor then said reassuringly to Liz that it was “all right” that she was taking so long, which was when I understood that part of the way that these ticket agents are evaluated is in how long they take with each individual customer, and Liz having spent an hour utterly lying and evading and mistreating me was not cool, but it was not cool only because the lying and the evading and the mistreating had taken far too long. It had been inefficient lying and evading and mistreating.

Liz prints my tickets for my 11:00 a.m. flight back to Fresno. It’s roughly 6:00 a.m. at this point. In the span of about six hours, my plans have disintegrated. In a daze, I grab my tickets, ask Liz for every single scrap of paper related to my trip. Not once does she utter a word of understanding or commiseration or apology. Nothing.

With all of the evasions, half-truths, and outright lies, it was almost as if we were in a romantic relationship. It was as if we had condensed the whole relationship experience, from the first date to the divorce, down to just an hour. At first there was optimism and excitement because we both wanted be good to and for each other, then the painful discovery that we both wanted different things from the relationship, then the misunderstandings and the lies and the hurt feelings, then the even more painful parting after the official exchange of the official documents, with an obvious winner (that would be Liz) and an obvious loser (and that would be me).

I head back to that bar so that I can write explanatory and apologetic e-mails to my fellow panelists for whom I have e-mail addresses. I also call the head of the panel, and we have a good talk about what’s happened and how sorry I am that I’m going to miss my chance to read with them. A woman a few tables away from me hears my side of the conversation, and when I get off of the phone, she asks me if I’m flying America West. I tell her that I am, and she says that she’s not surprised, that that’s for what America West is known. We commiserate and share our individual horror stories for a little while longer.

I’m in some weird state of shock and disbelief. I have a deeply analytical mind, and I’m pretty confident that I can reason through or make sense of anything, even this situation, so I keep running what’s happened over and over in my mind, but it doesn’t become clearer or more comprehensible; instead, I just get more disheartened, more confused. After much analysis, however, I was able to conclude that the whole situation was, to use the technical term, “fucked up.”

The Arrival: The plane lands in Fresno at eleven, and I go to baggage claim to pick up my suitcase. I was one of the first passengers off of the plane and the first to arrive at baggage claim, but I was the last to leave…because I stood there and stood there and my bag never showed up. Is there a more tragic feeling that standing at baggage claim, watching the carousel go round and round and realizing that your baggage is just not going to come down the chute, no matter how long that you stand there?

(Some background: When I went to Madcity for a reading, United Airlines lost my bag on my return trip, but it showed up after a day. Not that big a deal because I had plenty of clothes back at the crib. Then when I went to NYC on America West for the NBCC thing, my suitcase wasn’t there when I got to JFK. This was a big deal because I ended up having to do the to-be-televised-on-CSPAN 2 nominee’s reading in an ill-fitting shirt and blazer that I wore along with the pants and the shoes that I had worn on my overnight flight in from California. Thankfully, the reading never aired.)

On my last three trips, then, I was 3-for-3 on some type of baggage mishap. This one, though, was particularly galling because I thought that I had taken steps to prevent my suitcase from disappearing. After Liz had finished wrecking my weekend, I had immediately headed over to America West’s Baggage Service Center in order to see what I could do about getting my suitcase back in my hands. I explained to the counter-person that I was no longer going to Austin and that, in order to ensure that my bag didn’t make the Austin trip without me, I wanted my suitcase back, and she said that it wouldn’t be a problem to get me my suitcase. She started keying something into her computer (again with the keying), when her supervisor, who was standing nearby, said that it wouldn’t be a problem to get my bag transferred from the Austin flight to my Fresno flight. I hadn't really wanted to haul my suitcase around for the next few hours [I was exhausted and inn an almost hallucinatory state], and since this seemed like a good option, I said okay.)

I tried to fix this, and they still fucked me. I go to the America West counter and say that my bag isn’t on the carousel and that I know exactly where it is: onward to Austin. I fill out some forms, tell the dude (the same dude who, the night before, had told me to stick with my original plans) where I can be found, and he assures me that my bag should arrive that very evening on the next plane in from Phoenix and that I’ll have my bag that very day.

That evening, we’re playing poker at my big bro’s (we had moved the game to Saturday, but moved it back when I never made it to Austin), and I’m up until three-thirty in the morning, but no bag. I sleep with my cellie right next to me, but no call. Finally at 6:00 p.m. on Saturday, and after receiving no call, I call them and am told that my bag should be coming in on the 9:00 p.m. I head out to Fresno so that I can be close by when the call comes.

The bag never got there. Neither did it arrive on Sunday, even though I had placed many frustrated and frustrating calls by then and had been repeatedly assured that my bag was on a flight in from Austin that very evening. How desperate was I to get my bag and have this whole experience be over? After I had been told during my last Sunday phone call that my suitcase would be arriving on a 1:00 a.m. flight but that the people who deliver lost baggage wouldn’t be picking up the latest batch until late the next morning, I drove to the airport a little after midnight and waited.

Of course, the flight was delayed…and my bag was not on the flight. I called back the next day, a Monday that I had off from work, and I asked the dude (yes, it was the same dude again; maybe part of the problem is that they seem to be horribly understaffed and the staff that they do have is made up of a bunch of [how to phrase this delicately?] halfwits and nincompoops) if anybody at America West actually knew where my bag actually was, or, as I had come to suspect, if they were all just assuming that my bag would be arriving on the next flight that somehow connected from Austin to Fresno, or if they were just lying to me to get me to hang up, or, worst-case, if my bag had been lost and they were hoping that I would just give up. I should say that I had a bunch of nice clothes and about twenty copies of my book in that dumb suitcase. Counting the value of my suitcase, I would be at an almost four-digit loss.

Finally, my suitcase showed up Tuesday morning, three days after I had arrived. I hope that my suitcase had a nice time in Austin and took in the sights. I hear that there’s great barbecue to be had in Austin. At this point, I was back at the little town where I stay during the week, a town at least an hour’s drive from the airport, and I’m not at home anyway to take delivery of my bag; I usually stay at my job pretty late, and there’s no way that they’d ever be able to find me. I tell the dude (yep, same dude; by this point, we were practically homies) to deliver it to my parents’ house. That turns into an adventure, and my mother actually has to go meet the lost luggage delivery guy at the local Burger King because he couldn't find their house. At least, though, the bag was back in the hands of a De Luna, and I could feel like things were finally settled and complete and that the whole nightmarish thing was over.

The Big Finish: There isn’t one. There’s nothing to be learned from this experience (other than to not ever fly America West). I could say that this experience is an example of how much life tends to suck, but most experiences, I’d say nearly all of them (but I’m bleak that way), are examples of just that, and this sucky experience, in the general scheme of things, wasn’t really that sucky. (At this point, you might be asking yourself why, then, I’d write almost nine pages about this experience if it hadn't been the end of the world. That’s easy: I’m kind of nuts and obsessive and word-besotted/language-loving/sentence-generating that way.) I can’t even crack wise, and if I’m a genius for anything, it’s at cracking wise. No, wait…let me think of a funny bit. Okay, here we go:

 “How do you know that your America West flight is going to be a disaster?”
“Because, dude, it’s America West, and they suck.”

Yeah. See, that’s gold.

America West does suck! I

America West does suck! I once sat 2 hours in a plane on the runway and then later did another 2 hours at another airport!

Sorry you didn't get to make it.


Like a Vacuum


I haven't even tried to get my money back for the flight because I'm scared that they're going to be mean to me again.

It would have been cool to be among poets again; maybe there'll be time later. 

Blas Manuel

America West

Remember their old slogan "What we serve is you." It always reminded me of the Twilight Zone episode "To Serve Man." That was the one where the "friendly" aliens come to earth and take humans on trips to their planet. Scientists decode the alien book title: "To Serve Man." What a relief, right? A little later on, they discover it's a cookbook.

NB As a name, "America West" wil disappear next year, to be replaced by their parent company, US Airways. So beware of them too.



My man, go back to the paragraph about my balancing my checkbook. The phone call that woke me up was made by you because you and the rest of the people were at that Thai place that we used to go to, and I wasn’t there like I was supposed to be (because one of our fellow fellows, who shall remain nameless, forgot to pick me up). Then we went to the movies with another of our fellow fellows, and she made us watch some corny Harrison Ford/Michelle Pfeiffer movie, but not until after she had made fun of my car. That was harsh.

uh, i hope those fellow

uh, i hope those fellow fellows were not me and jen. not that we wouldn't do anything like those things, but b/c yes, that is harsh. ;)


The Hall of Fame


yeah, it was you and jayvee, but both of you were usually so sweet and cool (like 99% of the time) that I didn't have to make any additions to my Enemies List (seven pages, single-spaced), though jayvee's burn is still in my hall of fame.