Irma and Me: Notes From the Evac Zone

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After thinking I was stuck in Miami until Monday, I made it out. Here’s the short take.

I awoke from my short sleep at about 12:30. Still a bit groggy, I headed for what looked to be the most comfortable restaurant that was still open. That was the Irish Pub where my Irish omelet was perfect. Given my plan to stay at the airport for the duration of my stay in Miami, I thought this was a good place to start: comfortable seats, CNN TV, good food, good service. One of the waiters even scoured the restaurant to find an electric power outlet so I could plug in and restore my computer battery. He even looked behind the TV screens. No luck. Oh well.

But around 2:00, it was clear they were shutting down. “Can I hang around here?” I asked. “No, sir, we’re closing” “I’ve got no place to go.” “What? You don’t have a place to stay, and you don’t have a fight?” “No, neither one.” “Let me ask.” That was a combination of my waiter and the manager, both of whom are Latinos—so they talked with one another in Spanish that was too rapid for me to do more than catch a word here-and-there. The manager checked with his boss, also in Spanish. “Sorry, sir, but you can’t stay. But let me see if I can make you some sandwiches.” That was encouraging. I figured my safari in the desert of Miami Airport might be well served with an occasional bite to eat. No deal. “The kitchen is closed.”

Down the hallway of Gate D, however, there was still a Hudson Magazine store open with various packaged goodies. I stocked up: two healthy packages, and my sweet tooth won out on the third.

“What the heck”, said I to myself, “I’m going back to AA customer service. Maybe something is breaking there.” Now, instead of last night’s crew of two counter staff, there were eight. And the line was shorter. And when I got to the counter, lo and behold there was one last flight to Dallas, and there were seats on it and a decent connecting flight to San Francisco. Turns out American Airlines made a last minute decision to put passengers on the flight that was taking their remaining staff out of Miami Airport. So, believe it or not, I’m on a plane with a number of pilots, flight attendants, ground crew, who knows who else from American, and a lucky umber of “civilian” passengers. Further believe it or not: there are at least a dozen empty seats on the plane. The decision must have been made at the last minute to let passengers aboard, and there weren’t that many of us left in the airport—at least at the customer service counter, and they weren’t broadcasting availability.

By 3:30, I was on the plane. But I’ve been here before. “Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched,” says I to myself. To make matters more suspenseful, there were a couple of false starts: first, the doors were shut to the plane—you now the message, “attendants lock your doors and prepare for departure” (or something like that). They did, and they were belted in their seats when they got up and opened the doors. More passengers. Breathe a sigh of relief: people getting on is good; people getting off is bad! More waiting. Pilot announcements that explain: “due to the skeleton air control crew, planes are spaced with 20 miles between them.” Then, “the plane to your left isn’t leaving because it’s too large. But we’re o.k.” Whew! Who knows what “too large” has to do with departures, but I’m glad we’re small.

In the air: I think we took off in an easterly direction, then banked to the south, then headed west. In any case, the sky was beautiful. Puffy cumulus clouds look like marshmallows stacked in the sky. Below, an archipelago: I didn’t realize there were so many small islands of the coast of Florida. Below us, Miami is bathed in sun. Skyscrapers line the east coast, and there’s a lot of water in Miami itself. Who knows what it’s going to look like in 24 hours.

More stories from yesterday.

In the first line I waited on, the one with people who had dogs in kennels and baggage too large to take on board, a woman behind me was scheduled to depart for London in a couple of hours. Initially we were a trio in line having a conversation: a young woman who had a Chloe size dog in a kennel; the London-bound woman, probably in her 60s, and me. When the rate of movement in the line made it obvious she would miss her flight if she waited her turn, she asked us if we minded her moving ahead. It was fine with us. I watched her ask the same question to every couple of people in front of her; nobody objected. She inched up the line to the counter. The kindness of strangers; I’m sure she made the gate on time. I hope the plane left.

“Me First” people

At the gate where we got kicked off our 9:30 pm scheduled San Francisco departure flight, there were American Airlines attendants answering questions from people in their order in the line. Some people thought they deserved special treatment: they looked young and healthy to me, so neither age nor illness appeared to be an issue. But there they were pushing their way to the front. The AA people were firm: “we’re talking with people in the order they are in line.” One guy wouldn’t take no for an answer: he went to the other counter attendant’s line, and pushed himself forward there. Same answer. A different answer might have precipitated a riot; I would have been a rioter! Same thing happened when the sheriff’s deputies arrived—the “me first” people trying to get ahead of the line.

I had my own feel-good story: after two hours in yesterday’s line, my 80-year old feet didn’t want to stand any more. I asked the young lady with the dog if she’d move my suitcase along while I found a place to sit for a while. “Of course,” she replied.

I’m my brother’s and sister’s keeper people.

This was told to me by one of the women in today’s line about her experience in the same line yesterday. An older man was desperately looking for his Alzheimer-ill wife who had wandered off while he was dealing with a ticket agent. A scouting party was pulled together, but turned out not to be needed. A young man encountered her at a gate where he had just won the lotto (a drawing of the few available seats for the 50-per-plane standby travelers. (Some people scheduled to be on planes couldn’t get to the airport or for some other reason were staying in Miami). He brought the missing-wife with him to the customer service counter. Somehow it turned out that if he sacrificed his ticket, the couple could get on a flight. I never did figure out how that worked, and maybe it was an airport legend already being born, or I got the details wrong. Anyway, it was a nice feel-good story.

Talented people

In addition to the two people at the counter last night, AA had a roving agent who moved down the line to answer “quick questions”. Nobody had any of those, they all wanted his time. This guy was extraordinary, and obviously fit for his assignment. No story was too insignificant for his sympathy. No detail was too small for his attention. No complaint was without merit. And no matter what the story, the answer turned out to be the same: there are no more seats; every plane has a wait-list; you won’t get any flight out of Dallas before Monday. Go to a shelter. He was made for the job.

There were lots of people like that: flight attendants, ground crew, counter personnel, waiters and waitresses, hotel staff. A lot of people helped make the best of a bad situation.

Today’s line at Customer Service (“Gate D-37” is now indelibly imprinted in my mind) was a totally different story from yesterday’s chaos, frustration and anger. One of the people in the line told me that there was a near-riot here late last night because of the snail’s pace of the line, due to the presence of only two agents at the counter. Today there were eight. And there were fewer people in line. And lo and behold, when I got to the counter there was a seat—the one I’m now sitting in as we head to Dallas!

Ruminations

Everyday people. Stress brings out the best and worst in people. I saw dozens of airport workers stretch to make things work for beleaguered passengers: the waiter and manager at the Irish Pub; the counter people who were infinitely patient with some customers who actually yelled at them; the pilot of this plane who came back to the economy section where I’m sitting and invited a man with his young son to take a look-see in the cockpit as we waited for stragglers to board the plane; a flight attendant on this flight volunteered to work today to make things easier on passengers and fellow staffers; an electric jitney driver re-configured the luggage he was carrying so I could squeeze on his cart for the extra-long trip from one “D” gate to another. (Dallas Airport doesn’t have moving walkways; there’s a skyway that operates overhead, but I wasn’t sure it was working so walked most of the time.)

Be persistent. Be skeptical. Hope for luck

Had I not returned to the customer service line for a fourth try, I would never have gotten on this flight. Beside a general ornery character trait that arises in these circumstances, I also thought about institutional dynamics. AA didn’t want a repeat of the scandal in Chicago when a United staffer dragged a doctor, who turned out to be Chinese which added the dimension of race, from a plane—all on living cell phone video! Not very good for the bottom line! My thinking about that bottom line told me that by today the AA higher-ups who thought about profits and had a longer term view would have passed the word down: no egg on our faces! I think that’s why there were so many extra people at the ticket counter today, even with far fewer people in the line.

And I had a little bit of luck!

Race

In the line today, I was between two Jamaican women who let me in their conversation. The younger of them was traveling with her older aunt who came to Miami for some medical treatment. Now they were having difficulty getting home. The older one was “going home” after a number of years living in either Georgia or Florida. “At home,” she said, “you can go anyplace on a bus or a jitney or in an inexpensive taxi or by foot. Here, everything is so far apart and it’s so hard to get from one place to another.” And the pace of life was better at home; and the people were friendlier.

As the conversation went on, the older woman said, “Do you notice almost all the people in the line are of darker skin; you don’t see fair-skinned people here.” “I’m pretty pale-faced,” I piped in. “I didn’t mean you,” she said. The younger one was skeptical. So was I. Then I looked at the line: of the 30-or-so people in it, I would estimate that at least 80% of them were black. Could this be? I still doubt it. But in today’s world, I could believe it, and surely I can understand how a black person would believe it.

W.E.B. DuBois had it right: “…the world problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line…” Add the 21st. And don’t forget, he thought class was real important too. Were he alive today, he’d add gender.

Crippled programs syndrome

In our work together in my Mission Coalition organizing days, my friend Steve Waldhorn developed the “crippled programs syndrome” concept. He applied it to the inadequacies of federal programs that were underfunded, constrained by limiting guidelines, and legislatively designed so they wouldn’t compete with the private sector. Then, when beneficiaries and the broader public complained about the programs, the conservative, anti-government crowd used their inadequacy to argue that government doesn’t work. Remember Ronald Reagan’s, “government is not the solution; it is the problem”?

Applied to the airport situation, I found some parallels:

> TSA—the security agency—has a mandate to prevent terrorism. That, of course, is why we have to go through those horrible lines and screens before we get to our flight gate. Applied to this situation, TSA would not allow baggage that was already stowed to be removed and transferred to other planes via their owners without another screening. That made transfers for checked-luggage people impossible.

> Flight control was on skeleton-crew status because air controllers had earlier been sent home. That meant a slow-down for departures that, in turn, meant planes that might have flown couldn’t get to the tarmac, and the earlier flight I was on couldn’t take off!

> The passenger bill of rights was adopted by Congress because of a horrific incident some years back in which a plane full of travelers sat on a runway for hours before it finally either took off or discharged those on board (I don’t remember which). The result was an outcry from travelers that led to a provision that says an airline is liable for a fine of $35K per traveler if the plane holds you on board for three or more hours without departing. At least that’s what our pilot told us. So, of course, as the three-hour mark approached, the airline had an interest in getting us off the plane if it couldn’t get us in the air.

> Union contracts stipulate maximum hours for pilots to be in the cockpit—for very good safety reasons. Maybe the provision is also in flight attendant agreements as well—I don’t know. That turned out to be another reason for our plane heading back to the gate. “If we don’t leave in four minutes,” our pilot informed us, “we have to take you back to the gate because of contract provisions. We will have to be in the air too long.” “Give them an inch, and they’ll take a mile,” is the standard trade unionist’s response to a query about “a little flexibility”. There’s good reason for the argument.

Add all this together, and you get the mess we had at the Miami Airport. No doubt it would have been messy in any circumstances, but isn’t there a better way?

Radical decentralization and worker control: A better way?

Imagine the airport and airlines organized according to different principles and in different structures.

First of all, while operating in the black is important (and government subsidies could help keep an enterprise in the black if that served the common good/general welfare), the maximization of profit for absentee, concentrated and super-wealthy owners would not be determining decisions. Rather, workers, travelers, managers, airline hub communities, would own airlines and their support services with widely shared stocks.

Second, everybody is organized: customers, workers, communities all have capacity to act on their particular interests so that the general interest/common welfare doesn’t end up screwing anybody. Results are negotiated, not imposed.

Third, site structures have a great deal of autonomy to deal with both routine and extraordinary circumstances. Granted the exceptions noted above, the overall impression I had was of workers who wanted to serve and do a good job, and travelers who were generous in spirit and caring about others who might be facing special circumstances that required special attention. The older Jamaican lady in today’s line put it clearly: there should be recognition of special circumstances like age, health, necessity of getting to one’s destination for important work or health reasons, and so on. Lots of wisdom in that idea, but it implies trust in goodwill rather than reliance on rules. It implies a basic decency on the part of people if they don’t think they’re being suckers. If they had authority, I think those with good will would impose their wisdom on the “Me-First” people. Bullies shrink when faced with opposition that is bigger than they are.

Lord of the Flies?

When I was an undergraduate major in political science, we read the William Golding novel Lord of the Flies. A group of British youngsters, probably sixth graders, is stranded on an isolated island. They organize themselves for self-governance. It quickly declines into rule by the most brutish.

The book draws its philosophical premises from Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, in which life is “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.” There is a “warre of every man against every man…every man is Enemy of every man…” In this circumstance, men give up their freedom to be ruled by a monarch who imposes order on the disorderly. Hobbes is a critical philosopher in the history of conservatism.

I have a different view. The experience at Miami International Airport confirms it. Most people behave toward one another with decency and generosity when they think that’s the rule of the day. Only when they think that’s the way suckers behave do they resort to “me first.”

Heading down to Dallas

The pilot just announced arrival in ten minutes at Dallas. I’m packing up my computer. And I’m tired, so I’ll probably try to get this off at the Dallas Airport then take a nap before getting on my last flight of this trip.

Thanks all of you for your calls and messages. Nice to feel that support from family and friends!

Signing off from 10,000 feet.

Love,

Mike

PS. As my flight was descending into the Dallas Airport, I opened American Way, the AA flight magazine. There I found

“The people of Gander opened their homes to complete strangers,”

by pilot Beverly Bass who on 9/11 (the infamous one) flew her re-routed plane into this small Newfoundland village. She writes,

All told, about 7,000 passengers descended on the small Canadian town, nearly doubling its population…[T]he people on the ground were phenomenal. They delivered everything you could imagine throughout the night to the planes—diapers, formula, nicotine patches. They even filled 2,000 prescriptions for people who had packed their medicine in their checked bags.

When we got off the planes the next morning, tables of food lined the airport. The residents had stayed up all night cooking for us…Gander treated us like family, opening their homes and hearts. The flight crews stayed at hotels and schools, while the town converted churches and gyms into shelters for the passengers. When those filled, the people opened their homes to complete strangers and prepared thousands of meals for their guests.

PPS. It’s now about 11:00. As luck would have it, my Dallas-SFO flight is delayed by more than an hour. I’m really running out of gas. I know I’ll sleep on the plane. And I hope to see or hear from you all soon!

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About the author

Mike Miller

Mike Miller’s organizing background includes the early student movement at UC Berkeley, field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (1962-end of 1966), directorship of a Saul Alinsky community organizing project (1967-68), and a number of subsequent organizing projects. His articles on organizing have appeared in Social Policy, CounterPunch, Dissent, Socialist Review, International Journal of Urban Planning and Reseearch, Organizing, and The Organizer. He is author of Community Organizing: A Brief Introduction, A Community Organizer’s Tale: People and Power in San Francisco, co-author of The People Fight Back, and co-editor of the recently published People Power: The Organizing Tradition of Saul Alinsky. He directs ORGANIZE Training Center, www.organizetrainingcenter.org View all posts by Mike Miller →

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