Las Vegas (Early) January 2002 (Short)

by Dave Schultheis

This two-day trip was planned so that I could attend a dinner honoring my aunt on the occasion of her 80th birthday. My sister and her party would drive up from the Phoenix area, I would fly from San Jose, we would all stay at a hotel casino for one night, and then return.

Even though a Saturday-night-only stay is uncommon, I was able to sweet-talk the hotel into reserving two rooms for the night. It was a little harder to get an airline reservation. At one point I called for prices, then called an hour later with my credit card information, and the price had gone up by $80. Those of you in the airline reservations business probably know why, but I won't go into it here. I could tell you the entire heart-rending story, but would prefer to forget that aspect of the arrangements. It was most irritating. Just a portend of things to come, as it turned out.

For privacy purposes, I will minimize the "naming of names." If you are family, you will (probably) know those involved.

January 5, 2002

I was awake at 6:30 a.m., got up and dressed, checked my e-mail and finished packing (very light); one small bag, so as to minimize security delays.

I left home sometime before 8 a.m., made a stop at the post office and drove through San Jose toward the airport. Traffic was remarkably light for a Saturday, which is often as busy as any workday around here.

I turned off Coleman Avenue onto Brokaw Road and then onto Martin Avenue and parked in the Long Term ("Orange") parking lot. I was gratified to see that the lot was less than half full. I parked the car at 8:22 a.m.

After noting that I was parked in area 28, near Shuttle Stop B, I boarded a shuttle bus.

American Airlines uses Terminal A at San Jose Airport, so I got off the shuttle at curbside and walked up the stairs toward the security checkpoint. On the way there, I checked the video display screen for my gate number. The security line was short, so the delay was minimal.

The airline had sent me an electronic ticket confirmation by e-mail, so I showed that. I also had my "government ID" (driver's license) and major credit card ready, but they were not needed at this point.

There was another short delay for the x-ray machines. I put my cel-phone, pager and pocket change in a plastic basket, then put my bag on the conveyor belt, and walked through the scanner device.

Of course I beeped (I had neglected to remove my keys from my belt clip), so I had to be "hand wanded." They instructed me to put my wallet into the plastic basket as well. There was some confusion in this process, where they had to find the person most qualified to operate the wand, and I had to keep my eyes on my wallet while attempting to follow their instructions/orders while doing an imitation of a scarecrow.

I thought I had a remarkably good attitude throughout the process, even though they instucted me to show them the back of my belt buckle and to hook my thumbs in my belt and jump up and down slightly. I suppose this process was intended to dislodge any firearms that may have been secreted in my pants (ouch!).

But wait, it wasn't over. While still keeping my eyes on my wallet, pager and cel-phone in the plastic basket, I was instructed to remove my shoes. A gloved worker swabbed the inside of my shoes, then held the swab under a device intended to check for explosive residue.

["What did you do at work today, mommy?" "I swabbed the shoes of hundreds of airline passengers."] All I could think of at the time was, "It's a good thing I didn't see them putting on the latex gloves." The trip might have ended abruptly at that point.

Finally, the ordeal was over and I was "free to go."

I went down the "A" concourse to the Gate 10 waiting area, which was full of people waiting for a 9:35 a.m. flight. I asked if I should check in there for my 11:20 flight and was told to return in about an hour and a half.

I used this time to sit and read some materials I had brought with me, then to wander the terminal, then to read some more.

At one point in my wanderings I observed an electronic ticket check-in terminal. It asked me to "swipe" a major credit card "for identification purposes only." I was able to input my frequent flyer identification and flight number to check in for the flight. It even gave me the opportunity to see my seat assignment and change it if I so desired. I opted not to change anything so as not to cause any trouble. The machine issued a boarding pass. Little did I know that this would be the highlight of convenience in all my dealings with the airline and airports on this trip.

I sat and read some more (I highly recommend bringing your own reading materials because they make it seem like the long time spent waiting is not really wasting time).

Boarding for the flight began at 10:55 a.m. Of course I was in boarding group 4 but since I had an assigned seat, I wasn't too worried. While waiting, I noted a table near the jetway entrance, staffed with security personnel and equipped with a short modesty wall, and various passengers were randomly asked to submit to a bag check. And of course, they had to take off their shoes so they could be as embarrased as possible.

I showed my boarding pass and driver's license, was spared the bag check, boarded the plane, stowed my bag in the overhead compartment and sat in 17B, an aisle seat.

We pushed back from the gate at 11:23 and took off at 11:30 a.m. After an uneventful flight we arrived at McCarran International Airport, touching down at 12:25 and arriving at Gate D8 at 12:30 p.m.

Concourse/Terminal D is remote from the Main Terminal and is accessed by an approximately half-mile computer-controlled tram.

I headed straight for the Hertz counter, presented my driver's license and credit card and was processed immediately.

I had asked for a Ford Crown Victoria but there were none available so they offered a Mercury Grand Marquis, which is essentially the same car. After responding to the usual questions [and being briefed that they now charge a "loss of revenue" fee if you crash their car], I was given the contract and invited to board the shuttle bus, just outside the terminal building.

The rental car lots are 3 minutes from the main terminal and the bus is thoughtfully equipped with numerous maps and driving directions flyers. Since I've been to Las Vegas many times, I didn't need them, but it's good that they're offered.

I was dropped off at Row C and walked down to space C-11 to find a red 2001 Mercury Grand Marquis four-door sedan with Texas license plates. I put my bag in the car, started it, set the clock and radio KWNR 95.5 FM, "New Country," and did a perimeter check for scratches (I found some).

After getting the seat and mirrors adjusted, checking the brakes, noting the mileage and resetting the trip odometer to zero, I proceeded to the exit kiosk, asked the employee to note the damage (rubber stamp "scratched"). He seemed stunned that I would ask him to confirm that the brake lights were working properly. (They were, and I'm sure he will get over it.)

I left the Hertz lot and headed out to Paradise Road ("three left turns") and proceeded north to the downtown area. It was 1:07 p.m. and I did not expect my sister and her party to be in the area for another hour or so.

As I pulled into the Stratosphere Tower Hotel & Casino, I called them on the cel-phone and discovered they were just down the street at M&M World (or review.)

We arranged to meet at 3:00 p.m., then I parked and went into the Stratosphere, noting the new rear entrance and the fact that the casino floor had been rearranged since my last visit.

After a little gambling, I returned to the car and drove west on Sahara Avenue, under I-15, arriving at the Palace Station Hotel & Casino at 2:12 p.m. I went into the casino and gambled a little, and was glad to see that they still know me and my more than eleven thousand Boarding Pass points.

I met my sister and her party in the hotel lobby at the appointed time. It was a very short wait to check in and due to the fact that one room was ready and the other was not, the clerk was kind enough to gift us with some half-price coupons for The Feast, Palace Station's excellent buffet restaurant.

We shlepped all of our stuff up to the room that was ready. One of the maids was kind enough to make up the other room that we needed, and in fact called and notified the computer that the room was ready for occupancy, and relayed my request for an extra blanket. As she had gone out of her way to assist us, I tipped her two dollars and went directly down to the front desk to get the key.

Meanwhile, the others were freshening up and changing clothes after their car trip. When I got back, I stowed my stuff, set the bedside clock to the correct time and radio station, and we caught up with current events and rested a little before dinner.

We left the hotel about 4:30 p.m. for the short drive to the Olive Garden restaurant. I had allotted a half hour for the trip but it took only 10 minutes, so I had plenty of time to return to the hotel, pick up something I had forgotten, and return to the restaurant before 5:00 p.m. We went directly into the back room that had been set up for the gathering.

I had visited my aunt and uncle several times at their homes in Las Vegas, so I knew them right away. Aside from the cousin that lives in the area, I had not seen the others for many years, but I instantly recognized each of them. As a matter of fact, I even recognized some of their children from pictures I had seen, although I had never met them.

There were about 30 relatives present, many of whom I did not know. I got to meet some of them but, alas, not all. I sat next to my eldest cousin's son who is attending college in a mid-Atlantic state. I gave him my card and asked him to send e-mail.

One of the cousins' daughters did most of the photography for the event, although a lot of others had digital cameras. You might say there was a whole lotta flashin' goin' on!

The Olive Garden serves a nice dinner, including salad and soup, three choices of wine and other beverages and several choices of main dish. Plus, the wait staff was good enough to keep my lemonade glass filled, so they're my heroes!

After the main course, my aunt was presented with a plaque from her children and then began to cut the cake. Shortly thereafter, ice cream was served. When everyone was done, we assembled at one end of the room for a group photograph. It was tough to fit everyone in the picture, but I think we did it.

Since it had been a long day, we bid our fond farewells and returned to our hotel around 8:30 p.m.

I was pleased to see that a blanket had been delivered to my room, as requested. After a short rest, some clothes-changing and debriefing on the event, we wandered back down to the casino, where I lost my shirt on a poker machine but slightly increased my earnings at another.

I went back to my room about 10:30 p.m. while the others stayed a while in the casino. I took a shower, checked my voice mail and went to bed.

Sunday, January 6, 2002

I was awake around 7:30 a.m. and got up about 7:45 a.m., dressed and ready shortly after 8:00 o'clock. I listened to Country Chuck on KWNR radio.

When I checked for voice mail, I discovered two new digital pages had been stored. Since I had not been paged, I confirmed that my paging company had lied to me and that I am not getting the Las Vegas coverage that I am paying for. I mentally started the letter to their customer service supervisor.

After a little while my sister came in. She had been waiting downstairs while the rest of her party slept. We decided to take advantage of the half-price coupon for The Feast, and went downstairs about 9:00 a.m.

I was quite surprised that there was no line for the buffet. The woman at the cash register said that they usually get crowded right after church. My mind boggled at the concept of people leaving church and heading to breakfast at a casino hotel.

We were seated immediately by a (mature) hostess named "Antoinette" that I recognized from previous visits. Still friendly and efficient after all these years.

Since this was Sunday morning, this was a Champagne Brunch, so I enjoyed some scrambled eggs and sliced roast beef, along with mashed potatoes and a little bit of rice with gravy, washed it down with orange juice, milk and two sips of champagne ("smooooth").

My sister and I had a good long talk about current events in our lives. We left the restaurant about 10:20 a.m. and returned to find the other members of her party looking for us.

We all sort of drifted in different directions (some for coffee, some for the bathroom) and converged at the rooms for packing and goodbyes.

We trooped down to the hotel lobby about 11:00 a.m. and were pleasantly surprised with another smooth checkout. After more goodbyes, they were on their way back to the Phoenix area and I headed generally toward the airport.

On the way, I stopped at the Silverton Hotel & Casino and looked around a little. This property is just off Interstate 15 at Blue Diamond Road, slightly remote from the crowds and traffic on The Strip and downtown, and yet not far from the airport. I've never stayed there but they send me offers from time to time, so I'm considering staying there in the future.

I located the guest rooms and thanks to a couple of nice maids, was able to see what a regular room looks like (regular) and to see what a small suite looks like (very nice). They're still in the running.

I went into a section of the casino called "Penny Lane." You can't actually put pennies in the machines (they take bills only) but you can bet as little as one cent per pull (or push).

I found one called "Hundred Play Draw Poker." Quite interesting. As soon as I got the hang of how to make it work, I had a pretty good time watching all the activity on the screen and managed to double my money. Of course, I only started with $5, so doubling wasn't a big deal, but it was fun.

Just outside the casino I stopped at a Terrible Herbst Chevron Station and filled the car. It only took 1.9 gallons ($2.28) but I needed to tell the car rental people that I had bought gas, so I got the receipt in case they demanded printed proof.

I drove north on I-15, then east on I-215 and returned to the airport through the tunnel (under the runways) and back to the Hertz parking lot. Sure enough, they asked if I'd bought gas but took my word for it and didn't ask for proof, since the gauge showed more than "full."

I took the shuttle bus over to the terminal and after a little trouble, found the American Airlines counter and checked in. The employee selected a better seat assignment for me (an aisle seat instead of crammed between two people) and gave me a boarding pass. This was to be the last nice thing that happened for quite a while.

I walked toward the sign saying Terminal "D" and found two mature women with hand-held signs indicating "end of the D line." The counter man had told me the wait would be about two hours and the ladies said it was a little closer to 45 minutes. They were almost right.

There is no way to clearly communicate the length of the line, but suffice to say it was a very very very very very very very very long line. We wound through the terminal, past the shops on the second level, down a hallway and back, across the terminal and down another hallway and back. Periodically there would be airport employees standing around to keep the line under control.

I used this opportunity to put almost everything into my carry-on bag: my wallet and checkbooks, keys, pager (which I use as a clock) and my cellular phone.

Eventually (it was about an hour, according to the people behind me) we got to the front of the line. One employee asked to see everyone's ticket or boarding pass, then each person was allowed to move forward to the x-ray machines. There was a big sign saying not to put rolled or loose coins into your baggage, so I put a pocketful of coins into the airport-provided plastic tub and put my bag on the conveyor belt.

As the tub went through, it overturned and all my coins tumbled to the floor underneath. When I presented one of the screeners with the empty tub, he kindly crawled underneath and retrieved my (now-irradiated) coins while I retrieved my (now-irradiated) carry-on bag.

It was a short walk to the tram but when we got to Terminal D it was another long walk to the gate. After the hour in line I had to stop at the men's room. A custodian entered right after me and closed half of the bathroom. I had to wash my hands on the other side and was really quite frustrated at the inconvenience, but realized if I stopped to gripe I might miss my plane. So I griped while walking.

Good thing, too, because as I got closer to Gate D10, I could see that my flight was already boarding. Someone behind me asked someone in front of me what rows had been called, and the answer was "all rows." I never got a chance to slow down at the slot machines in the terminal, let alone spend an hour pushing buttons.

I showed my boarding pass and driver's license and just missed another random bag check, then showed my boarding pass again to board the plane. I walked down the jetway to the plane, stowed my bag in an overhead bin in First Class, then found seat 14B in the coach cabin.

Other than the seatback refusing to stay in the upright position during takeoff, things were wonderful. I read the Sky Mall magazine and sipped on Sprite on the way back to San Jose.

During our final approach, I looked out the left side of the plane and saw the Sun low over Monterey Bay, a view I've never seen in all the flying I've done over the years.

We landed uneventfully in San Jose (early, they say, but since my pager was in my bag, I don't know what time it was) and I disembarked only to find brain-dead people sauntering through the terminal, all spread out, blocking everyone else. Finally I got across and down to street level and found the shuttle bus to Long Term parking.

I was gratified to see that the airport has rejiggered the bus routes and instead of having to go from Terminal A (the "new" one) to Terminal C (the "old" one), we went directly to Long Term parking. I got off at Shuttle Stop B and got into the car at 4:06 p.m. I was moments from again being out from under the control of others.

But not before I was forced to pay $30 (that's t - h - i - r - t - y dollars) to park for one day, 7 hours and 51 minutes. Fifteen dollars per day or portion of a day. They demand that we be at the airport three hours early and then they charge us extra. I began to think that maybe the terrorists HAD won, but decided that since I was now in charge of my own destiny, I would "let it go" and drive home peacefully.

Of course, nobody was willing to cooperate ("keep right except to pass"), and there was that traffic signal on Julian Street that took forever to change. But I got onto Hy 87 and zoomed down Almaden Expressway to Almaden Valley.

After a quick stop at the bank, I pulled into my driveway at 4:50 p.m. and went into the house, where Barney was extremely happy to see me, and I him.

I put away my stuff and called the neighbors to thank them for bringing in the mail and feeding Barney. My sister called about an hour later to say that they had arrived home safely.

Aside from all the security delays, it was a wonderful trip!

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Created on January 7, 2002. Last updated on January 8, 2002.
David W. Schultheis, San Josť, Silicon Valley, Santa Clara County, California, USA