NEW YORK — What an assignment. The NBA Draft. Three days in the Big Apple. Great stories. Great city. I’ve got our photographer, Tim Casey, with me, and he’s from New Jersey which is almost New York. What could possibly go wrong?
Let’s just entitle this little foray “Escape from New York.” I came, I saw but I definitely didn’t conquer. No offense to New Yorkers who think there is no place like New York — well, it’s a fact, there is no place like New York — but maybe W.C. Fields had it right when he said, “On the whole, I’d rather be in Philadelphia.”
DRAFT DAY CHATTER: Just after lunch, it’s time to hit the Virgin Megastore on Broadway where I purchase “The Big Lewbowski” for $10 and seasons 1-3 of “Seinfeld” for $24.99. As I pay for my purchase, the girl ringing it up notices my Gator Country pullover and says, “It’s a shame Billy D backed out of his contract with Kentucky.”
Kentucky, I ask? He never signed a contract with Kentucky, I reply.
“Oh yes he did, but that’s all right … you’re stuck with Billy D and now we have the real Billy [Gillispie],” she tells me.
I ask her where in the Commonwealth of Kentucky is she from and she replies that she is a refugee from Harlan County, now living out the American dream in Manhattan. I ask her what makes her think Billy Donovan ever signed a contract with Kentucky.
“Everybody knows he did it,” she said. “Everybody knows that was his dream job. Everybody knows it.”
I mention to her that few outside of Kentucky actually believe this and that it really doesn’t matter, he’s where he belongs, at Florida, trying to extend the Gators’ streak of seven in a row over UK.
“He could have won championships at Kentucky but now he’s stuck at Florida,” she tells me.
I remind her that Florida has won the last two national championships and that the Gators have made to to three NCAA championship games since 2000 and that it’s been 10 years since Kentucky even made it to the Final Four.
“Ancient history,” she replies.
I tell her that for once she is right. Ancient history is Kentucky’s last NCAA title.
“Well, we have the real Billy now,” she said. “We’ll win a lot of NCAA championships with the real Billy. Our Billy has character and your Billy D has none to do what he did to the Orlando Magic.”
I just look and remind her that Florida has Billy D. Kentucky has Billy DUI.
There is no reply to that.
AT THE GARDEN: Tim and I get checked in at the media gate where we get our photo Ids. Tim goes to stake out the theater for camera angles while I go to the waiting area. Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Corey Brewer have just arrived, so it’s a good time to go chat with the Gator Boyz.
Al looks like he just stepped off Wall Street. Corey looks like a lawyer. Jo. Well, let’s just say you can dress him up and put a two thousand dollar suit on him, but he’s always going to be Jo. You can only hide the funk for so long. The hair is untethered which means it is like socks in the dryer, just waiting to prove it can escape. Jo’s hair is heading in 14,000 directions at once.
Noah hugs me, shows me the new watch and asks what I think of the orange, tan and brown bow tie.
“Kinda funky, huh?” he asks and I agree. “You like the suit?”
I like the suit. He had threatened three weeks earlier to show up in bright purple or perhaps canary yellow. Brown seersucker is a notch down on the wowser scale but impressive just the same.
Corey is nervous and I ask him why he’s nervous since in 40 minutes he will be a millionaire.
“I’ve never been a millionaire before,” he says. The grin is very wide. Wider than usual.
I ask him what’s the first thing he’s going to do with the money, figuring he’s going to say he’ll do something for his parents.
“My parents can have all of it if they want,” he says, the grin growing wider by the second. “I’ve always worn blue jeans, sweats and T-shirts … just give me enough to get by and they can have all the rest to do whatever they want.”
One day when the dictionaries define good son, definition one will say two words: Corey Brewer.
Al tells me that he has tried to stay away from all the talk that perhaps Atlanta is trying to trade the third draft choice. All week long, the Hawks have indicated that Horford is their guy but starting on Wednesday, there was talk from several teams about bundling up some proven veterans in exchange for the third pick. The most interesting scenario had Amare Stoudamire winding up in Atlanta, Kevin Garnett ending up in Phoenix and Horford ending up in Minnesota.
“I haven’t listened to any of that,” Horford tells me. “My agent is taking care of all that. That kind of stuff is out of my hands.”
My next move is to find the media work room so I can set up my computer and get ready to write. I ask four different ushers and NBA people where it is and I get four different sets of directions. I take the directions from the guy that seemed most confident. I end up at a gate where a guy with a metal detector insists on giving me the electronic pat down.
I go back to where I started. I ask someone new how to get to the media work room and I’m directed to another guy who “knows … if it’s the Garden, he knows.”
He doesn’t know. He sends me back to where I checked in.
There I meet May Ng, bright, beautiful and cheerful. She works for the NBA and she’s in charge of all the folks doing translation for the two Chinese players that will get drafted. She’s got some free moments, so she says she will help me find the media work room.
We’re off on an adventure. She asks directions and we wind up at the place where the guy with the metal detector is patting down someone else. I tell her I’ve been patted down electronically twice today and that I think I don’t need a third time. She agrees. She asks further directions. We wind up at the media dining room. We go back to the theater where we run into Joakim Noah’s mom, Cecilia Rodhe (former Miss Sweden and first runner-up Miss Universe) and Jo’s fashion model sister, who is a 1,298 on a 1-10 scale.
They both hug me and kiss me on the lips. I’m having my lips bronzed this week. Ray’s picking up the bill.
May Ng is getting perturbed that nobody knows how to get to the media work room and now she’s getting called to get a translator to the right place. She apologizes but I’m on my own again.
I ask someone who has NBA on his badge if he knows where the media work room is. He gives me an elaborate set of directions which I write down and follow, step by step. I end up outside the Garden. When I try to re-enter, this guy at the gate starts screaming at me that just because I’m media I think I can walk in anywhere I want and that everybody knows that the media goes outside and around the corner. Yadda, yadda, yadda.
I see a group of people wearing the same color jackets as the guy that just screamed at me. They’re huddling around this woman that seems to know what she’s doing. I walk over and ask her if she knows where the media work room is. I explain what’s happened.
“Follow me,” she says, and she grabs my arm. “I’m Jean.”
We go walking through a door right next to the turnstile manned by the guy that yelled at me. He turns kind of white. He thinks I’m going to rat him out.
“Your secret’s safe with me,” I tell him.
Jean walks me to an escalator, tells me to go up the escalator and take a left through the double doors.
“You’ll see the sign and you’ll be there,” she says. “Better yet, I’ll take you myself.”
I ask her how come nobody else was (a) this friendly and (b) actually had a clue.
“That’s why they pay me the big bucks,” she says with a big laugh.
I tell her she should run for Senate.
“If I got elected I’d make sense and we couldn’t have that, could we?” she replies.
She does make sense and in less than 60 seconds I’m where I should have been 30 minutes ago. When I walk into the work room, which is a bar/restaurant that has been converted for this night to accommodate the multitude of media, I look at a TV screen. David Stern is walking to the podium, getting ready to announce what we already know, that Greg Oden has been selected by the Portland Trailblazers with the number one pick.
THE CITY THAT NEVER SLEEPS: Perhaps the city never sleeps but the people that work in the restaurants do. Tim and I left the NBA Draft at 12:30 after Taurean Green is drafted by the Trailblazers. We had no problems getting a taxi, driven by Yuri who is from Ukraine. Ten minutes later we’re walking up the stairs to the lobby of our hotel and this guy is polishing the marble floor. He was doing it when we left seven hours ago. At least I think it was the same guy. Tim says they were polishing the floor when he arrived at the hotel at 4 in the morning (another flight from hell story that only he can tell). Come to think of it, I can’t remember a time in two days when someone wasn’t polishing the floor. It’s very shiny.
We tossed our computers and equipment at the hotel and then it’s off to find something to eat. It’s past midnight. Shouldn’t be much of a problem to find something to eat. This is, after all, the city that never sleeps, right?
One by one, we discover that the restaurants and delis have already closed down. The city may never sleep but the restaurant workers (a) go to bed early or (b) leave at midnight to go to their second jobs, which they probably need to pay for taxi rides. The only thing left is the watering holes that also have a late night grill. After walking a bit and seeing menu after menu that has nothing cheaper than $20 we settle in on the St. Andrews, about three blocks off Times Square and just up from the Algonquin Hotel.
Tim thinks we have hit paydirt because our waitress, Amanda, is a cause for global warming. Then we look at the menu.
Haggis. Yes, they serve haggis — the heart, lungs, liver and kidneys of a sheep along with oatmeal, onions and spices sewn up in the sheep’s stomach and then boiled for an hour. This is considered a delicacy in Scotland. I’m from Gainesville. We don’t eat sheep in Gainesville, much less their heart, lungs, liver and kidneys.
We get an appetizer, one cheeseburger, one Maryland crab cakes sandwich and two beers apiece. Total cost: $80.
Next time you have to settle for Denny’s after midnight, remember the St. Andrews where you could pay $80 for something you could actually eat. Or you could order haggis. Come to think of it, $80 wasn’t all that bad considering the alternative.
ANCESTRAL ROOTS: Chances are that if you start climbing your family tree, you’ll come across someone whose first day in America was via Ellis Island. Ellis Island is now a national monument but New York is still the magnet for everyone in the world that wants to stay in the country and never learn the language.
Over a 48-hour period, I am driven to my hotel by a driver from Panama, checked into the hotel by a woman from Dominican Republic, have a conversation with the hotel manager who is from China, take taxis driven by drivers from Haiti, Ukraine and Ecuador, and I’m checked out of the hotel by a woman from Russia. Wednesday’s lunch is brought to my table by a woman from The Philippines and my drink re-fill is brought to me by a man from Mexico.
THE FLIGHT FROM HELL: Now I understand why when you Google “Delta Sucks” you get about 1,600 pages filled with one complaint after another. Delta does suck. Flight 513 was supposed to leave LaGuardia at 12 noon Friday. At curbside check-in I was given a ticket with no seat assignment and was told that the seats will be assigned at the gate since the flight is oversold.
The line at Gate 3 was already forming by the time I got through security. At 11:30 they announce that they have lost the plane.
“We can’t find the plane,” the girl said. “We’re going to have to bring one in from JFK.”
How do you lose a plane? Planes are big. Planes are very, very big. It’s not like you park one in a parking garage and then can’t find it because there are 10,000 others just like it. How do you lose a plane?
“We do it all the time,” the woman says.
At 11:45 they tell us that the new plane will take off as soon as they get a crew together. Estimated departure time now is 12:15 but I’m guessing we won’t make it since that’s just 30 minutes from now. At 12:00 they tell us the new gate will be Gate 4 and that we should go get in line there. The new departure time is 12:45.
The new line has formed and we wait patiently while this young woman sitting in front of a computer adjusts her makeup for a full five minutes before she files her nails. Finally, when she has everything just right, she picks up the mike and informs us that nobody will be allowed to approach her, that she is busy as she can be working on seat assignments and making sure everyone will get a connecting flight, so we are to stand in line and be quiet.
At 12:30 we are told that the new departure time is 1 p.m. Miss Makeup doesn’t announce it. It comes in a general announcement. Miss Makeup is watching her computer screen diligently but she never looks up.
At 12:45 we are told the new departure time is 1:15 and we are to go back to Gate 3. At 1:15, the new departure time is announced for 1:45. At 1:30, my name is called and I am offered a $200 voucher to take a direct flight from LaGuardia (Flight 1853) instead of Flight 513 (stops in Atlanta). Flight 1853 will leave at 3:35 and get me into Tampa at 6:15 they tell me and that will probably get me in quicker than Flight 513. I agree but only after they assure me that my luggage will make the trip with me.
After eating lunch, I return to the gates to check in on the status of my flight. Flight 513 is still waiting. They are back at Gate 4 now. Flight 1853, which is supposed to check in at Gate 5 has been moved to Gate 3.
I am sitting at the gate, working on my computer when the girl sitting next to me asks if I’ll watch her stuff. It’s 2:55 now. She comes back and tells me that they’ve moved Flight 1853 to Gate 5. I ask her if she ever heard an announcement and she says no, she didn’t.
I go to the folks at Gate 3 and ask if they bothered to announce the gate change for Flight 1853. The woman stares at me for a moment, then informs me that they have these big screens all over the gate areas and that it’s my responsibility as a passenger to check these big screens, that they [the Delta employees manning the gates] are working hard and they can’t do everything for us.
Well, excuuuuuuuuuuse me.
The big screen says my flight, which is supposed to leave at 3:35, is now departing at 4 p.m. As I move my stuff to Gate 5 I notice that the folks for Flight 513 are back in line over at Gate 4. It’s now 3:15 and they haven’t taken off.
Flight 513 ends up back at Gate 3, where they started in the first place and they take off at 4:15. Flight 1853 starts boarding for the 3:35 flight at 4:45. We’re on the plane at 5 and we’re out of the gate five minutes later. Okay, you’ve heard about how the planes stack up, waiting to take off at 5 at New York airports? Well, it’s a lie. Whatever you’ve heard is a lie.
It’s worse than that.
The runways look like the kid’s game “Chutes and Ladders.” It’s a conga line out there as we wait for a plane to take off, then we move up. From my window seat I counted 58 planes that took off before we were told we were next in line.
But we took off. And the flight went reasonably well even though one of the flight attendants was once a concentration camp guard. You could tell this by appearance and attitude. I decided sleep is the best way to ignore and so after I got my plastic cup with two ounces of Sprite and my pack of Lance wheat and cheddar crackers, I slept. All the way to Tampa.
Once in Tampa, I wait by the carousel for my luggage. Soon, I’m the only one standing at the carousel. All the luggage is gone. My luggage didn’t make it. I go to Delta baggage claim where a woman tells me that they have luggage backed up for three days and I should be grateful that it’s Delta, that some other airline … yadda, yadda, yadda.
“Why don’t you come back tomorrow about this time and we’ll see if we have it,” the woman tells me. I tell her I live in Gainesville so she hands me a form, tells me to fill it out and they’ll deliver it.
“In most cases you’ll have it within 24 hours but sometimes it takes five days,” she says.
I ask what happens if they don’t get it to me in five days and she tells me then I can fill out some lost luggage forms and they’ll get me compensation within six weeks.
DELTA CUSTOMER SERVICE: It is Saturday and I’m in Gainesville. I call Delta about my luggage and I get this phone tree so complicated I’m not even sure my nine-year-old nephew could follow and he’s the only one that could figure out how to self-install my digital cable. In frustration I dial ZERO and somehow I get a real live person on the line.
I explain the situation and she asks me if I have any idea how much luggage Delta handles in one day. I politely explain that I really don’t care about the rest of the luggage, but I would like to know when I can get my luggage. She tells me it’s complicated. I tell her no it isn’t. You have computers to follow things like this which is why they give you this sticky thing on the ticket jacket with the numbers that match up to the numbers on your luggage. She asks me if I’m trying to be a smart guy or do I want answers.
I want answers, of course, but then she tells me that my luggage will be in Gainesville when the 3:45 flight arrives. I’ll get a call at 3:45, she assures me.
Well, 3:45 comes and goes and I call Delta at the Gainesville airport. They tell me the luggage isn’t in, call back in two hours. At 5:45 I’m told it isn’t in, call back in two hours. At 7:45 I’m told it isn’t in, call back in two hours. At 9:45 I’m told it will be in and I’ll get it before 11. At 11 they tell me that it should have been delivered by now.
At 12:07 my luggage arrives at my home.
THE MORAL OF THE STORY: If you have to go to New York, please do the following: (1) take out a second mortgage so you can afford to pay for taxis; (2) take a Berlitz course in a foreign language so you can actually talk to someone; (3) make sure you eat before midnight; (4) take a Garmin hand held with you so you don’t have to ask directions; and (5) fly any airline but Delta but if you have to fly Delta, remember the words of Jesus — “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”