Where to begin?
(Begin at the beginning, proceed until you reach the end, then stop.)
Thursday morning, the plan was to catch a 10:30ish a.m. flight to La Guardia (arriving 9ish p.m.), then take the subway or a taxi to 34th St. in Manhattan, whence to catch the last ferry (11ish p.m.) over to Highlands, NJ, not far from Alex G's house, which is where the workshop was being held.
So I got to the airport in plenty of time, checked in, got on the plane. And half an hour later, we were still sitting on the tarmac. And an hour later, they figured out that the engine that wasn't working was missing a part, and that they'd have to get someone to bring the part down from SF, and that we would all have to get on another plane. They told us to wait a bit, and then to get off this plane and go to baggage claim (outside security) to pick up our bags, and then go stand in line to check in to be rebooked on another flight, as if we'd just arrived at the airport. While we were waiting in the plane, though, two people were let off, because they'd used cell phones to call United and rebook. So while I was waiting at baggage claim, I called United and asked what my options were. After all, La Guardia wasn't the only airport near Alex's, nor even the closest. I figured I could go to any NYC airport, or Newark, or even Philadelphia.
They told me there was one seat left on the next flight to La Guardia, which would get me there sometime around midnight. I had a place to stay in Queens, near La Guardia, but I felt like it was going to be a pain to take that approach (and have to get up early on Friday to travel for a couple more hours to get to Alex's in time for opening discussion at the workshop). There were plenty of seats on the flight to Newark that would get me there around midnight, so I called Mary Anne to ask about how viable Newark would be, and particularly whether there were trains running from Newark to near Alex's that late. Mary Anne talked with one of the writers who'd arrived early for the workshop, and they agreed to come pick me up. If I'd realized that it was an hour's drive each way, I'd probably have gone for La Guardia after all; I didn't mean to drag them that far in the middle of the night. But I didn't know that at the time, and it was probably just as well (because the way things ended up, I'm guessing that I wouldn't have made it onto the La Guardia flight, and that would've been bad).
So I rebooked on the Newark flight by phone, and they told me that I should stand in the check-in line to check my bag. So I proceeded to spend an hour and a half standing in line to check in. They told me they couldn't give me a seat assignment, but that I should go to the gate and not stand in line, just wait for my name to be called.
I should note that up through this point, everyone at United had been courteous and professional. The wait had been annoying, but I would happily undergo any number of delays to be sure that the engines of the airplane are functioning before taking off. The people on the phone had been friendly and extremely helpful. Another employee who was being helpful was a woman whose job it is, apparently, to walk around the area where people stand in line to check in, and pull various people whose flights are leaving soon out of that line and get them into shorter lines. (Which is nice, but last time I followed her instructions, a couple months back, I ended up in a longer line than I'd started out in; and the same thing happened to another guy on Thursday. So this time I just stayed in the long line, which is why it took me an hour and a half to get through it.)
So I commented to the nice woman behind the counter that it was really nice to see United people handling this difficult situation (rebooking an entire flight on no notice) so smoothly and calmly; she was pleased, and without any prompting on my part, upgraded me to first-class for the first leg of my return trip. A totally unexpected kindness. I have no idea whether they did that for everyone or not, but I of course saw it as a vindication of the be-nice-to-people philosophy. If I'd yelled at her, she might have done the same thing, but she wouldn't have been happy about it.
I then grabbed a much-needed bite to eat (Burger King now has a veggie burger!) (it was now about 1 p.m., I think, and I'd barely eaten breakfast before leaving for the airport that morning at 9ish) and rushed through security, and got to the gate only a couple minutes before boarding began. So I waited. After about ten minutes, when they hadn't called my name, I decided to disobey instructions and stand in line, because the people at the checkin podium were refusing to talk to anyone who wasn't in line, even to give brief bits of information like the answer to the question "have you called my name already?" So I waited in line, and got to the front, and said "They told me to wait 'til my name was called, but I'm not sure whether it was called before I got here," and they said, without even glancing at my name, "We'll get to you in a few minutes, stand over here."
Fifteen minutes later, the people taking boarding passes at the gate announced final call for boarding the flight: "All passengers for this flight must come through this door right now." (Paraphrased.) I didn't think it was really a final call—there were still about 20 people in line to check in—but I was mighty nervous by this time. So I walked the 30 feet or so to the gate and said, "Wait, they haven't called my name yet!" and they said "Then go back and wait for your name to be called!"
A nerve-wracking five or ten minutes later, one of the guys at the podium came on the loudspeaker and said "Passenger Hartman, final call for passenger Hartman." I ran over to him and said, "I've been waiting here for the last twenty minutes for you to call me." He said, "You must not have heard us; we called you."
Grr. So I took the boarding pass and ran over to the gate and was the last person onto the flight.
I suspect that what happened was that they called my name during the thirty seconds when I was trying to deal with the "last call" nonsense. I was listening pretty carefully to the PA system even during that exchange, but if I missed them calling my name, that had to be when it was (because I was ten feet away and watching them the rest of the time). So the real villain of this story is the person who arbitrarily decided to call last call even though a couple dozen passengers didn't even have boarding passes yet, thereby panicking me. Basically, I think United employees are generally pretty cool, but they seem to be really bad at all aspects of managing waits—the lines they set up are disorganized and poorly labeled, and there's no good way to get any useful information without standing in very long lines.
After that, though, things went pretty uneventfully. Got to Chicago, ran through the terminal (pausing only for a bit more food, since I wasn't going to get dinner) and got to my gate just in time for boarding. Realized once on the plane that I hadn't told my friend in Queens not to expect me that night, so made a ridiculously expensive (but brief) call using the GTE Airfone. Arrived in Newark around midnight; the writer and Mary Anne picked me up and drove me back to Alex's. (I'm not sure whether to mention names of writers in the workshop or not, so I'm erring on the side of caution, but I will note that I owe this particular writer an immense transportation debt.)
And that's all for Thursday.