Pittsburgh: We’re still not okay.

by dixie

In the odd butterfly effect way that air travel happens, a cancelled flight to Cincinnati has caused me to have to stay in the Pittsburgh airport while trying to get to DC. It is the latest chapter in a long story of travel-related disaster focused on this city. I’m beginning to think Pittsburgh doesn’t like me.
— Travel journal, 17 April 2014

My sleep-deprived, airport-grimy ramblings were pretty close to the mark. Pittsburgh took an instant dislike to me.

It started on my very first plane trip as a wee thing, travelling for my sister’s wedding in Milwaukee. We connected through Pittsburgh, were stranded by a snowstorm, and spent 16 hours in the airport. You can imagine the frustration my parents experienced, with three smallish children (10, 8, and 4).

It continued when I was in college, when I was dating a guy who lived in Columbus and preferred the romance and affordability of the Greyhound bus to the bourgeois transit options offered by jet flight. I followed him home on several occasions, nearly all by bus, and the DC-Columbus trip involves a stopover in Pittsburgh. These trips rarely went smoothly, and on one notable occasion I ended up locking myself in the ladies’ loo to get away from him and mulled over ways of getting him to leave without me while I took the next bus. That wasn’t Pittsburgh’s fault, but it was a pretty highly charged event.

Years later, I drove across the country with the Wanderer playing Magic, and our route took us through Pittsburgh. In the days before everyone had GPS in their phones as standard, we got terrifyingly lost in a dark and badly signposted part of the city. The bad part of town. It wasn’t until later that I found out later that most of Pittsburgh is the bad part of town.

This time would be different, I told myself. This time I’m visiting a friend, and I’m not just passing through. Staying for a night or two in the city, giving it a proper shake, will change everything.

It did not. It was one disaster after another, each related to transit.

Just outside the hostel.

Just outside the hostel.

Getting from the airport to the hostel was fraught. Getting into my hostel was difficult. Getting out to meet my friend in the morning was a disaster, and resulted in my friend, his wife, his sister in law, and her toddler going on a tour of the city without me. We met up for lunch, but it was a little tense.

I got back to the airport without major drama, a little late but that wasn’t a showstopper.

Then I managed to not get a seat on my flight. Then my phone died (it overheats when I ask too much of it, and will refuse to charge). When I checked the flights for the next day they were precarious at best. My friend was out at a party, I didn’t want to spend a fortune on a hotel, and everything went a bit dark and grim for a while.

I wandered the airport a little, wheedled an apple out of the last bar open in the terminal (nearly all of which close at 8pm), and found a place to hide while I slept for a few hours. I set an alarm to wake me up, in the hope I’d be better able to make decisions after sleeping a little. Decisions like “Should I risk connecting through Denver instead?” Or “Should I try to take the train, even though it’s $77 and god-knows-how-much for a taxi to get there for a 5:30am departure…and no other trains available to me that day if I miss that one?” Or the one I’d worked through before, “Do I take my chances with a day of overbooked flights? What do I do if I’m stuck here another night? Can I make it to my next stop on Tuesday, or is that dead?”

This is the only picture I took of Pittsburgh other than the one after my run. This guy is in the airport, reminding us all of our carbon footprints.

This is the only picture I took of Pittsburgh other than the one after my run. This guy is in the airport, reminding us all of our carbon footprints.

When I woke up I was only slightly more able to evaluate these choices, and the one I made was to stay in the airport and try my luck.

As it happened, Pittsburgh hates me so much that it sped me on my journey. The 6:11 flight was overbooked and had 7 standby passengers in the queue before me. The gate agents reshuffled some of the revenue passengers, then as the doors got ready to close and a few stragglers ran up, the agents started handing boarding passes to the collection of standby passengers huddled by the gate.

“Hurry,” the agent said as she repeated my seat assignment, not even printing out a boarding card for me, “before any more regular people show up.”

It was the first flight out, and I knew from listening to people running through the terminal that the queues at security were ridiculously long. It would have been an unforgiving environment to anyone who decided to hit the snooze button one more time before getting out of bed for their plane flight.

For me, it meant I was able to slip onto a plane, get back to DC, and sleep in a bed.

Pittsburgh and I are still not on speaking terms.