Friday, September 2, 2011

Art Vandelay, Latex Saleseman

How does one sum up a trip with some of the oddest stories ever?

Art Vandelay, Latex Salesman.

Odd?  Well that's literally how the trip started.  First night in Florida, after landing, checking in, and making the first of many Publix runs, we went to the local Chili's for dinner.  After all, it was Orlando, and when in Rome....

After rejoicing at the $4.99 kids menu, an odd man came to visit us.  He was not our waiter.

He was wearing a pin that read "Art Vandelay, Latex Salesman".

After laughing a bit and cracking a few jokes ("the sea was angry that day my friends....") we ended up chatting a bit with this fellow New Yorker/ magician/entertainer/balloon man.  We've never before met a balloon man that wasn't creepy.  He regaled us with stories of his travels.  Spoke of Southern hospitality that blew him away.  The slower pace of life outside New York.  The jokes non-New Yorkers just don't get.  He continued to entertain the adults, giving us insider tips on fun Disney things on the cheap as he made amazing balloons.  Most notable, this is the first balloon man we've ever met that is not creepy.

That's the bizarro world that belongs to Art Vandelay.

What else comprised this interesting trip?

Well, it's a story involving bizarre events such as car vomit, chefs who love food allergies, staying in Florida to avoid a hurricane, and repeated good customer service from an airline.  It's a three-act tale of life in an alternate universe:

Scene 1:  LaGuardia airport, gate 7

A nervous mother walks up to the gate.  After fighting with security about the soy nut butter jars in our bags, showing the epipen and explaining it to several employees and a manager that we can't buy it in Florida, we are ready for the usual eyerolling at the gate when we ask about peanuts we know they serve on board, hoping they have a heart.  Faster than you can say "peanu-....", we're shocked by the immediate understanding and knowledge they exhibit when hearing this.  They nod and immediately pick up a walkie-talkie, springing into action as if they actually know what a severe allergy means and have had some kind of training on the subject.  As if.

"We have a peanut allergy in 21 alpha.  I repeat, captain, peanut allergy in 21 alpha.  Over."

Some static and mumbling on the receiver.

"Copy that, sir.  We're clear."

He then turns to this mother and smiles:

"All set, ma'am.  We're clearing a peanut-free zone 3 rows ahead and behind.  Enjoy your flight."

We are flabbergasted.  No fight? No pleas? No protest? They just....helped?

Bizarro airline service experience #1.

Scene 2: Dinner at a Disney resort restaurant

"Hi, we have some food allergies at the table and had a few questions."

"Right away, ma'am."

Out comes Chef Brian.

"We can make anything you want.  I just reviewed your allergies as they were noted in the reservation.  We have a designated fryer. I'd stay away from the pasta, because that's made in a plant with seeds.  The pizza should be ok.  What sides do you want us to make you?"

He rattles off about 27 safe options.  Excuse me?  Have we died and gone to heaven?

We pick pizza with a side of peas.  Chef Brian comes out two minutes later.

"So I double checked our pizza as per our policy, and we just switched vendors who does not have a dedicated facility.  We have a supply of special allergy free pasta in our closet, we can make you any kind you want. Alfredo? Sauce? Fancy mac and cheese style?"

Mini picks mac and cheese.  Chef Brian tells us just to code it as a "pasta kids meal", giving us this very expensive allergy-gluten-free pasta with custom made bechamel sauce for $5.99.  We are too stunned to speak.

"Oh, and I see in your reservation you placed an order for a special chocolate cake for the table?"

We find our words again.

"Yes, we spoke to the bakery twice but wanted to double check that you really can..."

"Way ahead of you ma'am.  The mix we use is made in a dedicated nut, seed, egg, soy, dairy free facility.  We made it with egg replacer instead of eggs, knowing that she has an egg allergy, using sanitized equipment.  I just got off the phone with the bakery again myself, because it's our policy not just to double check, but to triple check these things.  Chocolate frosting ok?"

Now we are beyond tongue-tied.  Visions of the mini in a white flower girl dress as we step into a future of bliss with Chef Brian start popping into our head.  Chef Brian is our hero.

Our fantasy is interrupted a few minutes later by a waiter carrying a balloon and treats, along with a loud gong sound.  Apparently on every special occasion they announce it to the whole restaurant so they're all one "family".  This occasion?  Some 7 year old in another table made a nice picture and they want to randomly reward her for it.  We swear you can't make this stuff up.

They come out a little later with the gong, holding a giant chocolate cake.  We know it's not ours, because it's way bigger than we paid for, and fancy bakery style.  As we wonder how many of these gong hits we're going to have to sit through before we finally get our treat, the cake holder starts talking about a special family reunion.  Clearly going to the table next to us.  How do we know? It's written all over them. Literally.  15-20 people sitting at a table all wearing t-shirts that say "Smith family reunion".

So imagine the shock of the whole place when it comes to us?  Why a family reunion, one wonders? Well, everything's a special occasion, and what else do you call it when a bunch of friends from New York get a lovely trip to Florida and want to celebrate with cake just because they feel like it and for once in their life actually can?
The fancy cake

So bizarro restaurant experience follows bizarro flight.  There's only one way to explain something like this:

Art Vandelay, Latex Salesman.

Scene 3 - several urgent telephone calls made past midnight

In a strange twist of fate, the hurricane that was headed for Florida veers north, sparing us but threatening the east cost.  The timing will surely cancel our trip home, even though the computers haven't reflected that yet.  We try the airline, hoping to rebook for a later time before people get bumped and rebooked, making it days longer before we get home.  We hear a recording announcing they've hired more staff but still have 2 hour wait times due to expected weather delays and cancellations.  Steeling ourselves for a long and painful wait, we are caught off guard when the recorded message offers to have someone call us back if we enter our cell phone number.

We try it, almost in disbelief, but remain cynical as we hang up the phone.  The clear and articulate voice tells us because we are frequent fliers we should hear back in 35-40 minutes.

Something like 45 minutes go by and nothing.  We call again, finally reaching the prompt for entering our phone number.  Surprisingly, after we do, we're told we already have a place in line, and that it's only been 34 minutes and we should get a call in 10 minutes but we can try and rebook online while we wait if that's why we're calling.

We hang up, not sure how to react.  We try online, seeing that the $50 change fee plus fare difference only amounts to $1,200 per ticket.  We prepare for the fight of the lifetime.

8 minutes later, the phone rings.  The person on the other end actually seems...helpful.  She speaks English.  She actually has our info in front of her already.  We don't have to repeat anything.  We just tell her the situation and she says yes, there is still room on the Monday flight and if we just hold a minute she'll transfer us to the change department.  She's gone before we have time to eke out a sound, much less a question, so we give our friend an "I told you so look" as we listen to the bad music.

We're about to hang up in defeat, when a person finally speaks.  They have our info, will go ahead and send us an email confirming new ticket.  And the price?



"That's right, there's no fee, ma'am."

"But, the website says..."

"Yes, but the weather's not your fault.  We understand that so given the situation there's no fee."

Wait a second, weather? An airline? NOT the customer's fault?  Before you go into full disbelief, there's more.

The $25 each baggage fee?  Waived, given the circumstances.  After going home 2+ days later than planned, it's expected we'd have more luggage than planned.  We shouldn't have to pay for that either.

Wait, who are we talking to again?
See the average of 8 calls per airline? And we only made one easy one.  We really were in bizarro world.

We hang up and proceed to call the hotel and car rental place to ask for two more days.  Again, we prepare ourselves for a fight, ready to dive into the irony of asking to stay in Florida for a hurricane.  Of course it's not their fault, but is there anything they can do?

Of course there is.  They understand.  After all, being stuck in a lovely resort in the Florida sunshine while the alternative is to sit at home with no power, water, or Starbucks as a hurricane blows in our windows must be horrible.  It's not our fault we have to miss more work and get two more days vacation.  We shouldn't have to pay so much for that either.  The horror of sipping pina coladas for two more days is bad enough.  So 15% off the car rental for the whole week.  15% off the hotel for the last two nights.  Just for asking.


Has anyone ever had a vacation experience like this?  Only one way to explain the bizarre, almost backwards series of events.

Wait, you haven't figured it out yet?

Humpfh.  And you want to be my latex salesman.

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