The Ronnie Raygun Arcade
Okay, you’ll recall I’m talking about our trip to New England last August, and that last time I had just gotten us to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport...where things get messy. And weird. And, uh, nasal.
So we landed and we found ourselves in what may be the strangest airport I’ve ever seen. And it isn’t like I haven’t seen some doozies. I mean, you’re talking to a guy here who traveled on business regularly by air in the 1980s and 1990s, meaning I was in places like O’Hare (yikes!), and LaGuardia (double yikes!!), and Logan before and during the remodel (triple yikes!!!). Meaning, hey, I know awful when I see it. I may not know perfection, but awful I’ve got a lot of experience with.
What I mean by this is that when we landed, we discovered ourselves in “Southwest’s” terminal, which is Terminal 1. This is a round sort of building connected to the rest of the airport by a long hallway/concourse. This is convenient because all the gates in Terminal 1 are close together. You land at, say, Gate A1, and Gates A2 through A9 are just a hop, skip, and a jump away. They all radiate like the spokes of a wheel from the hub that is Terminal 1.
Got all that? Great. The kicker is that Terminal 1 has its own TSA check point at the base of the concourse that links it to the rest of the airport. What that means is that unless you’re willing to go out of security, and come back through the checkpoint (braving all the lines again) you’re stuck in Terminal 1 until your plane leaves.
Which is fine...unless you haven’t eaten. Which we hadn’t. And guess what? There are no sit-down restaurants in Terminal 1. There also aren’t any shops or anyplace where you could get, say, a protein bar and a water bottle.
What Terminal 1 has instead of shops and cafes is a “shopping arcade” which runs on the walls along the concourse linking it to the main airport. That means along the walls there are displayed articles for sale -- magazines, souvenirs, and so on. There is also a “Boar’s Head” shop where you can get sandwiches, a “Custom Burger” place that sells (obviously) hamburgers, and something called the “Tagliare Deli” that does pizzas and such.
But don’t get excited. These are not restaurants in any sense of the word. They do take-away food only. You go up to the harried, overworked staff (people who are doing their level best in utterly absurd circumstances) and place your order. There is a flurry of activity, some low level chaos, and then, after a time, your sandwich or sandwiches appear in a little paper bag.
But... you don’t pay for it at the shop. Just like you don’t pay for the magazines, the souvenirs, the bottles of water, etc. anywhere near where you find them. There are no cash registers and no clerks to take your money anywhere along the concourse.
What there is instead is a brace of self-checkout machines at either end of the shopping arcade. So, for example, when you get your sandwich, the person who made it hands you a slip of paper. You then take your slip of paper to the checkout machines and scan it along with your credit card.
Except...none of it works. It is an utter disaster. No one knows what to do. The machines never seem to read the paper correctly (or at all). Sometimes, as in my case, the machines don’t read the credit card properly (took me three times). And, well, on and on on...
I wonder how much merchandise they lose daily as customers try and try to pay, can’t get the system to work, and then finally just say “Farp it!” and board their plane with a hot copy of People magazine or an illicit bottle of Dasani Water in their guilty little hands.
I know what happened of course. Somewhere, somehow, a band of MBAs and efficiency experts, standing around with spreadsheets running on their top of the line iPads and Samsung Tablets, took one look at traditional airport retail and said “This will never do. No workable synergy. We need to expand the bandwidth, move on the bleeding edge, and give 110%. After all, a rising tide lifts all yachts.”
So, they did away with individual shops, fired clerks and cashiers, and implemented the Arcade...
Of course, if they had ever done anything silly like talk to a real consumer or someone who had actually worked in an airport shop (or, for that matter, any shop of any sort), they’d have known that the Arcade would annoy customers, increases the difficulty of every transaction, increase product losses, and, possibly, reduce profitability. But, they didn’t. And they probably won’t ever do so. And the Arcade will remain as it is, until the next load of consultants appears to say that Nothing Here Is Right and impose yet another unworkable system.
Okay, maybe I’m being a little unfair. But, still...yikes, what a mess that place was.
Anyway, we got sandwiches, found a couple of seats, near our gate, and ate them. Then, doing our best to more or less wipe away the grime of eating with paper napkins, we considered each other...
Martha said it first. “Well, are you ready...?”
I sighed. “Yes. I guess.
I pulled out my carry-on and extracted from inside *the* items.
To be precise, two Covid test kits.
More to come.
About the photos: Okay, two of them today. The first, as usual, has nothing to do with the story. It is of Martha among the poppies for which Georgetown is famous, in spring of 2021.
The second does have to do with the tale at hand, but is much less interesting. It is of me looking terribly confused (but sanitary) at the airport. Who is that Masked Man?
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