There is no more forlorn place on earth than the lost baggage podium at an airport. First you wait with growing angst as one bag after another pops out of the shoot onto the baggage carousel, and the crowd around you steadily dwindles to just a handful of lonely losers.
Then you schlep over to the lost baggage podium and get in line as harried airline employees deal with the unhappy travelers in front of you. This must be the worst job in the industry. You spend your whole day dealing only with people who are at best sad and at worst really hostile.
Knowing this, I tried to be nice while the women (it took three of them) behind the counter tried to sort out my situation. They typed a lot. I don't know what they were typing, but they kept on typing furiously long after I stopped answering their questions. I thought for a moment that maybe this was just an act. In the United employee manual under "lost baggage." it says something like: "If you are seated at a computer terminal, begin typing as the customer is speaking to convey the impression that we have any idea whatsoever about where the customer's bag may be or how we might find it."
Anyway, all this typing went on for two hours. When you're standing at a lost baggage terminal for two hours you notice stuff like, for example, the peeling linoleum on the counter, or the dim, murky lighting, or the green screens of the computer terminals indicating that they were installed about the time Ronald Reagan broke the air traffic controllers union. These observations do not reinforce the idea that United cares deeply about your lost underwear and toiletries.
Finally, after a couple of hours, the typing ended with a slump in the shoulders all around and capitulation to defeat. The bags were nowhere to be found. I could check in at a website and through an 800 number as the search continued. Good luck with that and goodbye.
So, we went to the mall to buy underwear and toothbrushes and shaving stuff, which didn't bother me too much as everybody needs stuff like that and it will not go to waste in the event that our bags are actually found or we win a half-billion dollars in the lottery, both of which seemed to be long odds at that point.
But that evening I called the 800 number. A friendly, if somewhat condescending, automated voice welcomed me and ran me through a list of options. I said, very clearly, "lost bags."
"Okay," the automated voice cheerfully said, "please give your last name."
Oh, gosh, I thought to myself, but I tried anyway.
"Ches-LEV-itch," I said just as clearly and loudly as I knew how.
"I'm sorry," said the automated man with what I thought I could detect was the slightest hint of automated irritation. "Use only your last name as in 'Smith.'"
Yeah, well, I'm not "as in Smith," I thought, but gamely tried again.
"Okay," the voice said. "Let's try this another way." Here there's no question that I heard pre-programmed condescension in Mr. Automated Help Man.
It next commanded me to spell my name. So, I did. And now he got it and things really started to move. Mr. Automated Help Man told me that our bags had been "located" (but not where), that they were "en route to the airport" (from where was a question that popped to mind), and that they would "be delivered to the designated address" (when was a question of some interest to me that went unanswered).
Because I sought answers to these questions I tried again. The automated voice asked me if I wanted to hear further options. Boy, did I, so, I said "further options."
"Okay," said Mr. Automated. And then he promptly repeated a set of new options, which had nothing at all to do with my situation, but he ended promisingly with "or say 'back to main menu.'" So, I said "back to main menu!"
But this, of course, took me back to the main menu, and the main menu, as I had not noted earlier, contained no option for speaking with a live human being.
Finally, I just said, my voice filled with complete prostration to the airline gods, "speak to a representative" even though this was not one of the options provided.
"Insolence!" shouted Mr. Automated Help Man. "Before you talk to a United representative you must first bring me the broom of the Wicked Witch of the East!"
Well, okay, so I made that last part up. It actually worked, and I was soon connected with a real person who spoke some English. But we struggled through the language barrier all right, and she reported that our bags had in fact been located and were being shipped to San Francisco.
I was curious, though, and asked where they were being shipped from. She left me for a while. I heard typing in the background. Then more typing. Then she reported that our bags were vacationing in Maui while we were vacationing in San Francisco. So, I felt good that we were both in nice spots, though I really wanted us to spend the time together.
I asked when our bags might return from Maui. She said she'd try to get them on the next flight. I couldn't bring myself to ask when that next flight was, but she promised to call me back when our bags were en route over the Pacific. No word about that as I write this.
You know, you can always use some new underwear.