Virulent Word of Mouse

June 12, 2011

The meaning of free Wi-Fi: A traveler’s vignette.

Filed under: Amusing diversions,Essays,Uncategorized — Shane Greenstein @ 10:02 pm

Abundant outlets and free Wi-Fi can improve the mood in a lonely terminal. Those outlets were meant for cleaners with vacuums, but some time ago serious road warriors began using them for their laptops and mobile devices. Free Wi-Fi simply makes those devices more useful.

Terminal 1 in the Toronto Airport contains that combination of Wi-Fi and outlets, especially the part devoted to local flights in Canada, operated by Air Canada. Last Thursday evening this terminal was sparsely populated. It served as my prison and home for a few hours.

The Wi-Fi and electricity flowed freely that day, as did the advise from strangers. This post describes what happened.

I did not try to have a day that illustrated the various meanings of free. It just happened.

A sense of the absurd

I  reached a food counter in Terminal 1 just after 6pm.  The woman behind the counter greeted me routinely, using the distinctive lilt of Ontario, politely saying “How are you doing?” Taking her literally, I giddily replied, “I’ve had better days.” She smiled at me with puzzlement. The words did not match the tone.

Nobody else was in line. The terminal was almost empty. I sensed that she was just bored with events behind the counter, bored enough to tolerate a cavalier riff.

“Storms in Chicago. The flight was cancelled. Had to wait for another plane to come from Toronto, but that took a while. The new flight was delayed multiple times. It was very late too. I missed the  connection to Kingston twice. Now I am so late I will miss  the official reception tonight.” I added the latter detail to explain why I was buying dinner at that moment, though she probably did not care. The riff helped me burn a bit of nervous energy.

She seemed entertained, so I continued. “I am standing by for a third flight at eight-thirty. Airplane roulette. There is only one seat available, if that. If I do not make it, then I am here until eleven. Last flight to Kingston for the day. I still have hope.”

I paused, then delivered the punch line with a chuckle. “And did I mention that my bag did not make it to Toronto? It is still in Chicago.” I laughed out loud, almost a nervous laugh. I was surprised to hear myself go this far. Two hours earlier there had been nothing obviously humorous about standing next to a luggage belt watching everyone else part with their bags.

She grinned in response. She got the meme, a variant on “How-much-worse-could-it-get?”

“What’s in the luggage?” She said with a smile. “You can always buy clothes with a credit card.” The person at Air Canada’s rescheduling counter had said the same thing an hour earlier, and almost used the exact same words. Personnel in this terminal must have this type of conversation frequently, I thought. I lightly shook my head in agreement. I had already bought a shirt at one of the stores in the terminal, as insurance. In case my bag did not make it to Kingston I would need something clean to wear in my presentation the next morning.

I stated a random list of items, “Shirts, socks, underwear… running shoes.” She crinkled her nose. Running shoes are not  easily replaceable, so the word “shoes” came out with a touch of sadness. I had not meant to lose the light sarcasm, but the riff had just gone sour on its own momentum.

She issued a verbal salve she probably has used with hundreds of stranded travelers. “Air Canada has its problems.”

That led to a pause.

I wanted to go back to absurd lightness. Not everyone appreciates absurd sarcasm, but she seemed to.  It also helped me work off tension.

I gestured to the signs advertising Free Wi-Fi, sponsored by a local telecommunications provider, Rogers wireless. These posters graced the terminal walls about every one hundred feet. I had noticed them because I had forgotten to change the data-roaming contract with my wireless carrier before the trip. That meant my email addiction would be expensive to feed if I checked the iPhone too often. Free Wi-Fi would help me check email on the laptop at no cost.

Laying on the sarcasm thickly, I declared “But, hey, I have as much free Wi-fi as I could possibly want. Like the sign says. It’s free.” She laughed and mimicked my sentence with a sweet smile. “It’s free. As much as you could possibly want.”

“You have to find the upsides where you can.” I said, shrugging and laughing. I do not know why I felt like responding to her missive on Air Canada, but I did. “The storms were not Air Canada’s fault.”

I put a Canadian note on the counter to pay for a chicken wrap and apple juice. The note said twenty, but as with most foreign currency, spending it at that moment did not feel like spending real money. Its actual value seemed lost in the agitation of the moment and the real-time challenges of doing long division on the fly.

The note sat on the counter for a couple minutes, because the woman behind the counter decided to deliver her riff. She told me about a looming strike at Air Canada, how the workers had not had a raise in ten years. The baggage handlers were set on doing something on Monday. “It will be bad for business” she concluded, gesturing in a way that referred to her little business in the terminal. It came out with more than a touch of sadness. There is nothing humorous in the phrase bad for business.

Pause again.

She looked at the twenty on the counter and became matter-of-fact. “You get a cookie with that chicken wrap.” She motioned to a plate of cookies. Too loquacious for my own good, I had not noticed any sign about the tie-in between the chicken wrap and cookie. I would have happily walked away with only the wrap.

This cookie was as good as free. “What are the choices?” I queried. The choices were chocolate chip and oatmeal with macadamia nut and cranberry.

If I was going to get a free cookie, I mused, then I might as well experiment. I had never seen an oatmeal cookie with dashes of deep red. It looked exotic. So I picked it.

Settling in

Earlier on Thursday morning, while waiting out the storm at O’Hare field in Chicago, I struck up a conversation with two jet-lagged Australians doctors. They were on their way to Nova Scotia for a medical meeting and holiday. They had flown from Sydney to Los Angeles on the prior day, and then to Chicago, spending the night at the airport hotel to wait out the delay to their scheduled flight to Toronto. I made a remark about Midwestern storms, almost apologizing for how this storm had inconvenienced their vacation. They did not mind, they said. They had appreciated watching the lightning from the hotel at night. Not something they see often, they regarded it as part of the adventure of the trip.

At one point we traded travel philosophies. Traveling requires faith and common sense, one of them said, and the challenge was to figure out which was needed in any situation. I lightly replied that I frequently forget something essential on virtually every trip. It happened so frequently that I had come to expect it. Some of my favorite travel stories came about as a result of trying to figure out how to make do without whatever I had forgotten.

Sitting down in the chair Thursday night I thought of the Australians. For this trip I had forgotten to fix my data contract. That had led me to notice the free Wi-Fi.

More to the point, free got me through it. Unrestricted, unhampered, unencumbered, unlimited, unanticipated, without charge, and without quid pro quo. Whatever was free, the more the better.

The cookie melted away the agitation. The notebook opened and email came up. I did not notice the time pass until the ticket agent called my name.

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