Kicking and screaming (figuratively, for the most part), I left Suzhou on February 10th. I assumed this day would be long and full of bureaucratic snafus, missed flights, long lines, minimal food, and an excess of coffee. Sometimes, one’s predictions turn out to be exactly correct. But, in all honesty, it wasn’t as bad as I expected. Just as setting one’s goals sufficiently low makes them much easier to achieve, assuming the worst can result in whatever does happen—however bad—being better than that worst.
My flight was a little after noon, so naturally my driver picked me up at 5 am to take me to the Shanghai airport. That turned out to be a good idea; it only takes about 90 minutes to get to PuDong airport (although we did have to stop when entering Shanghai to get our temperature taken), but I needed the time available. I had to fill out health forms, and because my baggage was overweight (all those books I planned to read in the Spring came back with me) I had to pay that. Not at the ticket counter, but at another counter, then return to the ticket counter to demonstrate I’d paid. My luggage and myself were only checked through to Toronto, not Philadelphia: not because of 2019-nCoV, now rechristened by the WHO “COVID-19,” but because the two airlines I was using did not—according to the ticket agent, who spent quite a lot of time on her phone translating things—have an “arrangement.” Otherwise, the Shanghai to Toronto connection went smoothly (although I was out 1000¥, or $145, for those books). 12 hours later the fun began, courtesy of Air Canada and the US Customs Service.
I check in for the Philadelphia flight; I knew I was going to be rerouted to a designated CDC airport for screening, but the very nice but underinformed woman at Air Canada did not. After 15 phone calls and a 30-minute wait, I was booked to Newark. Since Air Canada and China Eastern, as noted, did not have an “arrangement,” I had to go pick up my luggage, pay another overweight fee, get this ticket (now to Newark), then go back through security. I had four hours to do this, and by the time I got to Customs I had about an hour until my flight.
There is a Simpsons where Patty and Selma—Homer Simpson’s sisters-in-law—describe their work at the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, saying “Sometimes we don’t let the lines move at all. We call those ‘weekdays’.” This, evidently, was the inspiration for Customs between Toronto and the US. I had moved about 12 feet in 45 minutes. One window was open. There was no chance of making my flight now, and I wanted to tell my daughter Emma that I was not going to make my flight (she was going to drive from Philly to Newark, bless her, to pick me up). But we were told that if we used our phones we would be escorted out (thus the threat was “you get to stand in this line again, but from the back”). By the time I got to the Customs agent, my flight was long gone. But that didn’t matter, since Customs now took me to some room in the bowels of Newark Airport (if that isn’t poetically redundant) and I sat there for an hour waiting for someone to talk with me. There were a few others there; we had all been in China. We were all, shall we say, uninformed. Would we ever leave Toronto? Would we ever leave this room? Would I ever eat again, given the somewhat less than fabulous offerings on the flight from Shanghai?
Eventually, they called my name, I went in to talk to some Customs guy about China, establishing that I had never been in Wuhan, had never been in Hubei province, and had no symptoms. I did not mention that the last month, with the combination of New Years and COVID-19, that I had spent about four minutes total with anyone, and that the longest exposure I had to anyone in China was with a 服务员 at a restaurant ordering food.
I was now taken to another waiting room by another Customs agent, who told me I could text Emma to update her on the situation. He left; as I texted Emma, the Customs agent at the desk started screaming—genuine screaming—that I could not use a cell phone there because “there are signs all over that say that.” I pointed out that the signs had the proviso “without authorization,” which I had been given. This genius apparently thought “proviso” was some sort of devastating, possibly obscene, insult, and he then threatened to have me removed from the airport. So I put my phone away and waited. Eventually another Customs agent (I lost count; this was my sixth or seventh) came to escort me to my flight, a rebooked flight to Newark. We had about 30 minutes, so in addition to discussing the Knicks, the Yankees, the University of Kansas basketball team, and the differences between living in Toronto and Newark (where he used to work), he allowed me to alert Emma of the new arrival time. I thanked him as he handed me over—I was in some sort of custody, to be repeated when landing at Newark where I was handed over to another Customs agent—and told him he was the only person all day who had made any sense. The extent of my “screening” at Newark, which made all of this mishegoss necessary, was to ask me if I had been in Wuhan, or Hubei Province, in the last 14 days. I said no. They said have a nice day.
Interestingly, no one even mentioned that I was supposed to be going to Philadelphia, except the Air Canada desk clerk, who told me that—this is pretty much a quote—once I was in Newark I was on my own, and that I would be responsible for arranging (and paying for) the flight from Newark to Philadelphia. I can’t really get this all straight, but I think I’d been going about 36 hours without much food or much sleep, so I just shrugged and mumbled something in Chinese (through my mask). It might have not been adulatory of Air Canada.
At any rate, I got to my hotel in Philadelphia courteous of the supererogatory efforts of my daughter Emma and her beau David at about midnight. It was still February 10.
The next morning at 4:30, thank you jet lag, I’m up and ready to rock. I delayed long enough for places to get open, and headed for one of the few things I missed in China: a traditional unhealthful American breakfast.