“Press back to return to the video player. Press back to return to the video player. Press back to return to the video player…”
I woke up with a start, neck crooked, with a cold sheen of sweat on my brow. The headphones were still somehow in my ears, but the movie, another vainglorious biopic, had long since ended. Lights were on in the cabin; the drink cart jostled my elbow.
How did I sleep? There was the worst fucking turbulence for a couple of minutes, and then I was just…went out for an hour and a half at least, maybe longer, in a twilight, twinkly state of half-rest.
I'd slept through my allotted in-flight work time, which was extremely unusual. Totally unlike me, honestly, but this was a long, long travel day, a set of two international flights over unfamiliar destinations, split up by a three hour layover. And that meant I could make it up in the International Lounge.
Flights like this—work flights—afford few if any luxuries. Once, exactly once, I was upgraded to Delta One, for reasons I don't totally understand. I know other people in this business who fly business class every time: the international CEOs, the Executive Directors Emeritus, the consultants who demand it in their dignity riders, and the sort of folks for whom money doesn't matter, whose careers in coffee are really more like hobbies.
The rest of us sit in coach.
But the International Lounge, well. On flights like these, access is complimentary, which means between flights I can put my feet up, grab a handful of snack mix, maybe a soda water with lime, and relax for once in my life. I hate traveling for work, and affliction I can't seem to shrug off or numb myself out to it no matter how much I fly. It's something really hard to explain to people who never travel for work, and look at travel as being intrinsically connected with holidays and fun. Traveling for work is neither. But the lounge, of all things… I find myself looking forward to it.
In what felt like a fast-forward batch of seconds we landed an de-planed. My feet were numb. My hands, too, numb all through my extremities, first like my fingers and toes had been rounded into clubs, and the there were thousand fire ants inside my skin. I couldn't shake it off. I started doing a little dance, right there in the aisle, the people around me politely looking away into their cell phones. It faded a bit but not completely as I walked out into the terminal.
“May I see your ticket please?” She stood tall, blonde, in a perfectly manicured blue and grey uniform with a tiny silver nametag. It read Leentje.
I handed my ticket to Leentje, awaiting her next direction. It came efficiently. “Oh! Welcome Mr. Mike-El-Man, you are welcome to International Courtesy lounge at Gate 52. It is this way.” She pointed down a vast concourse of numbered gates.
“Thank you, Leentje.” I'm pretty sure I pronounced it right.
I walked and walked, in what felt like another batch of fast-forward moments, still just slightly numb, shaking off the combination of a flight and a nap, running through my task queue in my head. I owed a bunch of email replies; I'd assigned myself a couple of stories to edit; I needed to dig out from a half-dozen different things.
At the lounge they checked my ticket—their nametags read Marieke and Jopie—looked at their computer, checked my ticket again, looked at another computer, and then finally admitted me. I glanced at the ticket before tucking it back into my passport, and for just a second it looked jumbled, like the words and letters were all mixed up. Have you ever broken a digital display screen? It looked like that, but on paper, and for just an instant.
The lounge was massive, an interconnected series of rooms dotted by service areas with row upon row of breads, cold salads, Segafreddo superautomatic coffee makers, self-service Diageo booze, and entry level charcuterie. I wasn't hungry, but my feet still hurt, and I needed somewhere to set down my shit, plug in to a power source, and start finishing all my work.
There was every possible seating configuration: low tables, private desk nooks, huge high-backed privacy swivel chairs, bar stools near the food, and a set of long lounger daybeds with a raised portion, like what you lay down on in a cartoon shrink's office. I chose that one, finding a lounger with nobody else on either side. A small mercy that lasted just a moment, barely enough time to put on my headphones and plug in my laptop.
He was maybe 50, or 55, and had that rumpled suit coat with shiny elbows thing that people get when they live their lives in the same set of suit coats. He sat down on the lounge directly next to me and made hard eye contact.
I looked up from the computer.
“Hey! How ya doing? Crazy running into you here!”
“Sorry, I don't really like to smalltalk when I travel,” I heard myself saying in reply, which is what I always say in these situations. Yes, I know it's rude, but it's rudeness as a sort of self-defense, which I consider at worst a menial sin. “I have travel anxiety,” I said; I like to add this bit in to sort of buttress the self-defense posture. It's not my fault I don't want to talk to you, it's my medical condition, you understand.
He didn't understand.
“Whoa, sorry, hey—you're the guy from Sprudge, right?”
“I'm sorry, hey! Good to see you!”
I always say this—good to see you—because I'm shit at remembering if I've met someone before, and so good to see you functions as kind of a catch-all salutation without causing offense. Of course I've seen you before, and I remember, and so it's good to see you—but if we have never met once on this earth in life or death, well, it's still really good to see you now, in this moment we're sharing.
“Good to see you, too! I'm really glad to catch you here, you know. I sent you that email last week but maybe we can just talk about it now? I'm gonna run to the bar and grab a hot toddy, you want anything?”
I did not want anything. I wanted to be left alone. What I wanted most of all was for him to get up and walk away so that I could furiously check my inbox, and cross check its contents with this interaction so as to best figure out who this person was, what they wanted to talk about, and how to manage the rest of this interaction as efficiently and inoffensively as possible.
“No I'm good, let's talk when you come back! I'm just digging out from my email.”
The man walked away in his rumpled suit coat, leaving his bag behind in the lounger next to mine. I had to know this dude, but I couldn't for the life of me… couldn't remember. So I opened the laptop.
100 new messages
My heart started pounding very quickly. My cortisol levels spiked. I had just looked through this shit before the 10 hour flight and there was what, maybe a dozen emails that needed replying? I had to scroll back to a second page of the inbox to get to the last tronche of read messages. I started to feel the fire ants again running up and down my legs…
Maybe I need some tea or something, or a glass of whatever shitty wine they're pouring. It's unhealthy to go straight from a flight to more work, after all. A big glass of spa water—that's the best thing they serve here, you know, in these lounges, is the tower of water with cup up fruit inside. I stood up from the lounger, surveyed the room, and in that very instant felt the creepy-crawly sensation of a hundred eyes upon me.
I knew everyone in the room. And, I suspected, they were waiting on me for an email.
They were all there. Rob Riggle, Director of Coffee at Pik-Kwik Coffee in Nashua. Helga Ingiborg Gunnarsdottir, the international green coffee buyer and coffee competition judge. Ezekiel Christian, owner/founder/marketing manager at Hallowed Coffee Roasters of Grand Rapids. Jon Luis Fitzcarraldo, a third generation Salvadoran land owner and general manager of a network of washing stations. Dizzy Morris, editor of the industry-focused trade publication Bean Teen Magazine. Hector Hernandez of Finca Hernandez in Chiapas, whose Finca Hernandez Yellow Bourbon (roasted by Goatyard Coffee) just received an unheard of 96 rating on Coffee Scores. Tina Sonsgard and Ricky Kim, who owned Construction Yard Coffee Roasters in the Bay Area. Constance Marino, the national barista champ and green coffee buyer. Hercules Siffaretti, the current international president of the World Coffee Association. Julio Trocas, the land management advisor and UC Davis trained agro-chemical salesman.
There was Lev Piav, the Ukrainian-cum-Australian international coffee consultant. Next to him sipping an Amstel was Matty Morely, son of Mickey Morely, who since the 80s had run Morely Roast Academy, a ten day $12,000 independent coffee shop owner certification. Hiroko Mayamara, who had personally judged more coffee competitions than any living person, and lived in a state of perpetual travel. Tim Wright, the Dean of Coffee Studies at Texas A&G. Dane Copeland, the hard-living Gen X bad boy founder of Little Beirut Coffee Roasters. Giacomo Olio and his team of staff representing La San Luigi Produzione, makers of the world's most expensive espresso machines.
It went on. The entire coffee industry, it seemed, was sitting in this lounge, as though it were one of those invite-only executive after parties that pop up around the international trade shows.
I sat back down. I rubbed my eyes. My hands were completely numb, and fumbling, stumbling, I opened my laptop.
1,000 new messages
The words and addresses became like a floating jumble of crushed LED display. The whole lounge started to float. The man—I still didn't know his name—came back over and sat down next to me, holding two large glasses of liquid.
“I went ahead and got ya a spa water, looks like you need it. You look tired! Ahawhawhaw…”
“Oh, yeah, you know, long flight—so do you!”
I hate it when someone says that—”you look tired!”—as a way of making conversation. I don't look tired, you look tired. Of course I'm tired, I just flew 10 hours, and I'm starting to get the sinking suspicion that in fact I am dead, and this is hell, or at least purgatory.
“Listen—that thing I wanted to talk to you about. I just think it's crazy that nobody is reporting on it yet!”
“Oh definitely, me too, me too. Listen—these days for news tips your best bet is to email my colleagues directly…”
“Of course,” said the man—I still didn't know his name—”but since I've got you here right now I just figured…” but his dialogue was broken by a second man, looming before us, his enormous mustache gleaming in the early morning airport lounge light.
“Jon Luis Fitzcarraldo, what are the odds!”
What are the odds indeed. I stood with my spa water, smiled at both men, and began walking back through the lounge. There was Lettie Dinklage, PR emissary for Toraji Springs Syrup Company. I had to write her back. There was Duke Iannucci, who I'd known for a decade, whose nominal job was fixing espresso machines for Metallico Espresso but who functioned as a sort of all-around brand emissary for the company. He'd emailed me two weeks ago asking for travel recommendations and I just… well, I still needed to dig out. I hadn't written back. I kept walking, my eyes focused, my numb hands slipping on the water glass, back to the front of the lounge.
Marieke and Jopie were still there, standing in their crisply pressed blue suits. I approached with my ticket and passport in hand.
“Listen… your colleague Leentje sent me here… am I pronouncing that right?
“Anyway, is there a way I can get on an earlier flight today? There's something weird going on here and I need to… know my options.”
“Yes of course,” said Jopie, in no-nonsense lilting English. “Let me check your layover.”
“I think it was just supposed to be like, three hours. I have it in my email…” Reflexively I looked down at my phone, opening the Gmail app. My lock screen was now a digital spiral, like a black hole or a vortex or the gaping mouth of hell IDK…
10,000 new messages
“Were you on the 8am from Portland?” asked Marijke.
“I… was but something is… very wrong…”
“The computer here says there was a delay in your connection,” I heard Jopie say. “You will be delayed on your next flight. I suggest you enjoy the lounge, and we will call your name when there is an update.”
I paused for just a beat. My head felt numb now, like my extremities had from the moment I woke up on the flight. The lounge buzzed and hummed behind me, a service cart of fresh pastries clattering through the room.
“Give it to me straight, Jopie. Am I dead? Did my plain crash? Is this hell?”
She paused for a moment. Jopie and Marijke looked at each other, spoke briefly in Dutch, and turned back to me with a smile.
“Our records show you will be here for some time. The WiFi password is ‘relax' spelled in English. That's R-E-L-A-X.”
“I know how to fucking spell relax!”
“Alright sir. Perhaps you want to chat with the other guests in the lounge, and enjoy a complimentary drink? Or use this time to catch up on some emails?”
I thanked them, Jopie and Marijke, and apologized for raising my voice. How terribly American and embarrassing of me, to act like that. Totally unlike me, really. I try to be the most polite American of all time when I travel. It's just, this had been such a long travel day, and it was only getting longer.
It'll be fine. I'll just go sit back down in the Lounge. You know, I do have some stuff to dig out from. I did have some emails to send.