Wednesday, April 13, 2011

You're going to think I'm making this up

But I'm not.  Compare my flight on a commercial airliner to any you've ever been on. 

This is another excerpt from the other book I'm writing -- on growing up a teenager in the '60s.  It could also serve as my very first travelogue.  (More current travelogues are contained in my hilarious current book, WHERE THE HELL AM I? TRIPS I HAVE SURVIVED -- available at ridiculously cheap prices in both paperback and ebook versions.  Order seven today!)   

It's 1969.  I've lived in the San Fernando Valley my entire life but always wanted to go back east, New York in particular.  So I saved my money and hit the road. 

The plan was this: Three weeks. First week in Gotham. Then meet-up with one of my radio freak buddies and drive with him to his home in Pittsburgh. Spend a day or so soaking in the wonders of the Steel City and then fly to D.C. See those sights and stop off in Louisville to visit my cousin on the way home. I had introduced him to the Sunset Strip a couple of years ago. He could return the favor and show me where they filmed some scenes from Goldfinger.

The airlines were all regulated back then; all required to charge the same fares. The carriers all cried that they couldn’t make money this way so in the ‘80s the government relented and dropped pricing regulations. Within months several long established airlines went bankrupt.

But in 1969 fares were standard. And all the airlines had a great deal for students. You could fly for half price. And you could get huge discounts on hotel rooms if you were a student. So for maybe a couple hundred bucks I booked all my flights and reserved a room in New York at the prestigious Statler Hilton across the street from Madison Square Garden for $9.50 a night.

My how traveling has changed. I checked in my suitcase (for free) and my family escorted me right to the gate. People dressed nice to fly on airplanes. You didn’t see one “SHIT HAPPENS” t-shirt.

I flew TWA. This was one of the major carriers, equivalent to United or American – now dead (yeah, deregulation was a GREAT idea). Once in the air they distributed free headsets so we could listen to seven channels of music. Moments later, carts were wheeled down the aisles and we were all served a hot breakfast – omelets or French toast. And the utensils were genuine metal! Then a big screen was lowered and they showed a free movie (Support Your Local Sheriff with James Garner). But that was nothing. Here’s the kicker: I’ve never seen this on any other flight I’ve ever taken – they set up a big brunch buffet. We all lined up down the aisle and helped ourselves to lox, bagels, cold cuts, and fruit and various salads.

And this was coach!

The guys in First Class must’ve been getting blowjobs.

Landed at JFK around 4:00 and taxied into the city, getting my first look at that Manhattan skyline. Wow! The Doris Day/Rock Hudson movies didn’t do it justice. I was Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy – a wide-eyed rube taking in the “big city” for the first time. This was a world unlike any I had ever witnessed. Just the sheer number of WIGS stores was staggering to me. How many New Yorkers need wigs?

Was deposited at my hotel, a grand old structure of stature and grace, and then shown to my elegant $9.50 a night room. It was the size of litter box. There was one single bed, a window that looked out at the back of the Gimbels’ Department Store neon flashing sign, and a TV that was so old it said “the Dumont Network” above channel 5. But I didn’t care. I was really in New York. I turned on my transistor radio and there was Dan Ingram on WABC trashing some sponsor’s frozen clam dip.

I just walked around that first night. Saw the Empire State Building, Macy’s, seventeen WIGS stores. I had dinner at Howard Johnson’s. I didn’t feel self-conscious that I was eating alone because everyone there was eating alone.

After dinner I wandered into Madison Square Garden. There was a Billy Graham Crusade that week. Billy Graham was a charismatic TV evangelist who rose to great prominence with lavish stage extravaganzas… I mean, religious services. But admission was free (donation cups were passed around like joints) so I checked it out. I didn’t find God but I did see where the Knicks and Rangers played.


Charlie said...

Wow. Travel was a whole different animal just a few short years ago. The buffet is just outstanding -- at today's prices of $4 per peanut, that'd run you about the price of Madison Square Garden itself.

I wonder if any of the old airline silverware was branded. And if you could convince a TSA agent that it's okay to let you on with a metal fork if you're "just returning it to the original owner".

John said...

When the 747s debuted in 1970, American Airlines actually had a piano bar in the rear of their plane on their N.Y.-California flights. I don't think the people in coach get the same treatment nowadays, though on one flight I was on from JFK to San Francisco in the summer of '71, the people in the middle seats in the front section of the jet were treated on takeoff to the experience of having cascading blue water from the overfilled upstairs lavatory tanks was over them as they were fastened into their seats. Now that's pretty much how the airlines treat coach passengers today.

The Statler Hilton's still there -- not owned by Paris' family anymore and back to its original name of Hotel Pennsylvania (and with the PEnnsylvania 6-5000 phone number). But its owner Vornado Realty, has let the thing really run down in hopes of turning the entire block (the old Gimbel's/Manhattan Mall site, too), into the new home of the city's tallest building, which would also serve as the home to NASDAQ. Since the thing would be a block from the Empire State, you'll end up with a pair of mismatched Twin Towers. I'd prefer they keep the hotel and just rebuild Penn Station.

Michael Hagerty said...

My first flight (L.A. to Washington, D.C.) was a year later.

I was 14.

I KNEW I should have flown first class...

YEKIMI said...

The guys in First Class must’ve been getting blowjobs.

I'm glad I was at home when I read that line cause I burst out laughing for a good long time.

I may have said this before but early 80s was on a plane trip to Florida and the stewardess [or "flight attendant" if you wanna be PC] was going through the cabin asking people what they wanted to drink and listening as she reeled off the names of the booze. She got to me and asks "Would you like a Coke or Diet Coke?", I asked for a Bacardi & Coke and she just laughed and moved on. When she came back, I showed her my driver's license [I was 24 but looked young for my age] and she said "Well, I thought you were 14". I still never got my drink.

RCP said...

$9.50 for a hotel room in Manhattan is truly mind-boggling (I bet the wigs were affordable too). Compared to today, your flight sounds like a luxurious dream - we've been so trained to expect less.

"People dressed nice to fly on airplanes. You didn’t see one “SHIT HAPPENS” t-shirt"

True. Flying as kids in the 60s, my brothers and I all had to wear suits, ties, and Vitalis. It was a big deal to travel.

Looking forward to this book!

Anonymous said...

Holy crossover - your story about the showrunner who swears is printed in Gawker's Blind Items column.

Bruce said...

I remember my first trip to Gotham. with my Dad, in the sixties, walked down 5th Ave near Xmas time, looked in all the windows, don't remember any wig stores??? But we ate in a cafeteria type place where you pulled the food out of individual locker type thingys behind a window so you could see what you were getting. A vend-o-mat, or lunch-o-mat, or food-o-mat or something-o-mat... Early incarnation of fast food, I'll never forget the experience but I can't remember the name! Way cooler than a HoJos though.

Anonymous said...

Oh how your story resonates with me.
I went to New York for the first time as a 21-year-old with a book called "New York on $10 a Day." Even in 1970 that was absurd, but I used it get a hotel on 32nd near 5th. I don't remember the exact rate but it was comparable to yours at the Hilton. It was the hotel of choice for hookers in the neighborhood, but I survived them and their customers and nothing emerged from the mattress to bite me at night. I ate at the Automat, went down to the village in a suit and discovered that generally NY was not actually the suburb of hell I was expecting.
I went back 20 years later and the hotel building had become a commerical building with a plumbing supply business on the first floor.

VP81955 said...

My first flight was on American in August 1969, traveling with my family from Syracuse to New York City (yep, a long haul); we had traveled to NYC before, but always by car. We flew into LaGuardia (passing over Shea Stadium, alas, not during a ballgame) and flew out of Newark the next day. We stayed at the old Hotel Commodore on East 42nd Street (next door to Grand Central, before it was gussied up by Donald Trump some 30 years ago), and the most memorable thing about the visit is that we went to a steakhouse, but a small fire forced us to evacuate the restaurant before we were served (and, thankfully, before we had paid).

In 1973, my senior class flew to Europe, and the return flight was one of those Pan Am two-level planes. No piano bar, alas.

There is a Facebook group dedicated to stewardesses and air travel in those halcyon days. It was organized by the daughter of the late singer Al Martino; her mother was a flight attendant for American back in the day.

Anonymous said...

Ahhhh . . . Bruce dined at the amazing Automat, a true but old NY fixture. From my office on Times Square, you could eat, get a custom coffee and a handrolled Nat Shermans within one block.

VP81955 said...

I should also note a friend of mine from Puyallup, Wash., once told me about her first trip to NYC in 1970. While there, she rode the subway, got the wrong directions and wound up in Flushing, Queens -- and no, she wasn't planning to visit Shea Stadium.

Anonymous said...

"SHIT HAPPENS" is actually better than the T-shirt I saw on one flight a few years' back. A fellow passenger actually wore his KKK T-shirt for the flight to Atlanta. "Boyz in Da Hoods" it said.

I hope he was beaten to death on the little subway car to Concourse D.

Janet T said...

The first time I flew was from Portland, OR to Burbank via Alaska. It is something like 2 hours of airtime. We were served an entire meal and complimentary California wines. I was about 20 at the time, and they didn’t check my ID- I was totally looped getting off the plane!-and yes I was in dress slacks and heels for hte trip. I used to love flying- now I despise every minute of it and avoid it as much as possible. Although business class on Singapore Airlines is worth every second and every penny- and better than first class on American.
Thanks for the memories Ken

Eduardo Jencarelli said...

I knew it! I knew Reagan had to be somehow involved in helping deregulate airlines. Gotta love useful history lessons.

Given that I first flew in 1991, there's no way I could have known any of that. I wish I could have flown back in the sixties and seventies. Hell, I wish I was born back then!

No wonder airlines became such a source of ongoing stress nowadays. I should have known it had something to do with deregulation. It certainly lowered my already low opinion of Reaganomics.

gottacook said...

On my first plane trip with my parents in April 1962, we flew Philadelphia-Los Angeles round trip (TWA; I probably still have the genuine metal TWA pin given to child passengers). We stayed at the Statler Hilton in LA - do you happen to know whether that building still exists? If so, what's it called these days? Thanks.

Mac said...

A buffet in coach? That is magnificent. I swear to God the golden age of aviation is well and truly over.
If you ever find yourself in Europe with the option of a Ryanair flight or travelling on a pig's back, take the pig. It'll be more comfortable, your overall journey time will be about the same, you won't have to pay to take a pee (seriously, from this July), you can make your sure your luggage actually travels with you, and in the event that you make a polite and perfectly legitimate complaint about any aspect of your journey, the pig will respond in a more courteous manner than fucking Ryanair
ever will.

Foaming Solvent said...

You have a few of your facts wrong. The Airline Deregulation Act was signed by President Carter in 1978. And the established airlines utterly opposed deregulation, because being an established airline with fares regulated by the Civil Aeronautics Board was a license to print money; the fares were set to guarantee a thick profit on top of covering any and all costs the airlines incurred -- including prodigious wages for the employees, and hefty sticker prices on the airplanes. Only the airlines that had been granted air mail routes back in the 1930s were allowed to carry passengers, and new entrants were denied admission to the government-enforced air carrier cartel.

And air travel was prohibitively expensive for most Americans, and most American had never flown. Since the Act, the number of people flying per year has nearly quadrupled, and air fares are much lower today than they were in the 1970s.

And, yes, the airlines that could not compete are gone. As they should be.

Next you're going to tell us that things were better when it was illegal to own a telephone and you had to rent one from the phone company, and when you wanted to place a long distance call you had to get the operator to place it for you and it was priced in dollars a minute. "But those Western Electric phones were stout! They never broke!" says Grampaw Ken.

Mike said...

Sad to think that I was wishing I could have a time machine so I could use it to travel back in the past -- and take a flight.

emily said...

In the mid 70's, I made my escape from NYC to LAX every other Friday at 6 pm aboard American Airlines flight 21. Not coincidentally, it was catered by New York's 21 Club. There were fabulous dinners served on china with fine silverware. For the champaigne and wine, crystal stemware, smiling stewardesses and sheer elegance.

The Sunday night redeye back to Manhattan was not nearly so fun.

Mike Barer said...

I would be in favor of some fare Regulation, airplanes are basically flying Greyhound buses. Prices are shooting skywards anywhere with little offered.
When I'm up in the sky, l would rather have a well paid, well trained pilot.

Naz said...

My first trip to NYC was with my parents and brothers in the late sixties. We visited the Statue of Liberty (I still remember just how narrow the staircase was inside of Lady Liberty). I recall the Twin Towers being built when we got off the ferry. My last memory of that day trip was eating lunch at the Stage Delicatessen.

As for airliners I would always ask for a deck of cards that I'd keep.

Johnny Walker said...

Aside from the specifics, I had the exact same experience when I first went to New York as a kid in 1989. (Doesn't everyone?) The specifics were different but the wide-eyed, emotional experience was the same.

Maybe I missed the point? (I mean, the point wasn't "look at how shitty things are compared to the 60s?", right?)

Kathleen said...

I flew between Portland, Ore and Cincinnati twice a year when I as in college in the late 60's/early 70's. I always dressed up, enjoyed the hot meals and those hot towels on Eastern Airlines flights.

Lou H. said...

When I was a kid, we'd go to NYC a couple times a year to visit the grandparents. What stood out was how noisy the city was! 3am, there was still lots of traffic on the street, keeping me up. How did people ever get to sleep, I wondered.

I remember the Horn and Hardart automats. Chock Full O' Nuts stores on every block. A tobacco store on every corner. I guess people needed caffeine and nicotine to stay awake during the day, because they sure didn't get any sleep at night.

Michael Rafferty said...

Was there anyone better than Dan Ingram on WABC? That was real radio.

normadesmond said...

good story sir.

Pat Reeder said...

I wish my first experience of NYC had been like yours, seeing the Rock & Doris version of the Big Apple in bright sunshine.

I grew up in rural Texas, so far out in the middle of nowhere that I had to ride a school bus 18 miles just to get to the nearest town with a school. So I was excited, giddy and a little scared when I first ventured to NY at 20 to attend a New Music Conference. Problem was, my plane landed at night. To get to my hotel, the driver took us through some neighborhoods that made me think I'd touched down on the sets from "Escape From New York."

This was the worst period of the the pre-Giuliani clean-up days, so the streets were filled with litter, burning trash cans, homeless people, hookers, drug pushers and generally scary-looking types hanging out on tenement stoops. And it wasn't just dark. For some reason, the whole place had an eerie green cast to it. I don't know if it was the cheap mercury vapor street lights or the tint of the car windows, but it was like an amusement park ride inspired by "The X-Files." To add to the weirdness, my ears hadn't popped from the plane's air pressure, so I had to gaze out at this heart of darkness in silence. All I could hear was the blood rushing in my ears.

Welcome to Fun City!

The next day, my ears had popped, the sun came up and the place looked a bit nicer. But that first night, I assumed I would never get home alive.

I assume NYC is now a lot cleaner. Still, if you're an innocent rube like I was, I'd advise that the first time you visit NYC, make sure your plane doesn't land after dark.

cadavra said...

Speaking of automats, I recently saw an obscure 40s film called CADET GIRL, and in one scene the title character, newly arried in Noo Yawk, had to have How An Automat Works explained to her by the locals. At the time, it was intended to be--and was--humorous, but with the demise of automats, the scene has now become educational!

Pete Grossman said...

Dan Ingram! Yes! Grew up listening to him and loved his voice and corniness. Thanks for bringing back great memories.

Pete Grossman said...

And there was Ron Lundy, too, with his sign great enthusiastic sigh on "Hello world!" Loved it as he belted it out on my transistor radio.

Buttermilk Sky said...

"The Dumont Network." Hah!

Because of its proximity to the Garden, the Statler/Pennsylvania regularly hosts visiting sports teams. If that room seemed cramped to you, imagine what it felt like to Shaq or Yao Ming.

Autofood said...

For what it's worth there's still one "Automat" left in NY although I expect it's nothing like the experience of the originals. You can view their website at:

Anonymous said...

Ken were you sitting in Smoking or Non-Smoking?

Matt Patton said...

Had my first airline flight in 1969 as well--my dad had a job interview in Puerto Rico and my parents decided to make it a family vacation (it was just before Thanksgiving). We left Greater Cincinnati Airport (which is actually in Kentucky) at about four in the morning--the flight attendants were not only efficient, they were NICE--which impressed me even when I was seven. I loved all of the little goodies (Little Golden Books, complimentary tubes of mustard, miniature bottles of wine for the adults) and the whole flying-living-room atmosphere. The eight-hour wait in Kennedy Airport was a bit long--it didn't help that my sister was suffering from her bi-monthly bout of tonsillitis, but at least it was in the TWA terminal, which was like sitting in the middle of something off of The Jetsons.

I didn't actually get to fly much until after airline deregulation (which was actually in the late 1970's--during the Carter Administration) and I actually enjoyed it quite a bit. The service was still quite good and check-in was pretty brisk. The problems came with 9/11 and the fumbling attempts to play catch-up with security, and the economic down-turn of the past few years which made things expensive and bare-bones. One day, these problems may actually be worked out. And I may win the Nobel Prize for Physics . . . I hope that turns out to be a joke.