I waited in silence for several minutes while the Travel Agent performed what seemed to be an exhaustive search on his computer terminal. I looked at him and watched as the pale green light that reflected off of his contact lenses turned to yellow, and finally started flashing red.
He pushed himself slowly back from his desk, fished a cigarette out of his pocket, lit it, and exhaled noisily. Then he placed it next to the one already burning in the ashtray.
"Nope. There are no flights available." The Travel Agent looked at me to gauge my reaction. I asked the only question that suited my stupid expression.
"No flights - how can that possibly be?"
He realized he was dealing with a novice, and embarked on my first lesson in Travel for Americans 101.
"My friend, I can see that you're new to the travel scene. That's OK, it's what I'm here for. You see, the domestic airlines are no longer required to fly to places that aren't profitable. In today's competitive market, flying to Italy every other day just doesn't make sense."
"But we're not leaving for six months. Surely someone can get us to Italy. What about the foreign airlines -Air France or Alitalia?"
"Yes, yes, I've heard of those, and no you can't go - booked solid. Now then," He returned to his computer screen and began typing furiously. "Six months from now there's a flight leaving Baltimore every seven minutes for Orlando, with a stop in Minneapolis and a plane change in Phoenix. I can get you on one of those easily - they're usually pretty much empty. Shall I book you into Disney?"
I scanned the walls of his office, embarrassed at my ignorance of where to go on vacation. They were covered with travel posters, all depicting exciting people having exciting times on vacation. The River Walk of San Antonio, the Pyramids of Las Vegas, Dollywood - all vying for my attention. My wife and I had never been out of the Mid-Atlantic, and there was so much to see.
"Actually, we were hoping to go abroad. We'd like to see someplace real."
He stopped typing and pushed himself back from his desk. With what appeared to be a tremendous display of self-control, he pulled another cigarette out of his shirt pocket, lit it, and puffed silently for several moments. When his patience had returned to him, we resumed my lesson.
"Yes, I see the problem now. You want to go 'Abroad'. He began pounding the keys accusingly - A-B-R-O-A-D."
"Excellent - you'll be so pleased. It says here that I can book you into Somalia. I hear it's wonderful in summer, with temperatures typically around 130 degrees - in your hotel room. Other amenities include real poverty, raw sewage - everything Sally Struthers would want you to see." He opened a desk drawer and produced a pamphlet of about thirty pages. "Here's a bulletin from the World Health Organization, detailing the extensive series of painful and quite dangerous vaccines that you'll have to start immediately. And due to the danger posed to our air carriers by surface-to-air missiles - you'll have to find your own way home."
"That's ridiculous - a one way vacation? What will I need to get back?"
"Saudi Arabian citizenship. Believe me, it just ain't safe out there for Americans, OK? Now let's stop being silly for a minute. Give me your Visa number and I'll reserve you a room at the Dolphin. Doesn't breakfast with Mickey sound exciting enough?"
I gave him my Amnesty International Master Card. "Look, my wife and I have never had a real vacation and we wanted to travel somewhere different. Experience a different culture, different food, stuff like that."
He looked at the credit card, slowly shaking his head.
"Oh, so now Mister Fancy Pants wants culture … perhaps you'd be interested in our 'Liberal Press Tour Package'. First we'll send you to France where unbathed people in berets will spit on you while they fondle your wife. Then you're off to Mogadishu where you can help keep the peace without the benefit of a weapon. Finally, a school bus tour of the West Bank, where you can sing Yiddish folk songs and experience cultural diversity up close and personal. If you book now, the Federal Government will pay your airfare by raising taxes on small businesses like mine."
"It sounds good, but wouldn't travel in France be risky, with Germany reunited and all?"
"Well then, how about Mexico, the darling of the cultural elite? While you're there you can say hello to my brother's job."
He reached under the desk and turned off his computer. Then he stood up, lit another cigarette, and walked around to my side of the desk, sitting down in the chair next to me. Leaning forward, he closed his eyes and placed his head down on the desk and sighed. "Look buddy, do you want to go on vacation or not?"
I dropped my head in defeat. "Yes of course I do."
He bolted upright, smiling broadly "Great! I can help you. I am a travel professional, you know." He returned to his side of the desk and turned his machine back on. "Now, will you need a car when you arrive in Orlando?"
"Yes, I guess I will. We carpool, you know."
He nodded while typing. "That's great - save the whales." Tap, tap, tap on the keyboard and my once-in-a-lifetime vacation was …
"Done. There you go - a brand new Mazda. And Ford guarantees that not a single union mouth was fed by building this fine machine."
"Can you give me directions from the airport to Disneyworld?"
"Sure." He pulled out a map and handed it to me. "Leave the airport on any road, in any direction; you'll be at Disney in twenty minutes. They accept all major credit cards, but may I make a suggestion?"
"Just one," I replied, confident he'd enjoy the sarcasm. He grinned broadly and handed my card back.
"Pay cash, in U.S. dollars. Walt would have liked it that way."