Midnight Express

Saturday, October 9-Sunday, October 10, 2016: London, England

6:30pm – I am flying out of London Stansted tomorrow at 7:55am. Stansted is far away.  As I plan out the morning, my friend Rubén suggests that maybe I should just go to the airport tonight: To get to there on time, I need to catch the Stansted Express from Liverpool Street by around 5, and the Tube doesn’t get me from his place to Liverpool Street at that hour. He indicates that while it’s not the ideal last night in London, if I get to Stansted early enough I can find a plastic couch and use my bag as a pillow and maybe it won’t be so bad. It doesn’t sound so bad. We decide that this will be the course of action.

6:45pm – Rubén provides me with detailed notes on the three trains I’ll take to get to Liverpool Street.

9:00pm – We are back in Rubén’s kitchen. I need to pack soon and take a shower. I am dreading both because all of my clothing besides the clothing I’m wearing is wet. I did my laundry the previous day in Rubén’s washer/dryer combo and only one of those functions succeeded. Air drying is proceeding very slowly.

9:56pm – Rubén’s flatmate arrives from practicing German upstairs to retrieve food from the oven. Her cooking is steaming up the kitchen. The steam is pleasantly warm but makes it difficult it see through my glasses. We fill her in on my travel plans.

9:57pm – She is a committed partisan of my leaving in the morning: I can get a few hours of sleep on the air mattress on Rubén’s floor istead of the plastic airport couch.

9:58pm – She, Rubén, her sister, and I have a spirited debate in the kitchen regarding how and when I should travel to Stansted.

10:06pm – It is decided that, since I already bought my Stansted Express return ticket, an Uber isn’t economical. I might as well go tonight. The plastic couch it is.

10:07pm – I check Rubén’s detailed notes against  Google Maps. Google offers an alternative to his three trains: Walk to a farther station; take one train; walk farther from that station to Liverpool Street. I believe that I can walk faster than a Google Maps prediction, and so can shave time off of my trip and also eliminate the risk of getting confused underground. Rubén is not convinced that I won’t get lost walking aboveground. His flatmate notes that the Bank stop, where I would exit my one train with Google’s plan, has many exits and I may get confused by the exits. She agrees with Rubén that I should take more trains and walk less.

10:15pm – It’s time to shower.

10:30pm – We all say our goodbyes.

10:32pm – I start packing.

10:44pm – While I finish packing damp clothing into my backpack, I innocently ask Rubén to confirm that I have time to make it for the night’s last Stansted train, at 11:25pm. He asks me if I said 11:25; I say yes. He says I better run, I agree, and he clarifies that I actually need to run and he is not using an idiom.

10:44pm – I burst out of Rubén’s door. I take off sprinting with my backpack full of wet clothes on my back. I am glad I opted for my (slightly smelly) trail runners and tied my boots to my backpack. Fortunately, the blue dot on Google Maps quickly starts tracking along the prescribed foot route to the station. I am not lost.

10:48pm – I have found the station!

10:48pm – I enter the station and swipe my new OysterCard.

10:49pm – I make it to the platform. The screen says that the next train is slated to arrive in eight minutes. Eight minutes will cut into the already scarce time I have to make it to Liverpool Street by 11:25.

10:56pm – The train arrived one minute early. I am feeling optimistic.

11:15pm – I exit the train and start running.

11:15pm – I’m running the wrong way. This Way Out has been closed for construction. I’m instructed to use the other Way Out.

11:15pm – I start running the other way.

11:17pm – I run past all the passengers who exited the right way the first time. One of them gives me a weird look.

11:18pm – I run up some escalators, down some stairs, through some halls, maybe up another escalator and down another escalator and still haven’t reached the Way Out.

11:19pm – I can’t see a Way Out sign anymore.

11:19pm – My confusion turns out to be fortuitous: The paths for Way Out and Central Line were running parallel, and now I am standing in front of a Central Line train pulling up. Central Line would have been the third of Rubén’s trains – the one that would take me right to Liverpool station. I can’t tell which direction this one is going.

11:19pm – I sprint onto the train anways. I frantically yell at the first un-headphoned passenger I see, “Excuse me is this going to Liverpool Street?” He looks confused. The guy next to him reassures me in the affirmative. I stay on the train.

11:21pm – I exit at Liverpool Street and follow signs for Way Out. I may have forgotten to swipe my OysterCard to indicate that I have exited that train system. This infraction may be punishable by fine or incarceration under British law.

11:21pm – I identify signs for Stansted and follow them at a trot.

11:22pm – I board the Stansted Express. I set down my bag and remove my jacket, then my sweater. My t-shirt had dried from the washer/dryer situation while I wore it, but is now soaked with sweat.

11:25pm – The train departs, admirably and expectedly on time.

11:26pm – I plug in my phone and connect to wifi.

11:27pm – I message Rubén to assure him I made the train, and I screw around on my phone for a bit

11:41pm – I start writing this stupid diary

11:46pm – I’m super hungry.

12:05pm – My t-shirt is almost dry!

12:09am – The train informs me that we are approaching Stansted. I redon my sweater. The insides of the sleeves are damp.

12:12am – I exit the train and enter the terminal.

12:18am – Nothing’s open.

12:19am – Currency exchange is!

12:21am – So is Burger King!

12:33am – The Costa Coffee table in front of me holds a cortado and a full Burger King bag. I am seated on a fabric-covered bench-type surface. A woman sits on this bench at the table to my right. A man lays on this bench at the table to my left.  This is the second night in a row I am eating multiple sandwiches from a major American fast food chain in London after midnight. I am Jack’s clogged arteries.

12:37am – Rubén’s flatmates are vegans. Maybe I should become a vegan, too.

12:37am – The gentleman sleeping next to me has extended his legs. There are no shoes on his feet. His right sock is tickling my thigh. I don’t want to be tickled.

12:38am – This contact has awakened him. He is now sitting. He is sitting very close to me, much closer than he was laying. He is looking at me out of the side of his eye and grumbling. I feel uneasy.

12:39am – He is laying again. His feet smell not that bad for feet at the discount airport at 12:39am but still lot great.

12:40am – I have been watching the New Girl on Netflix lately for some mindless entertainment but I can’t find it on UK availability in my phone’s Netflix app. I settle for a another show I like but not that much.

12:55am – I’m all done with the BK, feeling very full and sloth-like, and working on the cortado.

1:08am – The episode is over. I don’t have the energy for another.

1:12 am – I check on my boarding pass situation. The RyanAir website tells me that I have to go see an agent to process my documents before proceeding to security. The RyanAir app tells me I have to print my boarding pass and can’t use a mobile boarding pass. I make the printable version into a PDF on my phone. This strategy has worked so far on this trip.

1:18am – My free hour of airport wifi on my phone has run out.

1:18am – You can just select one free hour again and get more free wifi.

1:20am – “Let these words be the colors I’m just painting my heart//I’m knee deep in the game and it ain’t what I thought”: I am listening to J. Cole songs on YouTube. I find this rhyme about expectations not reflecting reality very insightful.

1:25am – When it is late at night and I am forcing myself to stay up I always feel very cold. I think this is a reason I used to go to bed instead of studying for exams. I wish I was still sweating on (or do they say in?) the Tube.

1:32am – I’m going to try reading for a bit.

1:35am – “His arguments were concise, simple, and clear” comprises an entire Tolstoy paragraph. This paragraph describes itself.

1:43am – There is a fly on my leg. It is preferable to a stranger’s foot.

2:23am – That was a decently long nap! The strangers at the next table across from me are all asleep sitting up.

2:24am – The guy next to me is awake again and and stretching. He’s again chosen to sit in between the tables instead of firmly in his territory. I don’t understand, and do resent, his decision-making.

2:25am – My free wifi has actually expired now. I go back to sleep. My chosen sleeping position: Seated; book on table; arms on book; face on arms.

3:12am – I take a quick break from napping. I am cold and my neck hurts.

3:36am – I take another quasi-nap. I debate trying to go through security. I decide that I should not lift the gift horse of an available napable surface in its mouth. I will stay.

4:01am – The neighbor to my left is gone and I am horizontal. The people to my right are having an educated conversation. If this arrivals hall coffee shop crowd is divided into two groups, I would be firmly in the group with the smelly feet former neighbor from my left.

4:08am – I guess I am awake now. I return to a seated position.

4:20am – Someone else has arrived and claimed the corner table. I am committed to verticality.

4:20am – The someone else has plugged in his phone at an outlet tucked under our bench couch/seat-type surface that I had not noticed before. It is pretty solidly under his area. I ask if I could plug in, too. He acquieces.

4:21am – My phone is not responding to the electrical current. My converter only works at its pleasure.

4:25am – The Romanian to my right has recently received a promotion to front-of-house manager at her north-of-London restaurant and is very proud. She moved to London from Spain for the weather. I find this move unusual.

4:35am – Spain was getting too dry and she said to herself, “Go north, girl.”

4:40am – The Costa Coffee cleaner and the guy to my left are arguing about whether the guy’s phone charger is causing the coffee shop’s lights to flicker. The guy is using a European plug in a British outlet. He claims the voltage is the same. The cleaner says that the systems are incompatible.

4:42am – The cleaner wins. The guy unplugs.

4:42am – The Costa Coffee employee turns his back. The guy plugs in again. He tells me that he doesn’t play those games. I’m not positive about whether the lights are actually flickering.

5:51am – I am packing up and planning to go through security now.

5:59am – There are two currency exchange shops between departures and arrivals. I need to make my pounds into Euros. I compare their rates. Both are identical. I got a 25% off coupon from the currency exchange shop at which I made my Euros into pounds upon arriving in London. The coupon is usable at any of that company’s locations around the world. Neither of the shops in Stansted is that company.

6:00am – I select a shop. I get confused between the Euros and pounds sharing my wallet. I feel like a non-busy savvy Jay-Z. The agent sorts out my confusion. I give her the pounds. I am left with some coins too small for her to bother changing. She shows me her computer screen and asks if I am happy with the rate. I ask if it is negotiable. She says it is not. I say I accept her offer then.

6:07am –  I go to RyanAir customer service. I say that I need a stamp and show the agent my phone. He tells me that he can’t stamp my phone. He is right. I ask if I can have a printed boarding pass for him to stamp. He says they will sort it out at the gate. I ask if he means that they can give me a stamp at the gate. He repeats that they will sort it out. I leave.

6:14am – I am in security line. It is packed at 6:14am. This place is a zoo.

6:28am – I have passed security. Nobody asked me to play the bagpipe chanter in my backpack. This is an efficiently run zoo.

6:45am – I am eating dried apricots leftover from my trip into London, sitting at Harris+Hoole coffee. I have not purchased a product yet. Their motto is “Coffee Makes Me Sexy Funny Hungry.” I do not feel particularly any of these at this juncture. Maybe I need some coffee.

6:46 am – Correction: That is the motto of their food section specifically.

6:49 am – I think my friend Hunter is at this airport coffee shop! Why didn’t he tell me he was in London?

6:49 am – It’s someone who looks kinda like him and is of a similar height and has similar glasses and hairstyle. (Don’t worry, Hunter, your hair’s better.)

6:50 am – This place is crowded, mostly with actual patrons. Someone has joined me at my table. She has purcahsed goods from the establishment. She will be my cover and ad-hoc fictional girlfriend if I am told the seating is for customers only. She is not privy to my plan. We are both scrolling through our phones and not communicating with one another. This relationship is off to a rocky start.

6:51 am – Why do European airports not announce your gate till so close to flight time?

6:52 am – It looks like my free computer wifi has also expired. I am not given the opporunity to re-up for an hour. I consider trying to circumvent the system by entering a third email – I used my first two for the phone and then the laptop – but it looks like they have some kind of IP address check in place, too, and I can’t use a VPN to pull any stunts because I can’t connect to VPN till I have authenticated internet. I’m not even sure if VPN actually would facilitate any stunts. I am a bad IT professional. I guess I will read a book, made out of paper.

6:57 am – I have informed the stranger sharing my table of my plan. She is on board.

7:00 am – She is coughing a lot and covering her mouth little. I am glad she is not my real girlfriend. I hope the coffee shop does not press my lie into service.

7:10 am – The gate has been announced.

7:20 am – The signs pointing to the gate lead me down some steps.

7:21 am – These signs lead me through a door that is marked as an emergency exit. The door itself does not say anything about the gate but there’s nowhere else to go now that I’m down the steps.

7:22 am – A bright red sign on the other side of the door informs me that this portion (meaning the portion whence I came) is restricted for authorized personnel only. I am neither personnel nor authorized.

7:23 am – The signs lead me through what’s marked as another emergency exit or as a continuation of the same path to a future emergency exit. The signs are not clear.

7:26 am – I have made it to what appears to be a gate. People are lining up to board.

7:27 am – I try to ask the gate agent about the stamp I discussed with customer service. She asks me why customer service couldn’t give me a stamp. I don’t know why. She hands me a very unofficial looking sheet of paper that looks like a receipt from a store that hasn’t computerized its point-of-sale/cash register stuff and sends me through. She doesn’t scan anything to tell her computer I have boarded. I have cut the line accidentally.

7:29 am – Cutting the line didn’t matter. I go down more steps and outside. I board a bus

7:30 am – I wait on the bus.

7:35 am – I am still waiting on the bus.

7:40 am – The girl standing next to me is wearing a Hard Rock Cafe t-shirt for the Hard Rock Cafe in Tenerife. I ask if she just came from Tenerife. She says that she did. I tell her I just came from Gran Canaria, which isn’t quite true but it’s close enough to the truth. She says she went there last year. I ask which she prefers: Tenerife or Gran Canaria. She prefers Tenerife. I ask why. She says because it is warmer than here, presumably meaning the UK, or maybe this bus specifically. I speculate to myself that Gran Canaria is probably also much warmer than this bus and that Tenerife being warmer than this bus in London doesn’t explain why Tenerife is better than Gran Canaria. She says she is Irish and living in the U.K. but has an Irish passport and sounds English.

7:45 am – I am still waiting on this bus.

7:47 am- The bus starts moving.

7:49 am – The bus winds around and takes us to a RyanAir plane.

7:49 am – The bus continues past that plane.

7:50 am – The bus continues winding.

7:51 am – The bus passes another RyanAir plane.

7:52 am – It passes another.

7:55 am – This is when the plane was to take off. The bus drives past the last RyanAir plane. I wonder if we are travelling to Mayo by bus.

7:56 am – The bus circles around. It drops us off at the last plane.

7:57 am – The flight attendant asks to see my boarding pass. I show her the PDF saved on my phone and the very unofficial looking slip of paper. She asks if they gave me this paper. I say that they did. She tells me it’s a very pretty boarding pass. She is being condescending. I did not choose this boarding pass. She lets me enter.

7:59 am – I have made it to my seat. I put on an eye mask through which some light still enters and fall asleep.

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