What’s That Again?

Did Anyone Hear That Announcement?

Did Anyone Hear That Announcement?

Like all inventions, it was well intentioned—originally. Then, like most inventions, things got out of hand. I am referring to public address systems, which work well enough in certain controlled environments, such as schools, but are all but useless in crowded situations such as airports and railway stations.

Yesterday, for example, I took the new Expo light rail from Santa Monica to Downtown L.A. and back again. Admittedly, it was only the fourth day of operation of the extended Expo line, but all was confusion at the 7th Street Metro Station. A train had pulled in whose destination was Willowbrook on the Blue Line. There was a scratchy P.A. announcement saying something or other in which the words “Santa Monica” were mentioned, after which half the people in the train got off. Thereupon, the train was marked “Not in Service” and left the station with several hundred people bound for either Willowbrook or Santa Monica or the rail maintenance yard.

This is a typical occurrence. Most public address announcements are innately confusing. There could be technical reasons for this, or the announcer could have a voice that is not appropriate for the medium.

At airports, I have gotten used to ignoring all announcements and looking carefully at the status board. That’s what I wound up doing at the 7th Street Metro Station yesterday: I just waited for a train whose destination was clearly marked as Santa Monica.

In 1979, my brother and I were flying to Villahermosa by way of Mexico City. We were told by announcement that our flight was canceled. That’s when my term “flying by Mexican rules” was born. Dan and I hunkered down and kept our eyes and ears open. Sure enough, there was a scratchy announcement that mentioned Villahermosa, and we found that the plane was in fact being boarded. Only at the last minute did that status appear on the electronic signage.

Traveling by Mexican Rules

Benito Juarez Airport in Mexico City

Benito Juarez Airport in Mexico City

It all started in 1979. My brother and I were booked on a flight to Villahermosa, Mexico, one of the less enchanting cities of that great land. Suddenly, our flight disappeared off the departure screens, followed by a garbled PA announcement in Spanish. Dan and I looked at each other, and right then and there, we developed the notion of traveling by Mexican Rules.

Consequently, we hunkered down in our seats and waited for new developments. We disbelieved all announcements until we heard one (that was actually clear) that said our “canceled” flight was boarding at Gate 72. We hurried over to the gate and, sure enough, the flight was boarding; and its destination was the unlovely swamp city of Villahermosa. Within two hours, we were landed.

(It turned out that was only the beginning of our problems: We had to find a room in a city where all hotel rooms were block-booked by the Pemex oil monopoly employees. But that’s another story.)

The point I am trying to make is that one has to make allowance for mass confusion, not only when traveling, but even at home. A week ago, we had a freak rainstorm that forced the evacuation of the high rise in which I work. Until I received authoritative word from the building management, I heard no end of estimates of how long it would be before we could return to our offices. They ranged from one hour to two or three hours to half a day. In the end, the building was shut down for the day until the fire department and the Department of Water & Power was sure the transformer in the parking garage would not be flooded.

So when I am in Argentina and Chile in November, I will still be traveling by Mexican Rules. It’s the only way to fly.