One of the advantages of flying from the Eastern Time zone to the Pacific is that when you get there it always seems early and you always have enough time for a good dinner.
Our 6 p.m. arrival in SFO was really a 3 p.m. arrival by their left-coast standards, which left enough time for a short nap, a shower and a change of clothes before I headed down to the bar for pre-dinner cocktails and conversation.
It also gave me the leisure time to catch up with my favorite bartender of all time, Mario, who had been working the bar at the Canterbury Hotel since I was a new-hire engineer.
Mario isn't one of those young-stud bartenders who think the best atmosphere for a tavern is made up of blaring dance music or even louder multiple televisions showing various basketball and baseball games that nobody cares about.
He also isn't one of those bartenders who doesn't run his bar. Mario's bar is all Mario ... not some corporate image thought up by 12-year-olds in New York who think louder is better.
No, this bar is one of solitude and quiet. Perhaps a soupçon of quiet, big-band music in the background, darkened lighting, real glasses for our drinks, and even a huge aquarium containing huge but soothing fish. This bar isn't a place to try to shout your message over the vapid voices of sports commentators or the overly loud songs of Donna Summer. It is a calm place to have quality drinks and low toned conversations.
I would venture an uneducated guess that more airline pilot/flight attendant romances stared in this bar within sight of this aquarium than at any other spot on the globe -- and that includes topless pound-a-pint night in Brighton, England. The ancient fish floating placidly in this huge tank have seen the beginnings of more marriage break-ups than Liz Taylor. Their staring, huge, fish eyes have beheld the formation of dinner plans and other layover activities that were formulated by the best airline pilots in the world.
Legendary captains and co-pilots of yore plotted their layover strategies over a crystal tumbler of bourbon in the quiet darkness of Mario's bar. Jim Carlton went ugly early here. Frank Corey began his legendary freak-out with his sock puppet here. I once became so "happy" on happy hour at Mario's that I gave away my money, my wallet and my glasses to a helpful bar crowd who later returned everything to me.
It is based on that particular so-called "fun" layover that I became a "one beer per layover" guy. No more than one ... ever. After that little party I decided I was getting a little too old to be that stupid.
"Hey Captain, ready for another Diet Coke?" Mario asked, grinning. "I've switched you to the no-caffeine brand so you won't go nuts tonight."
Mario, my little Filipino buddy, you always take good care of me. How long have you been working here anyway?
"Since way before you were joining ROTC so you could dodge Vietnam," he said. "I came across the big wet in '68 and have been pouring swag for you guys since then. I can remember when you were a zit-faced, brown-haired engineer and now look at you .. you're a zit-faced, gray-haired, senior captain. It must be time for one of us to retire."
I vote for me. Don't worry Mario, I'll soon join that pantheon of retired and forgotten captains; those thousands of guys who patronized hundreds of bars from Hong Kong to Rangoon to Shreveport. Most of them are still around but are wearing thicker glasses now and always end up going to bars like Applebee's and Fridays, and only with their aging wives. The whole concept is just sad to me.
"I always think of sad when I think of you," said Brian, my co-pilot, who had finally managed to drag his sorry butt down to the bar. Brian was an exercise and cell-phone freak. During a layover, when he wasn't doing squat thrusts or deep toe-bends, he was constantly yammering on this itty-bitty cell phone. A real pain in the ass, but what are you going to do? They can't all be as cool as me.
Brian was late to the bar, according to him, because he felt the need to go on a 10-mile run and then do weights. Just what has the flying world come to is all I want to know.
"What can I get you, sonny?" said Mario. "A bottled, designer water, right?"
"Yeah, that would be nice," said Brian, who as usual, completely missed the point. "So this is the famous bar you kept talking about during our flight here, huh? It doesn't seem too impressive to me."
To each his or her own I guess. What would impress you as a great layover spot, Brian?
"Good workout room, great cell-phone reception and some sort of shopping mall nearby where I can get a vegetable plate," he said, which didn't surprise me or Mario in the least.
"I'm going to go out on a limb here," Mario began, "and guess that when and if you had a European tour while you were in the military that you lived on base. Am I right?"
"Of course ... I mean you can't get good American food off-base and a lot of the people off of base refused to speak English. We did go on touristy stuff when I was in Germany, though. We did bus tours with English-speaking guides."
Mario rolled his eyes and looked to me for a response. I was flabbergasted but did my best to help Brian out.
Brian, I'm no expert on foreign living. The closest I've ever had to full-time, out-of-country living was the four years I spent in a Chicago suburb. Still, when I'm laying-over, I try to get "off base" and do some local stuff. You know ... avoid the Holiday Inn bar and find a local dive. Walk the town and not just the tourist areas. Paris, France, for example, is a totally different place once you step out of the main tourist area and explore the place's underbelly.
Brian, let me ask you a question. When you lay over in San Antonio, where do you usually go for a good Mexican dinner?
"The River Walk," Brian said. "Nice clean area, good cell-phone coverage and not only can I jog through there, I can get a good dinner for under 30 bucks."
I was going to respond but Mario beat me to it.
"No, son, when you want to find good Mexican food you should go where the Mexicans are," Mario said. "I've been to San Antonio and know that if you walk four blocks west of River Walk you can find some real Mexican restaurants with real Mexicans. Hell, it is so authentic they almost have a dead dog lying out front and dinner will cost you five bucks, tops."
If you want to have an exciting layover you have to scare yourself a little, I said. That doesn't mean that when you are in Mumbai that you drink the local water but you should at least step outside of the hotel compound for a few minutes during daylight.
"OK, smart guy," Brian said after actually poking me in the arm with a well-muscled fore finger, "You tell me: What are the best layovers on our system and why are you two making so much fun of me? (Cell phone rings.) Wait a minute ... I have to take this."
It only took Brian a minute or two to take that all-important cell-phone call and clear up the trouble that his wife Muffin was having with the hot tub at home. He snapped his cell phone closed, hung it on his handy belt holster and sat down with a thump expecting his answer.
"Son, I've been around laying-over airline pilots for over 35 years and, although I haven't been to all of the layover spots that others have, I can tell you right now that a good layover isn't a place, it is an attitude."
Mario is completely right. You can be at a Ramada in Pittsburgh and have more fun than the Metro in Paris. Layovers, like airline profits and WMDs in Iraq, are all in your mind.
Sure, I could tell you stories about the Boat House bar in Sarasota or the Parker House in Chicago, but I could also tell you about "Wines of the World" in Shreveport or that 7-11 in Memphis near the interstate where we used to buy microwave pizzas and root beer and have a party on the curb. A great layover is made up of having an adventurous attitude, a good group of people and enough common sense to stay out of jail and appear for pick-up sober in the morning.
You should have as much fun as possible but be able to do the job you were hired for. They hired you to fly airplanes, not do beer bongs. On the other hand, every layover could be your last. You could die, lose your medical, or your airline could go bankrupt. Since every trip could be your last, you owe it to yourself to have as much fun at all times as possible.
"And please," Mario said, "turn off that cell phone before I throw it in the fish tank."
Brian laughed until I quietly pointed to two things. First, I pointed to the sign over the bar that said "Absolutely no cell phones!" and then I quietly turned my pointer finger to the fish tank where, for the first time, Brian noticed the 20 or so cell phones lying at the tank's bottom.
That is why Mario's bar is my favorite in the system.
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