Sunday, October 27, 2019

keep Baltimore beautiful

Well, we just returned from yet another cruise — our second one this year. We sailed on the Carnival Pride. This was our first cruise that left from the port of Baltimore, the so-called "Charm City," a misnomer if I ever heard one.

When Mrs. Pincus booked this trip, she arranged for an overnight stay and a shuttle to the cruise terminal through an online service called "Park Sleep Fly." (Wasn't there a serial killer with that nickname?) We packed our luggage and headed south on I-95 towards the Best Western BWI Airport Inn & Suites. For around a hundred bucks, they offered a room for overnight, parking for our car for the week we'd be away and shuttle service to the pier — plus a complimentary breakfast in the morning. Sounds good? Yeah..... we'll see.

We followed the directions as the indispensable Waze app guided us to our destination. Exiting I-895, Mrs. P navigated through what can only be described as a seedy-looking neighborhood, eventually arriving at our accommodations situated in a small courtyard at the end of Belle Grove Road, just past two auto body salvage yards.

The first thing I noticed as we pulled into the parking lot was the distinct lack of "Best Western" signage and branding. Nowhere was there any indication that this hotel was part of the Best Western chain. The backlit sign at the street very plainly identified the place as "BWI Airport Inn and Suites" The front of the building bore no signs at all. I found this strange and a bit suspicious. We parked and entered the building at the lobby. It looked like a million hotels we've seen (and passed) along the I-95 corridor, but still, not a single "Best Western" anything in sight. There was a large seating area opposite the front desk that was obvious used for the included breakfast in the morning. Mrs. Pincus confirmed our reservation with the slutty-looking blond behind the desk. We were informed that the cost of the shuttle was not included in the final price of our stay. Mrs. P quickly scanned the confirmation that she had printed out and we reluctantly paid the additional charge. The woman behind the desk rattled off a list of convoluted instructions regarding the timing and meeting area for the shuttle the next morning. She handed my wife a small cardboard portfolio with our electronic room keys and disappeared into a back room. Mrs. P and I exchanged silent glances, knowing full well that neither one of us was certain as to where and how we were to be taken to the pier tomorrow morning. We dragged our luggage over to the elevators.

The elevator arrived. We entered. The door closed. The inside of the doors were decorated with large, full-color graphics of the Baltimore Orioles — which were defaced with angry, jagged gouges obscuring the smiling visage of the familiar Oriole logo. The doors opened at the seventh floor and we followed the directional wall signs to our room. A pile of trash — two greasy pizza boxes, several Coke cans and some unidentifiable crumbled paper — was on the floor next to the small utility room that housed two vending machines and a commercial ice maker. The pile remained for our entire stay.

We found our room and Mrs. P swiped the plastic key card in the lock. A little green light above the knob flashed. I opened the door. The first thing I noticed was a black backpack sitting on the floor under the lone window. The lights were out. The beds were made. The room appeared clean and unoccupied... except for the backpack. Again, Mrs. Pincus and I exchanged bewildered glances. I slowly approached the backpack and gave it a gentle nudge with my foot. Mrs. Pincus exclaimed in horror, "What are you doing?"

"I'm checking to see if something is in it.," I replied, although I was quickly cut off by a stern "Don't touch it!" from my wife.

We decided that the removal of the backpack was the responsibility of a hotel employee. Still with our luggage in tow, we retraced our steps to the elevator (passing the trash pile along the way). Back at the front desk, we encountered a new member of the hotel staff. This woman was dress in a more professional manner and wore a name tag that identified her as the manager. The blond who greeted us earlier was nowhere in sight. Mrs. P told the manager of the strange backpack in our room. The manager listened and immediately asked if we'd like a different room.

"No," Mrs. P answered, "We just want someone to remove the backpack."

A fellow from the maintenance staff was summoned and he accompanied us to our room. Once inside, he fearlessly approached and grabbed the backpack. "Anything else?," he asked with a smile and without waiting for an answer, he grabbed the remote control for the television off the desk. "Let me make sure your TV works.," he said, and mashed a few buttons on the device until the screen lit up. We thanked him as he exited our room.

As night fell, Mrs. P and I ran through our dinner options using Google for nearby restaurants. Across the street was a Checkers, whose neon sign inexplicably flashed "Gheckers" from a side window. Next to that was a Dunkin Donuts. We ruled out both of theses choices, settling instead on hoagies from a nearby Wawa, the beloved Philadelphia convenience chain that has expanded down the east coast. I got directions to the closest Wawa. As we walked to our car, I spotted two young ladies exiting our hotel from the rear of the building. They were prancing towards a car parked in the corner of the parking lot. Both were dressed like stereotypical prostitutes you'd see in any episode of any police show on television in the 70s— short, tight skirts, sparkly tops, fishnet stockings and impossibly tall platform shoes. Glances were exchanged for a third time.

No microwaves for you.
The Wawa was a short drive from our hotel, but located in an equally sketchy neighborhood. We ordered from the touch-screen kiosk, just like at our hometown Wawa. While we waited for our order, a woman, possibly inebriated, burst in and approached the associate who was assembling our sandwiches. She loudly asked if they had a microwave that she could borrow, an odd request, in my opinion. The Wawa associate waved her off and continued with our order as the drunk woman staggered out of the store. More silent glances were exchanged. After dinner, we watched television and then went to sleep.

The next morning, we packed up our stuff and headed down to the lobby. The lobby and breakfast area were bustling with activity. Folks were milling around — assembling a morning meal from the array of items set out by the hotel. Aside from the usual fare of coffee, bagels, cereal and yogurt, there was a self-serve waffle iron and a contraption that dispensed pancakes that looked like it was designed by Rube Goldberg.

Not included in this story.
We got clarification of the procedure for the shuttle. A woman with a clipboard scurried in and out of the lobby, checking off names and gathering groups together. A ten-seat mini van pulled up outside and folks were instructed to file in, leaving their luggage for the driver to pile up in the back storage area. After a bit of confusion and misinformation. Mrs. Pincus and I were directed to the van and soon we were officially off. Within twenty minutes, we were dropped off at the pier.

We cruised.

At the mercy of a bungee.
A week later, we returned from the sunny Caribbean to Baltimore, which was experiencing a heavy downpour. After a fairly simple debarkation process, we claimed our luggage and started towards the designated shuttle area. Trudging through the maze of people waiting for the departing cruise, we maneuvered to the small bus shelter where we spotted some families we recognized from our hotel (and a few we actually spoke to on our cruise). Our waterlogged colleagues told us that they had been waiting for some time, even after a call to the hotel assured them that "someone will be there in a few minutes." A familiar ten-seat mini van pulled up and our group hustled to find seats inside. Once our luggage was loaded, the driver struggled with the sliding side door, grinding it uncomfortably along its track, forcing it to close. His efforts were unsuccessful. Finally, he asked the husband of a young lady (we watched her sing a karaoke version of Dolly Parton's "Jolene" a few nights earlier) to grab and attach the free end of a rubber bungee cord to the inside door handle. This was as suspicious as the backpack in our room. The driver hit the gas and ascended the on-ramp of I-895. As the van gained speed, the sliding side door slid open — first an inch, then a few more — kept in check only by the flexible restraints of the bungee. The karaoke girl clutched and pulled her husband closer.

The shuttle lumbered into the parking lot of the Best Western BWI Airport Inn & Suites. A neon yellow emergency vehicle — its top lights blazing — was parked under the carport at the buildings entrance. Two men in reflective vests stood by the ambulance's rear doors. Mrs. Pincus and I — the first ones out — quickly collected our luggage from that back of the shuttle. We found our car at the rear of the building..... and got the hell out of Baltimore.

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