Everything’s up to date in Kansas City.

On a day late in August, in the year of 1976, I was sitting at my ease in a very comfortable first-class seat in a four-engined jet that was just about to land at my favorite airport in the world. I was sipping on a nearly empty glass of Hires root beer, which the stew had already replenished for me twice, and I was prepared to swallow what remained in the glass as soon as the captain ordered us to get ready for landing. I was employed in a well-paid job as the science-fiction editor for Bantam Books, and I confidently expected to be offered a package including quite a lot more money as soon as I got around to sitting down with my boss and talking about that subject. It won’t be much of a surprise to you if I mention that I was feeling good.

I might have been feeling even better if I had known one important fact, namely that this was the day when I would make the best decision of my life, but that information had not yet been revealed to me. The only “best” that I was aware of in my mind was the one that related to the airport we were approaching, Kansas City Intercontinental.

Now, I emphasize right away that what I’m talking about is the airport itself, not about the cities it served. No one has ever dreamed of two enchanted weeks of vacationing either in Kansas City, Kansas, or in the other Kansas City. You know, the one that couldn’t think of a decent name of their own, so they simply swiped the name of their next door neighbor.

KCI’s superlative qualities had nothing to do with the cities it served. It’s the design of the airport itself that is the marvel. You see, when your plane lands, it will taxi to its own gate, set into the outer perimeter of one of the three great circles that hold all the jet gates in the airport. The aircraft door opens, freeing you to go up the short ramp to the walkway that surrounds the entire circle of gates.

A half-dozen or so more steps take you to the baggage claim for your suitcase. It is probably there already, waiting for you before you get there, because now it is only a couple of yards from the place where it rode out the flight, which was in the baggage compartment of your jet, and that other place where it is now, which is firmly on the solid ground of the airport’s baggage claim. You never have to search for your bag in a mass of other bags originating from Buffalo and Barcelona and Bujumbura, either. None of those bags was ever aboard this flight. (Well, I mean, unless that’s where you’re originating from yourself.) Then, bags in hand, you take ten or a dozen steps more and you’re out in the open air, standing at the curb of the outermost strip of the great wheel, waving at a cab which is slowly cruising somewhere along the wheel, and will shortly pick you up right where you stand. Or, if what you want to board instead of a cab is the bus that takes you to the parking lot, or to car rentals, or some other destination, those will also be cruising the great wheel and they will pick you up in minutes. That takes very little more effort to summon, and certainly no more walking than the cab. What more can you ask?

Oh, I know what you might ask to make your trip more enjoyable still. You might ask for it to be at some destination other than one of the twin Kansas Cities, and there, I must confess, I have not been entirely frank with you.

I admit I wasn’t happy just about going to either of the Kansas Cities in itself. That city is — either of those cities is — hardly anyone’s favorite gotta-go-there destination for tourism. What elevated my mood, when it wasn’t depressing it, was what I would be doing when I got there, which was attending the annual World Science Fiction Convention, or Worldcon, which had been my custom for most of the years since 1939. (That 1939 one was the first Worldcon of all, the one that I and a few other Futurians were unjustly kicked out of. If you want more details on this event, simply pick up your treasured copy of The Way the Future Was and turn to page 76.) Anyway, that fannish rumble was long ago. Hardly anyone who was involved is still alive. Or cares.)

For me, and for my nearest and dearest, the Worldcons were the places we most looked forward to visiting each year, Sometimes they were held at places that we loved to visit anyway — London, Toronto, a couple of American cities where we had well-loved but not frequently visited friends and relatives. The specific city didn’t all that much matter, though. It was the con itself that was the attraction, the place where we could count on getting together with good friends that we didn’t see every day, because they lived so ridiculously far away — like Patrice Duvic from France, and Sashiko and Takumi Shibano from Japan, and Yuli Kagarlitsky from what was then still called the Soviet Union, and batches of others from Italy and the UK and Sweden and Spain and Brazil, and, of course, from many of the remoter parts of the U.S.A. itself as well.

So what I was really looking forward to was the people who comprised the con itself. That is, I was until I got to my hotel.

The first off-putting thing was the cab driver himself. He had seemed a little surly when I got in his cab. He kept his hand firmly on the door handle, and he wouldn’t let it close until I had promised that I would pay him in cash, not checks or credit cards.

And then it got worse. Even more than the cab, the whole city was unexpectedly not in a welcoming mood. The hotel seemed to be doing its best to make me wish I’d gone to some other city for the Labor Day weekend. As soon as I got to the check-in desk I was informed that I would have to pay in advance for my stay, and the payment would have to be in American dollars, cash. And I was cautioned that if at some point I elected to stay on longer than the four days I had signed up for, I would be required to come to the desk no later than 10 p.m. of the last day of my contracted stay and pay in advance for the added time.

I asked, “What should I do if I forgot to notify you by 10 p.m. the night before?” And he said, smiling affably, “Oh, you’ll know, because your room key won’t work any more, so you’ll come down here to complain and we’ll direct you to the Left Luggage area, where all of your personal possessions will have been taken when we cleaned out your room at midnight.”

Slightly rattled, I asked what I should do about, say, room service if I happened to want any? “Oh, no problem, sir, except that you must pay the server for the item when he delivers it. And, oh, yes, those payments must also be in actual cash, no credit cards of any kind, because, unfortunately, sir, we are unable to furnish our servers with the equipment necessary to authenticate credit-card payments.”

That part didn’t even make sense. And this whole exercise in hostility was not taking place in some flea-bitten Bowery flophouse, but in what was actually a rather nice, and by no means cheap, hotel. I was beginning to feel less and less welcome in Kansas City. Either one of them.

Still, I was already there, and I did have a room, given to me with however truculent an attitude. I decided to look for a friend to share complaints with. I strolled the short block or so between the hotel my room was in and the larger one where the events of the con would occur, looking for a familiar face. I could feel the spell working. By the time I was inside the con-headquarters hotel I began to cheer up. The lobby was full of familiar faces, and so was its bar. And so immediately I was chatting with people, at least some of whom I was fond of. Most of the talk related to the con’s Guest of Honor, who was everybody’s superstar, Robert A. Heinlein, and about him I had much to talk about because we were in one of the “good friends” cycles of our relationship.

I saw the usual collection of teachers, most of whom I knew. For a high-school dropout, I knew lots of college professors, since I had given at least one of my “What Is Science Fiction All About And Why Should I Care” lectures at just about every school that was well enough supported to send at least one teacher to the con. I knew even a larger fraction of the writers, though. If at one time or another I hadn’t worked with each of them as editor, agent, collaborator or critic they knew me anyhow as a recent president of SFWA, pronounced Sifwa, for Science Fiction Writers of America.

All that kept me occupied until suddenly I heard my name called, and when I sorted the voice out from all the other voices, it was Marty Greenberg, college professor from Florida International, way down in alligator country, and someone who, I never forgot, had once knocked himself out in the attempt to do me a pretty big favor. I answered with a big “Hi,” and spread another “Hi” around the group he was with. There were a dozen or so of them occupying one of those little islands of a couch and a couple of chairs that hotels provide for guests who are delayed on their way in or out.

I saw that I was in the presence of the academic wing of science fiction, formally called the Science Fiction Research Association. Barring a couple of quite young women — whom I guessed to be post-grads, probably intending to do the research here for a masters or better on the comparatively stress-free subject of sf — I knew them all. I spotted Darko Suvin, once Yugoslavia’s most respected sf critic, now teaching the subject to better-paying Canadians in Montreal, as well as James Gunn from Kansas, Jack Williamson from Eastern New Mexico and other old friends. Apart from the two young women — or, as I would have put it in those unenlightened days, the two girls.

Groups that contained good looking young women sitting by themselves were an unnecessary complication for a fiftyish man who was not looking to change his luck, and I might have wished them all well and moved on, but Marty had a good grip on my arm. Marty I could not shake off. Back in the days when the writing wasn’t going so well for me he had come up with an idea that really sounded worth pursuing. Florida International had treated itself to the luxury of a Writer in Residence, which is to say a writer of at least enough renown to have some fairly good reviews and some interesting anecdotes to share with the students.

I qualified for all that, mostly because of The Space Merchants and other books I’d written with Cyril Kornbluth, plus my ton of editorial background. I would be added to the faculty as an adjunct professor, paid a modest but livable salary and given a quite nice rent-free house for me and my family to live in for a couple of years. It wouldn’t require much hard work from me, either. I could do plenty of writing.

However, it didn’t happen. The deal fell through at the last minute because the funding collapsed, but Marty had done his best. He remained a treasured friend.

To be continued.

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  1. Robert Nowall says:

    I’ve always heard they’ve got some crazy little women there…

  2. Johan Anglemark says:

    Looking forward to part II!

  3. Stefan Jones says:

    I’m so glad to see you blogging again!

    What an utterly bizarre attitude that hotel had. Had they been burned by SF convention attendees before? Was it a bad neighborhood that got lots of deadbeats?
    * * *
    Back when I did business travel I visited many airports, but don’t believe I even had a connection in Kansas City.

    The worst airport I’ve dealt with, more to have to do with its age than its design, is La Guardia in Queens. A very old airport retrofitted and re-retrofitted. To be fair, the last redesign hadn’t quite been done when I last used it.

    JFK’s terminals are more modern, but even buildings designed in the 1960s aren’t up to today’s volume of travelers and security needs. I remember, as a boy, being utterly amazed by the space-station-like design of the manta-ray shaped TWA terminal. When I used it in the early 90s (before 9/11!) it was a mess, with security checks wedged into the too small lobby.

    I’m grateful for Portland’s fine small airport. The light rail line leads right into one end of the terminal. From there it is less than $3 to get anywhere in the area.

  4. JJ Brannon says:

    Glad to see you posting again!

    Coinkadinkly, just a scant weeks ago, after hearing a friend relate her horrible airport experiences and sharing a couple of my own, I launched into a paean of my all-time favorite airport — KCI!

    It was, in 2007 to — yes, you guessed it! — the Heinlein Centennial that was my last instance of air travel [including the return trip], where I encountered you for the third and last time in my experience.