Remember the Alamo

I first learned about the Alamo in earnest from the late John David Lewis. This Objectivist thinker and teacher demonstrated the central facts about the battle with passion, mastery and perfection. I had interviewed Dr. Lewis about the Alamo as a source for an article I was writing to compare Ron Howard’s and John Wayne’s Alamo-themed movies with the truth.

Centograph at the Alamo

This fall, I visited the Alamo in San Antonio, Texas. I’m conducting research for fiction writing. What I experienced during my visit is both inspiring and alarming. The Alamo is a solemn, simple place. It’s surrounded by shops, bland corporate offices and a courthouse and post office. Docents and staff are as dim as I’d had every reason to expect. The tourists are brighter. The front line defense is especially sharp.

The grounds are haunting. I don’t mean this in a superstitious sense. Tragically, some visitors, guides and workers focus on ghost stories to the exclusion of philosophy, knowledge and history. The Alamo haunts in the best sense but only if you know why.

Every American ought to study and know the facts, grasp what happened and visit this sacred site. The experience stirs, affirms and regenerates one’s sense of what matters in life. Every shadow, stone and rustle of leaves evokes the distant yet pressingly relevant memory of what men knew, vowed and held until the end. As John Lewis taught, theirs is a uniquely American defense and they knew it. They were few, they were united and, ultimately, they were unconquered.

These early American heroes, most of whom were Texans, knew why exercising one’s free will to choose, stay and fight for individual liberty is vital.

The meaning of this revered ground lies in the barracks, the church (which had been secularized and converted into a fort with cannons) and at the walls, where the men defended themselves and took refuge against a tyrant who sought to dictate their lives. I found myself feeling free to linger, stroll and reflect. At every plaque, statue and memorial, at each historical demonstration, monument and cannon, I was at liberty to remember details of what they’ve done. The battle for the Alamo made America more viable as a republic.

In visiting here, I draw renewed strength, resolve and fortitude. I know that I, too, face the fundamental choice to summon these qualities in America’s darkest hours to come. Like Boston’s Tea Party insurgents on this date in 1773 and the patriots at Concord and Lexington and Black Tuesday’s passengers on United Airlines flight 93, the choice to live free or die — “VICTORY OR DEATH”, as William Travis wrote at the Alamo — is mine to make.

I found the one at the Alamo who understands this. This individual is not a cashier; the clerk who sold my ticket is uninformed about the place’s history. The person is not a guide; the guide is an officious, dogmatic and duty-bound dolt. The one is not among other Alamo staff, whom I found to be cynical, mindless and blank. The one is a police officer. In an effort to protect the innocent, to paraphrase the old Dragnet broadcast, I won’t divulge the identity or the exact job.

That the Alamo police officer alone thinks, acts and speaks with knowledge, passion and reverence shows that, as long as there is one who stands to know, understand and remember the Alamo, the Alamo can be be saved and left to inspire “all Americans in the world.”

Even if you think it’s too soon.

The Dishonorable American Airlines

On my way to visit family for Christmas, I chose to fly on American Airlines. The experience quickly went from bad to worse. For context, I’ve been an American Airlines customer and passenger for over 30 years. I do not consider myself a frequent flyer, yet my loyalty program status recently rose due to increased travel.

After repeatedly delayed flights, poor service and rude agents, I asked for a simple customer service accommodation. In response, American reported me to the police. The escalation is an example of horrendous customer service and a lesson in how not to treat the consumer. Unfortunately, it’s also an essentialization of the American Airlines subculture and philosophy.

In pledging customer service, American Airlines claims on its website that it’s “in business to provide safe, dependable and friendly air transportation to our customers … [and that they] are dedicated to making every flight you take with us something special…in the hopes that you will fly us again and again. We work very hard to make your entire experience with us, from making a reservation to deplaning at your final destination, a positive one.”

In the same pledge, American Airlines promises to render “[a]ssistance when your flight has been delayed”, “[t]icket refunds” and “[h]andling of customer issues”. None were offered, however, to this passenger. All were refused. In other words, none of what American Airlines claims is true. On the contrary, American reported me to the police.

The travel fiasco began with a flight which was hours late. I was not informed of the delay until after I’d arrived at the airport. I waited for several hours. I was disappointed but not irate. I had arrived in advance — by two hours — of my scheduled flight departure. I’d checked in online. I’d reserved a seat. I was all set. Then, American Airlines notified me that its plane was not ready to fly.

Apparently, something was wrong with the aircraft. I was informed that the plane was taken out of operation and that another plane would be used. Eventually, I boarded a plane and arrived at my destination. I lost a day of Christmas time with family.

After the visit, in anticipation of the return flight, once again, I arrived at the airport hours in advance of scheduled flight departure. And, once again, I was notified that the flight was late — hours late — after I’d reserved a seat, checked into the flight, arrived at the airport, checked luggage and made connecting flight arrangements.

Again, I was told that American’s passenger jet was not ready to fly. The plane, I was told, was removed from operation to be fixed. It was too late to make other arrangements. This late departure, like the previous late departure, was caused by American Airlines’ aircraft maintenance.

Let me emphasize this point. The late departures were caused by American Airlines. There were no weather complications. There were no announced travel or security conflicts. There was no reason to expect a problem with aircraft, let alone on two separate airplanes during the round trip. I emphasize this not to blame American Airlines for badly or properly operating or maintaining flawed, faulty or deficient aircraft. Of course, I know that things go wrong and I want the aircraft to be safe. But the fact that American Airlines, not weather or an external factor, caused the delay is relevant to customer service.

Faced with hours before rescheduled departure, this customer proceeded to an airline customer service desk to seek assistance with the connecting flight. The desk was cordoned off. It was vacant. I noticed that an airline club — American Airlines calls them Admirals Clubs — was near the gate where my flight was scheduled to board.

The gate was packed with passengers. I decided to investigate whether American Airlines was willing to consider admitting me as a guest in the club for a few hours. The impetus was the prospect of having a place to sit, wait for hours and relax while waiting for customer service to address any problem with my connecting flight. I entered the club.

Speaking with an agent who did not wear a name tag, I explained that there was no seating at the gate — the terminal was full of travelers — and I asked if the club could consider making an exception, waiving requisites and admitting me for a few hours.

The agent neither addressed nor answered my question. Instead, she stated what she called airline policy. I explained that I understood the policy and repeated that I was inquiring about an exception; that an exceptional circumstance had apparently delayed my flight and I was asking for an exception to the club’s admission policy. The agent told me to visit American Airlines’ customer service desk. I explained that I had been there and done that and that the service desk was vacant. She shrugged, as if to say “tough luck.”

I would come to learn that the agent’s attitude and actions represent American Airlines, which is based in Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas.

The agent spoke to me as if she’d memorized a script. After making the policy statement, she added that, if she agreed to consider my request, she would have to admit every passenger. Of course, this is not true, which I told her. I never raised my voice. Nor was I rude, hostile or disrespectful. I made my request — that American let me wait in the club for a flight which was delayed for hours due to American’s maintenance problem — with discretion. The request I made was reasonable. The agent offered zero accommodation. None.

Shortly after I left the club, someone at American’s Admirals Club notified police. While I was standing at the gate while looking for a place to sit and rest, a trio of police officers arrived. One of them asked if I’d been to the club. I knew that I did not violate the law, so I spoke freely with the peace officer, who expressed shock to me that the airline had notified police. Of course, I was neither detained nor placed under arrest. However, I was shocked that American Airlines treated me as a potential criminal — merely because I had asked to be admitted to American’s club to wait for American’s delayed flight.

Is it possible that American Airlines can improve?

After communicating with at least nine American Airlines representatives, none one of whom offered to honor the airline’s customer service pledge, I have zero reason to think improvement is possible. In fact, I have multiple reasons to think that American Airlines is malicious, dishonest and dishonorable.

Hotel Review: Hampton Inn, Pittsburgh Airport

This hotel suited a recent stay near where the old airport was once located outside of Pittsburgh. Shuttle service is available for airport pickup. The driver took me to a nearby Walmart for groceries (there’s a microwave and a refrigerator in each room).

Hampton Inn in Moon Township

It’s a simple hotel. It isn’t fancy and it’s accordingly priced. With coffee and chocolate chip cookies near the front desk and free wifi and hot breakfast (frittata, pork sausage, cereal, hot oatmeal with raisins, brown sugar and almonds, waffles and fresh fruit) every morning, the clean room (with built-in hairdryer) and welcoming staff added value. The knowledgeable staff happily accommodated my requests, providing me with details about a bus route into downtown, where I had a meeting with my editor at the William Penn Hotel.

Beyond amenities, service and accommodations, I think convenience — being located in Moon Township near the airport and several restaurants, such as a Primanti Brothers, a Walmart for just about everything you need — and the setting made for a fine visit. Built on an angle just off University Boulevard, this Hampton Inn offers a warm respite amid the sound of singing crickets.


Hotel Review: Hilton Cleveland Downtown

The Hilton Cleveland Downtown offers perfect hospitality. During a recent conference visit, my first to the friendly, Forest City known as Cleveland, Ohio, I stayed at the host hotel for OCON Cleveland.

First impressions aren’t everything but they matter. Upon check-in, this Hilton rewards member received a complimentary upgrade (after a polite attempt to upsell) to a room with a view of both the lakefront and the city’s downtown. My requests, including a walking map of downtown Cleveland, were promptly accommodated.

Hilton Cleveland Downtown

From the front desk and housekeeping to catering, dining and other staff, including the bellboys, every Hilton Cleveland Downtown employee takes pride in the work. This includes the hotel’s union representative, Aaron, whom I ran into while taking a rest during one of my downtown walks. The union rep was professional and solicitous, offering tourist information and helping me find my way around town.

This is possibly the best Hilton I’ve stayed at, with the exception of the Boulders in Arizona, though I don’t know if that’s a Hilton anymore. Besides outstanding accommodations, with good amenities, Tenillya the waitress, Steve the bartender and bosses Keith and Daryl at The Burnham Restaurant, named after the Cleveland architect, made my delicious daily meals, happy hours and mixers better. With a glaring exception, an officious woman issuing contradictory rules with her hair in a tight bun, my experience at the Burnham was exemplary.

The 5pm to 7pm happy hour follows a 3pm to 5pm happy hour at the nearby Eliot’s Bar around the bend — this, too, is named after an individual, coincidentally to the purpose of my Cleveland visit, a man with an Ayn Rand connection, Clevelander Eliot Ness (portrayed by Robert Stack in TV’s Untouchables, which Miss Rand enjoyed) — where I met a couple of Objectivist intellectuals for a glass of wine on my first day.

Happy Hour continues at Bar 32, where Nicki served while I enjoyed good conversation until 9pm. For daylight touring, sightseeing and roaming, I sought Kevin’s counsel at the front desk. He provided me with a history — he explained that the hotel opened for business on the eve of the GOP National Convention in 2016 and that both presidents Obama and Trump stayed here — and good humor, too.

In fact, Hilton Cleveland Downtown provides consistently pleasing, competent and quality service, accommodations and experience all around.

Hotel Review: Vdara Las Vegas

Vdara Hotel & Spa is located just off Las Vegas Boulevard. The all-suites, non-smoking, non-gambling resort, owned by MGM Resorts, is perfect for my needs. But I know that I am not the typical visitor to this desert oasis.

Vdara Hotel & Spa

Like LA, Las Vegas attracts every type of wannabe and couldabeen and they’re all over town. Prostitutes in line at the front desk with their clients, a drug addict passed out in the lobby, drunks stumbling around the parking lot, I saw them all on this trip, which was for business.

Attending the Global Security Exchange (GSX) conference at the Las Vegas Convention Center, I was easily able to get around town, thanks to Lyft, the monorail and sponsored shuttle buses. Each time I needed to go, a Lyft driver was already waiting by the hotel entrance.

Vdara, where I’d previously stayed, is tucked away off Frank Sinatra Boulevard behind MGM’s Aria casino and resort. Upon check-in, I asked the friendly front desk clerk, Letitia, for a list of items, which she promptly provided. The room was simple, elegant and easy to find and use. The same goes for everything else in the hotel, including the compact fitness room, spa, pool, bar and dining.

Complimentary bottled water awaited in the refrigerator. I used the kitchenette during my stay, though once standard items, such as coffee makers and dishes, either cost more or are provided only upon request. The bathroom had both a spacious shower and separate tub, good lighting, closet, vanity mirror and pocket door. The television’s remote control was sluggish, so it probably needed batteries. The wifi was strong.

Meals at Vdara mean a patio and bar lounge, small cafe with adjacent pantry for pricey, light groceries (each suite has a kitchenette) and a friendly, if high-priced, Starbucks. I bought groceries at Walgreens on the strip, which is my usual practice, and ate at the convention center. When I ordered to-go meals from the cafe, however, the food was fresh, perfectly prepared and delicious. But it took way too long. Every morning I asked for salt and pepper with my eggs, but they were included in the order exactly once. Each time I ended up with a small bottle of Heinz ketchup, which after the first time I asked them to omit. So, go and order to-go for the best Vdara food, but watch the clock and check the to-go bag.

I plan to visit Vdara again. It’s a beautiful, simple hotel. Staff are friendly, though a few stand out. Nathan was very prompt with a request. Letitia made an outstanding first impression. Concierge Hakan, who previously worked the concierge desk at the Cosmopolitan, was the most knowledgeable, accommodating and results-driven and I came away thinking that he should personally train every one at Vdara. There wasn’t a single Vdara detail about business or personal travel that he didn’t know.

As a non-smoking non-gambler seeking to work and enjoy myself while in a still-sometimes seedy town, modern, efficient and quiet Vdara, removed from the strip yet in close proximity, is in a class by itself.

Hotel Review: Millennium Biltmore Los Angeles

During a recent stay for a conference, I discovered elegance in downtown Los Angeles hospitality. While the Millennium Biltmore Los Angeles, located across from Pershing Square, is not a full four-star experience, the 95-year-old hotel holds to high standards.

Millennium Biltmore Los Angeles

This is not a showy, pretentious property. Despite its grand reputation, history and lavish decor, the Millennium Biltmore primarily distinguishes itself as a premium hotel based upon its outstanding service. The standard room is adequate to good, depending upon one’s modern demands. Mine was alright, though I had to ask for another room upon check-in because the hotel’s non-smoking policy had clearly been violated by the previous guest. The fifth floor room lacked a vanity mirror for proper grooming, space was tight and housekeeping was mediocre.

Yet convenience, uniqueness and exemplary service compensate for the Millennium Biltmore’s flaws. Staff were without exception responsive and attentive during the conference, often exceeding expectations and anticipating demands. For example, when conference staff were overwhelmed during setup for registration, Biltmore staff, who were watching like sentinels in the background, stepped in time and again to provide logistical support, sustenance and manpower.

Millennium Biltmore Los Angeles

Cecil B. DeMille filmed his 1924 silent film Triumph here. Past guests include Howard Hughes, Eleanor Roosevelt, Jean Paul Getty, Shirley Temple, the prince of Wales, Walt Disney and Rudolph Valentino. Gary Cooper (High Noon), Claudette Colbert (The Palm Beach Story) and Clark Gable (Gone With the Wind) won Oscars here. The Biltmore proudly served American soldiers during World War 2. The bookie room in The Sting (1973) was filmed in the Biltmore’s Gold Room. The same room was used during Prohibition as a speakeasy with a hidden door so guests could dodge police by escaping onto Olive Street (for now, the exit is sealed in brick). Indulge in the hotel’s history with the concierge, who’s very knowledegable and is equipped with a complete list of motion pictures and television shows filmed here. Taylor Swift recently shot a video here when she stayed overnight. A web series was filming during my visit. Also stroll what the Biltmore calls its historic corridor, which features an exhibit of the hotel’s pictorial history.

Discovering the Millennium Biltmore means immersing in its small marvels and charms, chiefly a sense of simple luxury in the madness of downtown LA. Its bar and Cognac Room are both intimate and elegant. Smeraldi’s, where I dined for breakfast and lunch, serves delicious food very fast. Even the lobby, pictured above, fosters a quiet and relaxed atmosphere. Fitness, swimming and sauna and steam rooms add value and the Rendezvous Court with its piano, trickling water and natural light, as well as an afternoon tea, is perfect for reading, writing and thinking or conversation.

That the hotel’s interior designer, Giovanni Smeraldi, also decorated the White House and the Vatican is not surprising. From motifs based on literature’s Tales of the Arabian Nights to angels, gods and myths and 24-karat gold, the Millennium Biltmore surrounds the guest in elegance, interesting accents and themes and space for a distinctive and memorable downtown Los Angeles experience.