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Idiot Tax

Not paying attention can cost you.

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I should be in Dallas right now. But I'm not; I'm in Memphis. At the airport. For at least three hours.

Why? Because I made a tiny mistake — tiny in the size of it, but larger in the significance. All I did was write down 12:10 p.m., when I should have written down 10:35 a.m. The latter is when my flight left Memphis, the former when it arrives in Dallas. So around 10:30 this morning, when I got online to print my boarding passes, I realized my flight was leaving in five minutes.

I cussed loudly, then called the airline to see what my options were. I got a computer voice that I had to "talk" to a few times, then it didn't understand me, then I angrily pushed zero about 15 times. The computer voice responded with "I understand you want to speak to someone, but ..." I slammed down the phone and told my dad, "I need a break; I'm going for a walk."

So now, instead of rolling into Portland, Oregon, at 3 p.m. local time, I'm at the airport in Memphis, on standby for a 3:15 flight. Can't leave, either. If I don't get that flight, there's one at 6:50 p.m. If I get on either one, it's standby again in Dallas. Best case scenario is Portland around 10 p.m. Worst is overnight at DFW. Or I can rebook the whole ticket for about $600.

So I am now paying the Idiot Tax — in this case, in units of time and peace of mind, rather than cash. I first heard the term Idiot Tax in Asia somewhere, years ago. It referred to the amount of money one loses by exchanging currency in the official booth at the airport or train station, rather than going outside to look for the guy at the tobacco shop or on the corner, who had a much better rate. I have since expanded the definition to "any additional expense or hassle taken on by not knowing what the hell you're doing."

I first paid it, I think, in Bangkok. I don't even remember what the local currency is there, but I bought some at the airport, then showed up at the youth hostel and found out I had forfeited about 3 million local units by not changing on the street. A common cure for the International Idiot Tax, by the way, is reading the Lonely Planet guidebooks.

Another time I got taxed at a football game. I foolishly believed that the guy selling me a ticket was putting me with my fellow Ole Miss fans and also that the game was sold out, so basically paying face value was fine ... you know, because tickets were tight and I wanted to sit with the right people. After seeing about 200 other guys trying to sell tickets on the way in, and then taking my seat in an endzone full of hog-calling Arkansas fans, I realized I had been taxed again.

Another time I was flying to Hong Kong, on the same trip that saw me in Bangkok. Somebody at a hostel in Japan had said, "Dude, you gotta stay at the Chungking Mansion in Hong Kong!" Sadly, I didn't realize he was being a smart-ass or was displaying the same taste as when folks in Philadelphia told me I "had" to get a cheesesteak sandwich with Cheez Whiz.

I told the cabbie, "Chungking Mansion," and he dropped me off at what I took to be an office tower. Alas, it was the home of the "mansion," a decrepit hotel on about the 70th floor, reached by an elevator which was filled by me and my luggage. Unfortunately, five other people got in there with me. My room was so small I had to crawl over the foot of the bed, ducking the TV, to reach the nightstand. I took "showers" sitting on the toilet.

I've paid enough of this stupid tax to join the Tea Party: overpaid for meals, gotten screwed on train seats, spent an hour in the wrong passport line, accidentally eaten both horse and pigeon, and missed out on VIP seats to a Cardinals baseball game. I can't even bear to tell that last story.

And now I can add to my list of paid Idiot Taxes: "spent (an undetermined number of) hours at the airport because I didn't confirm my departure time." That's Travel 101 stuff, and I am ashamed. I am also annoyed by two children romping around (one of them just tripped over my computer power cord). I should be 500 miles from them right now.

All I can hope for now is that some other fool is paying the Idiot Tax so I can have his seat and get back on the road.

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