A while ago I had to take a business trip into New York City for the day. A fly in early and fly out the same day type of thing. It was a roundtable on a terribly dull subject. I won’t bore you with the details, suffice it to say it was a topic designed to cure insomnia.
I was flying into LaGuardia and had to be at Lincoln Center by 9 am. I was completely paranoid that there was no way I could make from point A to point B in the hour afforded me between landing and the start of the meeting. I had a car service picking me up and this too was a source of anxiety. I parked my car at the airport at 4:59 am with my stomach in knots.
It turns out that all my worrying about arriving on time was completely in vain. First the plane landed so much earlier than expected that the crew seemed incredulous. Then the car service picked me up promptly and got me to Lincoln Center amazingly quickly. I was actually a half an hour early and got to chat with some colleagues and grab a bite of breakfast before diving in.
The meeting was exactly what I expected. There were some high points and some good information, but all in all I was glad when it ended. And I was excited to get back home. My plane was scheduled to land early in the evening and I was going out on the town for the first time in a while. I remember thinking to myself, “Getting here was so easy, getting home should be a breeze.”
A note to those reading this. Learn from my mistakes. Never, ever entertain such a notion when traveling. It angers the travel gods. And they will smite you.
In this case their plan for retribution was threefold.
Phase One: The Return Driver.
The gentleman who had delivered me from LaGuardia to Lincoln Center was a charming and pleasant man who carried on amiable conversation and pointed out interesting and lovely things on our trip. His accent was thick, but he took that into consideration and spoke at an even pace which made communication smooth. I truly enjoyed the 25 minutes we spent together.
The driver who brought me back to LaGuardia was an entirely different creature.
Let’s start with the pick up. I stood on the steps of the building peering this way and that, trying to locate my ride. I had been told by the car service company I would be returning in a sedan. So that’s what I was looking for.
My phone rang and upon answering it I learned that my return driver had an even thicker accent than the driver that morning and none of the slow even tone. Even without the accent I would have found it difficult to keep up with this gentleman’s breakneck pace.
After several minutes of back and forth I realized he was trying to tell me he was running behind. I told him that was fine and I was the woman in the gray suit standing on the front steps. Several cars pulled up to the curb at one time. I looked at the signs in each of the windows and could not find my car. I was starting to feel a bit exasperated.
My phone rang again. The driver began repeating an undecipherable word over and over and over again. I kept explaining that I didn’t understand and asking him to slow down. He just became more and more irritated with me. Then I started to hear honking. I looked for the source of the racket and found a minivan parked askew in front of the building next door. I saw the figure behind the wheel furiously waving at me.
I went toward the minivan and the driver leapt out motioning for me to pick up the pace. I trotted to the van and climbed inside. First I was struck by the smell. It was a cloying combination of incense, cheap men’s body spray, stale sweat and cigars. Then I noticed that the van was considerably less clean than the car that had brought me into the city that morning.
I swept what I presumed were crumbs off the seat and sat down. The driver jumped into the van heavily and slammed the door. The smell became overwhelming. He began saying something to me. I was feeling light-headed. He started speaking loudly. “JFK? JFK? JFK?”
“I’m sorry? Oh, no. No I’m going to LaGuardia”
He sighed deeply and rolled his eyes. He peeled away from the curb violently. I had not yet buckled my seat belt and ended up on the other side of the van with my face pressed against the window. I moved back to my seat and fumbled for the belt. The driver wove through traffic like he was practicing a complicated square dance. I focused on trying to hold down my lunch.
My endeavor was not helped by the smell or the temperature in the car. I leaned forward and asked, “Could you please roll down the window? I’m feeling a bit warm.”
The driver shook his head and pointed at the dashboard. “Air conditioner. Car fumes bad for lungs.”
I had a hard time imagining that any fumes could be more dangerous than the ones inside the van, but I sat back unwilling to argue. The driver took a route which led us through every depressed area of the city. He seemed to have a six sense for traffic. Not avoiding it mind you, more hurtling toward it at heart stopping speeds.
I don’t think I have ever, nor will I ever be, happier to see LaGuardia Airport as I was that afternoon. I fell out of the van, gasping the fresh air and patting the solid ground. Without so much as a goodbye the driver tore away from the curb cutting off several cars and a bus.
Phase Two: Flight Interrupted
I arrived at LaGuardia with plenty of time to spare. I went and bought The Fiend a souvenir and myself a magazine. I sat down near the terminal and called the office to check in. In the course of my phone conversation my phone died. I, of course, did not have a charger with me. “That’s alright,” I naively thought, “I’ll be home in a few hours. I’ll charge it then.”
I read a bit of the magazine and reviewed some of the materials from the meeting. A young women sat down near me. I looked up long enough to smile and notice she was very pregnant. After some time had passed I put my papers away. She asked me, “are you on this flight as well?’
I nodded. “We should be boarding soon.”
She explained that she had flown into LaGuardia on the plane we would be flying out on. “The pilot said their might be a delay.”
I looked out at the flawless summer afternoon carrying on outside the window. “Why?”
“Weather to the west.” was her reply.
I shrugged. I was still optimistic. We weren’t flying west. I was going to make it home with enough time to grab a quick shower before meeting my friends. Life was good.
The woman and I chatted until they began to board the plane. Once on the plane I settled into my seat. It was a small commuter plane and there were only two seats in my row. A very friendly woman sat down in the seat next to me. I learned she had been on am earlier flight that had been canceled due to a mechanical failure. “Yeah, that was supposed to land about an hour ago. A lot of us got transferred to this flight.”
The plane pulled out onto the taxi. My still optimistic self took this as a good sign. Night out on. Then I saw the line of planes on the tarmac ahead of us. My smile disappeared and my shoulders sagged. Night out might be off and I wouldn’t even be able to call and explain why because my phone was dead. Not good.
There was one flight attendant on the plane. She was pretty, sweet and very young. About twenty minutes in people began to complain about the heat. It was hot. She offered to bring water around even though we were all supposed to be seated with our belts on, including her. People weren’t placated by this thoughtful gesture. “Can I get a soda?” “I’d like a glass of wine.” “Can we have something to eat?”
God love her, the poor thing’s smile never wavered. She just kept explaining she really wasn’t even supposed to be handing out water. People quieted down a bit after she finished serving. About an hour into our wait people started talking again. “We’ve been sitting here forever!” “They should be giving us more drinks.” “What exactly is the hold up?”
There was a clique developing in a block of seats ahead of me. The majority of them were folks from the earlier flight. I felt for them at first. They were already late for their respective meetings, family reunions and what have you. And now they were stuck on this stifling little plane, cramped and uncomfortable. They complained among themselves, quietly but growing louder as more time passed. Finally one of the group spoke. “Why are we sitting here? There’s no weather.”
The flight attendant explained there were some electrical storms to the west which were causing the delay. She told us she didn’t really know how much longer we would have to wait. She apologized for the delay and the heat and said she would bring around drinks. This time she served sodas. Her smile was still firmly affixed to her face and she offered a personal apology to each of us as she made her way around the plane. I was impressed and when she got to me I let her know. Her smile became one of gratitude as opposed to placation. “I mean it” I said, “I wouldn’t want to have to deal with a bunch of cranky overheated passengers. You’re doing a great job.” The woman sitting with me seconded the sentiment.
Unfortunately the group ahead of us didn’t agree. They demanded a better explanation. They wanted timeframes. She kept explaining that she had shared with them all the information she had. They became more and more belligerent. Any sympathy I had felt for them disappeared. The flight attendant graciously offered to go and find out if there was any new information. She rushed to the front of the plane and picked up the phone. She turned her back so we could not see her face. I took that as a bad sign.
The pilot’s voice crackled overhead. “Hey there folks. We apologize for the delay. It appears there is some weather to our west that is causing the holdup. We expect to be in the air within an hour. We appreciate your cooperation and patience.”
We had been on the tarmac for about an hour and a half at this point. I was supposed to be meeting my friends in twenty minutes. I did calculations in my head. My evening wasn’t ruined yet. If I could borrow a cell phone I might still be able to make this work.
While I came to the conclusion that this was not a big deal a roar of displeasure erupted in front of me. The clique was furious. “An hour!” “They should feed us at least” “No they should take us back to the terminal.”
Everyone in the group seemed to latch onto that idea. They called the flight attendant over and began berating her. She just repeated over and over, “There’s nothing I can do. I’m sorry.”
The man who had been the first of the clique to speak demanded to be brought back to the terminal to wait there. The attendant explained that if they did that the airline would most likely cancel the flight. She told the clique that she understood it was frustrating especially in light of the fact that so many had come from a canceled flight. The kid was handling the situation like a champ.
The clique let up on her, briefly. Then they started in again. And they became vicious. It was awful to watch. It was around the time that the first man informed her that he wanted to speak to someone other than a “stupid kid who sounds like a broken record” that I lost my cool.
I stood up and yelled over the chattering clique. I may be slight of stature but I got lung power. “Hey. Hey. Hey!” The clique grew silent. “All of you need to sit down and shut up. This poor girl has been nothing but pleasant and cooperative. She’s told us everything she knows. I highly doubt she has any control over either the weather or LaGuardia. You need to back off and behave like adults. You should be ashamed. And so help me, if any one of you starts in again with the whole bring us back to the terminal nonsense, you best be well out of my line of sight if the flight gets canceled.” I glowered at the group, looking each of them square in the eye, conveying that I was memorizing their features with the intent of making good on my threat.
The section of the plane around me became eerily quiet for about twenty minutes. The flight attendant flashed me that smile of gratitude again before she went back up front.
Unfortunately it was not meant to last. About twenty minutes after my outburst the clique started up again. And about twenty minutes later we were headed back to the terminal. Of the 50 odd planes lined up on the tarmac at that point, we were the only ones going back. The clique sat in their seats with infuriating self-satisfied expressions plastered all over their faces. I said, not too loudly, but loudly enough, “If this flight gets canceled I will hold that clique responsible.”
When the flight was finally cancelled an hour and a half later one of the clique was sitting near me. I turned and glared at him. He leapt up from his chair and ran to the nearest men’s room. That made me feel a little bit better.
Phase Three: The Delay in Returns
While waiting the hour and a half it took them to cancel the flight I began chatting with three other women. One was the pregnant woman, another was on her way to her parents for the weekend to see her boyfriend and another, a single mom, had a hot date with a guy she had been seeing for awhile. The pregnant gal was on her way to her own baby shower. It was fairly early the next morning. We all really wanted to reach our destination.
I told them that if the flight got canceled I planned to rent a car and drive the many hours it would take to get home. They all laughed. When the flight was canceled they asked if they could go in on it with me.
We went to grab the shuttle to the car rental company. It was out in Queens. We made the trip out, filled out all the paperwork and loaded ourselves in. We were in pretty high spirits having collectively decided that we were going to make the most of the trip. Then the pregnant woman’s phone rang. She had forgotten a bag at the rental place. So we turned around.
They had given us directions but we couldn’t seem to find a way to get to the expressway. We could see it, we just could not get to it. We drove around Shea Stadium in a circle for forty five minutes. Finally I suggested driving in the opposite direction, just in case. It turns out the sign for the expressway was only on one side of the road. We got back to the rental place and grabbed the bag. Then it was back on the road, an hour and fifteen minutes after we originally started.
I guess the travel gods decided that I had learned my lesson at that point. The rest of the trip passed uneventfully. In fact the rest of the trip was pretty fantastic. The three women I was traveling with were wonderful. We didn’t have much in common on the surface, but we discovered we had a lot in common when you looked deeper.
These three women and I shared the driving, our stories and laughter. It was the best impromptu girlie road trip I’ve ever been on. We dropped two of the women off and made our goodbyes. We didn’t bother to exchange information, we all knew we wouldn’t see each other again. I thanked the two women for their company, hugged them both and climbed back into the car. The last woman and I made our way back to the airport. We talked about what a great trip it had been. I mentioned how its funny that someone who was a complete stranger a few hours before could feel like a new best friend. She agreed. She and I did exchange information and even got together for lunch once. But we were only supposed to be in each others lives for that night. I think about those three ladies from time to time. I wonder if the one woman had a good baby shower. I wonder if the youngest of us is still loving her job in New York. I wonder if the other single mom is still seeing the guy she spoke so highly of that night.
When I finally got back to my car that morning I was exhausted and ready to go home. But I was also a little bit sad. It had been fun traveling with these women. An escape from our more mundane lives. A departure from the day to day cycles we each found ourselves in.
I climbed into my car and started it up. It was 4:59 am.