“Chaos in the midst of chaos isn’t funny, but chaos in the midst of order is.” – Steve Martin
I have one of those trains, planes and automobile stories for you. Actually, I have a rich repertoire of travel stories. I tend to meet vivid personalities on the road. Mayhap it’s the guileless Midwestern wonder with which I approach new situations? Or perhaps it’s some sort of grand magnetic force – out there in the wide cosmos – drawing me towards adventure. Maybe it’s plain old bedlam. Who knows. Anyway, this latest escapade makes for a good tale, one of those exploits that you can retell around the table at a B & B to entertain the strangers who are your new best friends. I mean, I can laugh about it now. It might help if you imagine Melissa McCarthy as me. I do. She’s wicked funny and it takes the sting out of it some. For my part, I plead airline-induced madness. When your kindred spirits live far afield and your respective lives only afford you the opportunity to bask in the glory of one another’s physical presence every other year, well then – I say to you – you too might have found yourself in a weepy little puddle on the steps of Grand Central Station in the middle of the night.
You may remember that my soul sisters live in Utah and Mississippi. Both a bit of a poke from Minnesota. I don’t presume to speak for Sasha and Jennifer, but for me, at least, last spring brought a series of trials that required me to reach deeper into my reserves of strength. I found those reserves sorely depleted. I needed (and, as it turns out, they too needed), more than ever to be in the same place and space. I tell you, their love is restorative. We a hatched a plan to meet in New York. So, back in mid-July, I was scheduled to fly into the city around 3:00 in the afternoon – there to reunite with my girls. Sasha’s flight was meant to arrive at the same time. Jennie, taking the train from New Jersey where she had been visiting family, was to meet us at the airport. Everything was organized. I had scored a too-good-to-pass-up prepaid rental car deal. A short seventy mile drive north along the Hudson River would find us at a bucolic little bed and breakfast. Ah, the best laid plans of scurvy little mice and men.
The morning of my flight, I’d kissed my kidlets goodbye, hugged Dear Hubby, and promised to call each evening. Once past the TSA I’d organized my travel provisions: bottled water, raw almonds, magazines and a novel. My 11:18 a.m. flight was scheduled to begin boarding at about 10:40 a.m. I breathed deeply and let out a sigh of satisfaction. Then the PA crackled. “There has been a slight delay for flight 3356 to JFK,” began a perky voice, “We are told we are waiting for some of our crew to arrive. We will begin boarding at approximately 11:30.” The first announcement didn’t cause undue worry amongst the crowd gathered at the gate. The two retired couples making a connection in NYC for Paris and then on to Moscow had nearly eight hours of layover time with which to work. The 30-something singleton taking her first trip to Rome was so high on the idea of having a proper Italian espresso that she barely registered the second slightly less buoyant announcement. “We are still waiting for the pilot and copilot to arrive. We are told they will be arriving shortly. We will begin boarding when the entire crew is here. At this time, we have been told we can expect to depart by 12:00, putting your arrival in New York at approximately 4:30 p.m.” The couple going on to the Pakistan simply sighed and settled their children into their laps for an airport nap. By the time the third, decidedly more officious, announcement was made my deep sigh of satisfaction gave way to an agitated itch. Again with the pilot. Where was this pilot? Get me another pilot. The next announcement was that they had a cart of beverages and pretzels wheeled in for our appeasement. That did not bode well. The final announcement at noon was that our flight was canceled, CANCELED, because our pilot failed to show up for work. I can only imagine that there was some life and death family emergency that kept the pilot from his or her appointed duties. I certainly pray everyone is well. I am absolutely sure it was nothing so careless as oversleeping or excessive drinking or wanton disregard for the schedules of more than a hundred other good souls. I am definitely most certain that it was not an arrogant over sales of flights and seats without proper staffing on the part of the airline. That would be unthinkable. The final announcement was followed by an assurance that we would all be rebooked on the very next available flights. For me this meant a 3:00 p.m. flight from Minneapolis to Atlanta, a layover, and a midnight arrival to NYC. I registered the rise in my blood pressure. All passengers were offered immediate $25 vouchers to be used for food or drink (in the airport only). We were also given a card with a special code for online redemption of $50 dollars towards future travel on the airline. My carefully organized retreat was falling to pieces, I had seemingly no recourse, and the airline’s magnanimity was…was…so…what is the phrase I want? Decent? No, that’s not it. Fair? Nope. Complete and utter asshattery? Yep, that’s the phrase.
I spent the next three hours on the following endeavors. 1. Bobbing and weaving about the terminal in search of an ever elusive cellular or Wi-Fi sweet spot. 2. Trying to talk to a physical human being in airline customer service that could remedy the situation. 3. Attempting to reorganize my arrival transportation. 4. Doing my darnedest to use up my $25 food voucher on wine. As it happens, my extraordinary car rental deal could not be transferred to Sasha’s or Jennifer’s name. I was able to cancel, but had to pay a $50 cancellation fee. When I tried to reschedule in my friends’ names, the best deal available was twice as much as I had previously planned. Okay, fine. I would lose half a day with the girls and pay twice in car rental fees. But the girls could still get a vehicle, drive north, check in and return to pick me up at midnight. I decided I would splurge on another glass of wine on the ride to Atlanta.
Once I landed in Georgia, I discovered that Sash and Jenn had just arrived at the B & B, nearly six, yes six, hours after Sasha’s flight arrived. Apparently, seventy miles from the city is no small trip, particularly when rush hour traffic and numerous tolls conspire against one. There was nearly no way they would be able to get back to the city in time to meet my flight. Still, there was hope. I plugged into a charging station and set about plotting my alternatives. I could take the train from the airport into Grand Central. There would still be three Metro North trains headed out of the city after midnight. Jennifer strenuously suggested I take a cab to Grand Central. Fine. I would still miss the 12:15 a.m. train, but if my taxi was speedy, I could make the 1:15 or 1:45. I’m no stranger to the city. Never mind that it’s been at least a decade since I’d last been there. I’d be just fine. So, with another glass of wine on the flight from Atlanta to JFK, some of my airline rage began to dissipate. I figured I would soon be with the girls. A $70 cab trip and a $22 dollar train trip would get me to Poughkeepsie by 4:00 a.m. So far, my no-show pilot had only cost me an extra $375 dollars and 12 hours. At the airport cab station, I queued up with the other weary and bleary-eyed travelers and climbed into the first available cab. I texted the girls to let them know I had landed and was en route and then relaxed. The only wee glitch I perceived was that the earlier of the two trains would leave me waiting at the station in Croton-Hamline for 45 minutes in the wee hours of the morning for a transfer. I planned to check with the Grand Central ticket master to see if the station would be open at that hour. I mean, who fancies sitting outside an unfamiliar station at that hour of the morning? I tipped my cabbie and fairly leaped from his fine carriage. I was so near the girls I could hardly contain myself. And I was boned tired. He handed my baggage to me and away I went. Two young 20-somethings got into the cab as I walked away.
You ought to know, if you’ve never been there, that Grand Central is indeed quite grand – particularly since they removed the WWII era black paint that obscured the constellations on the glass ceiling. The marble staircases on either end of the main lobby and the vaulted ceilings are inspiring. They speak of a time when travel was, perhaps, more dignified. By this time it was just after 1:00 a.m. when I lined up to speak to and get a ticket from the only ticket vendor on duty. Standing in line, I snapped a photo of the grand marble and lights to send to Dear Hubby. And I reached into my bag for my wallet. Oh God. I looked again. Christ. I left the line and removed everything from my bag. Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Not there. I crammed everything back in and cursed silently to myself again. Only it didn’t sound silent to me. It sounded like cars crashing and screaming horses and a small planet imploding in my brain. I retraced my steps from the ticket line to where the cab had dropped me off. Not there. I started to cry, the sort of breath-holding, dignified cry that is anything but dignified because you couldn’t stop the wave of hysterical sobbing if you tried sort of cry. I may have hyperventilated too. I called Sasha and Jennie and told them what happened. Sasha, in what I can only imagine was her own exhaustion-induced fit of insanity, suggested I stay put. “My cousin left her wallet in a cab in the city recently and an hour later the cabbie returned with her wallet. Just stay put and he’ll come back to you.” I told her I had to get off the phone. I thought I might say something impolite (for the record, had I been uncharitable in my demeanor, Sasha might have chastised me, but she also would have thoroughly forgiven me). I walked slowly toward a lone police officer on duty. I attempted to swallow my sobs and failed – utterly. I let the tears rain down my cheeks and explained that I had left my wallet in a cab. I hoped he would have a handy set of steps to put this situation to rights, a simple protocol, and an easy button. It turns out he did. All I needed to do was look at my receipt to get the cab medallion number. Then I could call the cab company and my wallet would be returned to me. So simple. But it was late. I was tired. And, as it happens, I had paid cash. No receipt. The officer told me I ought to have paid with a credit card and gotten a receipt. No shit. He suggested I just call the cab company anyway. Which company had I used? I didn’t know. I had just lined up at the airport and gotten into a cab as directed. “Well, what color was the cab,” he asked helpfully. Christ on a crutch. I had no idea. He suggested I try calling the yellow cab company anyway.
At this point I realized I had only 10% battery life left on my phone. I needed to recharge it somewhere. This is where the grandeur of Grand Central gets in the way. There are not nearly as many outlets as you might imagine in that beautiful marble. The ever so helpful officer waved his arm in the general direction of the other side of the station, telling me I could charge up in the station master’s office. Turning the corner, the office was not readily apparent to my tired, tear blurred eyes. I wandered in a big circle around the perimeter of the main lobby. Then I stopped again at a group of four officers. I took a deep breath, sobbed heavily, said I needed some help, and proceeded to tell my story again. “You mean you have no money at all? No credit cards?” Yes, that is precisely what I meant. I wanted to say, “Could you simply direct me to the station master’s office so that I could charge my phone, regroup and make a plan.” I sobbed instead. He waved me in the general direction of the other end of the station. This time I found my way there and walked up to the counter. I took another deep breath and tried ever so valiantly not to sob. The station master rolled his eyes at me. Rolled his eyes. Literally. He told me that there was a charging station back by track 22. And where was this, I inquired. Ah, the other end of the station from whence I’d come. To be perfectly clear, I found no charging station near track 22, nor in the Hudson News kiosk across the hall (which was closing up for the night in any case). I returned to the group of four officers chatting in the center of the lobby. At this point I gave up the feeble notion that I would not continue to sob unrestrainedly for the foreseeable future. I explained what had happened. The station master rolled his eyes at me I told them. They told me to go back to the station masters office and plug into the outlet near the floor. It’s on the right as you enter they told me. If the stationmaster had a problem with it, he would have to call them anyway, they told me, and they would take care of the issue. I went. I plugged in and slid to the floor. I wiped my eyes and eye make-up and mascara all over my cardigan. I took another deep breath and doggedly ignored the stationmaster’s glare. I called Sasha and Jen again. There was some more suggestion of retracing my steps, of waiting for the cabbie, of waiting some more. I told Sasha I had to get off the phone again. Someone somewhere must have the answer to this problem. Someone had to have. I called my husband’s number. Surely he would have a sensible suggestion. Never mind that I would wake him and cause him no end of worry. The phone just rang and rang and went to voicemail. My Dear Hubby’s phone sleeps in the kitchen and he was asleep upstairs in our bed. I tried, through squinted, tear-puffed eyes, to make sense of the miniscule print on the yellow cab website. The phone number referred me back to the website to make a lost property report. I called my cousin Faye, because I knew she would be awake and though not able to remedy anything for me, she would listen to me sympathetically and not make any foolish suggestions about waiting for the cabbie to return in an hour. That would be as much as anyone seemed able to do at the moment.
Finally, I resolved to sit on the marble steps in the lobby and just breathe, until such a time as my magical cabbie returned with my wayward wallet or such a time as Sasha and Jennifer came to fetch me (which I didn’t anticipate until morning). I thought of calling my cousin Addie, who lives in Brooklyn, but that was no use, as she was working on some plays in San Francisco at the time. I tried to think of college friends who might still live in the city proper. None came immediately to mind. So there I sat, a teary, middle-aged, suburban housewife from the Midwest, on the grand staircase in Grand Central station at five minutes to 2:00 in the morning. Someone came running by me from the right, pell-mell, toward the tracks on the left. I heard a garbled message over the PA. I looked at the time table on the wall, which clicks away all day long with changing times, trains and departure tracks. The last train of the day click clacked away and the time table went blank. From the far corner of the lobby an officer slowly walked towards me. I didn’t see how this could possibly be any good at this point. He asked politely if I missed my train. Why yes, yes I had. I recounted the whole story again. Starting all the way back to the cancelled flight and the airline pilot with a questionable work ethic. He listened politely. “Why didn’t you tell me earlier? I could have gotten you on a train.” What is this you say? But, sir I did. I talked to five other officers and nary a one of them had said anything about getting me on a train. “In any case, we are closing ma’am.” I did not understand what he was saying to me. Was he speaking an obscure dialect of some Scandinavian language only spoken in one remote northern fjord? Since when did THE Grand Central close in the middle of the night? What about the city that never sleeps? Shit and fuck. “We close from 2:00-5:00 a.m. ma’am.” I looked at him. “What is it that you want me to do?” I sobbed. He said I could wait outside the doors until they opened again. Really? On some cardboard laid over the air ventilation grates with the folks who made their beds there? Really?! What a perfectly novel idea. Why hadn’t I thought of it sooner? To be clear, I am not mocking the homeless. Homelessness is one of the most undignified injustices born of poverty. My snarkiness about the ventilation grates comes as an expression of my own vulnerabilities and fears. If Melissa McCarthy were to play out this small story of mine on the big screen, she would have spent the night on the grates with both improvisational genius and heart. Me? Not so brave. I took another deep breath. I knew this was going to cost me a small fortune. I knew Dear Hubby would be none too pleased. But in that moment I had no other remotely rational idea what I ought to do. I asked the polite and well-meaning young officer if there was a car service nearby. He said there were taxis outside the nearest doors. I looked at him again and said, with nary a concern about dignity or self-respect, like a sad little child, “Would you walk with me. I am feeling very vulnerable right now.” And the poor fellow took an ounce of pity on me. He walked me outside and explained the situation to an earnest cabbie who agreed to take me to the Poughkeepsie train station, where my friends would pay him for the trip. The officer looked at me and said, “This will cost you a few bucks ma’am.” There was nothing for it. At that moment I didn’t care. He looked at the cabbie and by way of goodbye said to him, “Now, do the right thing. She’s from Minnesota.” That night, in the state I was in, I counted it as the tenderest token of human kindness.
I spent that 2 ½ hour cab ride canceling credit cards and giving the cabbie directions via Google maps. He had only been there once before on his first visit to the United States. Sasha and Jennifer met me at the train station in Poughkeepsie where they paid the cabbie $375 dollars in cash (which included tolls and tip). Once in our rental car and safely with my sisters, I began to make a noise somewhere between a high pitched wheeze and an unhinged giggle. I continued to do so for several miles. We drove north to Hyde Park. Early, in the midst of all the chaos of the trip, Sasha had looked up my horoscope (by the guru of literate and literary horoscopes, Rob Brezney, strange little man that he is). This is what it said.
“When I lived in Santa Cruz, I had an acquaintance named Barnaby who lived at a remote rural community called Last Chance Farm. Combination shaman, wise elder, and lunatic, he would on rare occasions slip into town and lead me on fact-finding missions he dubbed whirlygigs [sic]. ‘Steep yourself with the intention of attracting lessons you don’t know you need,’ he’d say, and then we’d meander the streets at random, going places I’d never been and striking up conversations with strangers with whom I seemingly had nothing in common. Barnaby described the whirlygig as an urban version of the walkabout, which for Aborigines is a time when they leave work and wander out into the bush to commune with the mysteries of nature. Carry out your own whirlygig.”
Arriving at our B & B, the girls poured me a large glass of wine. It was 5:00 a.m., a full 18 hours after my original flight ought to have boarded. We talked until the sun came up at 6:00 and then we went to sleep. Was this my whirligig? Or my call to go on one? I tried to figure out what I was supposed to take away from it all, the horoscope and the trip. Was it a message from the universal unconscious to let go, to relax, to…to…to what? The girls and I discussed the horoscope again that morning after breakfast. My best laid plans laid waste. I had been broken down and taken to an uncomfortable place of absolute vulnerability and uncertainty. I hadn’t felt that sort of lack of, or perhaps surrender of, control since my early twenties. Like my history of comic and chaotic travel stories, I have a long history of utterly emotionally incontinent moments with my kindred spirits. They are my safest place. I am laid bare before them and they always welcome me. At some point in our weekend we toured Valkill together. This was Eleanor Roosevelt’s retreat. The place where she went to rest and to replenish her spirit. Walking arm in arm, Sasha commented to Jennifer and I that we were her Valkill. The aboriginal people of Australia speak of their walkabouts as a spiritual journey to find their “belonging place.” Sasha and Jennifer are my belonging place. They bring me to tears and to laughter and to all things in between.
As for the rest of trip, Sasha said what happens in Hyde Park stays in Hyde Park. I will say that I was reminded what a peach Dear Hubby is. He spent the better part of the weekend trying to get my expired passport or some other form of identification for my return trip shipped to me. I love him dearly. He is a keeper. Of course, once I was safely home, he did say I was never leaving home again.
*For the record, nearly a month after returning home, my wallet arrived in the mail with all credit cards and identification intact. It was found in the back of the cab. Only $20 in cash was missing. Somebody needed it more than I did. Also, I am still working on a carefully worded letter to the airline.