A few years ago, I traveled to Cincinnati to help my dad move. At the time, I was living in the Hamptons, specifically Sag Harbor. To travel by air from this location is logistically challenging. Although both LaGuardia and JFK are less than a hundred miles away, and driving to either of these airports may seem like a reasonable option, one must consider the mental and emotional cost of driving on the Long Island Expressway. Were Dante alive today, I am certain he would have included the L.I.E as a level of hell. If a traveler leaves the Hamptons between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., the drive to the airport will take about an hour and a half. However, for non-insomniacs, the trip will go something like this:
Entering the L.I.E. at exit 70, the traffic will be sparse. The lack of traffic at the eastern end of the expressway is definitely a bonus. The desolate landscape of scraggly trees fighting for life in sandy, inhospitable soil, actually called “the pine barrens,” will be a mere blur as you drive through at eighty miles per hour. At about exit 64, as you enter the heart of Lawn-gigh-land the road will become more congested, but traffic will still be moving, until about exit 57 when all traffic will come to a stop. For no reason. The terrain is flat, giving you no possible opportunity to see far enough ahead for flashing lights or construction, although you will still try. Every ten seconds. Cars in the High Occupancy Vehicle lane will pass you effortlessly, as if they were carrying the president or some visiting dignitary. Envy and hate for those cars and their occupants will swell in your breast, as will indignation at the unfairness of it all. But I’m going to the airport! I can’t have another person in the car. It’s not fair! I should have bought a ticket for a friend, then I could be in the HOV lane. Traffic inexplicably stopping and starting will continue until exit 39, after which there is no more starting, until exit 22B, Grand Central Parkway to LaGuardia. During this slog, your palms will sweat, your rear end will become numb, and you will gain an encyclopedic knowledge of roadside detritus. Cigarette butts. Mangled tires. An occasional wheel. Your sanity. Empty potato chip bags. Rumble strips. Soda cans. Wilted patches of grass that fought through a crack in the concrete then, wisely, chose to move on to the next world. Which, around exit 27, seems like a viable, no, the only rational option.
I avoided the L.I.E. at all costs, which meant that in the six years I lived full time in Sag Harbor, I rarely left the east end of Long Island. When I went to Cincinnati, I chose to fly out of MacArthur, the regional Long Island airport located in Islip. From the Hamptons, it is about an hour drive on the inaptly named, yet traffic free, Sunrise Highway. (I would have chosen the “Late-March-suicide-inducing-gloomy-cloudy-cold-oh-look-another-blizzard highway.”) It is more expensive to fly out of Islip, and you almost always have to connect, but one must consider the emotional and mental cost of the L.I.E. MacArthur is a small, easily navigable airport with few lines and friendly TSA agents. Wait, I don’t have to deal with the L.I.E or LGA? Sign me up!
My relationship with my father is not bad, and is certainly better than it once was, but we are not particularly close and our knowledge of each other’s personal lives is perfunctory at best. I left Cincinnati with the knowledge that my father might be a hoarder. After a day of multiple attempts to explain to him why his extensive wardrobe, as well as his extensive collection of candle holders, not to mention the assortment of newspapers, magazines, receipts, and other miscellaneous paper products chaotically inhabiting the dining room table, did not need to go to his new, smaller apartment, I gave up and took control of the kitchen, the contents of which were sparse and useful, although I do admit to furtively throwing out redundancies. A man who does not drink does not need multiple shot glasses.
A sample conversation from this hypertension-inducing weekend:
“Dad, it’s 2010. Why do you need a book called Outlook Express 2003?”
“If something goes wrong with my email, I need it.”
“If you haven’t figured out how to use Outlook in the past seven years, I don’t think a book is going to help you. Plus, we have Google now. I’m sure you can Google any problem you are having.”
“But what if the Internet is down?”
My dad is not that old and is far from being computer illiterate. The book went in a box and the box was taped shut. I envisioned myself facing this book again when going through my father’s belongings after he died. I did not allow my mind to move beyond the book to the rest of the never-to-be-used-again possessions that absolutely needed to make the trip to the new apartment, but which, at some future date, would be my problem to deal with.
It was with relief that I departed from Cincinnati and landed in Philadelphia to catch my connection to Islip. I found my gate and took a seat. After about thirty minutes, a thin, harried airline employee with a blond ponytail picked up the microphone at the booth just outside the entrance to the jet way and announced that my flight had been cancelled.
I walked up to her. “Why was the flight cancelled?”
“Mechanical problems with the plane,” she said, not looking up and busily typing at a keyboard.
“Isn’t there another plane?” Maybe I’m ignorant of airline protocol, but certainly, I thought, this is a busy airport in a major American city, there must be another plane sitting around somewhere.
“No. Go talk to customer service. They’ll rebook you,” she replied, pointing to a counter at the end of the terminal.
Okay, remain calm. Breathe. It’s probably only an extra couple of hours, no big deal. I hate air travel.
The counter was a gray desk with a huge wall behind it, proudly displaying the Delta logo. Have I mentioned that I hate air travel? Behind the counter sat a heavy-set woman noisily chewing gum and moving sloth-like through her duties. I swear she left a trail of ooze as her gaze moved from customer to computer screen. Among other things, people like this are why I must begin, weeks in advance, to mentally prepare myself for trips. Supposedly a service industry, the motto of the major airlines seems to be: You give us money, we might get you where you’re going. Or not. Whatever. You don’t have any other options. Bwaaahahahahah. The man in front of me finished his business and I stepped up to the counter. The agent looked at me but didn’t say anything.
“Hi. My flight to Islip was cancelled.”
She turned back to her monitor, annoyed, as if I was interrupting her in the middle of watching Maury or Judge Judy. She typed slowly on a keyboard. I felt my blood pressure rising. Sweaty palms. Hot flashes. Potential beginning of a psychotic episode. I don’t appreciate having my fate in the hands of inept corporations that will continue to profit despite treating their customers like cattle.
“The next flight to Islip isn’t until tomorrow at noon,” she said, gum crackling against her teeth.
“What? I need to get home. What am I supposed to do?” At this point, I’m sure I was blatantly rude. I sighed audibly, pointlessly expressing my displeasure at this woman who was in the “service industry” but was not concerned with providing even the most modest level of service.
“I can get you on a flight to LaGuardia. It leaves in forty-five minutes. Or you can stay here overnight,” she said, her indifference palpable. She was going home tonight. Whether or not I went home was not her concern.
Neither option was attractive. Staying at the airport, or at an airport hotel, seemed like more trouble than it was worth. Flying to LaGuardia was inconvenient, as my car was in Islip. It was already evening, and I wasn’t sure how I would get to Islip at night. Would a taxi take me? Was the LIRR still running? Where is the LIRR station? Still, if I flew to LaGuardia I would at least be in New York, in familiar territory. I could figure out the details when I landed and at least I would have options. “Okay, put me on the flight to LaGuardia,” I said, probably with another loud sigh, my only retaliation against my lack of power over the current situation.
I turned to walk to my new gate and saw that a long, jagged line of travelers had formed behind me, extending half way down the terminal. I thought this was peculiar until I sat down and looked at a television screen. The Weather Channel was showing blobs of red and yellow hovering over the North East, and, shortly after, the loud speaker announced that flight after flight was being cancelled. Suddenly, I felt fortunate to be on a flight to LaGuardia, especially when it took off and the lights of Pennsylvania were visible thousands of feet below. Everything was going to be fine.
Everything was not going to be fine. I stood at the baggage carousel at LaGuardia. The Delta terminal was quiet at nine o’clock, save for the hum of fluorescent lights that illuminated the dirty, scarred linoleum floor. A few lonely, abandoned suitcases circled and circled. I waited at the foot of the luggage slide hoping that my suitcase would appear at any moment, but knowing that it was lost. It might seem strange that, for a quick trip to Ohio, I had checked a bag. But I am a young, American woman and it is ludicrous for the TSA to think that I can fit all of my toiletries—shampoo, conditioner, hair gel, toothpaste, Listerine, moisturizer, eye cream, night moisturizer, night eye cream, serum, exfoliator, body lotion, body wash, deodorant, shaving cream, lip balm, lip gloss, mascara—into a quart-sized Ziplock bag. This policy is nothing more than discrimination against the modern American female, pure and simple. A secondary consideration is the amount of clothes that I pack and the woefully inadequate space allocated in the overhead bins. What if it is colder than expected? What if it is hotter? What if we go to a fancy restaurant? What if I run out of underwear? What if I am not satisfied with the sweaters/tee shirts/pants/shoes that I packed? Can you imagine being stuck in Cincinnati, Ohio with an inadequate wardrobe? Where would I go shopping for what I failed to pack? These are questions that I prefer not to confront, so everything goes in the bag and the bag gets packed.
I walked to the missing luggage office and handed the woman behind the counter my claim ticket.
“How will I get my bag?”
“It will be delivered to your house when we find it.” This was not reassuring, given that Delta could not even fulfill their primary objective, getting travelers from point A to point B via airplane. But I could not be mad at this woman. Unlike her counterpart in Philadelphia, she had a sense of humor, and was competent and sympathetic. Defeated, I walked outside to get a taxi. At this point, spending the night in Manhattan seemed to be the best option. I felt lost without my suitcase, like a limb had been severed, but I figured I could make it one night without my multiple, indispensable possessions, especially in New York City.
I walked outside and saw that it had just rained. The sidewalk, a mosaic of ancient, black bubble gum was wet, despite being covered by the roadway to the departure area. Headlights shined on the asphalt and the air was heavy with the oily scent of a recent storm. The beginning of the taxi line was directly in front of me. I looked right to see how long it was. About fifty people stood facing front before the line hair-pinned and turned back toward me with another fifty people waiting. Something did not seem right, as the taxi line at LaGuardia is generally a civilized, orderly affair that moves with a relative swiftness. However, on this night, there were no cabs, just people waiting for cabs. I stopped an airline employee.
“What is going on?”
He looked at me, confused, as if I had just disembarked from a time machine and was inquiring about cell phones. “There was a tornado in Queens and Brooklyn,” he said, “No cabs can get out of Manhattan.”
This was not good. Spending the night in Manhattan was no longer an option, unless I wanted to wait in a non-progressing taxi line, which I did not. An acquaintance of mine, Evie, lived in Astoria, a neighborhood in Queens not far from the airport. I hadn’t known her for that long and felt it might be awkward to impose on her. However, in the little time we spent together, we had gotten along very well and I guessed that she would not hesitate to let me stay at her apartment. And I was desperate. I pulled out my cell phone. Fuck. The battery was almost dead and the charger was in my waylaid suitcase. I dialed.
“Evie, it’s Ali. What is going on? There was a tornado? Are you okay?”
“Oh my god, yes,” she replied. “You didn’t know?”
“No, I’m stuck at LaGuardia. I was in Ohio visiting my dad. My flight was cancelled. My car is in Islip. Is there any way I could stay with you tonight?”
“Of course! Come over!”
“What is your address?”
And my phone died.
A note about the Third World infrastructure of LaGuardia airport. Unlike most airports in major metropolitan areas, such as San Francisco or Atlanta, at La Guardia there are no moving sidewalks or trams that allow passengers to move easily between terminals. In fact, the terminals at LaGuardia aren’t even connected. It’s as if city planners said, “We need a new terminal. Let’s put one…here!” as they pointed to some empty space on an aerial map and didn’t consider its proximity to existing buildings, or the fact that the entire airport should just be ripped down and rebuilt. The easiest way to travel from terminal to terminal is to take a taxi around the perimeter road. However, when a tornado has just passed through the city and there are no cabs to be hailed, and you need to get to the US Airways terminal to buy a cell phone charger, because the Delta terminal doesn’t have any stores (Third World infrastructure is not an exaggeration), the only option is to walk.
I started out. The sidewalk ended and I walked in the road. The street was poorly lit and a light rain fell. The place felt abandoned and I had an uncharacteristic moment of actually being concerned for my safety. I passed by some sort of equipment storage area secured by a tall wire fence lined with tarp. I climbed over a concrete abutment that separated the road from a construction area. About ten minutes later, I finally reached the bright lights of the terminal, entered on the street level and took an escalator to the area that housed the shops and restaurants.
The US Airways terminal is fairly modern and clean, with bright, white lights, a contrast to the yellow, post-apocalyptic ambiance of the Delta terminal. I turned into the wide hallway where the stores are and stopped. I was greeted with a line of metal gates pulled down in front of the shops. It was 10 p.m. Everything was closed. Panicked, I proceeded, refusing to give up the search. I found myself in front of an electronics store. The clerk was still inside, closing up.
“Hello?” I said. She looked up. “Hi. I really, really, really need a phone charger. I know you’re closed. I’m desperate. Please.”
“Okay, no problem, honey. Give me a second,” she replied, as she walked toward the gate and lifted it open. She was from the Caribbean somewhere, perhaps Jamaica, and her island accent made me dreamy, like she was about to hand me a colorful drink topped with an umbrella and escort me to my chaise lounge by the sea. “What kind of phone do you have?”
“A Blackberry.” I thanked her profusely and thanked her some more. She smiled and assured me that it wasn’t a problem, but I think my effusiveness got on her nerves. My story about how my charger was in my suitcase and my suitcase was lost probably did not strike her with the sense of calamity that my tone and desperation implied. The transaction complete, and my faith in humanity restored, I found an outlet and called Evie for her address.
With renewed optimism—I had a plan!—I exited the terminal. With crushing hatred for the world, I surveyed the taxi line, which I had foolishly hoped would be shorter at this terminal. It was longer. Hundreds of people waited, resigned for what, in my estimation, was probably a two-hour shuffle to the front. This was unacceptable. I was from New York City! This was my airport! I wasn’t waiting in this line. New Yorkers are tenacious, we find ways around situations like this, we don’t stand in some line like lemmings, we outsmart the system. Which is what I set out to do.
Like a beacon, across two roadways, I saw a dirty yellow booth with “TAXI” written across the top. This taxi stand was obviously closed, if not completely defunct, but no matter, this was my taxi stand—it was sitting there all alone waiting for some enterprising soul such as myself to bring it back to its full glory and true purpose. This was where I would go to get a taxi.
I crossed the road furtively, so as not to catch the attention of the lemmings who might spot me and then step off the curb en masse, overtake me and abscond with the last taxis in Queens. The area around the taxi stand was dark and deserted, save for a short, pudgy airport security guard.
“Hi. I need a cab,” I said cheerfully, trying to draw him in like a comrade in arms.
“The taxi line is over there. You can’t get a cab here.”
I followed his glance to the terminal and turned back to him with a look that I hoped would convey the impossibility of any person with a shred of dignity waiting in that line. “Come on,” I said, “I can’t wait in that line.”
He shrugged. He was sympathetic, but really, what could he do? I looked around. Heading toward us, but some distance away, I spotted an off-duty cab. “What about that one,” I said, pointing down the road.
“I’m not allowed to hail that one for you. He’s off duty.” Ah-ha! I had gotten him into my corner. He was willing to help me find a cab, just not one that was off duty.
“Why? No one will see. Please. I only need to go to Astoria.”
Perhaps it was because I said that I was going to Queens and not Manhattan. Perhaps he assumed I lived in Astoria and was not a stuck-up, rich New Yorker, but rather a young woman struggling to survive in the big city, like he was, even if that meant living in an outer borough, as he most surely did. At the last second, as the off-duty cab was approaching, he stepped off the curb and put his hand out.
Off-duty drivers are generally reluctant to take fares, especially at the airport where the destination could be anywhere in the city. This driver was probably at the end of his shift and eager to get home. I knew that the only power I had to convince him to take me was money, and I pulled out my wallet and saw that I had forty dollars in cash. The cab stopped and the driver rolled down his window. Before he, or the security guard, could say anything, I blurted out, “I’ll give you forty dollars if you take me to Astoria.”
The driver smiled. This was almost certainly not what he had expected. “Get in,” he said. As we drove away, I looked out the rain-dotted window at the hundreds of people still waiting in line, and I smiled. Never underestimate the cunning pluck of a native New Yorker.
The driver and I chatted in the ten-minute ride to Evie’s apartment. His garage was in Astoria and he lived in the area. He was basically going in this direction anyway. I realized that forty dollars was a ridiculously large sum to travel such a short distance and I felt embarrassed that I had offered so much. Twenty dollars, maybe even ten, would have been sufficient. But in the moment I wanted to make him an offer he couldn’t refuse, because if he said no, my only option would have been the line. And one must consider the mental and emotional cost of waiting in that line.
We pulled up to Evie’s house on a street lined with trees and cars, dark and slick with rain and leaves. Her apartment was on the second floor of a house, and as I opened the door, I saw her standing at the top of the stairs.
“Hey! You made it,” she said, as I climbed toward her. “Do you want a beer?”
Do I want a beer? Is that even a serious question?
That night, as I moved in and out of the shallow, hazy sleep that comes with being in an unfamiliar place, my cell phone rang. I didn’t recognize the number and I was angry that someone must have misdialed at 2:30 a.m. A garbled voice with a foreign accent was on the other end. It took about a minute or two for me to understand what he was saying, but finally I understood. He was calling from Delta. He was at my house with my suitcase and wanted to know why I wasn’t answering the door.