- Life's not about the destinations, it's about the journeys.
Things looked good as I pulled the rental car into Boston's Logan International Airport at about 1:20pm Friday. My flight to San Francisco was scheduled for 2:25pm, and the snow was scheduled to continue to lighten up. Boston was reeling under yet another 18" snowfall spread over two waves in the previous 24 hours. I seem to bring it with me. A few weeks before I had been in town for a 19" portion of Boston's record snowfall this winter.
I don't think they have the snow thing quite figured out in Boston yet. At least as it relates to transportation. Growing up in the Midwest, and now living near MSP, 6-12" of snow is not much to worry about. Not nearly enough to keep the kids from slogging off to school.
But in Boston, well, you'd think it was Little Rock or something.
One striking example of the differences in regional approaches is the method of heavy duty snow removal from the freeways. I'm used to Road Warrior Oshkosh Interstate snow scraping monsters, with giant wing plows and spark spewing ice buster blades, rulers of the freeway, unstoppable by any weather known to man. They're lone warriors rarely seen moving in packs of more than two. The sense is if you had more than two traveling east in unison they would reverse the rotation of the earth. Dedicated to snow removal, these behemoths sit idle the rest of the year. As useless in Summer as downhill skis. You can't even get a keg and do water crossings with them.
In Boston they hook a plow on anything that moves, and send them down the interstates in giant conga lines. Out in the shoulder of the #1 lane they'll have a 4 wheel drive pickup. Then they work their way across the lanes increasing in size until they end up with a big dump truck, or a snow bladed semi tractor with a concrete ballast block squatting on the fifth wheel in the right shoulder. All soldiering along at 25-30 mph. The only thing close to it I've ever witnessed is Chicago in a snow emergency when they put plows on the garbage trucks and turn them loose on the side streets.
I had to snake my way through one of these on the way to Logan. What was the big deal, anyway? The interstates were basically just wet, but the driving populace had decided 30 mph was the absolute top end. They looked incredulous as I motored by at 55, serenely grooving out to acoustic jazz in my new front wheel drive Hertz Taurus.
For this trip I was using an unrefundable bargain ticket. The first one I'd used in years and years. My schedule changes so much I can't risk being stuck somewhere with no way to change a flight, so I have made them off limits to Filomena, the travel goddess who must service my ever shifting schedule. This was an exception, however. I was on a personal trip to SFO to spend the weekend with Steph. I wouldn't have my client eat the $1500 retail cost, so Filly found me a $300 round trip for Boston/SFO.
More salt in the MSP wounds. Because Northwest has that market locked up in a virtual monopoly, the cheapest round trip fare for MSP/SFO is about $580. Half the distance for twice the price. A free market with competition is a cool thing. Hope it comes to MSP someday.
There was a little fog as I settled into the gate area. No big deal. They'd be at 100% operations at ORD on a day like this. Aerobatics would be SOP at MSP. There was no equipment at the gate, but the 757 was inbound from Dulles, so I was confident we'd have a plane. The flight crew was hanging out in the gate area, so it looked like we wouldn't have to draw straws to see who got to play captain. There was an announced 45 minute delay to plow the runways, so I stretched out on the seats and took a little nap. How prescient this was I wouldn't know for many hours.
Another delay was announced, about an hour. I stopped by United's Red Carpet Club to tell Steph that I'd been delayed. It took a while to get out on the phones. I had a lot of trouble getting a long distance carrier. Hmmm, strange. First clue.
Having a Legal Seafoods location and a Sam Adams pub back to back in the United terminal, Logan's not a bad place to be stranded for a few hours. So I plopped down and savored clams on the half shell and drank Meridian by the glass. Not too shabby, the best shellfish available at retail in the US, and the best $10 a bottle Chardonnay on the planet.
As soon as they started to de-ice the planes in the gates, I knew we were back in action. I wandered back down to my gate, my pace slowed slightly by a couple dozen of the ocean's finest, and a few glasses of Santa Barbara County's outstanding contribution to the universe. Our 57 soon arrived, and we trooped aboard.
There was light snow as we boarded. Nothing to worry about. We'd just gotten settled in and ready for push back when our captain, who looked like Leslie Neilson's brother, announced they were shutting down the airport for two hours due to weather conditions. 'Amazing', I thought. There was barely an inch on the ground in the ramp area, and the snow was getting lighter by the minute. I figured that at any moment Kareem was going to come out of the cockpit asking if anyone here had a spare recoil spring so he could hand crank the engines. Unfortunately it wasn't a scene from Airport '96.
Off the plane we trooped, leaving our carry ons behind. For some reason, I had decided not to check my garment bag, so I left it too. Pretty rare. Only the 2nd or 3rd time I'd not sent it as checked baggage in the last year. Another piece of my fate was secure.
Back to Legal for another round of Clams & Chardonnay. I was just into my first swallow when a guy came in and said "Bad news, they just shut down the airport for the night". And so the adventure began in earnest.
Knowing that the re-booking of thousands of people had begun the instant the announcement was made, I ate a dozen clams in about 25 seconds. Unfortunately, they couldn't get a response out of the credit card reader/approver. It kept responding 'busy' and 'unavailable'. More evidence of my future fell into place.
I was in TECM (Travel Emergency Cash Management) Mode, which dictates that Cash is King, and must be hoarded at all costs. I was sweating it at this point, as every second reduced my chances of getting re-booked, and Filly left the travel agency office at 5:30pm. I was caught between the rock of low cash reserves and the hard place of dealing with the night crew at the travel agency. It was 5:21 and counting. At precisely 5:28 the sweet sound of the credit card receipt printer met my ears.
Conceding defeat on getting to Filly live, considering the ten deep lines at every pay phone, I raced back to the gate to retrieve my ticket and carry ons. I was amazed at Massport, the bureaucrats who run Logan. All it takes is a stiff breeze and they go down to one runway. Now they were shutting down for the night when I could see across the airport for the first time since I got there. Wimps.
United had joined them in their house of fear, immediately canceling every flight outbound from Logan. The final elements were now in place to cast my fate for the night.
The passengers from two flights to SFO were crowded around the United podium as the agents called out names to come and retrieve their tickets. The crowd surged and ebbed, each name being greeted with an isolated shout of joy contrasted against a sea of disappointment and resentment. Every other face was now the competition for a seat to the coast. Every second that went by the pool of available seats on other carriers, at this and other airports dwindled like a rain puddle in the desert sun. Finally 'Hackney' was called.
Feeling like a lifer who's name is announced for parole, I snatched up my ticket and bolted to the plane to get my bags. The flight crew was resigned to their fate, and were unwilling to join my call for a charge of the barricades at Massport HQ down the hall. Sheep.
The lines at the pay phones were now 15 deep and growing. I swam upstream through the human current to the Red Carpet Club, my only hope of finding a phone. The Club was jammed. Wall to wall with a palpable mix of desperation and resignation. It felt like I was in the top deck lounge on the Titanic.
I was repulsed by the empty, blank faces of those who had given up hope. 'Never, ever, give up' is what I tell my kids.
I finally found a phone in the bar with only four people waiting in line. Quickly doing the Airport Checkin Line time calculation (10 people times an average of 4 minutes per person = 'I'm not gonna make this flight at this rate') I realized I'd be on the phone about 7:30pm at the current throughput on these phones. I decided to take matters into my own hands and yelled 'Anybody got a cellular they want to rent?'.
It was like a modern version of a bad day at the OK corral as cellulars were whipped from pockets and pointed in my direction. I took the closest one and started to dial out, my prayers alternating between thanksgiving for the fruits of TECM mode that allowed the rental, and pleas for a night agent 10% as proficient as Filly.
After some struggle getting a valid circuit and a route through the telcom maze to the night number, I finally got into the inbound receptionist, Tina. I requested corporate and got into a live agent. I had just started to work on the situation when I lost the cell carrier. Rats. Dial back in. A long distance call from the roam line of the cellular was the only way in. The 800# and the local # were hopeless. You couldn't get past the local telcom switches, which were spitting back carrier requests like bad wine.
We take so much for granted in our little part of the world. Turn on the faucet and clean, germ free, potable water comes out. First time, every time. We don't have to worry about boiling it first, or our children catching some dread disease from it. Same with the phone. Pick it up, and you'll hear the dial tone. You are instantly connected into the global web of circuits that link our ever shrinking world.
That facade had come crashing down in Boston this day. Nynex's vaunted network, of which they were running prime time television spots boasting of its daily volume, had choked. It became an obese rock star, lying drunk on the couch, choking on its own excesses. The land lines in the club were becoming ever more tenuous, with long waits for a dial tone, if you could get one. Long distance access was reduced to manually waiting for an operator to be manually connected to a long distance carrier. I was starting to see visions of a dusty switchboard in the basement dragged from a dark corner and hastily patched in and warming up, the tubes clicking as they heated, with Lilly Tomlin pulling and patching cables. 'One ringy, dingy; Two ringy dingies'.
Finally I was back in to the travel agency. Tina took the inbound call. "Who was helping you when you got cut off?", she asked. I hadn't written down the agents name. Tina took a poll for who had talked to this guy at Logan desperate to get to his fiancee on the coast. Mary admitted to it. She probably later regretted this.
Once back on with Mary, she informed me that Logan was now re-opened, they'd just gotten the word from Massport at the travel agency. Great. United had made a brilliant financial move. By immediately canceling due to weather, they were relieved of the cost of being financially responsible for their passengers. However, by immediately canceling, they had also instantly lost all their flight crews. Now they had an open airport, a bunch of planes, a bunch of passengers, and nobody to service any of them. United responded by canceling all of their morning flights from Boston off the computer net, preventing the travel agents from working those alternatives.
Booking an available seat to the West coast from anywhere on the Eastern seaboard was now like executing a sell order in late October '29. As soon as Mary found a seat and told me about it, it was gone. Booking orders would hang in the system, with no response back from United's system. I told her to just book whatever came up, regardless of the alternative. Bingo! Hit!
Delta, apparently more in tune with the capricious way that Massport determined the lives of thousands by reading the entrails of goats, had resisted the urge to instantly cancel their operations. They were showing a flight available to Atlanta connecting with a late flight to LAX. I could catch a 5:50am shuttle up the coast and be in Steph's arms by 8am or so.
By this time the bar had gathered around me, shouting out desperate offers of rewards if I would book them passage out. But this was like a classic POW film, there were only two sets of civilian disguises available. I booked Gordon, who rented me the phone, on the only other seat from Boston to anywhere West of the Mississippi. You gotta stick with who brought you to the dance.
As I moved to grab my bags and sprint to the Delta terminal and the flight that was leaving in 30 minutes, I was stopped by a desperate young woman. She had that look in her eyes. That look you see when a mother is robbing food for her young. That look you see when a junkie is stealing the kid's lunch money for another fix.
"How did you get out?" she pleaded, her eyes searching, demanding a way.
"Delta" I replied.
"I have to get to my fiancee on the coast", she blurted, grabbing at my coat.
"Me too", I replied.
I caught my eyes in the mirror over the bar. They had the look.
"Good Luck", I said.
I grabbed my shoulder bag, stuffed in my day runner, grabbed the newsstand bag with papers, magazines, and a book for the flight. But where was my garment bag?
"Someone's taken my bag" I announced. I quickly searched the bar, the club, the bag storage area. No garment bag. Time was running short. The Delta flight left in about 25 minutes. There was only one other place to check.
I exploded out of the club and sprinted down to the gate. The agents were still there, looking like the surviving clerks from the annual Harrod's blowout sale. The last three passengers were there too. Forlornly working their options, two days hence, of getting out of Boston. Also there, parked behind the counter, was my garment bag. I'd left it on the plane in my rush to retrieve my carry ons.
I grabbed it up and began the run to Delta. Fortunately, their gates were on the other end of the same terminal as United. Once past security, I was greeted with lines about 150 feet long streaming back from the Delta customer service desk. I needed to swap my United ticket for a Delta one, so I slowed down long enough to asses my chances.
God tends to provide in moments like these. A Delta customer service rep, with clipboard and radio in hand, was working the back of the lines. Angels take so many forms in life.
She quickly informed me my dream of escape was over. The outbound to Atlanta was delayed until at least 9:30pm, and there was no chance of making a connection to LAX tonight.
Deflated but undaunted, I thanked her for the help. 'Never, ever, give up.' I reminded myself.
I reversed course and retraced my steps to the Red Carpet Club. There were still a few refugees left in the club, desperately working the phones for an escape route. I was able to get a land line phone, and after working through Lilly on the basement switchboard, to get a call into the travel agency.
Hi Tina. Hi Mary. Doug again. Return to Go. Do not collect $200.
We started out by getting the room for the night at the Boston Westin Hotel back again. We'd booked and canceled it three times now as my fortunes had risen and fallen upon the sea of transportation possibilities. It was the ultimate fallback.
Now I challenged Mary to cast her net wide. Any airport within eight hours driving distance. Tramp freighter out of Boston Harbor. Ox Cart. Anything.
Then Mary, in a flash of Filomenaesque brilliance, found One Possible Way. "There's an Amtrack train from Boston to Washington DC, with a stop in New York. Leaves at 9:30pm. There's a few seats on a United flight from JFK to SFO at 8am. Into SFO at about 11am." It was about 8:30pm. I might make it. "Book it" I commanded as I offered her a few quick thanks and hung up the phone.
Desperate for cash after my cellular rental, and unwilling to tempt fate by setting off cross country with about $15 left, I asked the bartender for the nearest ATM. I won't mention her hair color, but she was extremely challenged to articulate the concept of 'left' of the main doors. Fortunately, a fellow traveler stepped into the breach and directed me to it.
A quick $100, and off to the cab queue. A long line of downtrodden souls greeted me. They had been defeated by Massport, whose managers were undoubtedly gleefully gathered around a closed circuit TV monitor of this very line, toasting to their power over the lives of these mere travelers. They were headed off to purgatory, to wait in the limbo of cheap hotels, while guys drinking bitter coffee in cheap suits decided their fate.
The pace of the loading process reflected this state of resignation. These people would have been shot in New York. It was taking minutes to load each cab. I quickly shouted "South Station" to the cab jockey who was directing the sodden sheep into the cabs. Within minutes I joined a couple of homeward bound locals in a journey to the city.
Boston's South Station was abuzz with the late commuter crowd interspersed with college students on various weekend road trips. Only in the Northeast could you pull together a pickup Lacrosse game, complete with full gear, in a train station at 9pm on a Friday night.
The Amtrack agent informed me that there were no sleeper seats available, and even if there were, she didn't think it was worth the extra money, since I had to get off at 3am in New York anyway. I was pretty jazzed about this leg of the journey, as I hadn't been on a real cross country passenger train since I rode the Rock Island from Iowa City to Newton when I was about 10.
While waiting out the inevitable Amtrack delay, I downed a coffee and watched the crowd. I also put a call into Steph, who was still at work on the West coast. I wanted her to know where they could start the body search if I didn't show in SFO the next day. She wasn't very amused at this prospect and made me swear I'd call her when I got to New York, regardless of the time. Good idea, as it would reduce the places they'd have to search if I failed to report in after each leg.
We finally boarded and began the trip south. The first hour or two was like a standard commuter trip in Chicago, with stops at each suburban station. This part of the trip was enlivened with a wonderful conversation with my seatmate, a graduate student at Brown. She was majoring in geology, with a minor in engineering. This unique combination was driven by her passion: to become an astronaut and return to the moon. Seems one of the first astronauts on the moon had been a geologist.
As we talked at length about NASA, the history of the space program, the prospects for further exploration, and her future in space, I realized that I was looking at the realization of what I had always wanted to be. When I was young I had two dreams: first to be an astronaut, failing that, to do pure research science. She was fascinated by my stories of how my childhood buddy, Tom Jones, and I had built a paper mache model of Cape Kennedy and the primary landing site on the moon. It was complete with launch vehicle, wire guided command module and LEM, and could reproduce the entire launch, lunar mission and reentry profile.
It was very gratifying to see that the dream still lives in the bright young people of today. If we ever go back to the moon, I'm confident that she'll be among the fortunate ones to step foot there. With headlines full of the slackers of generation X, it was a refreshing reminder that the media does not necessarily define or represent reality.
After we said our good-byes and good lucks as she exited at a suburban station, I settled in. There is something special about the sleep you get into as a train moves through the night. The rhythm of the rails, the swaying of the cars, and the vibrations of the seat conspire to put you out like a double dose of Sominex.
My next contact with consciousness was getting tapped on the shoulder. "Next stop New York. New York next stop", the conductor intoned as she worked down the cars. I groggily retrieved my bags from the overheads and gathered myself for the next challenge.
New York City,
It's a cold splash of reality to exit the train and see Transit Police stationed every 100 feet down the platform. I tightened my grip on my bags, and put on my best New York 'man with a purpose who knows where he's going and what he's about' look. It's a prerequisite for survival on the streets, and properly adopted and executed will carry you through 99% of the unarmed interactions you're likely to encounter in the city.
As we spilled out into the station, the citizen/cop ratio held at about 50:1. There was even one posted at the entrance to the bathrooms, but I didn't feel brave enough to empty my aching bladder. I fought the welling fountain of fear rising inside me. I might as well have been on the savannas, any display of fear meant instant consequences. In an environment like this, it is sensed, smelled, and swiftly eradicated.
The semi-permanent residents looked relatively benign. Only one mildly dangerous one was pacing me. I cranked up the purposeful factor a couple of notches and he dropped back, looking for an easier mark to cull from the herd. A quick check with the three cops at the information desk and I was off to the cab stand. Fresh air never tasted so good. I had run the gauntlet.
Only one panhandler to pay off to get to the cabs, and I was away. New York in the dead of the wee hours. A remarkable experience. Everyone should do this at least once, for no other reason than to experience going cross-town at speed. From Penn Station to JFK at any speed we wanted to go! Remarkable.
The United terminal at JFK was in deep hibernation as we pulled up. A rent-a-cop, and a party of foreign nationals were in the entrance. Although the in doors had been shut off, the foreigners were still unloading baggage from their car, so I slipped in the out door as they transferred bags.
There were a handful of kindred souls sleeping in the waiting area. Otherwise it was silent, save the cleaning staff's boom box with the BBC Overnight at a good volume. A sleeping terminal with taste in radio is always a good sign.
I made a bee line for the restroom where I purged my bursting bladder and cleaned up a little bit. Refreshed and repaired I wandered back out and called Steph. She picked up within a few rings and sounded pretty awake. Turns out she'd been waiting up, not able to sleep, with images of bums gambling for my clothes along the tracks filling her head. I bid her a good sleep and picked a likely seat to wait out the night.
Along about 5am the first United bus pulled up and disgorged it's cargo of personnel. I thought they looked amazingly awake and full of good cheer for this time of the day. As they fanned out into the terminal to bring it to life, I reflected on how my fate lay in their hands. I still had a cheapo $300 BOS to SFO ticket to swap for a JFK to SFO fare. I practiced my best smile and puppy dog eyes for the ticket agent.
At 5:45am they started to process the long queue that had silently built as passengers arrived for the early morning flights. I made my way over to the first class line, access to which is one of the perks of living a good portion of my life on United aircraft. As I waited in line I listened to the tale of the two guys in front of me. They had driven all night to get here. They'd been stuck for two days. In Boston. Instant bonding.
Once I got to an agent I was greeted with bad news. The 8am flight to SFO had been canceled. In milliseconds the past eighteen hours of my life flashed before me: cancellations, clams, chaos, sadistic bureaucrats, searching eyes, missing bags, broken Delta dreams, tramp steamers, pick up Lacrosse teams, paper mache moon bases, prowling carnivores, cross-town at speed, slumbering terminals, cancellations. We'd come full circle.
I had two choices at that moment. I could have reached across the counter and choked the life from her with my bare hands and spent the rest of my life plotting escape from the Federal Maximum Security Facility for Violent Offenders in Marion Illinois in order to eradicate the entire headquarters of United Airlines. Or, I could stand there with my much practiced puppy dog eyes and disarming smile pleading for a way to get to my fiancee for the weekend.
She looked at me with that aura that overcomes certain women when in the presence of a living manifestation of true romance. She immediately found me a seat in business class on the 7am flight to SFO.
I had made the right choice.
I asked her to wait list me for a first class upgrade, and went up to the club to enjoy a cup of decaf. As the sun rose, and the pastels were painted across the glass, I could feel the last chapter of my adventure beginning. At the gate they called my name, and for a few coupons my place in the heavens was assured. On a three class plane like the 767's they fly from JFK to SFO the first class seats, replete with footrests, fully recline.
Knowing that it truly isn't over until it's over, I didn't really settle in until we'd rotated on the takeoff roll and were wheels up. I then put the footrest up, laid the seat back, pulled the blanket up, and checked out.
Coming off the jetway in SFO, I caught a splash of red hair in the waiting crowd. We locked eyes, and I knew that I'd have gone through ten times as much to be there.