Monday, April 6, 2009

Walking the Plank at JFK

(a farce in three acts, with epilogue)

It's a rainy Monday in New York, and my head's in a foggy, transitional space. Having flown back from Toronto on Friday and having passed the weekend in, well, weekend activities, today's the first day of the back-to-work routine. Maybe, then, what with the rain and travel and a dose of escapism on my mind (which always comes when I'm processing monthly bills), it makes sense that the memory arising now is a legendary—and very watery—family story from our New York/Pan Am days. Go back in time to the mid-1980s. I can't get a better fix on the year than to say it was probably in the 1984-85 range. There's been some dispute as to whether, at the time of this story, we were living in a New York apartment (a company owned one-bedroom at Museum Towers on West 53rd Street) or whether our farcical round-trip airport excursion was made from a NYC hotel (which I think would have been the InterContinental). In any event, my parents and I were booked on an international flight out of JFK, going someplace I also don't recall. On the day of our departure, New York was under water: it was a downpour in Manhattan, worse in Queens. Logic would have me assume that my father placed a call to inquire about flight delays—he worked for an airline after all, and he's just that kind of double-check-it traveler—so perhaps he was told that there was still a chance our flight would depart . . . eventually?

Act I
We set out for the airport in a hired car, one of those black Lincoln numbers. The driver went slowly, as did everyone—road conditions were not in our favor—and we ended up not on the highway but on some local neighborhood roads, which turned out to be worse. Water flowed high in the streets and intersections; flash floods backed up the drainpipes. Of course with the trip taking such a long time, and with all the ceaseless rain coming down, it may have been inevitable that someone would have to use a bathroom. The someone was my mother. She and I were sitting in the back seat of the car (laughing about something, until she told me not to make her laugh anymore), while my dad rode up front with the driver, who was not keen on stopping anywhere. And really, at that particular moment, driving through a very residential section of Queens, where could he have? But the call of nature never waits for long. Eventually it came down to threats: find a place immediately, or kiss the new, clean-smelling car interior good-bye. The driver began to scan the area with haste, and finally one of us spied the last (the only) resort: a couple sitting on their porch, watching the rain come down. The driver pulled the car to the curb, and out jumped my mom. After some gesticulating, she was led into the house by the woman. You know how sometimes you just feel compelled to state (or ask) the obvious? I either knew I should take the opportunity that presented itself, or else it was suggested to me by my father. Whichever way, I was the next to bolt through the rain, up the walk to the porch. The man sitting there was in his white tank top (an undershirt of the type commonly called a "wife beater"), and he looked for all the world like an Archie Bunker kind of guy; his wife, whom I'll call Edith then (also appropriate to her general manner and attire), was just inside the open doorway. "Is my mom in there?" I asked them. I don't know why I asked that. I guess I just had no idea what else to say. Maybe it seemed less embarrassing to just ask after her, rather than indicate my own need. The woman shrugged and showed me in as well, pointing out the location of the downstairs bathroom (off the front hall to the right, and maybe underneath the stairs). My mom came out, I used the bathroom, and we both piled back into the car. Happy ending? Not quite.

Act II
At the airport, the car's way was blocked by a flooded underpass. We could see the Pan Am terminal just up ahead, but there was no way the car could make it through what was probably about three feet of water on one side of the road's concrete divider and five or six feet on the other. There were, however, some people with suitcases walking balance-beam style on the divider toward the terminal. Look like fun? You bet. For about a minute. At this point, I really wish I could remember where we were supposed to be traveling. I'd like to think it was a fabulous, once-in-a-lifetime location to warrant such idiotic determination. Somehow, though, I suspect it wasn't necessarily so. But at some point, you just do not give up. We'd come all this way, could see the terminal . . . never mind the fact that the flights would certainly have been pulled off the departures board; anyone should have been able to see that. I guess we were hoping for a break in the weather, for delay instead of cancellation. My dad sent the car on its way, and there we were, walking the plank with our luggage at JFK. I'm pretty sure none of us would've had the idea if we hadn't seen others doing it. But that's worse: instead of having a unique solution, we were little more than wet sheep. At some point, there was a splash—someone dropped a suitcase into the shallower side of the road (it was none of us, thankfully). We continued walking. Once on the divider, with people in front of us and behind us, it wasn't possible to turn around. Even with no one behind us, it wouldn't have worked. The divider was too narrow for turning, none of us being gymnasts, and even gymnasts don't have literal, physical baggage to carry. So, we'd made it through Queens to the airport, and we made it through the flooded underpass without incident. (Do I also remember my mom having taken off her high-heeled shoes? Was she walking the wet cement in her stockings, or is that an extra flourish of my imagination?) At the Pan Am terminal, we waited around for a while, and after my father consulted with several Pan Am/JFK ground staff, it became clear that there was no way our flight was leaving that day. (Again, this could qualify as stating the obvious.) Rather than spend the night in the airport, we turned around and started the journey back to the apartment (or hotel).

We hailed a yellow cab, gave the driver our address in Manhattan. I don't know if it was the same underpass we'd traversed earlier, on tiptoe, or if it was a different road out of the airport, but sure enough, we encountered the same situation: a small temporary lake of water pooled in front of us. The driver hesitated for a moment, then—and perhaps this is a testament to the difference in grit between a yellow cabbie and a Town Car driver—he pushed on ahead. We were all in the back this time, looking at each other in silence, wondering what next. The what next was that some water started seeping in the cab at my feet. I remember that I blurted out some kind of exclamation and pulled my knees up to my chest. We all figured that was it, the cab would stall (wasn't there water in the tailpipe, then?), we'd be out in the water with our bags after all, but somehow the cab made it through. I don't know what my father gave him for a tip when we got back to Manhattan, but I hope it was a good one; he certainly earned it.

We all know that what goes up, must come down. Of course, in our crazy travel story, it would have been nice if we'd had the chance to go up—if our flight had actually taken off—but it was not meant to be. Since I can't exactly pinpoint the year or our desired destination, I can't tell you whether in fact the planned trip ever did take place or if it was (pardon the pun) a complete wash. I will tell you this: we've gotten a lot of mileage out of this story over the years, and in fact, it's a story that was in part responsible for getting me into college: I wrote out a version of this adventure for my application to Bard College. When I went to the campus for my interview with admissions, I remember being told that the essay was one of the most unusual they'd read, and apparently it was well written (or well written enough), since I was sent an acceptance letter. Never before, never since have we had an airport story to rival this one (not that I'm looking to repeat the experience), and it's hard for me to fly out of JFK, or even to be in New York during a heavy rain, without remembering it. I can also tell you this: in the event of any kind of weather other than clear, sunny skies, I make sure to check with the airline before heading to the airport.

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