Monday, December 28, 2009

The Longest Day

2:18 AM: my cell phone rings, ripping me out of a deep slumber. It takes me a while to get my bearings, so by the time I get to the phone and open it, I've missed the call. But the unidentified number has left me a voice mail. While I'm trying to get to my voicemail, my land line rings. WTF? Who is trying to call BOTH my phones at 2:30 in the morning? Clearly someone needs to get a hold of me.
I answer my phone. An automated voice from American Airlines tells me that my flight to Philadelphia, leaving at 6:45 that morning, has been canceled. I've been rebooked on the same flight the following day. Do I accept this new itinerary? Still disoriented from having woken up three minutes earlier, I agree.

At this point, many sane people would simply have gone back to bed and accepted the changed itinerary. So I'll get one less day in Philadelphia, they'd think. End of story. But you must understand that I really, really wanted to get to Philadelphia. I don't want to get into the personal details here, but just imagine that I've developed a very keen interest in studying our nation's history. I've been reading about it for months and really looking forward to seeing the sites myself. I only have a three-day leave. And I'm not about to give up an entire day without a fight. You must also understand that at this point, at 2:30 in the morning, I didn't realize why my flight had been canceled. I didn't know that the entire East Coast had been slammed by a blizzard. I thought the airline was just fucking with me.

So at 2:30 in the morning I call the AA (the airline, not the support group) 800-number to see what other options I have for getting to Philadelphia. First I try the automated system, and when they ask me to say my last name, I do. But they don't understand. I say it clearly, loudly, and slowly about six times, but their computer can't register it. Then I say something into the phone that is clearly NOT my last name, and they don't recognize that, either.

Okay, clearly I need to talk to a human being. But it's 2:45 in the morning, and the wait time to talk to a human is 60 minutes. The idea of waiting on hold for 60 minutes is so beyond my comprehension that I never consider it. Okay, I think, I'll just drive to Chicago and pick up my flight there. (For some reason I thought it was the flight from Champaign to Chicago that had been canceled. Again, I had no idea about the snowstorm in Philly.) I look up directions online.

I start mentally preparing myself for a drive to Chicago when I have an inspiration and go to the AA website to look up flights. It is there that I realize that it isn't the flight to Chicago that's canceled, but the one to Philly. Oh. So now I really need to talk to someone from AA. (Again, the airline, not the support group.)

By 3:00 am the wait time to talk to a live person is 70 minutes. Since I only live 10 minutes from the airport, maybe I should just drive there and talk to a live person at their counter. I go to the website and find out that the terminal opens at 4:00 am. That's an hour away. I decide to get up and take a shower and load up my car. Just before 4:00 I leave for the airport with no idea how this day will turnout. I tell my cats, "I'll either see you in a few hours or in three days."

4:08 AM: I arrive at Willard Airport. The terminal is indeed open. But no human beings are there. Who opened the doors? A recording comes on every few minutes to remind me to keep my bags with me at all times. Who's running that? I sit down and start taking notes. I have to remind myself that this is a good exercise in having no power. I must wait in a haze of uncertainty.

While waiting I think about all my options. Worst case scenario is that I just spend a nice relaxing day at home and continue with my trip tomorrow. But I don't want to do that. Another option would be to drive all the way to Philly. It's a 12-hour drive, according to Google Maps, and If I left right now I could be there early evening. But I'd be exhausted from driving all day after only half a night's sleep. I don't want to do that.

Just before 5:00 am I notice workers starting to arrive. People walk in and go through the locked doors behind that check-in desk. People in TSA uniforms start coming in. It occurs to me that I could have slept another hour, instead of coming in at 4:00, but hindsight is always obnoxious like that. And I probably wouldn't have been able to sleep, anyway.

4:57 AM: As other passengers start to arrive, I decide I better go stand in the line at the counter. Til now I've just been sitting in a chair against the wall.

5:07 AM: After standing there for ten minutes, I notice a sign over the counter that says, "Counter open from 5:30 AM - 6:00 PM." Okay, so now I know when to expect people. I go back to my chair and sit down. I realize I haven't eaten yet today so I break out the snack I brought with me.

5:21 AM: More passengers are starting to come in, so I go back to the counter to make sure I'm first in line. I didn't get here at 4:00 to wait behind a bunch of people. It occurs to me that if I'd just waited on the phone for 60 minutes, I could have had this all figured out two hours ago. It's the uncertainty that's killing me. Someone just talk to me! As soon as I start the queue, people start forming a line behind me. By 5:28, I'm at the head of a very long line.

5:37 AM: I finally talk to a live person! She rebooks me on a 6:00 pm flight from Chicago to Philly, to arrive at 9:00ish pm. I was originally supposed to arrive at noonish, but 9:00 pm is better than nothing. It will require some rearranging of plans, but no great tragedy. My flight from Champaign to Chicago is at 4:30, but to be on the safe side I decide to try to fly standby at noon. I go home.

6:00 AM -- 8:30 AM: I try to get some sleep. I get up and have breakfast and plan to call my Philly friend at 9:00 am.

9:00 AM: My sister-in-law, who is traveling to her own family xmas, calls my home phone to ask what's going on. Why is she calling my home? For all she knows I should be on my way to Chicago by now. What do you know? I demand. She's heard about the blizzard on the East Coast. Oh? What blizzard? She tells me more about the 20 inches of snow in D.C.

While I'm on the home phone with SIL, my sister calls me, on my cell, from her own visit to her in-laws. Repeat same conversation with her. So I guess this snow storm is some kind of big deal.

9:15 AM: Call my Philly friend and discuss change of plans. We end up talking for 1.5 hours. I remember why I wanted to go to Philadelphia in the first place. All that history.

11:00 AM: Go back to Willard Airport for second time that day. I'm on standby for a noon flight, so I don't know if I'll be coming back home today or in three days. I'm not even sure I should get on this flight or not. What if my flight to Philly gets canceled and I'm stuck in Chicago? The afternoon flight to Philly has been canceled, but my 6:00 pm flight is still scheduled, according to the lady at the counter.

11:45 AM: My standby status is upgraded-- I get a seat assignment on the plane. The flight that's supposed to leave Champaign in 15 minutes has not yet left Chicago, to get to Champaign, so that it can turn around and go back. I call my friend to give her the update. She says the 6:00 pm flight has not yet been canceled. But the counter lady told me that no flights have landed in Philly all day. Not a good sign.

1:00 PM: En route from Champaign to Chicago, 18,000 feet up, the flight attendant informs me that my flight from Chicago to Philly has been canceled. So I'm flying into an airport with no connection. Well, fuck me! Nice timing.

1:45 PM: I track down the canceled flight gate and talk to a nice lady from AA. "What are my options?" I ask. "I really want to get to Philadelphia as soon as possible." The first thing she does is book me on a flight to Philly first thing the next morning, 6:30 am. She also gives me a voucher for a "distressed passenger rate" at a nearby hotel. In the meantime, she tells me that flights are landing at La Guardia in New York. That's about as close to Philadelphia that she can get me. It sounds good to me, so she gets me a seat on that flight.

2:05 PM: I call my Philly friend and explain the new plan. She goes online to investigate options for getting from La Guardia to Philadelphia. It will involve busses, trains, rickshaws, and maybe even a camel. It's a good thing we're both reference librarians who know how to solve these kinds of problems. We both wonder how it's possible that Philly could be snowed in but La Guardia is still taking flights. We're skeptical that the flight will go.

I realize that I haven't had lunch yet, and am about ready to gnaw off my own foot, so I have some crappy fast food in the airport.

3:24 PM: As I'm waiting at the gate for my flight to LGA, there is an announcement that the flight has been "oversold." There are 63 people on standby alone for this flight. A few minutes later, that number goes up to 73. I must have got my seat just in time. I guess a lot of other people had the same idea as me.

8:00 PM: Flight lands in LGA!! It's half an hour late, and I have to haul ass to make it to Penn Station for a 9:05 train. If I miss that one, I can take an 11:00 one, but at this point my goal for the day is if I get to my destination before midnight, I've won.

After a brief flirtation with trying to figure out public transportation, I decide to just take a taxi. I really want to get on the that 9:05 train, which will get me to Philly by 10:30, well ahead of my newly revised goal. At 8:20 I get in a taxi and say, "Can you get me to Penn Station by 9:00?" He says he'll try. I call my friend from the cab, who tells me that the train is delayed-- we have til 9:20 to get there.

The snow has really started to fall in New York, so that ride is slow and treacherous. It feels like we're racing against the weather to get to the station on time. The cab's windshield wipers don't work well. As we're cruising along the highway, the car starts to lose control on the snowy pavement. We spin through three lanes and crash, pretty hard, into a cement guard wall. Luckily, there was no traffic around us. My first thought is, I guess I won't be making that train.

The cabbie asks me several times if I'm okay, and I'm really fine. He gets out and checks the car, and miraculously there doesn't seem to be any damage. We continue on, very slowly, and keep driving through the snow. As we crawl through snowy traffic, I think about how, when I woke up this morning, I had no idea I'd be taking a cab through Manhattan. Funny how life does that sometimes.

9:00 PM: The cabbie drops me off at Penn Station. The fare is $29, and I give him $40 for his troubles, partly because I didn't want to wait around for change, but also because he earned it. I run into the station and look for a place to buy Amtrak tickets. I get to an electronic kiosk and put in my credit card.

No seats left on the 9:05 train. All I can do is buy a ticket for the 11:00. I buy one for that and hope that I can somehow get onto the 9:05 one. Maybe they have a standby system. I really want to be on that train. I wait in the line for the earlier one, but when the lady checking the tickets sees mine, she won't let me through. I wait til the line is gone so I can ask her, "Is there any way I can get on that train?" No. I ask three or four times. I tell her I'll just stand in the aisle. I have no pride. But she can't help me.

9:18 PM: I am defeated. I second-guess every decision I've made all day, from going to the airport at 4:00 am to blowing $40 on a cab to get to Penn Station on time. All the running I've done all day: What has it gained me? Even if I get to Philly on time, I've gained maybe nine hours, and I'll have to go to sleep as soon as I get there.

9:26 PM: Have my fifth phone conversation of the day with my Philly friend. (In addition to 8 texts we've sent to each other.) I tell her not to wait up for me. I'll take a cab to her place.

9:50 PM: I realize I haven't eaten dinner yet, so I get some crappy fast food at Penn Station.

10:55 PM: Board train. Scheduled to leave at 11:05, arrive in Philly around 12:30. It's been a very long day. Astronomically speaking, this is one of the shortest days of the year (December 19th) in the Northern Hemisphere. But it's definitely the longest day of the year for me. It's been a day with a hundred ups and downs, little victories and defeats at every stage. But now I can see a light at the end of the tunnel.

11:35 PM: The train is still sitting in the station. WTF??? Why are we not going? There is an announcement over the train PA system. They apologize for the delay. The train is fine, the tracks are fine, but they don't have a conductor. Due to the weather, they are waiting for the conductor to arrive. They apologize for the delay. Stop apologizing and start the effing train!!! Will this day never end?!?!

12:05 AM: The train finally starts moving, exactly one hour late.

1:18 AM: The train stops in Trenton, NJ. The cute young college girl who's been sharing a 4-seat section with a nice young man gets off. They've been talking the entire trip. It's not clear if they knew each other before, but they go to school near each other. She talked about her boyfriend, so it's not clear if she was sharing a moment with him. But as she walks off the train, the young man looks at her and sighs, and it's clear he's totally smitten. I know that look, because I've been there many times myself. I have to smile.

The thing I love about traveling is how you encounter so many people you've never seen before and will never see again. Thousands of new faces. You would think we'd run out of them, but there are always new ones. Airports and train stations are places of such emotion. So many stories are happening there. Reunions, goodbyes, and everything in between.

1:55 AM: The final indignity. I'm not the only person who had the idea to take the train into Philadelphia. Everyone who couldn't fly in is on this train, and so there is a huge line at the taxi stand. Only, there are hardly any taxis. One comes around every five minutes or so. As I'm standing in line I notice a huge LED light display on top of one of the buildings. It says, "2:05 AM...25 degrees...." Welcome to Philadelphia!

2:20 AM: I am next in line for the next cab. But they stop coming. Two of them drive past our line. What the hell is going on? Why won't they stop? Finally, one of them comes back around and the driver gets out. He's willing to take someone, but we have to double up. He's not wasting his time with just one fare, he needs to make some money. Asshole.

He charges me a flat rate of $15 to go about 10 blocks. (My friend had said the cab ride should be about $5 from the train station.) We're packed so tight into his car that I can't even put my hand into my coat pocket to get out my cell and call my friend. I give the cabbie the address, but he drives right past it. I tell him to stop, and he does, several doors down from where I need to be. I get out my bags, give him his $15 (no way he's getting a tip-- he can ask the nice cabbie from NY for it.) "It's been a long day," I tell him as I trudge through the snow.

My 23-hour day finally ends.

My trip got much better after that.

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