Friday, April 18, 2014

Planes, planes, taxis and automobiles (Part 2 of 2)

September 15, 1999
When Sharon told me on Friday that she was in the hospital with a blood clot, my first impulse was to head straight for the airport. Sharon talked me out of this quickly - her doctors had no idea how long she would be hospitalized, and she made it very clear to me that she didn't want me there while she was still in the hospital. 

(I should point out here that I had already spent quite a bit of time with Sharon in hospitals previously - we had a scare on a prior visit involving suspected appendicitis.)

The following Monday, her doctors told her that she would most likely be released on Wednesday. I made reservations to fly out that day, arriving late evening Wednesday, planning to stay until the following Monday or Tuesday. That's when the least fun travel odyssey of my life started.

Everything began normally enough. I got a ride to the airport on Wednesday from my best friend, Randy. On the way, he reminded me that it was hurricane season in the east, and that there was a hurricane heading up the coast. I told him I had checked with USAir, and the flight was departing as scheduled.

I checked in, had a drink (which I usually don't do when I'm flying) and boarded the flight. I almost never sleep on planes - I'm not sure why, but I just don't seem to be able to stay asleep for more than 30 minutes, even on long flights. But this time, a combination of exhaustion and one drink did the trick - I fell asleep almost immediately, and didn't wake up until the plane was on the ground. I collected my carry-on bag and computer bag and shuffled off the plane.

I grew up in northeastern Pennsylvania, and had traveled through Philadelphia International Airport innumerable times, including at least four times in the prior six months, so I knew the airport pretty well. The airport I saw when I exited the plane didn't look quite right, but I remembered that they had been doing a lot of renovations. But after walking a hundred yards or so, I knew something was wrong. I returned to the arrival gate and found a USAir representative.

"I know this will sound like a weird question, but - where exactly am I?" I asked.

"You're in Charlotte, North Carolina. Where were you expecting to be?"

"Well, I was hoping to be in Philadelphia," I said, still digesting the idea that I was 500 miles from where I expected to be.

"Oh!" the USAir rep said. "You must have been on the flight from Los Angeles. You were diverted to Charlotte because the Philadelphia airport is underwater."

This took a minute to register. "Underwater?" I said blankly.

"Yes, Hurricane Floyd just made landfall not far from there, and they've had 10 inches of rain so far. The airport is closed."

I called Sharon, who had already heard about the diversion. She is not the excitable type, but was not at all pleased at this development. I told her I'd call as soon as I had an update. By this time, it was around 7pm; I was supposed to land in Philadelphia at 6:15, so Sharon thought I'd already be at her house by then.

USAir, to their credit, did everything they could to find me a flight. There were some indications that the Philadelphia airport might reopen, so they booked me on a few flights that ended up being canceled. Finally, at midnight, they threw in the towel and put me up at a nearby Marriott.

I called Sharon again, who by this time was mad. There was no one to blame, of course, so I bore the brunt of it. But I was the dutiful boyfriend, and that was my job, so that's what I did. I told her that I was returning to the airport at 6am to try again, and would call her as soon as I knew what was happening.

USAir sent a car for me and got me to the airport just after 6 the following morning. When I arrived, they informed me that the Philadelphia airport had reopened, and booked me on a 7am flight. That was perfect - I had just enough time to get to Starbucks for a coffee and pastry. I took my boarding pass and headed for Starbucks, which took me past the flight status board just in time to see the "On Time" message next to my flight change to "Canceled."

I headed back to the gate. The USAir representative was profusely apologetic - the information they had gotten was wrong, and they weren't sure when the airport would reopen. There had apparently been a massive power failure, as well, so things just weren't looking very promising.

We continued with several more cycles of hope/diminished hope/cancellation. Finally, around 11am, I asked if there was a flight to one of the New York airports. There was a flight to Newark scheduled to depart at noon. I asked to be put on that flight. The USAir rep started to tell me that this was off my itinerary and might cost extra. I tilted my head down gave her my best baleful look over my glasses. 

She got the message and got to work. Five minutes later, my CLT-EWR boarding pass in hand, I headed to the gate for my long-delayed flight.

Much to my surprise, the flight took off on time and did, in fact, land in Newark. I took the New Jersey Transit train from the airport to Penn Station in Manhattan, then bolted for the Amtrak ticket counter.

"One roundtrip to Philadelphia, please," I said to the ticket agent, and handed over a credit card. He printed the ticket, had me sign the voucher and I was off. I had taken this particular train many times, and knew exactly where to go and when it ran. I called Sharon to let her know, then headed down the escalator to the tracks.

After waiting for thirty minutes, I started to get concerned. Not only had the train not arrived, but there was no indication on the board that it would arrive. I gathered my stuff and went back up the escalator to the Amtrak ticket booth, where the same agent was reading a newspaper.

"Any idea when the train to Philly will arrive?" I asked.

"The Philadelphia trains have all been canceled. 30th Street Station is flooded," he said, and returned to his newspaper.

I was uncharacteristically speechless. Finally I was able to say, "You do remember that you sold me a ticket for that train a half-hour ago?"

"Yes," he said.

More silence. 

I said, "You sold me a ticket knowing the train wasn't running."

"I had no way of knowing when you were traveling, sir." I always know I'm against a brick wall when they call me "sir." I asked for a refund, and was treated to a truly unpleasant experience involving much grumbling, paper-shuffling and supervisor-calling. I did get a refund, not that it mattered much. I thought about suggesting that the ticket agent call Sharon, since I certainly didn't want to.

I took a few deep breaths and called Sharon, who was on a lot of pain meds and was not amused. By this time, she knew that I was making a Herculean effort to get there, but that didn't make either of us feel much better.

I left Penn Station and walked up 8th Avenue to the Hertz car rental station. There was a line out the door. As I stood there, looking forlorn and feeling like the situation was hopeless, the guy in front of me said, "You know, there's another Hertz location on 57th. You want to share a cab?" I nodded, and we flagged down a taxi.

On the way, I told the story up to this point. My taxi companion said, "So you're going to Philadelphia?" I nodded. "Funny, me too."

We arrived at the Hertz station, which was empty. I happened to get to the counter first and asked for a car. 

"Do you have a reservation?"


"No," I said, "I've been trying to get to Philadelphia since yesterday afternoon."

"I do have one car," the Hertz rep said. I immediately felt terrible, and turned to my taxi buddy.

"Let's split it," he said.

So we got Hertz's very last car, which happened to be a quite pleasant Lincoln Town Car. And just over three hours later, I pulled into the Hertz lot at Philadelphia International Airport, where Sharon was waiting to meet me. (Her mother drove.)

"Just in case you weren't sure if I loved you..." I began.

"Just get in the fucking car," Sharon said, and hugged me for a long time.

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