A Really Big Hiccup

Sunday began not unlike any other day I’ve flown from here to there. My phone was charged, my mid-flight book was readily accessible in my backpack, and my bottle of water was filled.

I’d spent the previous three days in Los Angeles with my friends and my other half, having the best time doing nothing and everything. It had been months since we’d all been together and quite frankly, as much as I’m obsessed with New York, I would’ve loved to stay with them for another six months. The weather was intoxicatingly perfect, the company was divine, and any minute with my other half is the best minute. Alas, my responsibilities beckoned so after waking up at 4:00 in the morning, I was at the airport, moderately coherent, and boarding my 6:00 a.m. flight to Chicago.

Flying isn’t my favorite thing—I’m too tall and too broad and the prolonged stagnant sitting makes me uncomfortable—but I fly often because I live in one corner of the country and most of my people live at other corners. So I make the best of it. I write and I read, both of which are filling and emptying in their own ways, and I get where I need to go.

Despite being in the air before God was awake, all was going well until we were about half an hour outside of Chicago. I was supposed to switch planes before heading to LaGuardia in New York but a freak “weather incident” had shut down the airport. A heady mixture of snow, wind, and fog was making it impossible for planes to either leave or land so instead, we were diverted to St. Louis.

The inherent unpredictability of weather being what it is, we didn’t know how long we’d be delayed but were told it was long enough to get off the plane, stretch our legs, and forage for Auntie Anne’s pretzel nuggets. After about two hours on the ground in St. Louis—a place I’ve always wanted to visit but under far different circumstances—we were back on the plane. Another half hour delay later, we were on our way to Chicago. Again. The weather had let up, which was great, and per the internet, I was still on track to make my connecting flight, which was even greater.

However, upon landing in Chicago, an alert on my phone told me all the remaining flights to LaGuardia had been canceled during the earlier “weather incident” so my mind started spiraling. I like to be in control, especially when it comes to travel. Hiccups in one’s travel plans bring about a very specific form of stress, almost as if you’re orphaned, stranded, and trapped all at once, and this was a really big hiccup. Though my internal level of panic tends to idle in the calm, measured, safe zone, it began to rise rapidly and my spirits began to fall just as fast.

Thanks to continuous, calming assurance from my other half, I took a deep breath—lots of deep breaths—and told myself I could fly to Philly and just take the train into New York from there. I didn’t want to do that since it would add an additional two hours of commuting to my already long day, but if that’s what it took to get home, I’d do it. I had a dog waiting on me. He’s needy. So, I joined the long line of people who received similar alerts on their phones and were also searching for ways to get out of Chicago. We were a hallway-long caterpillar of legs and need, slowly scooting closer to the customer service desk in the hopes of getting our wings to fly.

After waiting in the line for an hour and a half, I was told the earliest they could get me to LaGuardia was Tuesday evening, something that wasn’t an option in that I had to be in DC on Tuesday for work. Not to mention the aforementioned needy dog waiting for me at home. I then asked if Philly was an option but was informed all of those flights had been canceled as well. The agent at the desk—a pretty ginger who was doing her best and kept smiling though the hundreds of stranded people funneling their crazy directly at her—said my only option for making it home that night was the standby list for the one remaining flight to Newark. I looked up to Jesus and said the first of the three essential prayers per Anne Lamott: Help. After shoving an overpriced mediocre burger down my gullet and refilling my water bottle, I walked over to wait on my new flight, my Obi-Wan Kenobi, my only hope.

First it was delayed 10 minutes. Then 10 more. Then 20 more after that. When boarding was finally announced, I watched as what looked like a loaves-and-fishes-sized crowd gathered and I knew I’d need a miracle of my own if I had any hope of getting on board. Among the crowd, there was a basketball team, each of whom were no less than 11-feet-tall; a cluster of frantic white women, each of whom felt it was their responsibility to articulate their frustrations loudly; one very intoxicated man in his early 30s who toppled over in slow motion in the middle of the hallway; and me, the person trying to play it cool but was actually a tangle of nervous panic.

Everyone boarded and the jet bridge door closed. One of the other women who was trying to fly standby shouted out, “Wait! What about standby!?” The agent reassured her they were simply waiting for the empty seat count. The woman and her two sons were standing behind me in that initial customer service line and since we were all headed to the same place, I made a point to relay what information I was given to them. We were a tribe, albeit a temporary tribe born out of circumstance, and we’d become equally desperate to know if we’d make it home.

That’s when I heard it. Though impossibly mispronounced, I heard what I cobbled together to recognize as my name over the speakers. Relief washed over me like a waterfall and I stepped toward the gate with an exhale that could be heard from space. The agent told me to run over to customer service to get my boarding pass, so run I did. My comfy travel pants were falling down, my backpack was flopping back and forth, and my arms flailed about as I ran like the McAlisters trying to make their flight to France. When she printed out my boarding pass, I sprinted back just as tragically, running down the jet bridge like Phoebe in the park on FRIENDS. There was a seat up front and upon sitting down, I put my face in my hands and let my tears pool in them. A few minutes later, the woman and her two sons ran onto the plane as well. We all made it. It was a miracle after all and I prayed the second of Anne Lamott’s essential prayers: Thanks.

When the plane took off, the once-stranded denizens of the Chicago airport burst into applause. I love clapping in groups more than I love most things but after the day I’d had, I didn’t have the energy to enjoy the moment. Which was sad. Doing the math, it looked like I’d be home by 1 in the morning and though it was six hours later than the original plan, it was a far better alternative than not getting there at all. I set myself to finish reading the book I’d brought with me and finding the inner peace which had evaded me all day.

As I sat in my newly-acquired peaceful state of miracle gratitude, my neighbor texted me. Because I was getting home so much later than expected, she’d gone down to my apartment and take Joey out for his walk. Joey and her dog are friends, the sort who poop together on the street and get excited about it, so when she offered to do that for me, I was relieved. However, when she entered my apartment, she found Joey outside of his crate and as she put it, “he chewed up some things.” Terrific. Still, it was the least of my stressors so I thanked her and told her I’d clean up the mess when I got home. Apparently my sitter didn’t latch the crate correctly and since he’s a ninja assassin when it comes to slipping out of crates, he took the opportunity and made a break for it. I love him but in that moment, I contemplated selling him to the gypsies.

When we landed, the plane applauded again. This time, I was thrilled to join in. I got through the airport with a speed and efficiency that surprised me and I hopped onto the tram to shuttle me to the New Jersey Transit trains. Yet the tram on which I and others from my flight sat never wound up getting us there. We were circling around to where we’d started so when the doors opened at the next terminal, a terminal I’d now seen twice, I hollered to an employee asking what to do. He told us we had to go back to the start again. Thanks. Then, when we finally arrived at the correct platform, we joined an ever-growing herd of travelers waiting for the singular tram that could take us to the train.

It was a crowd full of heavy-sighing, scattered glances, and nervous fidgeting and I was a full participant in each of those less-than-cute and entirely-ineffective ways of making the tram arrive quicker. In the midst of my huffing and puffing, I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned to see a young woman staring up at me with anxiety-filled eyes. In a thick accent, she frantically asked if this was the train to get us to Penn Station. I told her it was the tram to get to the train to get to Penn Station. Her eyes spun like pinwheels in a thunderstorm and I said, “I’m also going to Penn Station so I’ll help you get there.” She nodded, forced a Mona Lisa smile, and went back to reading her itinerary.

Twenty minutes later, that tram arrived, shuttling us to the station just in time for us to wait another twenty minutes for the next train to Manhattan. My nerve endings had deadened hours earlier, fried from the stress of travel gone awry, so all I could do was laugh. I probably looked like the Joker as I stood alone on the platform at 1 in the morning laughing to myself. When the train finally arrived, I collapsed into a seat in a state of utter exhaustion. Across from me sat my short friend reading and rereading her itinerary as a way to try to control the uncontrollable. She gave me another frenetic look and I told her, “We just stay on this train and we will end up at Penn Station.” She nodded and her smile was slightly wider this time.

On the train, I didn’t read and I didn’t write. I sat quietly and listened to Nat King Cole sing into my earbuds as we rolled along. Almost there. But just when Manhattan was within spitting distance, the train stopped. I began blinking very quickly as I looked up and down the aisle. Why are we stopped? What is happening now? It’s the middle of the night. There’s no train traffic. Minutes went by, long, tedious minutes, and my short friend looked at me to silently inquire about the problem. My silent response was a shrug that said, I guess we’re waiting for Dementors.

After what felt like half an hour, the train began to lurch forward, slowly as if it was scared, and eventually, we made it to the platform. Finally, I was back in my city. I jumped in one of the elevators full of people to head toward the cabs but when the doors opened and we happily marched out, all of the gates in that section of Penn Station were closed and locked. We were trapped in the corridor and there wasn’t a single person who could get us out. “Really?” I said aloud, instantly becoming one of those people who vent their frustration to no one and everyone at once. Back down the elevator we went, back to the train platform to hunt for another way up. A couple flights of stairs later, we made it out.

I saw the sign for the train my short friend needed and told her if she just followed the signs straight ahead, she’d get there. She hugged me and said with a giant smile, “Thank you! You’ve saved me tonight.” As she walked away, I said, Wow, the third of Anne Lamott’s essential prayers. But there wasn’t any time for a lengthy rumination about being of help to others while in the middle of your own crisis. I had to get home and put this day, and myself, to bed. Almost as manic as when I ran to get my standby Golden Ticket boarding pass hours earlier, I darted through Penn Station, jumped into the first cab on the street and rolled down the window. As I was squired home in my yellow chariot, the cool spring air washed over me like a hug and I closed my eyes to take it in. Almost there.

Entering my apartment, all I really wanted to do was fall into bed. My legs hurt, my feet ached and I wanted to bury my tired face in a pillow and sleep off the stress of my day. But as I got to my door, I remembered what my neighbor told me: Joey had made a mess. And what a mess it was. She’d put him back in his crate so he wasn’t free to greet me at the door, but I was met with his food strung across the apartment and his blanket in tatters. He’d pulled down his leash, ripping the hook out of the wall as he did, and went on to shred it before turning my favorite gym bag into mulch. It was a frustrating homecoming but Joey was entirely oblivious he’d done anything wrong. He jumped up and kissed my face and nuzzled my stomach and wagged his tail with such ferocity it felt like a ruler being slapped against my calves. He was so happy I was home, which made me happy too, so I hugged him, refilled his water bowl, and set myself to sweeping the floor. His anxiety had taken over and he’d made a mess of things. A cautionary lesson for all of us really.

In Some Assembly Required, the book I was reading during my travel, Anne Lamott writes about coming back to America after a trip to India. “I don’t really remember much about flying home, except that it took several years and was pretty awful and that I did the best I could.”

Anne Lamott’s essential prayers can be read about in her book, Help. Thanks. Wow.

Ryan’s book of essays, I Feel God in This Cab, is available here. 

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