Life is precious and hence my flight to return home was cancelled at the last minute while our plane with all of us in it taxied on the runway. The airport was closed. We were told that we could get our luggage at the baggage claim area and then we would have to find an active service counter and try to re-book a flight out of there.
For the previous few days I had been tracking on the Weather Channel the winter storm that was working its way towards nearly the whole of the Eastern Atlantic coastline. The first report I heard said the storm might hit right along the coast, but the next report said it might just miss the coast and move off into the Atlantic. The night before I was to leave the Florida Gulf the more definitive report was that the storm had been upgraded to a blizzard and that it would hit the southern coast in the morning and then work its way up the coast towards New England by afternoon. My flight to the JFK airport in New York City was scheduled to leave at 7:20 am and meant to arrive by 10 am in New York. I woke up at 4:15 am hoping that getting up that early would also mean that I might just miss the blizzard and that once at JFK I could get my connecting flight at 1:25 pm to Rochester where the weather was not supposed to be as bad. My friend Richard was even going to pick me up and drive me home.
I flew up to New York on the an airline called JetBlue. They boast of having more legroom (which they do) and access to Direct satellite TV for each seat. I watched the progress of the storm once again on the Weather Channel, still hopeful that I would get home by nightfall. The weather was calm at JFK at 10 am. My next flight was still scheduled to be on time. Unfortunately, the flight kept getting delayed and I wound up kicked off a cancelled flight standing at gate 8 of the JetBlue terminal feeling helpless. It was after 5 pm, I was tired and a bit hungry and had no desire to get on a line to rebook a flight that might not be leaving for at least one full day if not longer. I decided to get my luggage, one blue and white floral pattern L.L. Bean duffle bag, not easy to miss. The problem was that I would have to leave the main terminal. I half realized this wasn't a good idea, but I didn't know what else to do, so I crossed the security line and headed for the carousels. That alone was a big mistake; I wouldn't get back inside the main terminal till the following day.
The baggage claim area was chaotic because we all were clueless trying to act as if we still had a clue. I discovered soon that the baggage was being indiscriminately thrown onto any carousel and there were at least six of them with two operating. This meant that you couldn't park yourself at just one specific carousel and wait patiently (or impatiently) till your luggage turned up, but instead had to move restlessly from one to another across a large and chilly room crowded with people old to very young. The reason the room was chilly was because there were three very large spinning doorways with people going in and out either to smoke a cigarette or look desperately for a taxi or just to watch the progress of the blizzard. I had no desire to do any of those things and once I got my bag I headed for a corner wall where I could sit down as I had been standing for an hour or so.
I saw that other people those with families or couples or people like myself who were on their own were finding their spots and taking a break till they could figure out what to do. Many people were on their cell phones either talking to friends and family or trying to contact JetBlue to rebook a flight. I wasn't ready yet to call my family. I was continuing to feel vulnerable and disoriented...and hungry. The only thing I had to eat were six small cake-like treats that my mother had given to me the night before. Not the best food, but I ate them. I had spotted in the middle of the room on the side of the spinning doors one lone small Dunkin Donuts with a very small store selling water, drinks, chips and candies and other not very nutritious stuff along with large cups of coffee or hot chocolate. The problem for me was that I was alone and couldn't leave my duffel bag with anyone. I also had a fairly full messenger bag and a small camera bag with my digital camera in it. Around my neck hung a wallet to hold my passport and some money and also my iPod in its padded little case.
I called my family in Florida. My father and brother wanted me to take the subway into the City and get a hotel room in Greenwich Village somewhere. They said I might not get a plane out for anywhere from two to four days. I knew right away that I was NOT going to do that. I was disoriented enough and didn't need to get lost in a blizzard in the City with no boots, gloves, hat or coat and carrying a heavy bag with no wheels on it. At least at the airport there was shelter and some heat (though not a whole helluvalot I found as the night progressed in the baggage claim area), clean and fairly empty toilets, access to water and a tiny bit of food, but more importantly I would have much closer access to eventually getting out of the airport on a moment's notice if a seat opened up in stand-by.
My father reminded me on the phone to not neglect to take my pills and really I needed that little nudge and I did get some water and take my pills. Then I went up one level to the ticket counter for JetBlue and waited online for a hour and a half. It was 9 pm on Sunday. The man behind the desk said that he could reserve a flight for me leaving on Tuesday at 7:59 pm. Most people were talking to their particular airline representative for a chunk of time, but I didn't know what to say, except that I wanted to get inside the terminal again where there was proper heat and the hope of eating a hot meal. I didn't complain and I was sympathetic to his plight (hundreds of disgruntled customers to take care of). He didn't give me a boarding pass, just an itinerary ticket which might be able to get me a boarding pass in the future. As I walked away from him, he took pity on me and said there might be a stand-by spot on a plane that was supposed to leave the next afternoon and to show up here again tomorrow.
I headed back downstairs and picked a spot where I had access to an outlet and watched over my cell phone as it charged for an hour next to a man who was lying on the floor covered up with two small Yorkshire dogs cuddled next to him for warmth. He was using the other outlet to charge one of his gadgets. There was an Hispanic woman sitting near me shivering and holding onto her stacked luggage with wheels. She didn't make eye contact with me and talked only to another Hispanic couple, but it was obvious that she was cold and I heard her say the word "frio". I opened my duffle bag and pulled out a long, large, black knit cardigan sweater that I had just gotten in a thrift store in Florida for $5 and decided to give it to her, which I did. Later, as I lay down on the floor and covered myself up with my fleece and rain jacket to try to get some sleep, she attempted to return the sweater. It was obvious she didn't speak much English, but I made my point that she could keep it if she wanted to. She thanked me and moved off. I felt good that I was there to be of some minor use.
To make a long story short, after shivering myself, and wandering and getting some fitfull sleep, after drinking a large cup of coffee, eating a little candy and talking to a mother guarding her sleeping son, I got through the night and into the morning and back up to the ticket counter. I learned that only people with a ticket and carryon luggage could get into the inner sanctum of the terminal. I was willing to wait another day and a half to get on the Tuesday evening flight out of there, if I could get inside and feel the heat and eat a meal. The African American man behind the counter was polite and articulate and responded to me being polite and sympathetic, if not so articulate. He sympathized with me and managed to get me a ticket and said I could take my duffel bag as carry on luggage, it happened to be small enough. This man was clever, he gave me a ticket to a flight that he knew was or would be cancelled and had me keep the itinerary ticket to get me on the later flight. This is the ticket that got me through security and into the terminal proper.
The first thing I did was get a hot meal. As luck would have it I didn't even have to pay for it because the stores' computers were down for 5-10 minutes and the person in charge let the four of us on line take the food instead of awkwardly standing on line holding all of our parcels and bags. I was very tired and I tried to eat slowly and savor the food and get my energy back to keep on keeping on. The airport was closed and it nearly looked it -- not a lot of people and only a couple of food/convenience stores open. I was very lucky to have gotten that far. I stayed there overnight and then the next morning got booked on a flight that was supposed to leave at 9:30 am. Almost 12 hours earlier than the other flight I had been placed on. This time I got a boarding pass with a seat assignment. The flight, which changed gates three times, began boarding at noon and left at one or one thirty. I got to Rochester at around 3 pm where I called my family and also Richard. I would get home by 6 pm. Once my seven cats were all accounted for to my great pleasure, I called my family one last time to say that my ordeal was finally over. I had been mostly awake for about 62 hours and had just run out of my bedtime anti-psychotic medication. I went to sleep anyway.
I'm grateful that I was safe from harm, that I had my family and Richard to talk to, that I endured without complaining, that I got to talk to several people in the airport and that I got home. This experience taught me a tiny bit of what it would be like to be homeless -- the wandering from place to place, to where bathrooms and water fountains were, to where outlets were, to where food was, to where shelter and heat were, having to guard your stuff, catching a little sleep here and there on the floor or ground, talking to other people who were also homeless, perpetually waiting for something good to happen but feeling tired and almost resigned, living in twilight world, never at home, always a not quite welcome guest. So tired, so sad. In limbo. And without proper facilities to shower and brush your teeth, to have that luxury we call privacy for 10 to 15 minutes, you will begin to be identifiable by smell as well as sight branding yourself as one of the walking wounded, homeless and quite possibly mentally ill. For who remains sane without proper sleep and nutrition, living in continual stress in order just to survive? I'm grateful I was given this window into the lives of the homeless because it has made me appreciate humanity all the more, into the sheer endurance and flexibility of the human spirit. I was also pleased to note that most people behaved very well considering they were stranded. We all knew that we were strangely united by the blizzard raging outside and that we would have to wait together in peace. And we did.
I saw nothing that would make me say that we were all just a bunch of sinners getting what we deserved; there were no shouts, no aggression, very little bad behavior at all. As far as I could see, there was a lot of Buddha Nature being passed about within us and between us.
In a few hours it will be the first of January, 2011. I'm going to think of all those people (including the elderly and children of all ages) who are stranded in airports around the world or homeless and cold at the stroke of midnight. I'm going to be wishing them the best new year of their lives because they deserve it just as much, if not more than, the rest of us. No, really, we all deserve a happy new year.
Happy New Year Everyone!