My mother lives on Long Island (My accent changes when I speak to her but that may be another post.)
Last week, she said ‘a storm is brewing, but it won’t be as bad as a hurricane.’ Today, I awoke to news reports of the East Coast closing off and shutting down. I got worried. Part of me wanted to be back there (it happens occasionally), stocking up on batteries and board games like everyone else.
As a kid, storms and power-outages were fun for me. A break from routine. The radio and ghost stories. In shadows, but happy. Even my parents were nice to each other, as I went from one house to the other during a particularly bad storm. I remember Dad had electricity, Mom didn’t.
Anyway, good times.
Now, I worry a little more.
I called my mother earlier tonight, to see if she was prepared for Hurricane Sandy.
‘They closed the roads, the tunnels, everything. The lights are flickering. But I’ve got the flashlight and the radio. I’m good. If it gets wild up here, I can go downstairs. Or I’ll go to bed.’
‘Just don’t wake up in Kansas,’ I said.
‘That’ll be one way to fix up the house.’
And so, dear readers, don’t wake up in Kansas. Unless you live there. East coasters, stay there and stay safe. And play a board game for me.
I don’t know why I’m writing this. Wait a minute. Yes I do. I’m writing this because right now I can’t be anything more or less than I am. I don’t feel like making something up, and pretending nothing happened. This is not fiction. Although I wish it was.
I am an American. Usually I don’t like to bring that fact into a conversation. I don’t know why. But there it is. I am an American. And a New Yorker. I am from New York. I am an American. I am a New Yorker. That’s why I cannot, this time, make anything up.
I used to choose not to say the pledge in school. This past week, I’ve said it twice. In front of my television set.
I’m writing this because like every other American kid, I went to the World Trade Center on a school fieldtrip. In the sixth grade. And then again to show some tourists around, the only other time natives line up to see their own landmarks. It was a must-see. For tourists. I am not a tourist. We thought it would always be there. It wasn’t like some bastard was goint to crash into it or anything. Well.
I’m writing this because I love that skyline. The best view in the entire world. I’ve seen it how it’s meant to be hundreds of times. And not just on a postcard. The Towers weren’t just part of a beautiful view. They were a livelihood for thousands of people. People that can never go home again. Times like this, I want to go home.
I’m writing this because I don’t know what else to do.
The streets are supposed to smell of pretzels and roasted almonds, not flesh. Those people were supposed to go home. Landed and had airport moments with their families, or gotten in their cars after another day at work. But they can’t go home.
I’m writing this because everything else seems so small; like the view from a plan window 20 thousand feet in the air.
From my journal, written in the week that followed September 11th, 2001.
I was sitting in an airport chair, waiting for my chair to roll through on the baggage-claim belt. Sarge and I were trying to convince the Sky Cap my chair would be through on Over-size Items, which meant we were waiting in the wrong place.
Sarge was tired, and I was just wired and wanted to get OUT. We got our bags, and then Sarge pointed over my head.
‘It’s over there,’ he said, pointing to my chair which had been where we said it would be the whole time.
Sarge went to get my chair; I did a quick scan to see everything was in the right place and transferred without putting the brakes on. ‘Let’s blow this Pop stand,’ I said.
My mother has since said she spotted me before I saw her. Not unlike our last airport hello where I waved at the wrong woman before I realised my mother was standing behind her, a very bewildered stranger who wondered why I was waving so frantically at her. In my defence, my mother and the stranger had been wearing the same coat, and I so tiredwired, perhaps I thought I was seeing double.
This time, I met my mother halfway, away from the general crowd. We speak on the phone often enough that my accent is confused, but we hadn’t seen each other in over 5 years. In the airport, under those harsh lights at around 11 pm, it didn’t seem that long at all.
I introduced The Boyfriend to The Mom, they were already saying hello as I did so.
‘I gotta pee,’ I said, and raced off as my mother asked Sarge to load the car.
I got to toilets just as they were being closed for cleaning.
Now. Some accessible toilets in America are inaccessible. Because you can’t get in, turn around, and shut the door. In a stall, the idea of a turning-circle is as foreign as well, something foreign. I don’t think it’s possible lock the door, unless you’re a contortionist. As it is, I’m double-jointed, and most of the time I can Pop-(my shoulder)-Lock-(the door)-Pee (hopefully not in my pants.)
I’d forgotten this short but all-important sequence until confronted with it. ‘And I’m here,’ I said, as I left the bathroom in search of my mother.
I asked her what she thought of Sarge.
‘He’s so handsome. You look tired.’
‘Thanks. Can we go now?’ I was already morphing back into the 12 year-old I’d been when I first left New York.
My mother only goes online when she needs directions. We got in the car, and Sarge read out the Mapquest instructions to my cousins’ house, where Sarge and I would be staying for what I dubbed Family Week.
An hour later, we’d gone through my old neighbourhood, called the house several times and passed it twice before my cousins welcomed us with pizza and a Saltire sign.
I fell asleep while Sarge brushed his teeth. And dreamt of surprises.
When my father got us to the airport early, I knew something would go wrong. If we had been ‘down to the wire’ as he likes to say, the plane would have been on time. As it was, we were early. And the plane was late.
I’d been in holiday-mode since the day before. We’d been at a ‘Scottish’ shop not long after it opened, stocking up on shortbread and other suitably-touristy-but-still-tasteful-maybe gifts for my New York family. Soon after, my Dad picked us up for the drive to Glasgow. He and Sarge packed the car with two suitcases (mine was practically empty in anticipation of outlet shopping), our cat and my chair. I sat in the back hoping that all doors would close properly so we wouldn’t lose CJ to the motorway. Sarge sat next to me, and CJ was rather unhappy in her box, perched atop my wheels.
We were ready to go.
To celebrate the impending trip, we went for burgers and milkshakes. And then to Dad’s for an earlyish night before the flight. Sarge took some pictures of George Bailey-Penguin, our travel mascot. I read from our three travel guides until dizzy with excitement. We went to bed, I did not sleep. I counted the hours with the help of the gongs from the clock, the same one I actually learned to count on as a child.
With Broadway show-tunes blasting, Dad drove us to the airport. This was a more comfortable trip without CJ, who would be holidaying with Sarge’s friends.
My Dad used the car journey to give us some final pointers on how to get the most out of NY, saying he was happy we were going, and how he’d be travelling vicariously through us. Later in the trip, I might have one too many hot dogs, one for me and one for Dad.
We left the car after handshakes and hugs. I told my Dad I’d spit off the top of Empire State Building for him.
Now. My wheels have the power to cut check-in queues. We did not, and got in at the end, all as part of the experience. Sarge had checked in online, but found out this was a pointless exercise that saved no time at all. We were sandwiched between another couple and a family wondering why I hadn’t skipped the queue. I was perfectly happy looking around, wondering where everyone was off to. Smiling at Sarge, both excited about and dreading the Mother-Boyfriend Meeting Moment.
My mood was more or less positive. More more than less. Until we got to the desk and heard those fateful words.
‘Your plane is delayed. Two hours. Iceland will handle it if you miss your connection. Have a nice day.’
‘Whut?’ I actually said this, and Sarge led me away before I could say any more. But I did. And what I said surprised me. ‘Damn it. I want to go home.’
‘Pub, pub, pub,’ Sarge said. And after we got through security, Sarge put his shoes back on and we headed beerwards.
As I sipped (a coke), I stared at the screen and mumbled or not. ‘Five years. 16 days. Surprising people. And this couldn’t happen at the other end?’
We went to the gate, when it was finally announced, by way of Boots so Sarge could top up his collection of hay-fever tablets.
We sat some more. As more info trickled down, I found myself inviting a stranger to have a drink while we waited some more.
I’ve been travelling alone since I was 12. I am so used to being on my own in airports that talking to people is a novelty.
Sarge and I took our new friend for a drink, and this time I had a beer. Karen is an an interpreter who speaks a bunch of languages and happens to have CP. We traded stories and laughs and I look forward to doing the same again, somewhere that isn’t an airport.
We trudged back to the gate, and found out that all connections were being held, as 95% of passengers had onward flights out of Keflavik. One day, I’d love to actually stay in Iceland for a holiday. That day, all I wanted to do was land at JFK.
Which we did. Three hours late, but we arrived. And so had the Mother-Boyfriend Meeting Moment.
This is apparently my 100th post! It’s been quite a trip. Thanks for reading along, and please stay tuned to see what happens next! Lx
My blogging hiatus can be attributed to going on a middle-secret surprise 16 day mission to New York. I was the surpriser, not the surprised. (Surprisee is apparently not a word, but I just used it.) It was truly awesome, and I couldn’t blog a damn thing about it. Until now.
I have about 10 posts worth of stories to share, and since I think all good stories start with coffee, grab a cup and stay tuned.
Yesterday’s post reminded me of my last long train journey. Always wanted to go on a cross-country trip via Amtrak, and write about it when it was over. The last time I visited my mother in New York, I took the opportunity to visit a friend in Seattle.
This is how I got there…
New York – Chicago – Seattle, 2006
The door rattles like there’s someone on the other side, mocking me. My stomach does the weird flip thing and my mouth does the weird gag thing and I pop sweets three, four at a time. Sour ones, because they’re worth something.
I’m pissed that she tipped the dude and I’m pissed that she’s nervous. But I’m glad she’s gone. The rooms claustrophobic enough and she’s been dragging on my air too much already.
Someone uses my name and punches my ticket and I feel like it’s real. I break out my notebooks and my camera and feel more like myself, my adventuresome self.
I make a note to bring a travel mascot next time, to feature in photos. I just take window shots and one picture of me in the mirror on the rattling door. And a really bad self shot of me in my University sweatshirt, because I ‘look like a student going cross-country’. Well.
The windows are divided and the first ‘real’ photo is of an official looking building in Albany. I should officially know what it is, but I don’t. The sun has set and the dude brings me chicken and rice, I’ve also ordered Key Lime pie, because it was my Grandmother’s favourite. I’m not surprised it’s on the menu of this journey. There are cloth napkins, but plastic cups, and this amuses me.
I read and I think and I snap ‘Do Not Sit On Table’ because this amuses me, too.
I over-hear an anorak asking the dude about the different engines on the train, I silently thank him and smile.
The dude knocks and comes in to turn down the bed that I have been sitting on. He watches me move and says I ‘move pretty good’. Nod and smile. He tells me about a passenger way back in the 70’s. ‘He had no legs and walked on his elbows. He moved good, too.’ Nod and smile.
I read and I think and I look and I listen and I write and I read. I turn off the light and in the darkened roomette it is 1940-something. I smile and fall asleep to the heart-beat of the train.
I awake when the train lurches and my glasses and my bottled water (with fluoride) slides across the room. I stick one eye and a nose between blue felt curtains. It’s dark but for the street lights that glow the same orange as home.
I smile and I listen and I drift back to sleep.
There’s a newspaper under the door, and a cup of coffee comes through it. Surprisingly good, this is. But I put it on the toilet seat and it spills when the train lurches again. Oh, well. At least I was crafty enough not to spill it on myself.
There’s snow just before Chicago. I haven’t changed the time on my watch and I think we’re late. We are, but not as late as I thought.
Chicago can’t do bagels. It did however furnish me with a kindred writing spirit and citizen of the world, whom I’m glad to have met, someone from whom I think I could learn a lot.
I check in with my reservation and sit in the Lounge. Families and older people and businessmen. I’m wearing a big coat, carrying my backpack, and I’ve draped my handbag around my neck and perched it on top of the backpack, quite happily closed and balanced and working with me. Someone says: you look like you’ve done this before.
This pleases me.
A blue rinse pipes up: She shouldn’t be on her own! A short while later she boards a train bound for California, and I’m thinking: Lady, how about you go back to wherever it is you came from, and I’ll just do my thing?
I take a people carrier to the platform, and get on the next train. My room in this one is only slightly bigger than the last one.
I’m settling in and someone comes in to take my dinner order. I say I’ll just go to the car, because I don’t expect to be sitting alone from Wednesday to Friday, thank you.
People in wheelchairs don’t go to the dining car.
Look me in the eye and say that again.
After playing yourwebsitesays, it was decided that I would go to the Lounge car the next day. Getting off the train during a cigarette stop, to go in the Lounge car door from the outside. The dining car itself I couldn’t get to.
Later, there’s a knock.
A minister and his wife wants to come and sit with you, whispers the dude(tte).
Thanks, but no.
I have chicken again, but this time I have the chocolate cake. I read and I write and I listen and I try not to feel trapped.
I actually feel more settled, because this was a longer haul, more conversations to listen to. I write and I read and I listen. Pop more sweets. The bed gets pulled out, I yank at the sheets so they’re not short, and I fall asleep.
The first breakfast is announced at half six. There’s more coffee and another paper. We’re stopping and starting again, and again. Again. Someone’s birthday is announced.
I only move when the train is stopped. There’s bracing and holding onto edges, and life is good. My door is open so my room is not mistaken for a thruway or a bathroom. I’m described as ‘the world traveler at the end of the hall’
I use an outlet to plug in my phone charger, and I get on the floor to reach it. I’m dressed, and my arse isn’t that big, and the halls are quiet, so the door stays open.
I’m on the floor, and someone says: can I help you? I swivel, and there’s someone standing in the doorway. Turns out to be the minister from the night before, but I don’t figure that out until later.
I get up and sit in the window seat, and we’re talking and he’s Canadian and like the fact I live in Scotland (I love Canadians, honestly), and he and he’s wife would like to have lunch with me. OK. I figure he’s not the patronizing type, so they bring sandwiches from the diner, and I sit in my chair so they both have a place to sit that’s not the toilet.
They say grace and I go with it. The wife admires my necklace, and I say the pendant is the Maori symbol for new beginnings. Moving swiftly on.
As we sit, they are on their way back from Katrina relief, by way of a Harley Davidson meet. They have 18 bikes and one RV and two kids. Recently retired, they are looking forward to Scuba Diving, more often. Well.
Lovely people who made a long journey not a weary one.
They leave me somewhere in North Dakota. I’m taking pictures until the scenery makes me weep, and then I stop with the camera because I want to see what I’m seeing with my eyes.
I go to the Lounge car and the sun sets. I write post-cards and read local papers and watch Walk the Line for a third time. I talk to people on their way to Portland and another attendant who reminds me of the Howard guy from those Bank adverts.
Another cigarette break sees me back in my room. I write and I read and I think and I sleep through Portland.
I’m not too late for breakfast so I have another transit meal, a newspaper, a coffee.
The Harley couple makes their way into my room and stays until their stop. They bring with them someone they met at breakfast. We somehow don’t avoid politics and I like my Canadian friends so much that I almost regret saying:
Yes, but the monarchy doesn’t do anything, really.
They were quite shocked.
We say goodbye, and they reach their stop.
The last hour turns to two, I snap the Puget Sound, we get stuck between freight trains. Wait and wait.
My friend looks everywhere but in my window. I’m the last one off the train.
I get on solid ground and I actually do feel thousands of miles from where I’ve been.