February 4th, 2011 - Escape From Plainview - Based on a True Story - Chapter 4 - End of the Line

It is 6:30 AM, December 23rd, 1995. The day is prematurely gray. 
On my way through the hotel lobby after check-out, the TV is blaring and showing an overly made-up talking head speaking in a distinctly non New-Yorkian accent, "...the borough of Brooklyn has used up it's entire city plowing budget for the entire year on this storm so far..." 
I stride past on my way to the shuttle pickup. 
The shuttle is there, people are crowding on with enough baggage for a battalion, and the driver is in a fowl mood.
"Siddown, I can't moves the bus until yas sid down..." he says tersely, for what sounds like it could probably be the 10,000th time this early morning.
Wallowing through the deep snow the shuttle sidles up to the ticketing entrance at New York's JFK airport. Outside are a melee of people at the curbside check-in, with their baggage reaching the overhanging roof and into the street. I never use the valet check, so I tip the driver in return for a "Tanks," and trundle my luggage through the airport doors and into the maw of some hideous beast.
Inside, I'm floored by what I see. On one end of the terminal sits the Continental Airlines check-in with it's serpentine line of humanity stretching across floor of the entire terminal, which is at least 100 yards long and beginning to curl back upon itself.
At the other end of the terminal, United Airlines, MY airline,
also has a line snaking the entire width of the terminal in the opposite direction, and is curling back upon itself. In the middle is a no-man's land of people facing in all directions, frowning, pointing, fretting, swearing - occasionally shoving their bags with their feet along the slushy tiles at indeterminate intervals, in a direction known only to them. 
They resemble slaves pushing a huge circular grindstone inside a mountain in some bad medieval movie, and I expect them to start chanting, "Oh Wee Oh..." at any moment.
I head towards this human beehive in the center of the floor and get scowled at for both bumping people with my luggage and from them thinking I'm trying to cut in line in front of them. Even though there really isn't any line at this point. It's just a mosh-pit of humanity which shuffles en masse until they've moved far enough to make a decision as to which airline's line they are actually in.
7:15 AM. My flight "leaves" at 9:00 AM. I resign myself to my fate once again.
I sit on my toolbox, and scoot it and my bags along every so often in time with rest of the ludicrously long line. We're like a giant crabby caterpillar. Time itself crawls, writhes, and falls over dead. Possibly two hours go by before I even start to make the bend so that I'm actually facing my ticket counter, which is far off down at the other end of the terminal. It is unrecognizable, except for the sign. 
Public address announcements blare in some indecipherable muffled electronic language, and are immediately drowned out by the din of the terminal. "Miss Green... Miss Kelly Green..." I think I hear the PA announcer say. "Please reclaim your lost item..." I chuckle to myself about Kelly Green. She must have a pretty limited wardrobe. They are also announcing not to check your bags at the curbside, which seems rather pointless since we are all are inside the terminal already.
I look around in a broad panoramic sweep. Every kind of person and family is clustered together in their own little spot, many with Christmas presents over-flowing from their luggage. I watch a large gold-jeweleried family with each member seemingly dressed in a black Armani suit try to manhandle a GIGANTIC black trunk with brass hardware that must stand five feet high and four feet wide. "Oh my gawd," the wife is saying, "This is ree-DICK-u-luss. Ree-DIC-U-LUSS. Just ridiculous!" She keeps repeating. Her exquisitely dressed princess daughter and princely son are stomping the slush at each other and being constantly chided, but to no avail. Others down the line have reached the zombie state, pallidly focused only on the coat of the person ahead of them. The only thing missing is the drool, but then again I'm not close enough to tell.
Babies wail, and the people in our line bemoan their fate to each other. Our current local hobby is to watch the expressions of the people just arriving through the doors, and rate their expressions... 
"Oooo, 9.9 for the businessman in the pinstripe, don't you think...? You could literally see his face collapse in horror as he scanned for the ticket counter and realized he would have to stand in line behind that Mexican family with the five screaming kids. Tough break, dude." The others standing nearby nod their approval and manage sardonic half-grins.
By now, four or five hours have gone by and we have been moving like a glacier towards the ticket counter. I believe I've had several out-of-body experiences already and can see now that there are only two ticketing staff people at the counter for our entire line, and they have been the only two people there as long as I could actually see the counter.
I feel for them deeply. Unfortunately for us, because of our line's position in the terminal, which is sort of like being on our own forty yard line with the goalpost as the ticket counter, every time the line moves, it triggers the automatic doors to the outside entry, and snow blasts in like a mini-blizzard covering us and our luggage and forcing us to put our outside clothes back on. Then after another indeterminate amount of time, we shuffle a few feet up to the space between the automatic doors where the gigantic heater-blowers are running full-on because of the doors being constantly opened and closed, melting all the snow we had just collected and frying us with blasts of forced air so hot that that we have to strip back down to our short-sleeves. This is repeated for the next another couple hours as we make our way across the terminal. I feel like I am in a torture test for wrinkle-free pants, and find myself thinking about the French Foreign Legion.
It is now 7 PM. I have been in the same line for eleven hours. I vaguely remember scarfing a Clif Bar that I was going to eat on the plane at some point, and my liter of bottled water is LONG gone. I am dehydrated, starving, and wondering where one of those frigging New York pretzel wagons is when I need one. I also have to piss so very badly, but am afraid to leave my baggage in the middle of this long line, and thinking that the line at the bathroom is probably just as long. There is no way I am getting OUT of the line.
At least I can sit on my toolbox, I tell myself, but with no backrest. The floor is total slush and out of the question.
We have now reached the point where the line is making it's final bend towards the ticket counter, but are still a ways off. At this point, I know all my neighbors in line pretty well, not by name, but we have all chatted about this and that, wagered guesses as to when we would make it to the counter, if ever, and tried to guess people's careers by their looks and baggage. Most of our diversions have been used up long ago.
The P.A. began droning that "ALL HOTELS WITHIN A ONE HUNDRED MILE RADIUS OF THE AIRPORT ARE FILLED. PLEASE MAKE OTHER ARRANGEMENTS OR PREPARE TO SPEND THE NIGHT AT THE AIRPORT. ALL TAXI SERVICES ARE RUNNING AT MAXIMUM, AND IT MAY BE BEST TO RECONSIDER YOUR FLIGHT PLANS IF AT ALL POSSIBLE. SORRY FOR ANY INCONVENIENCE THIS HAS CAUSED. WELCOME TO NEW YORK, AND THANK YOU FOR FLYING UNITED." This brings a loud rankle of boos, vulgarities, hisses, and general sounds of disgust and incredulity.
People are still arriving at the terminal, and either bailing as they come through the doors and see the carnage, or adding to one of the long lines. 
Every so often a person or family will try to walk through our line and up towards the ticket counter like either they didn't understand that we had been in line for eleven hours or just didn't think it was their line. They would be immediately shouted down vehemently and sent to the back of the line in disgrace, as only New Yorkers can disgrace a line-jumper.
It was about this time that a fake-tanned, heavily-jeweled matron and her husband walked straight in the door and right up to the ticket counter, ignoring the escalating menacing threats of my fellow line-mates. The matron tried to garner the attention of the closest ticket agent, who was busy with an Indian family, and struggling through some language barriers. The ticket agent turned to her and politely asked her to please take her place at the end of the line, and after she turned and saw where the end of the line actually was, she went ballistic. "BUT, I'M A GOLD CARD MEMBER...!!!" she screamed like it was the magic phrase to open The Forty Thieves Cave. "SO ARE WE...! GET TO THE BACK OF THE FUGGIN LINE!!!" half of our line screamed back at her. Her face began going through a myriad of expressions in a much too rapid manner and in a split-second she rushed the ticket counter, did a half belly-flop and came down sliding across the counter, scratching the ticket lady's face with her fake nails in the process. A tumult ensued, ending with a very large security guard steering her off in a full-nelson to places unknown, her husband calmly picking up their bags and following behind with an expression on his face like he had been through this a hundred times before. Murmurs ran through the crowd.
The ticket lady was now crying and trying to clean herself up, and after a quick look into a hand mirror a look of horror struck her face and she said, as if talking to the whole line, "That's it...! I don't need this shit...! Fuck Everything! I'm outta here...!!!" She quickly grabbed her purse and fled the counter as the other ticket lady looked completely crushed and longingly after her.
An audible "Aughhhhh...." simultaneously came from deep within every member of our line, including myself.
Time stopped, stood still, then slid backwards. No chatter could be heard from the line. We were now on death row, without the last meal. We were down to one ticket agent.
About two hours later, after much quiet shuffling, the nice African-American lady in front of me got her call for a turn at the counter.
As I watched her approach the counter, it seemed unreal that I was actually the next person in line.
After being in "the line" for over thirteen hours, I was beyond sanity. I was like a guru that had just walked over hot coals and was now being asked to answer math story questions. 
I wasn't sure if I could remember how to speak in more than monosyllabic sentences.
Soon the lady in front of me finished and left the counter with a piece of paper in her hand, expressionless.
The ticket lady said, "Next..." without looking up, and I had to convince myself it was my turn. 
I trundled up with my luggage, sliding my toolbox along with my feet.
"First, let me say you are doing a hell of a job, and I'm SO glad you're here" I said, sincerely, but surprising myself. "You deserve an accommodation or something." 
"Thank you," she said wearily, "I'm doing my best." And managed a half-smile as I looked deep into the endless pits of her eyes.
"Okay," she went on. "Minneapolis. Now what I am going to do is first give you a reservation that we know we can guarantee, then keep in mind that you will be on standby for Minneapolis until that flight."
"Great," I say, sounding optimistic for the first time in fourteen hours.
She punches some numbers into her computer and after a slight pause says, "Okay, the earliest flight I have for you, leaves from White Plains on the seventh."
My eyes unfocus like I've been staring at a book too long and realize I'm not actually reading it anymore. "Of January...?!!! I let slip a little louder than I would have liked. "Um, er, okay.... I guess..."  But I'm in New York City... I'm thinking as I take my paper weakly from the ticket lady with a confused look on my face. 
"Remember - you're on standby for each flight to Minneapolis until then... Gate 41..." she adds to sort of "cheer me up".  I walk off aimlessly, then speed up as I remember how much I have to go to the bathroom.
While I'm taking about a ten minute non-stop piss in the disgusting airport restroom, I'm thinking about the realities of spending a week in the New York airport. Or maybe a few days and then another rat-hole hotel. Or, I don't know. It's so ludicrous I can't even fathom the options, if there are any. 
I head for the food court. The only thing open is Taco Bell, which actually has it's door partition partially closed, but has decided to either have mercy on the poor people stuck in the airport, or has recognized this is the capitalist opportunity of the century.
Unfortunately, there is a long line there as well, though not as long as in the terminal, but maybe thirty or forty people. As I walk up, I notice it is composed of the exact same people that were in my ticket line, and in the exact same order. I say hi to the nice lady that was in front of me in the last line. She smiles the smile of a confidant, shakes her head, and says hi.
I place my order, for tacos, as that is the only thing they have at this point, and as I do sort of a half-march kicking my bags while already starting on my plastic tray of lukewarm tacos, the nice lady beckons me over to her table.
As we eat, we exchange stories, and I ask her what she is going to do.
"I've cancelled my whole holiday," she says, "I'll never make it upstate and back before I have to go to work. My boyfriend is coming to pick me up. I just called him, but it's probably going to take a couple hours for him to get here, and a couple hours to get home."
"That sucks." I say. "I'm so sorry. Say, where is White Plains...?"
"It's about 40 miles north of the city. Why?" she asks.
"That's where my only guaranteed flight leaves from.... On January 7th." I respond.
"You're kidding!" she says with a huge smile, the biggest I've seen all day. "Sorry," she adds choking down a guffaw and a taco bite. "That's crazy."
"Well, that's what they tell me," I say. "I'm on standby until then."
"Did they say how long before you might get something?"
"Naw, they have no idea. I guess I'm ready to stay here for as long as it takes" I say, not too confidently. "What else can I do."
We chomp, say our goodbyes, give each other a hug, and wish each other well. I have a deep feeling of empathy for her even though I barely know her. I hope she can still have a good Christmas. I try to imagine what I think her life and holiday would be like. She comes from a completely different culture, different everything. Then I start to wonder if I will be home for my Christmas.
The food is starting to make me tired and I figure I might as well head for the gate, get a walk in, and see what the scene is like there.
As I enter the gate area, it is packed with people, and I stake out a place on the floor with a blessed wall to lean my back against. There's no way I'll be making a standby on this flight I think.
I sleep for a little while, or think I do, until I'm awoken by something. Not a noise, as there is plenty of that, but just a feeling maybe. I look out the gate windows. It's as dark as ever. There's no plane at our jetway, but planes are landing and the snow is still coming down with a vengeance.
As a plane come in, begins to land, and passes our gate moving seemingly faster than normal. The people at our gate watch it like a slow lob return at Wimbledon. It continues past, now obviously much too fast, and by the end of the runway it has slowed considerably, but it's obvious it isn't going to stop in time. It veers to the left and slides off of the tarmac, the front wheel folding at a rakish angle into the snowbank beyond the runway, and the plane pointing downward at an odd angle.
Emergency vehicles and fire trucks rush the scene and the people at my gate rush the window. Murmurs and chatter abound. After a few minutes nearly everyone slowly turns away and silently heads back to their places, with heads bowed, evidently realizing at the same time that they are hoping to fly in such a plane very soon. The gate becomes eerily quiet.
Flights come, flights go. Hours pass. The crowd has thinned somewhat, but I'm hazing in and out of some sort of zombie tunnel vision and just have a vague sense of people moving around me.
At some point I groggily wake up and try to focus, and see what looks like a plane parked at our jetway.
At 12:02 AM, on December 24th, 1995 my name is called to approach the counter. I am there instantaneously and am being told I can get a standby ticket for this flight, the last direct flight out of NYC for Minneapolis until tomorrow. I feel like I have just won the Irish Sweepstakes. I want to kiss everyone in the gate and do the hustle with them. I am handed a boarding pass that glows with a hallowed light. Forget about my bags they say, they will get them to me as soon as possible via courier. Sometime in the near or not so near future. Sure, whatever, sounds good, I say.
The plane is boarding and I am waiting for the standby call. There it is!  I'm walking down the jetway with my boots three-feet off the surface of the carpet. The plane is COMPLETELY jammed, jubilant, and a free-for-all of luggage cramming, high-fives, and people trying to figure out what to do with all their winter clothes.
I head for the back of the plane. No seats yet. Further back. Nothing yet. Um, I'm getting to the back here... there. The last row of the 727 has an aisle seat. I got the last seat on the plane, I realize. I smile, or think that is what my mouth may be doing at this point.
We take off like an overstuffed sausage and circle the city on our way back west. I look out the window and flip-off New York City both literally and figuratively. Ugh. What is your problem, city...?  Why do you make it so hard for me?  Why do I always feel this way about you?  Do we know each other from some other time...? 
The interior lights are dimmed. Many people are still talking excitedly, telling their survival stories for the day. Others are completely knocked out. I'm drifting, free-thought, images and memories flashing by. I'm doing the math... up at 6:30AM, it's now 12:30 AM... that makes an eighteen hour day so far and seventeen of them spent in the airport. I drift ethereally in body and spirit.
About two hours later we land rather heavily at MSP; Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. 
Everyone's in the blocks sitting waiting for the doors to open, and they make a mad, luggage-dragging scramble for the door when the bell goes off. I amble off in a daze and thank the attendants, flight crew, and anyone in a uniform and hat on my way through the gate.
I am TOTALLY beat, but I still need to get a shuttle or a cab to get my car, which has been sitting in an off-airport parking lot for the last ten days. It looks like Minneapolis has gotten some decent snow as well.
On the way down the escalator, a mother is trying without any success to console her child that is crying so hard that it can barely stop between wails to get a breath. 
I look at it a long time and say, "I know exactly how you feel, kid."
It stops crying for a second, looks at me and then picks back up where it left off. The mother laughs. I laugh.
After finding a shuttle and taking a few laps around the car park, we finally find my car, as most are still partially buried in snow, and all look the same. It's a relief to see the old war wagon, a 1989 Chevy Cavalier Station Wagon, beautiful silver and rust. 
After some creative lock-jiggling I get the door open, throw in my carry-on, give her the Tim's patented two pumps on the gas and...  nothing. 
The engine doesn't turn over one iota. 
FUUUUUCK...!!! I scream, fogging up the windshield with every ounce of energy I have left. 
Now what.
I slog back to the little lot house and tell them it won't start. What's that? You have a portable car starter on a truck that you can drive out to it...???!!! What a great thing! You will drive me back out there and hook it up...???!!!  I spend my last trickle of adrenaline trying to say, "You guys rock."
Twenty minutes later I'm shivering like hell but rolling down the empty freeway. MY empty freeway to MY house. With MY cat inside. And MY own thermostat. I have escaped from New York City. Well, this time anyway...