Tuesday, February 26, 2019

The Long Way Home

“License and credit card please?” asked the uninterested woman behind the rental car counter outside JFK International Airport.

This was it. I was going to cover the final 250 miles of my quest in a rental. Four hours of driving rather than waiting two days for another flight? Fine by me. I love driving. In another life, I was probably a trucker. So, no problem.

Most importantly, I was going home.

After four days away and serious doubts about getting back due to winter weather disrupting travel across the country, I finally had a plan that would get me to my wife and kids.

I opened my wallet to retrieve the identification necessary to rent a car and … nothing.

My license was gone.
I rifled through other sections of the leather tri-fold holding the vital instruments for my livelihood. Nope. I felt around in my pockets. Empty.

“I don’t have my license,” I replied to the woman, and to everyone, and to no one in particular.
She blinked unsympathetically.
“I don’t have my license!” I repeated, patting myself down like a handsy TSA agent, my voice going up an octave and a few decibels, as panic welled up inside me.
My mind quickly flashed back to a real TSA agent and the last time I knew for certain I had my license, handing it to her at the security checkpoint in San Antonio, along with my boarding pass. She handed it back, and then I recall throwing it into a grey bin to be scanned, along with my wallet, my computer, computer bag, a tightly-packed carry-on, my belt, my shoes, and whatever loose items were in my pockets.
That damn license must be in Texas.
I’d been in San Antonio since Thursday for the latest Dad 2.0 Summit, a yearly conference for social media dads  which is way cooler than it sounds.
My quest to get home began on Saturday evening, the last night there. 
Walking between bars with another dad, a simple text from American Airlines delivered the news that my flight Sunday morning had been canceled, and I’d been rebooked on a flight on Tuesday, two days later than planned.
San Antonia was fun, but Tuesday? Really?
I just couldn’t do two more days in Texas, which would mean two more nights in a hotel room, two more days away from work, and two more days missing my wife and kids.
At this point, some people might think, you’ve got four kids four awesome, loud, quarreling, dish-dirtying kids. And someone just told you that, due to circumstances beyond anyone’s control, you had to spend two more days 1,700 miles away from them in a hotel. What’s the problem?
But, believe it or not, I really missed them.
When you’re at a dad blogger conference, you actually spend a lot of time thinking about your kids, and you really want to see them again.
Reading that rebooking text, my immediate response was: Hell, no. That’s when the Mission Impossible music played, which turned out to be the ring tone of some guy I was standing next to on the street corner. But, still.
Flights were canceled from Chicago to Boston 
due to severe winter weather.
Back in the hotel room, I began my own impossible mission. After two hours on hold and another hour of negotiations with American Airlines, I finally found a new flight home. Or, should I say flights.
I also learned from Google while on hold that it would take 27 hours to drive.
My new flight was a three-hopper – San Antonio to JFK; JFK to DC; and DC to Syracuse – leaving at 9:00 a.m. Sunday. That it didn’t get me back home until 11:40 p.m. didn’t matter. That it was a highly inefficient thing to fly to New York City then down to Washington then back up to Syracuse, didn’t matter. That one of the legs of the flight might yet be canceled didn’t matter. If I could get to New York City, that would put me 1,400 miles closer. I wanted to be home, after all. And that’s all that mattered.
At 9:08 a.m. the next morning, it was wheels up.
News of my second canceled flight came in another text, this one as the flight descended into JFK airspace. Probably karma because my phone wasn’t set to airplane mode.
The cancellation was due to 60 mile per hour wind gusts in Syracuse, and the agent at the airline counter told me it was affecting all flights into Syracuse. From DC, JFK, Philly, and Boston, all were canceled. Worse yet, flights the next day were either canceled or booked solid with rerouted passengers.
“You can fly standby on Monday, or I can book you on a flight Tuesday,” she said. Dominica was her name, and she was kind. Which I needed her to be.
It was then that it struck me how hotels in New York City are probably a lot more expensive than in San Antonio.
After standing at her counter for a solid half hour, doing my best pouty face and talking more glowingly about my kids then they likely deserve, we both gave up on the thought of me flying to Syracuse.
That’s when I decided my best option was to just rent a darn car.
I’d driven to NYC before, and I’d even driven to JFK, so I felt certain I could get myself home. Online I went, booking a car with Budget  both the company name and the reason I chose them.
And that brings us back to where we began, with me, at the car rental counter a solid mile from the American Airlines terminal at JFK, realizing that my license was nowhere to be found.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” I said to the Budget rental car lady.
She shrugged. “I could call you a cab.”
A cab. A cab!
“To Syracuse?!” I replied.
She shrugged even less sympathetically.
I stepped away from the counter before I hurt someone – myself included and thought about all the ways I could get home that would be less expensive than a cab: like simply buying my own car and filling it with premium gasoline.
Then I thought about waiting until Tuesday and flying home – which would be impossible to do because I couldn’t get back through security without my license.
And that’s when the real desperation set it. Because. when you are in Jamaica, Queens, 250 miles from home, without the identification needed to rent a car, or to get back into the airport to board a flight in two days, certain things run through your head. Like, which bridge I was going to sleep under that night.
I felt like Jimmy Stewart running through Pottersville, except I was standing still, and reality was moving around me. I stood there for a while. Frozen.
Then I started moving again. I called the San Antonio Airport lost and found, nothing, who patched me through to the TSA, nothing. My next move was to go back to the American Airlines counter, outside the security checkpoint, to see if I’d dropped it on the flight, maybe.
As I walked that way, I turned to higher powers.
Now, I’m not an overly religious person. I’m a Catholic. But whenever I lose something important, I slip in a prayer to St. Anthony.
I also called my wife, who is my earthly version of the patron saint of lost things.
As expected, she did her impersonation of tech support asking if the computer was plugged in, which is exactly what I would do to her.
“Did you check your pockets?”
“I’ve been stranded outside JFK for 40 minutes looking for my license in every orifice I have, do you think I checked my pockets?”
She was unfazed and went back to the tech support manual.
“When is the last time you had it?”
“San Antonio!” I replied, only slightly yelling, consciously trying not to let my frustration and hopelessness cause irreparable harm to my marriage. I also tried to channel the advice we give our kids when they’ve lost something and say things like, I already checked there. Our line is, “How can we find what’s lost if we don’t check in places we’ve already looked?”
Still, being on the receiving end of the have-you-looked-here checklist can be very frustrating. So, I brought her up to speed on my status.
“I’ve checked my pockets. I checked both my bags. I already called the San Antonio Airport, I even spoke to a TSA agent there. He was very nice. And, I am so screwed!”
“Where is the boarding pass that was with it?”
“My pocket,” I replied, fishing it out and waving the practically translucent rectangle of paper in the air like a mad man. “No license!”
"And your computer bag?"
“Yes,” I replied, opening the front of my computer bag again, where my two other, now useless, boarding passes for canceled flights were carefully stowed. “I’ve checked there.”
Then I caught sight of a small pocket in the computer bag for business cards. And I vaguely remembered stuffing the cards I got during the conference, and the leftover “Ruddy Bits” business cards I didn’t distribute, into the pocket at some point during the past 8 hours.
I know what you’re thinking: What kind of dork has cards for their dumb blog? You’re right. But I realized after the first blogger conference I attended that cards were a useful thing to have. So, for ten bucks, I got 500 of them printed up. I’ve still got 450. I’ve also since learned that getting blog business cards is kind of like getting tattoos. You will have them forever.
I pulled out the cards belonging to myself and other bloggers I’d met and started shuffling through them like a one-handed black jack dealer.
And, holy shit, there was my license.
“I found it!” I yelled to my wife, into the air, and to everyone else. “It’s here!”
Relief poured over me like a model in a Sprite commercial.
I thanked my tech support, and told her I loved her, and that if all goes well, I’d be home tonight.
Then I went back to the Budget rental car counter to seal the deal on my ride home.
Yet, they had one more surprise left for me. They didn’t have any cars.
A rather rude manager explained to me that all these flights were canceled, and I was the tenth person in the last hour to show up and try to get a car that was booked just moments before. What did people think, that they have cars just sitting around waiting for people.
“You’re a car rental company. So, yes,” I replied.
She didn’t like my attitude either, and I wished I was talking to the uninterested counterperson again.
That’s when I must've prayed to the patron saint of rental cars, because another counterperson, who wasn’t uninterested or rude, intervened and asked how comfortable I was driving a van.
“That’s what I drive,” I told him, squeezing in the fact that I have four kids, so nobody thought I was a pervert. “You know, like a minivan.”
Not like a minivan, an actual minivan.
Notice the step needed to get in. Not a minivan.
Within minutes, I signed a contract, refused extra insurance, and had the keys to a rental van – a ginormous 12-passenger, people moving, shuttle van. It looked like a European ambulance without the emergency lights. And I was about to drive this behemoth through New York City and 250 miles north.

But I knew I could do it. I was born to do it. Not because I was a trucker in a former life. Because I was one of 8 kids. Not a typo. And, at one point in the 80s my parents bought a used, turtle-top, 15 passenger van with red and white stripes to get us around. The Ruddy Bus, as it came to be known, originally shuttled people from a Marriot hotel to a tarmac at some airport, and it had big black numbers on top (M-17) so the flight tower could identify it. That people-mover even had a bus door that went "PSHHH" when you pulled the lever. It's amazing what you can find on the secondary market if you know where to look.

In any event, I was ready to drive this big rental van home. It was in my blood. 
I spent the next hour snaking my way through Queens and across the Bronx, pondering the question, “Am I a car or am I a truck?” each time a sign on a bridge read, “Passenger Vehicles Only – No Trucks.”
And then, for the following three and a half hours, I chugged through New Jersey, Northeastern Pennsylvania, and into upstate New York driving the equivalent of a main sail in 60 mile per hour wind gusts, all so I could see my wife and kids.
Somewhere in New Jersey, I looked back and saw all the empty seats, and wished I’d tried to find any other stranded Syracusans who needed a ride. That took care of my guilt quota for the remainder of the ride – Catholic, remember.
And some 24 hours after my first flight was canceled, and 14 hours after the plane lifted off from San Antonio, a shuttle bus carrying one passenger pulled into our driveway.
A swarm of kids greeted me at the door. Mission complete.
Because, sometimes, you just want to go home.




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