The wind nearly hardened my sweat-dampened hair. After several long minutes, I was able to climb into the backseat of a taxi. I gave the name of my motel. Nothing. I gave the old name of my motel. Now the driver was totally confused. I gave the address. In addition to English, he appeared to have no knowledge of the highway. We headed off at about 3 miles an hour.
I felt my world slowly unraveling. I envisioned myself spending the next hour on dark and empty highways looking for a sordid motel with a mute driver. I asked him to take me back to the taxi stand. This, thankfully, he understood.
There was now a parade of taxis. I got out in the middle of it and called to the taxi captain. He asked where I was going. He wasn’t impressed. “Two stars,” he said. He explained to my driver the route he needed to take. It sounded complicated to me; like Fulani to my driver. (Unless, of course, that was the language he spoke.) Eventually the captain told him to go home.
I asked the captain how to get to the Marriott, which we had passed on our fruitless loop. He directed me downstairs to a shabby, deserted, underground passageway that nicely continued the bad dream nature of the evening while cementing the suspicion that I had arrived in a surprisingly frigid developing country.
A train approached and with it my salvation. I got off at the first stop and took the escalator to the hotel lobby. A kind man at the reception desk told me there were no available rooms, which was a blessing, as at that point I would have seriously considered spending $289 for one. I asked if he had ever heard of the Knight’s Inn. He said it wasn’t in a very good area. Then he called a number of nearby lodgings. They all had familiar names, and I wondered why the service that United used hadn’t included them. One had rooms, the man told me, but no shuttle service, so he declined for me. (Had word already spread of my taxi disaster?) Eventually he found me a room at the Best Western. He pointed to the entrance and said that the shuttle would pick me up there in about five minutes.
Once in my warm room I called the Woodland Inn and told them that I would not be coming after all. Then, marveling at the ever-changing fates of the traveler, I turned on the TV and watched the end of the Oscars.
The opening of the James Patterson paperback, by the passenger to my left, marked my return to the real world. Our plane had left Seattle almost two hours late, effectively killing my chances of catching my connecting flight to Fort Lauderdale. So I leaned back, resigned in row 37, and read my own book. (Not a book by me, but not one by Patterson either.)
My other neighbor was a woman the same age and size as the man on my left, who soon nodded off. (So much for Patterson.) When the beverage cart arrived, the woman reached across me, gently touched the man’s arm, and called him Bob. For the first time in my life – even on an airplane – I had come between a man and his wife, a man so attached to the aisle seat, and a woman so fond of the window seat, that they were willing to sit apart for four hours. To their credit, they hardly said a word.
After landing in Houston – a gusty, flailing, heart-thumping return to earth – I called Hania who said that my next plane was delayed and I had 25 minutes to make it. It took about 10 to get off the plane. I walked briskly from Terminal C to Terminal E, where I occasionally broke into sprints. But, looking at my watch, I knew I would arrive before 8:40.
A little after 8:30 I arrived at Gate E27. “I’m here for the flight to Fort Lauderdale,” I announced, victoriously wiping the sweat from my forehead.
“It’s gone,” the woman at the counter said almost boastfully. “It left at 8:23.” She told me to go to the customer service center by Gate E2. I had passed it on my dash.
After the long walk back, I took my place in a line of losers. They looked like people you’d see at a bus station. Do no attractive or intelligent people ever miss planes? They do, I realized later, but they don’t go to customer service.
Hania called. I told her she had been wrong about the departure time. My tone was less than cordial. Had we been on a plane, a person sitting between us would have been a godsend.
When my turn finally came, the man behind the counter put me on a flight to Fort Lauderdale at 7:05 the next morning. I asked about lodging. He handed me a blue voucher that would get me a discount, though I would still have to pay, as the late arrival had been caused by bad weather, which was out of the airline’s control. On the voucher was a number for me to call.
I took a seat at a nearby café table and called the number. The man at the other end gave me two options: I chose the Knight’s Inn, which would set me back $59. The man said that I would have to take a taxi there, and then he gave me the address and telephone number, suggesting I call before leaving to confirm.
“Is this the Knight’s Inn?” I asked.
“It’s the Woodland Inn,” a man with a slight Indian accent said. “The name was changed.” I said I’d be there shortly.
Outside I took my place at the end of a taxi line. It was as long as the one at customer service, but the people in it looked more presentable. On the downside, the wind chill was probably around freezing. In Houston. And taxis had suddenly vanished from the earth.
(To be continued tomorrow.)
I sat in the lobby of my hotel on a rainy Sunday morning in Seattle. I had just spent three days at the annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference - talking with writers, editors, professors, publishers - and was mentally preparing myself for my return to the real world.
The shuttle arrived five minutes early. Inside the van, the driver asked the purpose of my visit.
"I've been doing a lot of rereading lately," the man told me, emphasizing the 're.' "I just read all of Dickens' novels again. And the trilogy, you know, Tolkien. But I did read one new book: Far from the Madding Crowd."
"Thomas Hardy," I said.
"Yea, I liked it. I was reading and thinking, 'He writes like Dickens.'"
"Dickens is dark too," the man said.
I was not back in the real world. I was still in Seattle.
The interview went well. We met at a restaurant and talked for 45 minutes. I wrote the story and, sometime after, I received a notification that the interviewee wanted to connect with me on Linkedin. I was quite flattered. I accepted the invitation and, one day later, received a 'thank you' along with a note saying what a pleasure it would be if we could someday meet in person.