Christmas travel

Planes, Trains, and Engaging with Strangers – a New Year’s Missive

Editor’s note: E.B.’s holiday story is generating a lot of interest and interesting commentary – like this one (copied below) from the airport operators mentioned in her piece.

My day-after-Christmas flight home from Florida was not reindeer swift. Less like a Comet or Prancer, and more vexing than Vixen, our delay landed us at Newark Airport after 1 in the morning.  I would have to be a Dasher to make the last NJTransit train to Penn Station in New York City – where I could then grab a more affordable taxi home, versus the $130 Uber wanted for the 15 mile ride. And that is when life started mimicking a John Candy/Steve Martin movie, before ultimately ending up with international bonding and a little holiday cheer.

Hampered by weather and too few Jet Blue crew, just as we were finally scheduled to board our flight, someone tossed their Christmas cookies in the jetway. After waiting 40 minutes for the RSW clean-up crew, we got airborne by 10:30PM. While I appreciated being distracted by free Wi-Fi and HBO, two Tulsa King and Hacks episodes later I knew when we landed at 1:10AM that it would be a race against time to catch the AirTrain connector that would get me to the railroad train home. I’d have about 20 minutes to make it.

Then I remembered: the $3B renovation of Terminal A, now operated by Munich Airport NJ, LLC, did not include extending the tracks for the AirTrain to my location. One has to wait for a shuttle bus to the next terminal. Weighing the cost of a cab or car, and having trouble justifying it costing more than my flight leg, I quickly polled a few fellow travelers – a woman in a plaid shirt; a man with Rasta-style dreadlocks; and a headphone-wearing hipster— to potentially share that cab or Uber. We all pulled out phones and after respectively checking Google, CityMapper and the NJTransit train schedule, collectively chatted and decided to hop on the bus to the AirTrain which was just pulling up.

Rushing on board, a Korean tourist, understandably confused by the need to take a bus to a shuttle train in order to get to a train, was trying to communicate with the driver who didn’t really have any answers for her. I stepped in, and explained to the tourist that she was in the right place to ultimately get to the city and to follow us.

With minutes ticking away we arrived at the AirTrain station to where a security person tried to let the crowd know that the next arriving AirTrain — already filled with passengers from other terminals — would not be ours, as it was only going to the parking lots. Frustratingly we’d need to wait for the next one. As it pulled up, he’s shouting to existing passengers to also get off and wait for the next one in order to get to the train station.  Are you following this? They weren’t either. As the doors were about to close, a ponytailed musician type in a pork pie hat still sitting on board looked out, also confused, not having heard the directions. I shouted to him, “Are you trying to get to the railroad station?” “Yes”, he said. “Then get off this train!,” I shouted. Without questioning, he jumped off and joined my little eclectic crowd. Together we all finally got away from the airport and made it to the train station. At around 1:30AM.

Did I mention you have to buy a separate ticket for the train if you didn’t think to get it on your phone? Pork pie, Dreads, Plaid, Headphones, Tourist and I were making a mad dash for the tickets and the platform downstairs, when another security guard said, “are you going to New York City?” “Yes!,” we all said. “Well,” he said, “no rush. The next train isn’t until 2:15AM.” And we said, “But…but…what about the 1:31AM train?” “You just missed it. But there’s a warm waiting room on the platform so you might as well settle in.”

Plaid then decided to give up go find an Uber after all, and headed back upstairs, while we all headed to find seats a respectable distance from some sleeping or smoking members of the shelter-seeking community. Two minutes later, Plaid was back, frustrated that just to get a car service she would have to take an AirTrain all the way back to the terminal. Welcome back, Plaid.

The waiting room did spark warmth. I learned that my new friend with the dreadlocks had been born in Haiti, was a bartender in Miami, and had caught the last flight out to attend the funeral of his best friend the next morning in Connecticut. Pork pie had been visiting his mother for Christmas in San Francisco and was heading to his  Greenwich Village home. Headphones, returning from Indiana, was a facilities manager who lived in Washington Heights (and I made a mental note that he’d be going uptown like me so I would stick with him for safety.) At last the 2:15AM train pulled in.

As we settled in and offered the conductor our tickets stating “New York City”, he told each of us, “Nope. This stops at Newark. And then goes out of service.” “But…but…” we all protested. “Nope, you can catch the PATH commuter train at Newark to continue on to New York City. They’ll honor your ticket into New York on that line.” “Well, that’s OK,” Pork Pie reassured us all, “I’ve taken the PATH a bunch of times; it’ll go right to Penn Station.” 

Phew. I knew that from Penn I could grab a cab and be flying home like Blitzen the rest of the way….I thought.

At Newark we all headed for the connection gate together. On one track — waiting and ready to go already — was a PATH train stating “World Trade Center” as its destination.  I was beginning to feel like the Scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz. WTC is at the bottom tip of Manhattan. I live well to the north. We asked some nearby police officers at the gate watching for 3am fare jumpers, “When does the one to Penn Station in midtown arrive?” “No more tonight,” they said. “But…but…” our Greek chorus replied, but decided to just grab the southbound one and switch later. “We have to hurry, so how do we use our train tickets to get thru this gate, like the conductor told us?” “You can’t,” said the police chorus. “You have to buy a special ticket just for the PATH train.” You can figure out how we responded, but the fight was out of all of us. We rushed en masse to the ticket machines.

I quickly pulled out a credit card while Dreads was trying to waive his phone to use Apple Pay for his three dollar fare. A woman behind him was muttering, anxious to catch this last train to New York City. “I don’t have a physical credit card. I always just use my Apple Pay!” O, youth. I quickly bought him a ticket and we hurried onto the departing path train heading in an inconvenient direction for all of us, but at least we would all be on the island.  My Haitian friend and I talked more and he shared his plan for opening his own bar in New Haven next year. He got out at the next stop, promising me a cocktail if I ever made it up there. Pork Pie and Plaid got off next. Then Tourist. Until it was Headphones and me.

Dazed and confused by the time we arrived at 3:15AM in the massive and modern white marble underground of WTC we found our way to the uptown subway, which was due in the longest 12 minute wait of my life. Now, I am a kind of girded New Yorker, but even I have never voluntarily taken the subway that late… Or should I say early in the morning…. But, while striking a steely and hopefully off-putting pose on that platform, I welcomed the camaraderie of the last man standing from my international band of brothers and sisters.

Even though this subway line dropped me five blocks from my home, I welcomed every breath of fresh air I took on the remaining steps to get home. And I realized, as I finally lay down to sleep at 4:30AM, that reaching out to strangers  can make the journey a little brighter any time of day or night.

Photo by Andre Benz on Unsplash

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