I worry a lot. But there’s a superstitious element to my worries. As though by worrying about something I am purchasing a sort of insurance policy; rarely do my worries about something come true, or if they do the reality is rarely as bad as I anticipated. So when everything comes out better than I expected, well, it’s a pleasant surprise.
I began worrying about how to get to Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, NY several weeks ago. Because I was flying all the way from San Francisco, I would have to arrive the night before the writer’s workshop began, so that I could be there for the opening events. So I’d be flying in on Saturday night around six pm. Bronxville was a half an hour’s train ride north of Manhattan. Since I would be flying into La Guardia, however, I would need to find an alternate source of transportation. The workshop’s brochure had said that there was a special bus shuttle that would take students from La Guardia to campus for only $21. However, the bus stopped running at 5 pm on Saturdays. The workshop coordinator suggested that a cab would be the best bet. A little more expensive, but it would bring me directly to campus, and I could avoid going into Manhattan for the train ride. Obviously the workshop was geared more towards local residents who could make the short trip to campus on Sunday morning. But I had chosen the workshop because I wanted to work with one of the instructors, Phillip Lopate. Also the fact that I had to apply and be admitted appealed to my inner competitor. I thought it might carry more weight when it came time to applying for grad schools. Also, I wanted a bit of an adventure.
I suppose that beneath my worrying was the quiet assumption that all my fears of getting lost or scammed by taxi drivers or left in the rain by the side of the road were exaggerated, and the trip would be rather uneventful and I would smile later at my foolishness.
Boy, was I wrong.
I picked up Bearbait at 6 am on Saturday, June 21st. He would drop me off at the airport and take care of my car while I was away. On the way we pulled into the Safeway lot so he could run into the little Starbucks stand inside. I noticed a stuffed animal lying rather squished right in the middle of the parking spot as we pulled in. “AHH, a skunk!” I said, and we had a good giggle about that.
I think of myself as a planner, but I wasn’t thinking too clearly that day. We arrived at the airport an hour before my flight. I’ve done some traveling since September 11th, so I’m not sure why I didn’t think to get there earlier. I suppose I felt bad enough getting Bearbait up at 6 am on a Saturday. So when we pulled up to the ATA door and saw the huge line of people waiting outside for the sky captain, I felt a surge of panic. I hopped out and rushed Bearbait through some hurried good-byes, and I went inside to see if the line was any better. It wasn’t. It stretched far beyond the maze of stanchions and I took my panic and discouragement and went to the end of the line. At that moment I realized that I had left my cell phone in the car, and Bearbait was gone. My small glimmer of hope that he would notice it and drive back was quickly dashed. I remembered that I had put it inside the glove compartment, to make room for our coffee cups in the holders between the seats.
By the time I finally got up to the ticket agent, it was a half an hour before the flight. “Sir, the flight has been overbooked, and you will have to go to the gate and see if they can assign you a seat.” She wrapped a bright green sticker around the handles of my duffel bag. It read “Standby.”
Of course the line for the metal detectors stretched on as well, and when I got to the front the security officer asked me to take out my laptop and remove my shoes and belt. I felt people waiting impatiently behind me as I struggled with the laces, finally pulling my shoes off in frustration and throwing them into the gray plastic tub and passing (thankfully) without incident through the metal detector. I dressed as quickly as possible and ran on to the gate, where the agent at the desk told me that the flight had been overbooked, and that I would have to have to wait and see if anything was available. Ten minutes before departure he called me to the desk and handed me a ticket. “Thanks,” I told him, and rushed on board. It was a middle seat, of course, something I abhor and will normally do anything in my power to avoid. But the morning was not going my way; the flight was packed and I took my seat between two rather large men, each of whom had their elbow on the middle armrests. I kept my elbows at my side and told myself that the next four hours would just fly by.
I’m not sure why I also forgot that airlines no longer feed you. Clearly my inner planner had taken a little vacation of his own. I hadn’t eaten anything that morning and within a half an hour my stomach was grumbling. I had a cup of coffee and a pack of peanuts and told myself that when we landed in Indianapolis in three and a half hours, I would run off the plane and grab something to eat.
Two rows ahead of me, a toddler began crying. And for the next three and a half hours, the little brat never shut up. The man next to me in the aisle seat was reading a Maxim magazine with Charlie’s Angels on the cover. He took out a tissue, tore it up and plugged his ears. Then he put his magazine away and promptly fell asleep. Of course I had to go the bathroom. I was waiting for the cart to pass by so I wouldn’t get trapped or cause the flight attendants any hassle, because I am nice that way. I am also too nice to wake someone up and ask them to move. I know most people aren’t so timid, but I am still working on issues of self-confidence. Eventually I will believe that it’s okay to take up a few inches of space in the world, but that morning I wasn’t quite there yet. So I waited patiently for him to wake up. The pressure on my bladder grew exponentially. I decided to concentrate my psychic powers and then the man would wake up and realize that he, too, had to use the bathroom.
He slept the whole trip. For three hours I kept thinking, “Okay, just a few more minutes and he’ll wake up” until finally we were descending into Indianapolis and I decided to just wait. Perhaps if the interior noise of the plane hadn’t been so loud, the sounds of my rumbling stomach would have woken him up. The lengths I will go to avoid bothering a stranger are simply astonishing, and quite painful.
So when we finally landed and the flight attendant got on the intercom and said “For those of you continuing on to New York, you may leave the aircraft but please be back on board in ten minutes”, I could have killed her. I waited another ten minutes while everyone ahead of me gathered their belongings, and finally I ran off the plane towards the nearest bathroom, keeping an eye out for a fast food joint. I peed for about nine minutes, then checked out the terminal and realized that the only two food establishments available were actual restaurants, the kind where you sit down with a menu and they serve you fifteen minutes later. I don’t recommend Indianapolis. I boarded the plane again, went back to my middle seat and told myself that I could wait another hour and a half to eat at La Guardia. Of course, we sat at the gate for another forty-five minutes. Other, wiser travelers anticipated this and returned looking very well fed.
When we took off for New York the captain got on the intercom and told us that the weather in New York was currently sunny and beautiful and 72 degrees. Then he said “Just kidding.” I had another pack of peanuts. When we descended into New York, it was about 6 pm and the skies were dark and very wet. I could see the Manhattan skyline through the haze of gray clouds and rain.
As I stepped off the plane, I decided to wait till I got my suitcase before eating. The flight attendant had said that our bags would be available at Carrousel B. However, when we got down to the lower level, the carrousels were marked “B345” or “B233” or “B178”. The entire planeload of passengers wandered between carrousels, responding in kind to erroneous reports from security officers and ATA baggage handlers on which carrousel was ours. Finally, after about ten minutes, one of the carrousels began beeping and we all crowded around it. The conveyer belt began to move. Ten minutes later, it stopped moving. Not one bag had emerged. Then the beeping began again, and again it kicked into gear. Then it stopped. This went on for about a half an hour until finally bags began to appear. Thankfully mine had made it on board, and I picked it up and set off for the “food court”. I knew that the village of Bronxville was a good ten-minute walk from campus, and due to the rain and twilight I thought it best to eat before I arrived. I had a lonely piece of pizza and a Caesar salad in the food court, watching the rain fall outside. When I finished I lugged my bags outside to the taxi stand, and told the dispatcher that I needed to get to Sarah Lawrence in Bronxville. He sort of paused for a second, then scratched it out on his pad, handed me the stub, and called a taxi forward. I got in, closing the door against the rain, and told the driver my destination.
“Where?” he said.
“Sarah Lawrence College. It’s in Bronxville.”
“Bronxville? Do you mean the Bronx?”
He pulled back over to the curb. Luckily I had printed out the directions on Mapquest. He took the pages and looked them over. “It’s outside the city,” he finally said.
“Yes, I know.”
“Once we get outside the city limits, it will be double fare.”
Of course. “I don’t care, that’s fine.”
He got on the CB and spoke rapidly in Arabic, the only word I recognized being “Bronxville”. Then we set out. Traffic was slow, of course, and everything was gray and wet, and the sky was darkening and I watched everything pass, the Triborough Bridge, Shea Stadium, strange buildings and empty lots and trees of impossibly green foliage.
“Three months it’s been like this,” the cabbie told me.
“So I’ve heard,” I said. I gave him directions from the backseat, consulting my print-out. Thirty minutes later we exited the highway, and were promptly lost. He pulled into a gas station and handed me an umbrella.
“Go ask for directions, okay?”
I took the umbrella. Inside the gas station a woman saw me approach with the print-out in my hand.
“If you’re asking for directions, I don’t know anything,” she said. I stood there blankly until finally she took pity on me and called her assistant manager over, who pointed out the window.
“Go under that overpass, drive about a mile down the road, you’re like two minutes away.” Thank God.
We pulled onto campus and I looked around at the unfamiliar buildings. The workshop coordinator had explained that my dorm key would be waiting with security at the Westlands building. I saw a sign pointing towards Westlands and told the cabbie to stop. He scratched out a few numbers on a piece of paper; fare, bridge tolls, double fare. I paid him sixty-five dollars. “You want this, too?” I asked, offering him the printed directions.
“Just in case,” he said. He drove off.
It was pouring rain by now as I picked up my bags and set off for Westlands. As I got closer to the sign, however, I saw that there were arrows pointing in different directions, for three different buildings” “Westlands Desk”, “Westlands Gate”, and “Westlands Annex” or something, I don’t know, because by that point I was soaking wet and more than a little discouraged. I set off in the rain. There was nobody at Westlands Gate. I went to the next building. I opened the door and saw a woman sitting at a desk in the lobby and I sort of fell in love with her, for just a second. She laughed a little when I came in, eyeing my wet clothes. “It’s been doing this forever,” she said. “Like three months or something.”
“So I’ve heard,” I said. I gave her my name and she found my key.
“Oh, you’re all the way over at Andrews.” She looked at me as though I had just made her night much more complicated. “I’ll have to call the guy to take you over there, he’s helping someone else right now.”
“Nevermind,” I said, “Just point me in the right direction and I’ll find it.”
She sighed. “Well, let’s see, it’s a little complicated.”
I set off in the rain again, and as I shouldered my duffel bag I accidentally hit the “on” button on my electric shaver, and it began buzzing around inside, against my back. I walked a few steps and realized that if I didn’t turn it off, I would be driven insane. I found partial cover under a tree, opened the bag and dug around inside till I found the shaver, and switched it off.
I shouldered the bag again and continued on, crossing the campus and peering at the dark buildings for clues. None of them seem labeled, which made the journey rather confusing. I tried my key on a building but it didn’t work. I pulled out my map of the campus and realized that there was both an “Andrews Building”, and an “Andrews Court.” The key didn’t work on Andrews Building, so I headed off on the path to Andrews Court. As I neared the cluster of buildings I noticed that ahead of me there was a garbage bag lying next to a trash can on the side of the path. As I got closer, I realized there was something rooting around inside the torn-open bag, and as I got even closer I saw that it was a black creature, about the size of a small dog, and that there was a white stripe running down its back.
No,” I said to myself. “No. Absolutely not. I am NOT getting sprayed by a skunk tonight.” I could smell him from several feet away. He didn’t seem too frightened by my presence, but I wasn’t going to press my luck. I retreated a few feet and looked for an alternate route, but there was none. I would have to pass the skunk to get to the dorm. By now my jeans were sticking wet to my legs, and rain was running down my back. I made a stomping gesture on the path, and then another, and then finally the skunk grabbed a bit of trash in its mouth and retreated under a nearby tree. I walked very slowly past him, then hurried towards the dorms.
There were twelve buildings that made up Andrews Court. I was in the twelfth building, and it was, naturally, the very last one. They reminded me of quaint little split-level cabins, surrounded by leafy oaks and trails and tennis courts. My key finally worked, and I let myself into the building. It was cold and dark inside, and everything smelled like fresh paint. I walked down the short hallway, and found my room. I stepped inside and threw my bags on the bed. The mattress made a strange squeaky sound, and when I flipped on the light, I saw that it was a plastic twin size mattress.
“No,” I said. “I am not sleeping on a goddamned plastic mattress. I paid good money for this fucking workshop.” I glared at the mattress but it just sat there. I peeled off my wet clothes and dried off with a towel, then threw on my sweats. I walked through the dorm. There were two levels, four rooms each, and there was a plastic mattress in each and every one. I returned to my little room, which seemed closer to something out of a motel than something you’d find in a cabin. It was nine pm. Thee coordinator had said that basic linens would be supplied, and I picked up the thin sheets (35 count, it felt like) and opened them up and realized that I had two flat sheets and no fitted sheet. Once again I searched the entire dorm, and once again I was out of luck. I made my bed and sat down, finally, with a squeak. All I could smell was fresh paint and I had a headache and no aspirin, and I had air conditioning but no heat and I was very cold.
I felt, suddenly, like I was eighteen again, arriving for my first semester of college in Florida, at the very end of the rainy season. I had dragged my bags to my dorm. The architect I. M. Pei had designed the dorms, but to me they just looked like a confusing jumble of dull gray blocks, and each room looked like something out of a cheap motel. Later I heard a rumor that they were designed that way, so that if the college failed, they could be used as lodging for tourists. My room was on the second floor, and it smelled like fresh paint and my roommate hadn’t yet arrived. I had gone out on the balcony and had a cigarette and watched everyone else arrive. They slipped and skidded around on the wet tiles in Palm Court and I didn’t know anybody and I felt like maybe I had made a mistake. And at Sarah Lawrence I felt like maybe I had done the same. I listened to the rain falling outside on the trees but I didn’t have a balcony, and I gave up smoking many years ago, when I was nineteen.