“Yes, I”ve had many meetings with strangers. Whoever you are, I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”
-Blanche DuBois (A Streetcar Named Desire)
My Pastor often said that the closer you get to God, and the more you read the Bible, the more you realize how little you know about God and the Bible. That is true about many aspects of life-- and, I now know it is true about traveling.
The plan was for a short trip to Baton Rouge-- out in the morning and back in the evening. A simple plan. A good day. It became an “Alice in Wonderland” adventure with shades of Indiana Jones—or, the Bataan Death march. I am no virgin traveler- I’ve wandered the back alleys of Kowloon--away from Tsim Tsa Shui-- gotten lost in the seemingly endless shops in and around central London and immersed myself in the poverty-stricken areas of Montego Bay. And, I’ve been to East St. Louis and Inglewood, California.
I should have known this would be an adventure when the nose gear was damaged on pushback from the gate departing DFW. Delay: One Hour.
Baton Rouge was joyous—memorable, even. It wasn’t the problem. My traveling companion and I got to the airport two full hours before the scheduled departure. TSA wasn’t a problem-- I made a shoeless scamper through the metal detectors and was no worse for wear. We found a coffee shop and stopped for Cafe-au-Lait, Raspberry Scones and bottled water. We leisurely wandered to the departure lounge—then, the first wave of trepidation swept over me. I had a flashback to my youth--during the time I spent working for an airline in Los Angeles. Back then, by taking a look at the number of people in the lounge forty minutes to departure time and I could assess whether we’d be able to leave on time. It was uncanny how often I was right. The flight to Dallas was on a 44-seat Embraer regional jet. And, I kid you not; there were at least 90 people in the departure lounge. Each had that bewildered, end-of-the-day, “I have no idea what’s going on look in their face.” I've seen that look countless times.
Another airline cancelled a flight to DFW and the people were standing by as 'oversales' on the flight we hoped to board-- and, we weren’t confirmed, but standby flotsam.
The flight departed with me and my traveling companion (and about thirty other people) standing at the gate. The gate agent, a pretty black girl named Violet was graciously trying to get people to Baltimore, Seattle and Atlanta. She motioned to me and said, “Your best bet is to come back tomorrow--after four o’clock. There is an option to take Delta and go through Atlanta--it’s about $500.00.”
Standby travel is an odd blend of art and science-- when you don’t get on, the first thing is to assess the location of the nearest airport with a later flight --which was New Orleans. I called and quickly learned there was a 6:35 flight from Louis Armstrong to DFW-- of course, by now it is 5:45 p.m. No time, and as fortune would have it , that was the last trip of the day.
Since we had to get back that night, I immediately thought of Greyhound. Now, under the heading of full disclosure, let me say that the last time I took Greyhound was as a 12 year old going from L.A. to Redding, CA and a trip to Mount Shasta. Tricky Dick was at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
My traveling companion-- quite the savvy traveler--quietly suggested that I have my head examined for considering Greyhound. I think her quote was, “Are you crazy? You only want to try this because you have never ridden Greyhound.” It can’t be that bad,” I quipped. “We can get travel chess or checker sets and play all the way back to Dallas.”
Thirty minutes and $15.00 later we were at 1253 Florida Avenue...the bus depot. It was not 6:40 p.m. and we were standing in line to buy tickets for the 7:15 Bus to Dallas. There were buses leaving to Houston and Pensacola. There were throngs of people. Strangely, it reminded me or Mexico City or Mombassa. A Greyhound agent at the door began screaming for re-borders to come forward. I didn’t know what a re-border was so my traveling companion had to explain.
There was bank of ten (working) pay phones and a vendor was selling Chicken Pot Pies for $2.25. The ticket agent’s voice interrupted the show. “I have no tickets left to sell tonight. Come back tomorrow.”
The six or seven people in front of me dutifully got out of line, but I marched up to her. ‘Does this mean you’re not selling seats on the 7:15 bus to Dallas,” I said.
She looked at me the way the customers used to stare at me when I said, “It's a weather delay and we can’t leave until the fog lifts.” "I"m going to write your superiors," the customers would often say.
The agent looked at me with pity. “Sir, there are no seats going to Dallas or anywhere else tonight. Come back tomorrow. Didn’t you hear me?”
My traveling companion shook her head-- there was no need to even say, ‘I told you so, stupid.’ Decision time for me—I said, “I know, let’s go back to the airport and get a rental car...we can drive to Dallas and be in before sunrise!”
We called Yellow Cab....and waited...and waited. The rain drops were attacking the pavement, so we waited inside. I learned that Cabbies don’t like to pick-up at the bus depot—at least the one in Baton Rouge. Seventeen minutes passed and a Yellow cab showed up. Before we could get outside, a light-skinned black girl in a Houston Texan jersey raced to the cab door and opened it. The driver asked her last name and when she gave a different name, he asked her to step away.
During the seventeen minute wait I met a black man named Elvin. He looked about 45 or so. He suggested that we go to New Orleans because there were more travel options from there--and, that there was a free coach going to New Orleans at 7:30. The pick-up location was about ten blocks up Florida Street, just past the cemetery. He said that he didn’t have a car because he had been really sick, but he often took the bus down to New Orleans and spent the day. He was at the bus station because his best friend was trying to get to Dallas to attend a funeral. The best friend’s Sister had hung herself from the second story balcony of her home the day before. They had to get over to Dallas and make funeral arrangements. He was traveling with his kids who didn’t know their Aunt was dead. He went on to explain that he would ask the best friend if he could borrow the car and drive us the ten blocks because it didn’t make good sense t walk that far in the rain. I had to interrupt Everett to keep from losing the cab to the light-skinned black girl. Everett said he bought and sold cars-- he told me that he could help me if I were ever back in Baton Rouge...even with financing…
We slid into the expansive back seat of the Caprice. Smilin’ Tom, a white guy, was our driver. He gleefully announced he’d have us at the airport in ten minutes. “Greyhound would be out of business if they didn’t have a damn monopoly,’ he said. “They don’t care whether you get there or not. If there was any competition, they’d treat people better. As bad as they are, it might take to you two weeks to get from Baton Rouge to Dallas because you’ve gotta layover for five days in Alexandria.”
I painfully called the “Ding” airline and learned there was a 9:20 p.m. flight from New Orleans to Houston and we could connect to get back to DFW. The problem, of course, was getting to New Orleans Airport—now known as Louis Armstrong International.
Smilin’ Tom was right. Ten dollars and ten minutes later we were at National Rent-a-Car. Hope was starting to rise in me. It didn’t last.
“Why sir, in order to rent this vehicle, you’ll have to show us a return ticket showing Baton Rouge as the final destination,” the agent said. I sighed.
“Can’t I just pay the drop-off charge and leave it at the airport in New Orleans,” I offered.
“No, sir. That won’t be possible. Every car rented in Baton Rouge must be returned here. Try Enterprise.”
We walked exactly thirty steps to the Enterprise counter and I presented my valid Texas Drivers License and Visa. The National agent was right; Enterprise didn’t charge a drop-off fee to leave a car in New Orleans. The only problem was that they didn’t have any cars. Only, a Honda Ridgeline.
I said, “Cool, I’ll take it.” She looks down at my card -- we don’t accept Visa.
I ran to the American Eagle ticket counter and asked them how they arranged for misconnected passengers to get from Baton Rouge to New Orleans. The young man looked at me, “Taxi. About One-twenty. Minimum.” “Damn, I said.”
My traveling companion was one step ahead of me, having gone to the taxi stand and arranged a taxi for us.
I walked up and saw an older black man. Let’s just call him, “Gideon.” Gideon the guardian angel. He opened the door of the Chrysler and said, “Get in.”
The radio was playing ‘Room at the Cross for you’ and the sight of a wooden cross dangled from the rearview mirror. Gideon said: “Don’t worry, I’ll get y’all there.” Peace, like a Waikiki wave, washed over me.
We disappeared into the concrete blackness of Interstate 110 and sleep came easily to me. I awakened at 8:47 and we were getting off the freeway heaeding for Racetrack. Gideon, sensing my concern said, “I don’t want to run out of gas on the Lake Pontchartrain bridge...don’t worry, we’re eight miles away. "
TO BE CONTINUED