Illustration by Russell Christian.
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Slackjaw by Jim Knipfel
Westbury is a very nice little town. There's certainly no denying that. The people are nice, too. The town and the people are so nice, in fact, that the man who was driving the car I was in stopped there three times to chat with folks. Only problem is, he was supposed to be driving me to LaGuardia at the time.
I guess I knew that there was going to be trouble about two minutes after I got in the back seat. I'd called the car service the night before, asking that they send someone around about eight. My flight to Wisconsin (my first in over two years) left at 11, and I wanted to give myself plenty of leeway to get the security nonsense out of the way. That's why I was so relieved when the car actually showed up ten minutes early.
I got in the back seat, said hello to the driver and told him where I was going. He was an older Russian man, almost completely bald. The car smelled of old pipe smoke.
I'd made this trip often enough to know the way pretty well. That's why I knew something was amiss when he turned right instead of left after two blocks. Perhaps smelling the suddenly burst of sweat from the back seat, he half-turned and explained, "BQE very bad. Two hours. I go different way. Central Park."
"Oh," I said. "Okay." The trip normally took 45 minutes. Two hours wouldn't help me at all. If this man, professional driver that he was, knew a different, faster route, I was willing to listen to him.
Until, at Grand Army Plaza, he called into the station and asked if this new route of his was at all feasible.
Ten minutes later, we were still heading due south in Brooklyn. I kept my mouth shut, though. Partly because my jaw was beginning to tighten up, just a little.
Once he actually turned onto the thruway and began heading in a direction that approximated north, I relaxed a bit. The streets were clear, and we seemed to be making good time. I settled back and stared out the window, trying to catch glimpses of the passing road signs.
Come nine o'clock, we were still on the thruway, and I'd yet to see a single sign which mentioned anything at all about LaGuardia. I continued to hold my tongue, even as he aimed the car onto an off ramp.
Funny, I've been in situations like this before, and always assumed that I was going to be driven to the middle of nowhere and shot in the back of the head. Not here, though., Instead, I kept glancing at my watch, trying to budget out the time I had left, calculating whether or not I had enough time to actually make this flight. I'd never missed a flight in my life-never even had to run for one before. Oh well. I'd deal, I figured.
At the top of the off-ramp he stopped the car, turned around, and finally admitted, "I have no idea where I'm going."
At this point, I couldn't help him, so all I did was grunt and shrug.
"I must ask somebody."
He rolled down the passenger window and shouted something in Russian at the driver in the car to our right. The driver, miraculously enough, responded in Russian, but had to admit he had no idea how to get to LaGuardia from where we were. He tried the car to our left with equal results. Then he opened his door and walked to the car behind us for help. Nobody had any answers.
He took a right turn and began a leisurely tour of Westbury, LI (which, like I said, seemed to be a very nice little town). He pulled in to the first gas station he came across, got out of the car again, and went inside.
Well, this should do it, I thought. Maybe he'll even look at a map. I glanced at my watch again. Okay, there's no way in hell I'm going to make this flight. So once I do get out there, what do I do? See if there's a later flight, maybe. One that would still get to O'Hare in time for my connection. Cost me an arm and a leg, but still cheaper than scrapping the whole trip. Maybe if I explain the situation no, that'll never work
I was amazed at how calm I was. A little tense, sure, but I was resigned to the situation.
He got back in the car, said nothing, and headed out of the gas station.
Two blocks later, he pulled into another gas station, got out of the car, and began talking to another attendant. This time I rolled my window down to try and listen to the directions myself. Maybe I'd be able to help him out. I'm usually pretty good with directions.
Man, this guy is not getting a tip.
Given the wind and the distance and the number of other cars at the gas station, all I was able to catch was the line "Just stay on that, and it'll take you straight to LaGuardia."
My driver, head down, returned to the car, pulled out of the gas station, and took a series of quick turns which seemed to imply that he knew where he was headed. Before long, we were out of Westbury and headed west.
I swear I could feel it when he made the wrong turn. At that point it was far too late to say anything at all.
Not long after that, we were at Jones Beach. Then in another small town I didn't recognize. It wasn't nearly as nice as Westbury had been.
The driver pulled out his pipe and began suck furiously at it. I pulled out a cigarette and did the same. It was 9:40.
Nope, no tip for him.
He stopped a man who was pulling out of his driveway, but he had no idea. Still, I was amazed that all these people actually paused and listened to him. Maybe the fact that he was an old, bald Russian had something to do with it.
Several blocks later, after driving around aimlessly, he pulled up alongside two enormous Greeks who were standing by the curb. Both men seemed eager to help. So much so that they fell into a brief argument in their native tongue over what constituted the best and easiest way to get to LaGuardia.
I rolled my eyes. I couldn't even just ask him to take me back home at this point. Lord knows how long that would take, and if I would ever get there.
Finally agreed, one of the Greeks, translating for the other, said "Turn around here. Follow the signs towards the Triboro Bridge. You'll see it. Ten, fifteen minutes."
The driver waved and made a u-turn. This time, it seems, he actually followed the directions he's been given, and followed the sign pointing toward the bridge.
Five minutes later, I saw a sign for LaGuardia-the first I'd seen since we left my apartment shortly before eight. The sign read "LaGuardia-Keep Right."
"Keep Right!" I screamed. It was the first thing I'd uttered in nearly two hours.
I took a deep breath when he actually made the exit. Soon we were passing signs which were directing us to various terminals. I began getting what I'd need out of my bag. It would be tight, but there was still a chance. At this point, all that mattered was that we'd made it to the airport.
Then he got lost again. We were at the fucking airport, and he got lost again.
"Excuse me?" he shouted to a cab driver, "but where I find American?"
Oh Jesus Christ.
He drove in circles, nearly ended up in long-term parking, tried to drop me off at arrivals instead of departures, drove around awhile more, until finally I decided that the Delta terminal was close enough, and leapt from the car, his voice pleading "I'm sorry I'm sorry I'm sorry" behind me. I had to admit feeling bad for him. It wasn't exactly his fault.
Well, yes it was, but I still felt bad for him. It wasn't like the price of the ride would go up if he drive me 50 miles out of the way.
Inside the terminal, I found myself at the end of one of those impossible lines. It was ten after ten, but I had already given up, so I was no longer sweating.
"Anyone here have an 11 o'clock flight?" the woman from the airline asked as she strolled her way through the crowd.
"Uhhh I do," I said, half-raising my hand.
"You have an electronic ticket?"
"Yeah." (I never really knew what the deal was with those things.)
"You checking any luggage?"
"Then you better run-your plane's about to start boarding."
"Oh I ?"
"Planes load half an hourly early. That's why so many people miss their flights."
"Blame the Russian!" I blurted.
"Gate D-6" she replied.
I clawed my way through the other people in line, ducked under a barricade of some sort, and began loping my way towards the gate, knowing I'd still have to get through security, but not knowing how bad that would be.
While thinking about that, I ran right past the first checkpoint, and had to be called back to show them my papers.
Wow, had I kept running, they would've shut the airport down, I thought. I didn't make this comment aloud to anyone, though, figuring it would be better not to.
All my papers being in order, I began loping again, and ran past the second checkpoint before being called back one more time. I wasn't helping my situation at all, here.
"How are you today?" the pleasant woman with the metal-detecting rod asked after I removed my shoes.
"Well ma'am, to be honest, I've had better mornings."
Though every bit of metal had been removed from my body, something in my left ankle continued to set off the detector. This puzzled them. Still, they let me go.
So in my stocking feet and with my belt still flopping open, I made a final sprint for the gate, and reached it just as the first boarding announcements were being made.
I made it, I thought, with tears welling up in my eyes, I really made it.
At 10:30, I took my seat (17-F) next to a three year-old and his father. Normally, this would cause me a great deal of consternation, but today I decided to let it slide. Even when the stewardess came by and, in the first act of real kindness I'd encountered since leaving my apartment, offered to let me move back a row if I'd like, I declined.
"No, I'll be fine," I said. Then I turned to the father. "Unless you'd rather I moved." At that point, still giddy with victory, I was feeling almost gregarious.
"Uhh no no that won't be necessary," he said without looking at me. He didn't sound in the least convinced.
"Well fine, then. We're all set."
The strange giddiness I was feeling hung around until about ten minutes after the plane took off-which is when the three year-old sitting next to me shit his pants.