The Kindness of Strangers: NYC Version

I was in New York for a book convention, and was heading home in a very good mood. My traveling companion and I have known one another for over thirty years. We met in the theater. She always comes with me to these things and acts as my carnival barker to attract people to my booth. She’s extremely good at this.

Although slightly hungover, we were reminiscing and singing old tunes on the ride to the airport. She got out at a different terminal, and for the remainder of the trip, the cab driver and I had a pleasant few minutes talking about friendship. He was a nice guy, and I tipped him well. We parted with a handshake. This is a lesson: be nice to people, and they’ll be nice to you. Also, get a receipt.

I was walking into the terminal when I reached into my pocket for my boarding pass, which was on my phone. My phone wasn’t in my pocket. It wasn’t in my handbag. It wasn’t in my backpack.

It was in the cab.

You know that sickening feeling when you’ve lost something of value. But we all have a particular and dangerous dependency on our phones that made this loss particularly dire. How would I call my husband to say I might be late? Or the dog sitter whose number I didn’t know by heart? Does directory assistance even exist anymore? I couldn’t reach my friend, only a short way away in the next terminal. Everything we need is on our phones: our TSA numbers, our insurance agent’s phone, and the most intimate details of our lives. Our wallets barely matter. Did I mention it was a brand new phone?

I checked my luggage, got a new paper boarding pass, and stood thinking about what to do. If there were any pay phones, who would I call? If I could only call the cab driver…

An airline employee named Phil was directing the lines, and when I told him my dilemma he handed me his phone. I wanted to call the cab company. “No. Call yourself,” he told me. “The driver will hear it ringing, and at least know it’s there.”

So I called myself, several times, and then went back out to the drop off, in hope that the cab might be able to come around again. But after a few minutes of waiting, the unlikeliness of this prospect sank in. I went back in to Phil, to ask, this time, if I could call the cab company. I had the receipt, and the cab number. “You’ll be on hold forever,” he told me. But I had to try. So Phil again handed me his phone while he continued his work with other passengers.

Then, as I waited on hold, a miracle happened: my own phone number popped up. I handed the phone to Phil to answer. It was the cab driver. He had pulled off and was in the LaGuardia taxi waiting area. He couldn’t just sit there, the line was moving, and he’d soon be pushed out. I needed to come immediately to get my phone. He told me to hurry. Talking fast, Phil explained that the cab area was off the airport premises, and down the highway. It was a distance, I couldn’t walk there, and I would really have to hurry.

I grabbed a cab as it was dropping off and told the driver the problem. Could he help me? We broke the rules about passenger pick-ups, and sped off. I asked him to call my phone. Soon, we were out on the highway, driving fast, away from the airport and my checked luggage, as the two drivers argued volubly about how to get to the right place

It had been maybe five minutes and I was beginning to worry when we headed up an exit ramp dodging and weaving slower traffic as if we were in a chase scene, all while the drivers continued arguing. The current driver, an African with a beautiful accent and a warm, deep voice, had a kind of other-worldly authority. The other, my kindly Afghani friend, had an almost hysterical sense of urgency. “No, No No!” I heard him screaming into the phone. “That’s not the right place! NO!”

“Listen,” said the African driver calmly as he whipped around a tiny Fiat that was driving too slowly and cut in front of it. “You have to stop talking and listen to me.”

The Fiat driver, a cute elderly lady with wild, curly hair, flipped us off.

We squeezed past a Hyundai with inches to spare, and squealed around the corner before the light changed.

The drivers, having apparently reached some kind of concord, hung up. I knew we were close, but I hadn’t understood what they were talking about. It felt like a flashback to my younger days, traveling in the Soviet Union with some Greek friends, where everyone was speaking English, but in accents I couldn’t understand. “The gas station,” my driver said, “is where the taxis get their gas. I know where it is.” But if taxi number one was in line with the cab, I wondered, how was he at a gas station.  It didn’t make sense, but at this point, it was out of my hands.

As we pulled up to the gas station, my hopes fell. There was no cab visible. “He’s not here,” I said. “No,” said the driver. “I don’t see him.”

And then, at the same moment, we both saw a slight, middle-aged man standing in the gas station parking lot, jumping up and down, and waving his arms. It was our guy. He had left his cab in the line, somehow scaled a wire fence, and was waiting in the parking lot, waving my phone in his hands.  He expressed his joy as freely as his frustration. I offered him a large reward, trying to put it into his hands, but he wouldn’t take it. I hugged him and kissed him on the cheek instead.

And then in a matter of seconds I was in the other cab again, racing back to the airport in a heady state of triumph. I really can’t overstate my ebullience. I was as proud of my resourcefulness in pulling this off as if I had led the troops to victory. I thanked my second cab driver profusely, and gave him a big tip. His driving had been both exciting and essential.

The rest of the trip was uneventful: even the usual irritation of the TSA experience felt soothing in its routine. It was too early in the morning to drink—although I was tempted—so I consoled myself with a latte and some $20 airport avocado toast. Still, I was reminded once again of the importance of kindness. One way or another, it will always come back to you.

It was a good day.






North of the Tension Line’s Publicity Machine


When people talk to me about North of the Tension Line,, they often mention Rocco, the thoughtful and easy-going German Shepherd who lives with Elisabeth.

When people see Moses-shown above-they assume that Rocco is Moses. But, in fact, the reverse is true: Moses is Rocco. I began writing about Rocco long before Moses came into my life. Opportunism, however, is a new author’s responsibility, and this permits me to bring Moses along to book events.

Children climb on him, people want their pictures taken with him, and, inevitably, when people hesitantly reach out to touch this Big Scary Dog, he rolls over so they can rub his tummy. A dog is a public relations boon.

And also excellent company for the road.

The Kindness of Strangers

In the interests of realism–as opposed to self-pity–it is reasonable to point out that the life of an unknown author on book tour is not glamorous. It is, in fact, lonely, discouraging, and humbling in the truest sense of the word. You know how when people win the Nobel Prize and say that it is humbling? Well, winning the Nobel Prize is not humbling. No. Waking up alone in a hotel room, driving all day, having a book event and having four people show up in a room set up for 35, then going back alone to another hotel room that is humbling.

I am not complaining. At least not at this moment. This is all part of the process of breaking into a difficult business as an unknown author. If I persist, I hope that someday I can increase my audience turnout to something more respectable. Possibly even to double it. I am merely pointing out how meaningful interactions with people can be in these circumstances. So the other night in Lake Orion Michigan, after a day of this kind, I decided to take myself out for a nice dinner. And possibly a cocktail. Possibly more than one.

It was a Saturday night. The place was packed, and the wait for a table was over an hour. So I found a single place at the bar–an advantage to traveling alone–and decided to have my dinner there. There was a couple seated next to me–I was on the corner–and we started chatting. We talked for well over an hour. They were parents whose first child was a freshman in college and they were struggling over parenting withdrawal, and I was deeply grateful for the conversation. They generously asked questions about my book. I gave them a book card and wished that I had a book with me to give to them. When they left we all exchanged good wishes, but I didn’t realize until I was ready to leave a little while later that they had paid my bill.  So I didn’t have a chance to thank them.

So to the couple at the bar in Lake Orion, just in case you decided to check out my blog, please accept my thanks. Your gesture was gratefully received and will be duly passed along to someone else who may appreciate it.


The Perils of Public Music


There used to be a lot of mockery about Muzak, that bland public music that took popular tunes like I Can’t Get No Satisfaction, removed the drums, and added violins and a zither. Its mediocrity was intended to soothe, but for people who actually like music, it served mostly to irritate. I don’t know if Muzak still exists. But if the corporate entity has faded, its inane heritage carries on with a vengeance.

Public music wears on the nerves. Airlines have decided that their passengers want to hear it as they get on and off the plane. Perhaps they believe that the hostilities going on as passengers hunt for space to shove their carry-ons will be somehow mitigated by jazz. I admit to being amused by the contrast of the activities going on above my head while saxophones pretend that everyone’s having a good time. Maybe the airline executives have a previously unsuspected sense of humor.

Hotels play music in their public spaces, and the selections are clearly chosen to set the correct tone of Fashionability and Chic. At the last place we stayed—iced-in while the airport was closed for two days—the effect was surreal. A colleague described it as Bollywood on acid. Even at 4 in the morning, during a discussion with the desk clerk over whether the gym was open, the empty lobby resonated with a strange undulating sound that created a vague feeling of nausea.

In the public rooms outside of a conference, the tinkling sound of wind chimes and synthesized chanting interferes with serious thinking, and creates a mental discord between the reality of work and the unattainability of vacation.

At resort hotels, the soothing sound of surf is covered up by the incessant beat of techno-funk. Inside the hotel lobby, however, you can hear the sound of waves, but only embedded in the Tibetan chimes of corporate spa music.

Travel, particularly business travel, is stressful. You are away from home and family and dogs. The TSA has put its hands all over your self and your stuff. Your feet hurt. You packed for the wrong climate. You haven’t finished writing your speech when the leading expert on the topic will be on the panel. Your flight is delayed and you may miss a conference call with your boss. Your cell phone battery is low. You are breathing stale air from plane, airport, and hotel conference rooms. You’re eating unhealthy food, and the gym was closed when you tried to work out. The airport announcements blare at you, and neon signs invite you to eat delicious unhealthy things. At times like these, you need your thoughts to yourself. So a word to people who control the volume: Just turn it off.