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.

 

 

 

 

 

Autumn Island

autumn-sand-dunes-2

God willing, and if I get my work done this week, I leave for the Island on Friday. It will be such a busy week that I will be packing today.

These escapes are not technically vacations, since I usually work twelve to fourteen hours a day. It’s all writing and walking. But this time reconnects the pieces for me so that I can keep going. It’s a renewal.

We’re having an odd fall here in Wisconsin. October 2nd and the trees are still green, and I am a bit disappointed that the full autumn glory will be missing on the Island–that golden light that suffuses and saturates.  But we have to go now, before bow season, since I don’t want big dogs crashing through the underbrush with hunters about.

We will bring the essentials ( in no particular order): the computer; the brown paper bag plot map that hangs on my office wall; the particular black spiral notebooks I cannot live without; colored sharpies for plot lines; The World’s Best Thesaurus; several books of poetry; several pairs of glasses; food for the first few days so I don’t have to interrupt my solitude; coffee; wine; dog food; dog equipment; Essential Dog 1 (Pete); Essential Dog 2 (Moses).

We’ll also bring all the accoutrements for long all-weather walking.

I have a few friends on the Island, now, and toward the end of the week, I will hope to see them.   But for the first half, it will just be the Island, me, the words, and the essential dogs.

We’re heading north of the tension line.

Joy.

 

 

 

Not Judging Books by Their Covers

the_road_into_the_field_199302

I had car trouble yesterday on my way to a signing in Door County. I was tooling along at 70 in the pouring rain, when all of the sudden there was some catastrophic electronic failure. Every dire warning sign flicked on the dashboard. I lost my brakes, I lost my power steering, and the engine began to buck. Fortunately, I was close to an exit in civilization-which for our purposes here means a place with a Mazda dealer only a few miles away–and was able to coast and manhandle the car down a ramp, through a roundabout, and into the parking lot of a minimart.

I hate roundabouts. I mean, I hated them before, but in this case it was lucky I didn’t have to stop. I could just keep coasting.

When I pulled up next to the building out of the way, all the lights in the dashboard went out, and I couldn’t turn off the engine. I had to go inside to figure out where I was so I could tell the tow truck where to come, and normally one doesn’t leave a running car unattended. But what the hell, I thought. It’s not as if anyone could drive it away.

None of this is the point of the story, but I kind of wanted to tell it.

The tow truck showed up in about ten minutes, to my surprise and relief. We were going to be cutting it a little close for me to get to my event, and I was having a hard time figuring out how to explain to the bookstore proprietor–my friend, Peter–that all his planning was going to be for an author-less book signing. I called my husband, who was speeding in my direction to rescue me, and told him he could go back.

Anyway–and now we’re getting to the nub of the thing–the tow truck driver was this young, blond guy with lots of tattoos. He was a kind of classic Wisconsin small town guy, complete with the rural accent: decent, trustworthy, competent, grease on his clothes, dirt under his nails. He hooked up my car, and I climbed into the cab of the truck for the ride to the (mercifully) open car dealer who would loan me a car.

I told him that I was in a bit of a hurry, because there was an event I had to be at. What kind of event? he wanted to know. So I told him I was a writer.

“I love books!” he said. “Harry Potter is my favorite, as you can probably tell by these.” He raised his left arm to indicate his tattoos, which I couldn’t really see, but which must have been representative of this passion. “I listen mostly to audio books, though.” He fumbled in his pocket to get out his I-phone while I hoped that he was looking at the highway. “I’ve listened to…” he looked down at his phone to check the exact figure…”two months and two and a half weeks worth of books this year so far.” He then proceeded to talk about his favorites: after Harry Potter, a series of World War I historical novels by Ken Follet, and some other series in a similar vein. He was knowledgeable about history, and he clearly loved stories of heroism and mysticism. He wanted to know if my books were on audio. I told him not yet, but that we were working on it.

“I read paper books, too,” he said. “But with all the driving around, I do mostly audio.”  I kind of doubt that my books are his kind of thing, but so far all my assumptions were being proved false. “Would you like a copy of my book?” I asked. He was enthusiastic.

We got to the dealer, and I dug out a copy of each of my books and signed them for him. We shook hands.

I love thinking about this tow truck driver, wandering around the country roads of Wisconsin, doing this necessary but unglamorous job, the rhythms of different authorial voices accompanying his travels, moved by the heroic acts of protagonists both real and imagined. Along what path will these values take him? How will these stories affect his life and the lives of others? From the seemingly mundane heroism of helping people with broken cars to some other, more dramatic form? Or is it these small daily rescues that give his path meaning?

Maybe he thinks about these things. Or maybe not. Maybe it’s just a job to him, not a mission. But the meanings of our lives may be things we never realize until we’re looking back. Or they could be things we’ll never know.

People are always more interesting than you think.

 

 

Last Day North of the Tension Line

January sunset

Today is my last day on Washington Island. The ferry leaves tomorrow at 8 am and we’ll be on it.

Normally I like to walk the deck and chat with the crew, but the dogs are with me, and there’s something about the ferry ride that scares them. So we sit together in the car, and I talk and sing to them. They like that, and they usually sing along. Pete, who is undoubtedly the coward in the family, is mostly unbothered by the motion, but that is enough for Moses. When we hit the ice fields the noise frightens them both and they tremble. It seems to get worse each trip.

Last night I walked home from a dinner party in the dark with the wind screaming from the lake. Its noise and power were awesome–in the old fashioned sense of the word. The dogs leapt with joy to see me, and we went out again to hear the wind and look at the moon and the clouds. They ran ahead of me through the snow, sniffing at deer tracks. The wild remoteness of the Island is oddly comforting to me, and I feel safer here than anywhere else on earth, even when the wind leaps and howls as if it would tear us off the ground and spin us into space.

I like to say I live in exile from Washington Island, and most people think it’s a joke. But leaving this place tears at me, and even though I will be happy to be home again, a part of myself will be missing.

A Long Time Coming

I began this novel seven years ago. I didn’t know it was a novel then, and there were many times between then and now that I doubted it was anything at all. But here it is, a published novel, and tomorrow I will leave home–without dogs,and I haven’t explained that to them yet–to begin a book tour.

First autograph ever

I am nervous, excited, and have a certain wry awareness that the life I abandoned as an opera singer–living out of a suitcase in strange cities–has come back to find me. Why? I wonder. There are peculiarities about fate at work here.

Nevertheless, here we go. At least there will be no one with bulldozers to ask me about the water lines.

So:

Saturday, September 20–Shelby Township, Michigan–Book Signing

2:00 pm

Barnes & Noble

14165 Hall Rd, Shelby Township, MI

Sunday September 21 Northville, Michigan–Book Signing

2:00 pm

Barnes & Noble

17111 Haggerty Rd, Northville, MI

Tuesday, September 23–Muskegon Michigan–Talk, Reading, Book Signing

Hackley Public Library

6:00 Pm

316 W. Webster

Muskegon, MI 49440

I have to admit that I am using this as an excuse for a four hour ferry ride to Michigan. Who wouldn’t?

 

The Perils of Public Music

airport

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.
Please.