"Strangers in the night"


Because I travel constantly, speaking on the mess in Iraq, meeting with reader groups and supporters of Palestinian rights, I often run into travel delays. Despite celebrating "100 years of flight" this year, we still treat "weather delays" as though they come from God, and not from our own mismanagement of airspace.

Last week found me arriving at LaGuardia, New York airport, at 4:45 P.M. for a 5:45 P.M. departure. I have a consistent rule of thumb: if I am on time, the airplane is late; if I am running late, the flight is on time. Because I was early, the flight was of course late. "Weather" delays. But it was to be a night to remember.

Even as the skies began to clear, I was still sitting in the airline departure lounge, en route to the Midwest for a meeting. Much to my amazement, I sat still in that seat (the lounge was overflowing) for five solid hours. I didn’t budge. How did I manage? Beats me.

Finally I got up. They were selling "artisan cheese" at the Au Bon Pain. A comely lady in a black dress looked at me and said "We need a glass of wine to go with this." I agreed. She paid and moved on.

Across the lounge at other departure gates, a riot almost broke out as flights were delayed, then cancelled, as passengers learned they would not make it out. There was a young woman at my gate and she seemed distraught at the delays. Mostly people just coped. The hours dragged on, but we were constantly assured the incoming flight was "on the runway" for New York, "in the air," and arriving in time to depart again. It was not to be.

At midnight, after others and I had been waiting seven hours, we were advised the flight was cancelled. The airline promised to operate a special replacement flight the next day, but it would have devastated my schedule. We were asked to go to the ticket counter to rebook.

Arriving at the ticket counter I saw a long line (the flight was fully booked) and a single agent making accommodations. It was 12:30 A.M.

I began to chat with people in the line, and reminisced on how I had once been on an overbooked flight heading for Pittsburgh. A group of us were "bumped," accepted the free ticket, and a free rental car to drive to Pittsburgh to make our connections. (I made my flight that night.)

"Strangers in the night, exchanging glances."

As I talked about renting a car, my neighbors in the line began to take notice. By the time we reached the front of the line, we had created a group of five persons, myself included, who agreed to rent a car and drive to the Midwest.

We were complete strangers. Our only commonality was that we had been thrown into a hideous line in the middle of the night. There were two women and three men. One of the men acted as rental agent, and got us a car. It turned out to be a comfortable SUV. We took a group picture as we departed. I steered the group to the Neptune diner in Astoria, New York, where we took on coffee and muffins. It was 1:00 A.M.

One of the women, newly married, worked in advertising. Another was a quasi-judicial officer. One man taught college and another was a journalist. We were off together into deepest New Jersey as we crossed the George Washington Bridge and cranked the SUV up to 70 mph.

The first driver took us into Pennsylvania, a place he called Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, with Alabama sandwiched in between them. We stopped at a desolate truck stop for potty time and another round of coffee.

I sat in the passenger’s seat all night, keeping the drivers alert and telling stories. The college professor taught public policy; we talked about Iraq. The ad lady and I spoke about advertising. Others talked about families and futures. And so it went; the night passed.

By daybreak we were on the cusp of Ohio, and soon afterwards we reached our destination and separated. There was a round of hugs, some exchanged e-mail addresses and, yes, another round of picture taking.

I never did get their names. But we shared a night together, and made it to our destination as a well-organized and successful traveling team. As Frank Sinatra might sing:

We were strangers in the night
Up to the moment
When we said our first hello
Little did we know
An SUV was just a chat away
A warm, embracing drive away–

It tuned out so right
For strangers in the night

There is a moral here: we Americans trust and love each other. There is a special bond that keeps us together and creates trust in us. Even in the midst of all of the suspicion that government has unfortunately created, we are capable of coming together, working together, and doing so under unusual and unexpected conditions. Our group shared a special need, and we created a special bond that got us to where we were going on time. The others thanked me for orchestrating the combination; I thanked them for having the faith and trust in me to join up.

Today I am on to California. Then Las Vegas. Then West Palm Beach. Then back to Chicago.

Strangers in the night.