Is this happening?
Is this really happening?
I looked over at my Nicky, bent and curled in the seat next to me on the plane, 5 years old at the time. He was finally fast asleep. I smiled down at him.
This is why I chose you to take this trip with me instead of your brother.
“Why not bring both boys?” My friends asked.
“Because I’m not clinically insane.” I told them.
Our spring break trip to New York was to visit with my brother and niece. The trip was one part fun (we always laugh with my brother) and one part to help care for my niece because my sister-in-law was away for a long, work trip. I decided to bring Nick instead of Vince for several reasons, one of which being that Vince wasn’t the most comfortable plane traveler at that tender age. As soon as he began to feel the plane lift off the ground for take-off, and hear the mechanics of the landing gear folding back up inside the plane; his tearful, red-faced cries of:
“No, mommy! No! Nooooooooooooooooooooo!”
could be heard in the cockpit.
At which point Nick would momentarily pull the headphones from his ears and say, “Mommy, what’s wrong with Vince?”
Therein lies data point #123 in support of nature’s dominance over nurture in this crazy little thing called parenting. Oh, the lessons my focus group of two has brought to bear these past seven years…
And so Nick got the trip to NY with Mommy via jet way and Vince got the trip to the desert with Daddy via freeway. Everyone’s a winner…sort of…
Our return trip to Los Angeles ended up being one for the record books. Thanks to weather, a fuel shortage resulting from a protracted period of circling the airport awaiting jet way clearance, and a flight crew that needed to “get off the clock”; our scheduled, 90 minute, early-evening, lay-over at the vortex known as Chicago’s O’Hare airport somehow grew into a sleepover at Detroit Metro airport.
It is in these moments of exhaustion, frustration, and complete and utter discomfort that every traveler’s coping skills are tested. Some pass with flying colors, like the middle-aged men traveling on business who helped me push a crying and exhausted Nick through the terminal in an airport-issued wheelchair to the ticket counter. And some fail miserably, like the flight crew traveling as a profession who huffed and puffed their way out of the airport with nothing but dirty looks for their now stranded passengers.
By the time Nick and I arrived to meet the lone ticket agent charged with the task of re-directing an entire Boeing 727 full of people, it was well past 2 a.m. We were issued new tickets for our new flight home from Detroit to LAX at 7 a.m. I made the executive decision to reject the free hotel voucher, thereby not gathering our bags up to try to chase down a shuttle to the airport hotel. I guesstimated no more than 20 minutes of actual sleep in our hotel bed before waking a tearful Nick yet again to grab the shuttle back for our flight.
“Is it really the middle of the night, mommy?” Nick began to cheer up as I fumbled with our bags, attempting to wheel Nick away from the ticket counter. My businessman entourage had deserted me, happily accepting their hotel vouchers.
“It really is.” I answered, far less enthusiastically.
“Wait, what time is it?” He asked.
“About 2:30 in the morning.”
“It’s morning. Why is it dark outside?” Nick was positively dumbfounded.
“It’s very early in the morning. The sun hasn’t started to come up yet.”
“This is the latest I’ve ever been up. Isn’t this the latest I’ve ever been up?” He couldn’t believe his good fortune.
“It is.” I confirmed.
“I can’t wait to tell Vincie!” While his eyes were bloodshot, they were wide with excitement, and his grin ran from ear to ear as he looked around the dark, virtually empty ticketing area.
I stopped and turned back to the ticket agent.
“Is there anywhere to eat in here at this hour?” I asked.
“Nope. Everything is closed.”
What have I done?
“Not even a vending machine?” I began to second guess my choice of staying sequestered inside Detroit Metro airport for the rest of the night.
“I think the vending machines are down by baggage claim.”
And so we ditched our wheel chair, gathered our bags, and made our way down to an eerily empty baggage claim area boasting both a snack and a beverage vending machine.
“What do you want, Nicky?”
“I can get whatever I want?”
I scanned the rows of sugary shit wrapped in cellophane for a granola bar. Probably just as much sugar but at least nature was a key component in their brand strategy.
Detroit is hard core. Fuck it.
“How about a Pop Tart?” I offered.
At least it’s a breakfast item. Better than Famous Amos.
“Yummy! Can I have a Gatorade?”
I took a seat on a bench and laid our bags out around me. It wasn’t long before the sugar kicked in and Nick was running wind sprints, back and forth, the length of the baggage claim.
“Honey, you need to stay closer to mommy. If I can’t see you, you aren’t safe.” If I had a nickel for every time I have uttered those words…
“There’s nobody here.”
It was kind of spooky down there all alone. The airport after hours didn’t seem like the best place for criminal activity but you never know.
“Can I take off my shoes?”
Nick remained un-phased by – no, he seemed to be growing increasingly enamored with the whole situation.
And Nick began again, running circle after circle around empty baggage carousels, throwing in the odd somersault or cart-wheel here and there.
What kind of airport carpet yuck is creeping through his socks and onto the skin of his feet, never mind what is now surely clinging to his hands from all the tumbling. He is going to take the longest, hottest shower of his life when we get home.
I looked down at my own hands and the cracked vinyl bench I was sitting on, then thought about the plane, the chair, the ticket counter, the vending machine buttons, and every other public surface I may have come in brief contact with during the first part of this never ending journey.
I am taking the longest, hottest shower of MY life when I get home, then we’re climbing between the clean, crisp, white sheets of our bed for a nap. Maybe Vince will join us, too. Maybe Jeff will bring us all a late lunch in bed…I’ll just tie my hair in a wet ponytail and…
My fantasy was interrupted too quickly by the low hum of a motor. I looked up and saw something I have never seen before, well, technically two things I have never seen before.
The airport Carpet Zamboni and her operator:
My first thought: What the fuck is that?
And my second: We are no longer alone.
“Nick, come here.”
Nick made his way over to me, stealing looks at our new friend over his shoulder. Then we sat together. And stared.
“Mommy, what is that?”
“Do you remember that thing the guy rode around on the ice during breaks at the man-made ice rink by our house back at Christmas time?”
“Yeah, but that was for the ice.”
“Yes, that was to smooth out the ice and this one seems to be to clean the carpets.”
“That’s cool. Can we get one?”
“I don’t think we have enough carpet.”
It was then that the operator threw it into park about twenty feet from us, left the motor running, hopped off and headed outside through the automatic, sliding doors. I saw that she was talking on her phone.
“Can I go look at it?” Nick didn’t wait a beat.
“Sure. Don’t get too close.”
I imagined the Carpet Zamboni popping out of gear and starting to move forward or backward, on its own. Copious amounts of sugar and airport super germs are one thing but explaining to Jeff how I somehow let our five year old get mowed down by a Carpet Zamboni during our extended layover was quite another.
Then the sliding doors opened again and she emerged, lit cigarette in one hand and mobile phone in the other. She turned back, took a long drag on her cigarette, and casually flicked the "butt" outside.
Of course that’s how we do it. I thought to myself.
She hopped back on the machine and threw it into drive. She coasted along, scrubbing carousel area after carousel area, yapping away on her phone. Soon she stopped again, threw it into park, and made her way back outside. Then she was inside again, fresh blast of nicotine in her system, once again atop her cleaning machine.
As I watched her, I imagined her life: the kids, the husband; maybe an unexpected grandchild or a rogue ex-husband; maybe an aging, ill parent of her own that she helped care for; perhaps a second job that she worked during the day. She looked tough. She looked like she could handle it: whatever choices she had made, whatever life had thrown at her, she looked like she could handle it.
By the time Nick and I headed up to our departure gate, she was long gone. I assume she headed to another baggage claim area after she left ours. But she stayed with me and when I started this blog back in August, more than a year after our chance meeting at carousel 5, she became my cover girl. And now, as I embark on “doing more with my writing”, I am told that I need to “create more of a visual identity for my blog”.
And so, with this, I bid her a fond farewell:
This one’s for you, lady-who-works-nights-on-the-Carpet-Zamboni-at-Detroit-Metro-Airport. May you never run out of Marlboro Reds and your cellphone battery never die before the end of your shift.