The day started like many other days on the road. Awakening in a tier 2 or 3 motel, too early to be good, discovering which essential tool or product I’d forgotten to pack and adjusting the morning routine accordingly. This trip I seem to have lost the prescription eye drops that combat the pollen that’s been mysteriously plaguing me of late; I’d always assumed cold weather and pollen don’t mix, but apparently I was mistaken. I could use a blast right about now, too. Oh, well. They can be replaced on the other end.
Gray, wintry day, as cold on the inside as it looks to be through the dirty window. Industrial part of the city, not much color, even the potential romance of the snow drifts lessened by their dingy, days-old gray pallor.
Putting the bag into the car before breakfast, I notice behind car next to me a familiar tiny white bottle. My eye drops! Must have fallen when I pulled the keys out the night before. And here they sat, all night long, in the wind and the rain and the general hubbub of the parking lot, only to be recovered hours after they’d been dropped. ‘Hm,” I thought. ‘Maybe a good omen?’
Looking back on this day, that was just the first, small example of the kind of luck I’d experience and observe.
A forgettable breakfast, then into the rental and off to the first (today’s only) meeting, thoughts of the long trip home buoying my spirits considerably. I’d had to extend what should have been a quick overnight trip into a muti-nighter, and I was looking forward to getting back to my daughter. “Miss you, Dad…” she’d said, that mix of sincerity and insouciance that can only be mastered by high school teens shading her words. “Me, too, sweets. Won’t be long now though!”
The meeting went well – better, in fact, than the one I’d originally traveled for. The players had been receptive, had asked good questions, and expressed eagerness and enthusiasm to work with us. I left feeling like staying over had probably been worth it.
Checking the sky as I left their building, I saw that the gray skies had darkened, puffed full with predicted snow, a storm they were already calling “The Snowquester.” Clever, but threatening enough that I’d made alternate arrangements to get home, not wanting to get stranded for days on top of the already too-long trip. Instead of flying out of NJ late in the day – about the time the snow was due to arrive in force – I’d arranged to take the train from the Newark airport to Philadelphia and catch an earlier flight back to Atlanta. Part of me recognized that the logistics involved in dropping the car, finding the train station and getting to Philly in time to make that flight, were fraught with opportunities for hassle and stress, not to mention the possibilities that at any given point during the day the plan could be derailed completely and new arrangements required. For the most part, though, I was looking forward to the change of pace, and of transport, and thought that it might be an interesting way to spend a day.
My phone talked me all the way into the airport from the wilds of New Jersey, and I returned the car with no trouble. There was nobody in line at the counter, so I made a quick change to the bill and asked the attendant if they’d ever taken the train from Newark to Philly. “I haven’t,” she said, “but I think William has.” She stepped to the side and called out to the lot attendant. “Will, you’ve ridden the Amtrak to Philly from here, haven’t you?”
“Sure, lots of times. C’mon over here.” He gave me some tips on how to get to the station, and said he loved the ride – made it several times a year.
His tips and directions were as good as his word, and I got to the train station with time to spare.
Getting in line for the tickets made me feel like I was in a b&w movie from the 40’s – I was Powell’s Thin Man, or Bing Crosby in White Christmas. Lots of stamping and timetables and huge luggage carts trundling past with good-spirited high energy.
I was behind several others waiting to get tickets when I noticed a kiosk a few steps away. A quick swipe of the credit card, a few touches on the screen and I heard the ticket chittering out. Considering how well the day was going I even sprung the extra $15 for the Business Class upgrade. What did that entail? No idea, but for $15 it sounded like it was worth a try.
I saw that I had plenty of time to grab something to eat for the train ride, so as I approached the ticket lady I said, aloud, for no reason at all – why would she care? – “I’m gonna grab something to eat back in the airport terminal before we board,” and turned away.
“Sir?” She shouted as I hurried in the opposite direction. “Don’t get off at the first stop – you’ll have to go through security again to get to the food. Either of the next two stops have some pretty good choices.”
Thanking her, and glad I’d blurted my plans, I took her advice and was back on the platform in plenty of time to board.
Even so, I almost missed the train when I couldn’t find the Business Class car entrance. The train pulled in, everyone rushed onto the train, and before I found it all the doors began closing. ‘Great,’ I thought. ‘This is it – the point where the day unravels and I have to change everything again if I ever want to get home…’
I was the last person on the platform, wondering what to do next, when the conductor jumped off four or five cars up. “You coming to Philly, or not?”
“Yes! I didn’t know where to get on for Business Class!”
“You get on anywhere and THEN find your car! C’mon, man, we got a schedule to keep!”
He punched a button and the door in front of me slid open.
And then, I swear, he shouted with a stentorian roar that carried the length of the platform and likely all the way back to the ticket counter,
I found Business Class and I was glad I’d spent the extra for the upgrade. Seats a little bigger, tables for spreading out, free WiFi – what’s not to like?
And I liked the way the horn sounded when they blew it. I liked it a lot.
I started to catch up on emails and other work but the rocking and the clatter of the tracks, the wintry scenery whipping by outside the window, kept me from paying attention. ‘Trains are great for thinking long thoughts,’ I said to myself. And proceeded to prove myself right.
I plugged in some new music, trusting to shuffle to do me right, as usual, and pondered.
The band was a new one for me: Whitehorse. Their combination of stripped back, one-guitar rock and the simple harmonies of the main guy & girl couldn’t have fit better with the rhythm of the train car. Song after song matched the ride, my thoughts and my ever-lightening mood. This really was turning into an interesting day.
Right about then I thought a quick snooze would be nice so I set my alarm for an hour hence. Just to be safe, I pulled up the train’s timetable. The board back at the station said it was a two hour trip, so I was pretty sure I’d be ok, but the timetable showed us pulling into Philly ONE hour after leaving NJ, giving me only about 20 minutes before we arrived. No nap for me, but better than sleeping through my stop.
Hurrying off in Philly (that conductor was right – they kept to their schedule, all right, taking off before I even had both feet on the platform) I emerged into the Old World splendor of the Philadelphia train station. Beaux Arts? Art Deco? I don’t know – but I do know it was cavernous and echo-y and burnished brass beauty at every turn. I spun around on my heels like a tourist, and saw I wasn’t the only one fumbling their phone out for a picture or two. How often in today’s breakneck-paced travel arenas do we get to pass through such a wonder? Not nearly often enough.
Stepping outside into the wind of a rainy Philadelphian street and into the cab line, face pocked with the first tiny crystals of snow getting to town just as I did was enough to dispel the time-travel fantasy of the station. Although I was about tenth in line, both cabbies and the lady at the curb had their drill down, and woe be the person not paying attention.
“NEXT, I said, or I’m giving it away!” she yelled at the lady in front of me. “You come on, too – I got one for ya…”
My cabbie was just talkative enough, and was glad to get the run to the airport. “I been waiting all morning for a ride to the airport! All these short ones on a rainy day like this take forever.”
With the weather coming in, he said, it may take us a little longer, but I’d still have plenty of time to get through security and to the gate.
In almost no time we were exiting and pulling to the curb at the airport. “I can’t remember when I’ve made it that quick from the station to the airport, even on a sunny day! That one-lane bridge usually ties me up for twenty minutes, and we just sailed on over…”
I laughed and tipped him more than I should have, and hurried off for the next queue.
The line for security checks was long. Long enough to make me wonder if THIS was the hurdle that would trip me up and overturn all my plans.
A few passengers behind me was a small group of twenty-somethings, judging by their accents from the city. The TSA agent at the entrance to the turnstiles shouted at nobody in particular, “The lines at the B gates are a lot quicka!”
One of the twenty-somethings said in a good-natured Tony Soprano voice that I won’t try to duplicate here, “That’s on the other side of the airport, right?”
“Yeah,” the agent agreed.
“So how do YOU know how fast it is? Can you see that far from here? Cause I can’t.”
All this was said lightly, no challenge or bravado or anything but a smart kid asking a good question. I wasn’t the only one who caught the exchange, or who laughed.
His buddy said, “Maybe he’s right – I’m goin’ over to B.”
First guy: “I’ll be through security and having a drink before you even get over there.”
Second guy: “Oh, yeah? How much money you got?”
First guy: “None! You said you was paying for this vacation!”
This went on for a while longer, and before I knew it I was near the front of the line.
Two families were in front of me. ‘Great,’ I thought – what do they tell you? Never get behind families or novice travelers when you’re in a hurry.
The first was a family of three, the parents and a little girl still small enough to ride in her father’s arms. I could tell the TSA agent checking boarding passes and IDs was nearing the end of her shift, and that judging from her posture she’d probably handled traffic like this all day. I crossed my fingers that she’d rise to the occasion; I could tell the girl was a little nervous.
When she looked up and saw that the small family was next you’d have thought they were the first and only people she’d helped that day. A gorgeous, sunny smile let her face and she spoke only to the little girl, all while expertly checking passes and licenses and making marks where marks were needed. By the time they left the stand the girl had wriggled from her dad’s arms and was helping at the tray station.
But the most impressive sight of what was turning into a pretty great day was just ahead.
The mom and dad were about my age, maybe a little younger. Five – yes FIVE – little girls were with them, the oldest maybe 12 and the youngest able to walk but riding in a stroller for now. Beautiful blond hair bound in five different but equally intricate ways, all were snapshots of their mom at different stages, and everyone was smiling.
Dad handled all of the passes and IDs, but it was Mom who ran this part of the show.
“Girls!” Not loud, but firm, and kind of fun-sounding – they were all still smiling, anyway – and the five lined up next to the steel counter like soldiers.
“Heads-up!” and the mom rocketed six of the gray plastic bins down the metal counter – one right after the other. Each of the girls caught theirs, and the last one got an extra. She helped the smallest off with her coat and began helping the others pile their stuff into the bins. “No shoes, right, Mom?”
“Right, sweetie!” A quick questioning glance over her shoulder at the same TSA agent, who was smiling just as broadly. “That’s right, ma’am – the kids can leave their shoes on.”
A chorus of “Yay”s and they were almost through.
Inexplicably, one of the girls got tagged for a random hand swab test. This temporary hiccup threatened her calm demeanor only for a second. (I was piling all of my stuff into my own bins at this point, trying to see what was happening with them. I was about to offer my help with the bins, as if it were needed, but purposely held back. I could tell this was something they not only didn’t need any help with, but that they took a sort of unconscious pride in being able to do on their own, as a unit.)
Again, their new TSA agent rose to the occasion, explaining what she was doing and why, and asking all the girls, now surrounding the agent in a circle of descending height, “And where are we off to today, ladies?”
“FLORIDAAAAAA!” they all shouted, and she was done.
And off this amazing family went, practically skipping to the gate, having navigated the security checkpoint with more efficiency and style than any one of us solo, so-called “expert” travelers could ever hope to mimic.
My now practically magical day wasn’t over yet, however.
I boarded the plane for the almost three hour flight and found myself in a row alone. Sweet.
Just across from me were two extremely tired-looking parents and their three boys. ‘What is it with the families I’m seeing today?’ I thought. ‘What are they trying to tell me, other than to make me miss my own?’
The boys were about nine months old, maybe three and five. The oldest was sleeping – stayed that way for the entire flight – the youngest was squirmy but happy, oscillating between Mom and Dad depending on who had the freest hands at the time, and the middle boy was obviously on an adventure, pointing and looking out the window, cheering when we took off and whenever we hit any turbulence.
And they were French.
To hear baby-talk in another language is even cuter to me than when it can be (somewhat) understood. A surprising amount didn’t need to be translated – tone of voice is nearly universal. The mom snuggling her face into the baby’s neck and making nonsense sounds could be nothing else but the Gallic equivalent of, “Who’s my favorite boy?” “Who loves you, baby?” and just plain nonsensical sing-song.
They must have been ten hours or more into the long trip, judging by the parents’ expressions. Still, at no point did anyone raise their voices, curse in French, yank anyone’s arm, or otherwise get stern with them. They didn’t need to. Again, their sense of teamwork was palpable, and at one point I observed the dad holding his smallest son in one hand while putting a shoe on another sleeping boy while the mother gently rubbed the back of the oldest, saying (again, no translation needed), “wake up, my love, we’re here. Come on, time to get ready…” When he woke was the closest any of them came to showing any crankiness, and I could tell it was because he could not see where his father and brother were – in the seat behind him, out of view.
His father peeked between the seats, still securing the shoe and rubbing the baby’s back, said a few funny words. The tension drained from the older boy and he let his mom put his coat on, rubbed his eyes, and settled in for landing.
I did offer to help them once we landed – how could you not, with Dad’s arms full of baby and Mom trying to herd her two oldest – by getting some of their overhead stuff down for them, but once they had a good grip on everything and everyone they were fine. Tired, ready to be wherever it was they were going, but otherwise and overall, just fine.
Off the plane, to the parking lot – where I’d forgotten I’d found a really close parking spot – practically right outside of the sliding doors of the terminal – and onto the highway for the 45 minute ride to my daughter and home.
I made it in 30 minutes. Almost no traffic, even though it still technically should have been the tail-end of Atlanta rush hour.
My girl had stayed with my parents, who live close to us. When I got there I got an even better surprise – which at this point didn’t surprise me at all.
“Why don’t we go out to dinner?”
So as I sat in one of our favorite places for dinner, at the other end of the day, with my parents and my daughter, still early enough in the day that I knew we’d all get a good night’s sleep that night, I told them about some of the highlights of my day. Not all of them – I didn’t realize how many there truly were until I stopped and thought about them all – but the various families I saw, and the guys in line at the Philly airport, and almost missing the train, for sure.
How could so many things, for once (it seemed), all go so RIGHT instead of so wrong?
The closest thing I can compare it to is when Harry Potter drank the Felix Felicis potion in The Half-blood Prince. He couldn’t explain it, he just felt really, really good, and every decision he made – big or small – even the ones that seemed to make no sense or that ran counter to whatever it was he was trying to do – just worked out for the best.
That’s the kind of day I had, too.
It felt like I was riding just behind a bow-wave of positivity, of good luck, good vibes, sunshine and happiness, whatever you want to call it, and that I knew it – I recognized that things were not only going right, but that they’d continue to do so for as long as I could ride that wave.
I told my daughter later that one of the best things about that very good day was that I recognized about halfway through that it was happening. Not what was happening, just that something special was going on, and I acknowledged that fact. I was aware, and even observing these vignettes showing how good things can be I knew I was observing them, and that they were rare, and that not everyone is lucky enough to know when such rare occurrences are, in fact, occurring. I think – just speculating, here – that noticing that what was happening, was really happening, made it more likely that it would continue to happen.
But I was more than just a passive observer. At several key points in the day, when in all likelihood I would have otherwise stayed silent and gone about the day’s business, I chose instead to interact with someone. Whether by saving me time at lunch (“Don’t get off at that first stop…”) or helping me find the train station, the near-perfect day I had could have been knocked off its rails at any of a hundred different points – but it wasn’t. Something kept it running true, and sometimes that something was me.
Before I start sounding all Zen and the Art of Noticing What’s Noticeable, I’ll wrap this up by saying that it was a truly special day, one that I feel lucky to have been a part of, and even luckier to have noticed, partially understood, and totally appreciated.
Can’t wait for the next one.
I really did like the way that horn sounded.