I think it was Alice Walker who said you can always tell everything about a person by the way she handles a crisis. God, I hate quotes like that. Every time a crisis smacks into my life, I whine, moan, become hysterical, sulk, feel sorry for myself, retreat into fetal position, and generally lose every tiny shred of dignity I’ve managed to cobble together over the years. It isn’t a pretty picture from the inside or out.
Which is why, precisely why, I was trying to hold it together and not make a spectacle of myself as I tried to leave Dallas on Sunday. But it had snowed four inches on the first day of spring, for God’s sake, and I had already gotten up before dawn to clean off my rental car’s windows with a spatula. I’d inched along the icy overpasses in a car so big and white it could have been called Moby Dick, even though driving on ice scares the hell out of me. And finally, I’d made it to the airport — victory! free at last! — when the traffic stopped. And stayed stopped for an hour and a half. During which time, my flight took off, with the business-class seat I’d somehow managed to secure.
Oh, but I was trying to be all zen and philosophical, sitting there in the great white car in the middle of a honking, seething traffic jam, as emergency vehicles surged past and giant trucks spread salt on the roadways. I listened to NPR. What could be more calming than NPR, except a lobotomy? Then I looked down and noticed that one of my credit cards had fallen out of my purse and onto the carseat. This spurred me on to looking through my remaining credit cards and noticing that my Mastercard was missing. I frantically hunted all over the front seat; nothing. I switched off the radio, since NPR — so calm, so measured! — was now driving me crazy.
The traffic finally started moving and I made it through the airport’s south exit, where I was charged a dollar. “You stayed longer than an hour,” the parking attendant told me. I could have argued, I could have screamed, I gave him the goddamn dollar. I go spineless, Alice Walker, in the midst of a crisis.
I was feeling a little better when I dumped off Moby Dick and slid my way over the treacherous sidewalks to the rental building. Behind me, a mother was screaming at her two kids to move fast so they didn’t miss their flight. “We’re going to make it!” she shrieked. “Keep moving!”
I called my husband to ask him to cancel my lost credit card. I paid a surcharge on my new flight so I could get a coach ticket. I was feeling, all in all, pretty good about myself for not totally losing it during my long morning.
I was doing just fine, as a matter of fact, till the plane came in for a landing at LaGuardia, the landing gear lowered with a loud thud, and we could see the tops of the trees. Then, all of a sudden, the engines surged and the plane moved upward and we watched the ground recede farther and farther away. Funny how silent an entire, crowded flight of people can be under such circumstances. All I could hear was my own ragged breathing.
The pilot — so folksy and calm he could have probably landed the plane on the Hudson River, but let’s not press the matter — finally got on the intercom to note there had been another plane on our landing strip and, on the whole, the flight crew had thought it would be a little better to try again. We circled, we landed, the brakes screeched and I staggered off the flight. Alice Walker might not have thought much of me, but I was still walking upright with a tight, frantic smile that made my jaws ache. Some days — most days, in fact — you take what you can.
(Copyright 2010 by Ruth Pennebaker)
Read one of my favorite posts about wanting to commit a crime after you’ve served on a jury