We landed at LaGuardia and arrived at the midtown hotel early Thursday morning, and even before we sat down we were strategizing about how to get back out. The “storm of the century” (O how the media love to whip up enthusiasm), a northeaster packing snow, was cooking up and we reserved rooms for an extra night, the first in a long line of contingencies we worked out over the course of the day. We sat in the little European lobby drinking tea and considering our options.
“That guy’s checking you out,” my friend said. She’s 73, she’s been married for 50 years, to one guy. What does she know about anyone checking anyone out?
I scanned the lobby and couldn’t see who she meant. We were sitting near two young men speaking German.
“Him,” she said, nodding toward the guy sitting three feet from me. He was maybe 10 or 15 years younger than I and his long curly brown hair was half-hidden by a woolen watch cap.
“Nein,” I told her.
“Oh yes,” she said.
Then he glanced into my face.
What do I know about anyone checking anyone out? Apparently not much.
By 3 p.m. we were stranded.
We sat in a coffee shop west of Times Square, she working her iPhone, I working mine, peering at flight schedules and train timetables. The wait-times to speak to agents were upwards of three hours. At 4 I put my name in a queue for a call-back from Delta. I kept my phone on during the play, expecting a call at 7; the phone rang back at 11. I filed email queries and Twitter queries. They’d cancelled 3,000 flights and all buses out. The snow was due not that night but the following: 10-15 inches.
Hell, I thought, that’s not the storm of the century. The storm of the century was western New York Tuesday before Thanksgiving 2000, when three feet fell in a single lake-effect afternoon. My three-year-old son woke from his nap and ran from window to window, clapping and hollering, “Mama! It’s snowing and thundering and lightning-ing all at the same time!”
The storm of the century was the Ohio valley the winters of 1977 and 1978, when three feet fell in a couple days, trees lost their branches, power lines snapped and lay live in the road, deer ate the bushes around the house to keep from starving, and school was shut for a week. We played Clue and charades forever. I took my sister sledding, in the sodden days before microfiber outerwear or even waterproof boots. Back then, a measly ten inches by no means guaranteed a snow-day: they’d just run the plows and wrap the bus-tires in heavy chains and make the morning world sound like sleigh-bells.
“Stranded” has an interesting sound to it. A “strand” of pearls, a “strand” of hair—a long, thin, ribbony sound. We sat “stranded” in the middle of Manhattan, millions of people milling around us. The word comes from a Viking word, strond, for beach or riverbank. When their boats were “stranded,” they were scattered, washed up on the beach, the bank, the strand. A famous street in London called The Strand is named after the shore of the tidal River Thames, which for millennia was wide and shallow, accommodating barge-travel; then in the nineteenth century the Victoria Embankment and the Albert Bridge were built in Chelsea, deepening the channel by erasing the strand.
We were beached on the banks of Midtown. We needed to shove offshore.
We made plans to leave Saturday but as time marched on, it became clear Saturday would be too late. I tossed in bed Thursday night, thinking I may not get back in time for a job interview (my first job interview in 18 years; I’ve been doing business by word-of-mouth for almost two decades) on Monday morning. I’d be sleepless with dark Gypsy circles under my eyes, unable to Be Awesome, as the kids say. So I bought Amtrak tickets at 6 this morning and here we are, crossing the banks of the Delaware, following the shores of the Susquehanna, the strands, rolling on the steel river.
It occurred to me this morning, sitting in the hot Amtrak lounge at Penn Station, talking with my friend Lucy (“Are you OK? Are you stranded?” she texted), that having grown up in an alcoholic family I have a habit of stranding myself. In order to make myself feel safe, I try to control outcomes. I go into situations with the opposite of what my Al-Anon sponsor has advised. “High hopes, low expectations,” she always says. A recipe for optimism: thinking positively, surrendering outcomes. When my expectations are high and my hopes are low, however, I get into trouble. I attach myself to a specific outcome with little belief that it’ll happen. Because it usually doesn’t happen. I can’t control outcomes. So my boat runs aground, because I’m essentially powering it with unsustainable fuel.
Since I’m usually ashamed when I run aground, I don’t call people. It takes Lucy texting me (Are you stranded?) to wake me up and allow me to relax and let the tears fall in the hot Amtrak Lounge at Penn Station, throngs of people waiting for trains outside.
The strand of communication saves me. (I needed a meeting today.) Phones used to be wired: strands of wires strung throughout communities, between communities, connecting each other, an actual network. Now the networks are digital, virtual, cellular, whatever that really means, and though they’re less visible or tangible they’re no less real or helpful. Lucy was 600 miles away but she sat with me in Penn Station, listening to my tears fall and it was her act of love and acceptance that allowed me to collect my scattered self and move back onto the river. To take care of myself.