West to East

Hi friends! Over the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing stories and photos from my travels in the Eastern US where I’m volunteering, soaking up summer, and visiting friends and family. Enjoy!

I arrive in New York groggy but on time. The flight from SFO to JFK is brutal no matter what time of day you do it, but my body still hasn’t recovered from my 4:15 a.m. wake-up call.

My two hour layover lengthens as, predictably, my connecting flight gets delayed. So I settle into my seat at the gate and start mentally listing all the people I know within a 50 mile radius in case I’m stuck here for the night. The terminal is full, buzzing with that cosmopolitan New York City feel, everyone armed with a blue-tooth and a Starbucks latte.

A skinny kid next to me, bright-eyed and eager, leans over and asks what I’m reading. He’s 17, from rural Virginia, on his way to Canada to visit his girlfriend who he met over World of Warcraft. It turns out this is also his first time flying, which might explain why he doesn’t know that actually socializing with strangers in airports is considered a faux pas. Especially if they’re reading. But I like him, and I think I can spare a few minutes to explain to him that if he really wants to be a fantasy nerd, he needs to start reading George R.R. Martin and playing Magic the Gathering (neither of which he’s heard of). I think maybe he’s mistaken me for a fellow high-schooler, but he tells me I’m the first person at the airport who’s been nice to him. That’s New York.

He’s really anxious about the flight delays, and I try to convince him that this is actually pretty normal. But then, our flight gets canceled, and I lose him in the pandemonium of frantic re-scheduling. When I catch sight of him an hour or so later, I check to see if he’s gotten himself re-booked on a later flight. He hasn’t. He’s kind of panicked: he wasn’t sure who to talk to and his cell phone is dead. So I let him use my phone to call his girlfriend’s parents and explain the delay, then to call his dad to tell him he’s alright. I take him to the airline counter and help him learn the ropes of groveling to ticketing agents.

The whole night turns out fine. We pass the time by making friends, playing checkers, and obsessively checking our flight status. There’s something magical and surreal about the micro-community that forms among a bunch of stuck airline passengers. Once you realize you’re all in this together – and that elbowing each other out of the way doesn’t actually get you on a plane any faster – you tap into this deep well of solidarity, wishing each other luck and sharing trays of french fries.

Finally, we’re lucky enough to board one of the only flights that makes it out of the terminal that night, arriving in an empty Buffalo airport at midnight.

As I slump sleepily to the baggage claim, happy to have survived my 16 hour travel day, I catch a glimpse of my friend, hand-in-hand with his girlfriend, beaming and chatting to her family. I try to wave but he doesn’t see me. He’s a veteran traveler now, ignoring all the strangers who walk by.

Do you remember your first time flying? Have you ever had a miserable travel experience? Do you talk to strangers in airports, or do you prefer to stay silent?

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