Living among college students, we tend to be caught up in the rhythm of the University’s schedule. The students return in the late summer on a wave of cars, noise, kegs and parties, and leave in May after many sightings of green caps and gowns, proud parents with cameras, and hideous and abused couches left at the curb. Early December finds us enmeshed in finals week; there are fewer parties, serious faces, and student neighbors waving goodbye and yelling “have a great holiday!” as they load up suitcases, snowboards, laundry bags and the odd teacup dog, to head home for Winter Break.
I remember “coming home” as a warm, comforting, relaxing slide into the luxury of doting parents, a washer and dryer with no coin slot, fabulous food, sleeping late, and a general sensation of being saved from a shipwreck and brought to the home of wealthy and generous benefactors. In the years that I lived far away and returned, prodigal, in December, I was in college, law school or working retail in Boston; in all of those cases there was an intense period of emotional battering and limited sleep due to final exams or the Christmas Rush, and by the time I was getting on the bus, in the plane, or in the car, I was exhausted, emotional, and generally stricken. The harder it was to get home, the more it meant when I walked through the front door, smelled something good to eat, caught a glimpse of the Christmas tree, greeted my dog, and began puttering from room to room, looking for familiar landmarks and beginning the decompression process. Like Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz,” arriving home after a long, strange trip, my appreciation of every familiar thing was heightened.
Sometimes, even without the machinations of a Wicked Witch, it was very hard to get home. Oberlin College chartered a fleet of buses which, for a reasonable fee, carried us off to a variety of locations including Manhattan, Chicago, D.C. and (in my case) Ann Arbor. They probably also had buses to ferry us to the Cleveland airport, but it would have been ridiculous for me to fly from Ohio to Michigan. I was a bus-rider, aside from one memorable year when I drove an exotically drugged New Yorker with no driver’s license to my home town to stay with an aunt over break; for four hours she stared off into space and hummed fragments of the music in her head while I drove her rental car and made repeated attempts at conversation. On the return trip, having, apparently, run out of chemicals, she slept.
My senior year, there was a major snow storm in the Midwest on the last day of finals, which was also the day the buses departed. I didn’t really think about the implications as I packed, put on my warmest mens’ overcoat with rolled-up sleeves, and headed to the pickup area. I slept most of the way to Ann Arbor, and woke up as the bus crunched over the snow into its parking lane; it was a lot of snow. I watched as the Ann Arbor locals were collected by their parents with hugs and stamping of snow boots, entered the station, and looked at the board to check the time on my bus home to East Lansing, which was…cancelled because of the weather.
I don’t know if you’ve ever spent any time in an urban bus station, but at the best of times they tend to be filthy, bleak and full of people your mother would tell you to avoid assiduously; during a winter storm they are also shelters for folks who more commonly live outdoors. It was long before the era of the cell phone, I had very little money since I had planned only to ride a couple of buses and be home (where the money came from), and I was terrified to leave my bags unattended, so every trip to the pay phone or the bathroom required me to haul my backpack and my suitcase with me. My parents were out for the evening, and had planned to pick me up at the bus station after the dinner party was over, but I had no idea where they were. I called one family friend who offered sympathy, but just didn’t think it was safe to drive to Ann Arbor in a blizzard. As the snow battered the windows, and I became increasingly sure that I was doomed both to sleep in the bus station and to be the victim of a crime of unprecedented heinousness, I thought of Uncle Stu. Although he isn’t biologically my uncle, he is in every way that matters, and (as a bonus) I knew his phone number and didn’t have to waste change calling Information from the pay phone. I called, he answered, and I asked if he would come and get me. He said that he would. I was still surrounded by people who carried knives and flasks, and were neither whittlers nor on their way to the Harvard-Yale game, but if I could hang on, I would be safe.
As a real adult, I realize what I was asking: I was asking Uncle Stu to leave his warm house and family at 9:00 at night to drive the 150-mile round trip to Ann Arbor in the middle of a winter storm that had stopped buses from running (and, I later learned, led to the closing of airports). The solipsistic focus of youth allowed me to see only that I was being rescued, and that I only had to make my three dollar bills last about an hour (and not spend them on liquids which would force me to try, once again, to jam a suitcase into a bathroom stall astonishing in both tininess and filthiness). I often wonder whether I would answer the call as willingly as did Uncle Stu, who did not for one minute of the long drive home on icy roads make me feel that I had put him out. I have rarely been as happy to see my house and my parents as I was that night, beyond tired, starving, cold and suffering from just the tiniest bit of PTSD. I don’t think I had it in me to thank my honorary uncle for fetching me as if I were his own, but I think he knows what it meant to me.
After years of less eventful trips, came the Other Horrible One. After law school, not having found a suitable law job (possibly in some Freudian triumph of unconscious) I managed a store in Boston’s Copley place. Although my boss was kind enough to let me go home for a brief period after Christmas, I had to work until the store closed at 5:00 on Christmas Eve, and then make my way to Logan airport on the subway with my suitcase to catch one of the last flights out. This was, in itself, a dicey proposition; flying on Christmas Eve or the day before Thanksgiving is like self-admission to Bedlam. The first year I made it unscathed, flying home with a friend who met me at the airport and offered support for my frazzled, demoralized self. The second year I was scathed.
That year, I arrived at Logan in my work clothes, including 3-inch heels, carrying a purse, a large suitcase and a shopping bag full of wrapped gifts. (This was back in the days before overhead and under-seat storage shrunk to the size of a Barbie bed). I checked in, collected my boarding pass and hobbled to the departure gate, where there was an almost immediate announcement that the flight had been cancelled for some reason, but that another airline had a flight departing for Detroit which we could just make if we could run to another terminal in time. Run we did, hauling bags and babies, balancing collegiality against the knowledge that we would kill a fellow runner if it meant getting a seat on the plane, and thinking that it could not possibly be as many miles to the Delta terminal as it seemed to be. We arrived in the nick of time, only to discover that the Delta flight had been cancelled/delayed/broken or become inoperative for some other reason. We were, at this point, advised that the airline on which we had originally been scheduled to fly had one remaining flight that night, but that there were not enough seats to accommodate all of us. It would be first-come-first-served, and although I knew I could sprint faster than the geriatrics and baby-carriers in the crowd, I wasn’t sure that I could outpace those who were reasonably fit, unencumbered, and wearing sensible shoes.
On reaching the third gate of the evening, I saw that there was quite a line, and that I had been correct in my assumption that the flat-shoed among us would prevail. I stood as the line moved glacially forward, and as the man ahead of me took his boarding pass, I heard one of the airline employees tell the other that his had been the “last seat for Detroit.” As I stood at the desk, hoping that maybe I had misunderstood, or that maybe there was another plane, the blue-sweatered woman told me that she was sorry, but Detroit was full. I could have a voucher, she told me, and fly out the next morning. After a long day of wrapping at hyper-speed, jollying up hostile last-minute shoppers, riding to the airport and running from terminal to terminal, I was no longer capable of holding myself together. I decompensated, rapidly, right there at the desk, tears sliding down my face. I had to get home, I explained, I had to – I only had three days at home and if I had to wait until the next day I would be missing most of Christmas. Wasn’t there anything else? Couldn’t they maybe get me closer, so someone could drive there and get me?
In the midst of my melt down, the man who had been ahead of me in line and received the last boarding pass returned to the desk. He put a hand lightly on my arm, and told me that he didn’t need to fly that night as much as I did, and that he’d give me his seat and fly out the following day. It wasn’t because I was hot, which I wasn’t (particularly because I was crying), or because he got something out of the deal other than an inadequate hotel voucher and a delayed flight. It was because he was a decent man, another decent man saving me on a trip home by doing something surpassingly generous. Airport Stranger is in the Pantheon of Goodness with Uncle Stu, although I barely had time to thank him before I was issued a boarding pass and hustled onto the plane to Detroit.
I wish for our student neighbors that their homeward journeys will be easier than some of mine, and that they will relax shamelessly into their vacation roles as beloved children. I hope, too, that in their lives they will know the kindness that has been shown to me by friends and strangers alike, and that such compassion will become part of their own character. There’s no place like home, but Dorothy couldn’t have gotten there without a little help from her friends…..