This is the longest blog you will possibly ever read. But if you want to ride a rollercoaster that will have you laughing, wincing, and exclaiming “Oh my God!”, and if you like a good mystery that will keep you on the edge of your seat, then take ten minutes to read this post. If it doesn’t deliver, I’ll refund your misery. (If you are a frequent traveler, this is definitely a MUST READ.)
It had been a horribly windy and mostly sleepless night. Cleveland was taking a pummeling from Hurricane Sandy. I awoke (for probably the twentieth time) at 4:30 in the morning, and lay there listening to the eerie wolf-like howling of the lonely wind, interspersed with the uncanny creaking of limbs, rustling of leaves, and pelting of rain against the window. I must have been asleep, though, when the heavy branch crashed through the rear windshield of my host’s automobile. Didn’t hear that.
All this had come as a complete surprise to me. I hadn’t read the news reports, like the one Laura Johnson published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer at exactly the time I was leaving Ithaca, New York, and setting out for Cleveland. She began her column with the words: “Get ready for a wallop.” When I left Ithaca on Monday, October 29th, and began heading west I thought I was getting out of Dodge, leaving behind the rains that were beginning to beset upstate New York. I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
Originally, I had been booked on a flight leaving Tuesday morning and arriving late afternoon in Bakersfield, California. But I found out on Sunday that all flights out of Ithaca had been canceled for Monday, and would probably soon be canceled for Tuesday as well, due to the incoming storm. I called U.S. Airways in an attempt to secure another flight, but was told the situation was no better at any nearby airport.
Now, I very much wanted to be in California no later than Tuesday evening. I had arranged to perform my “Magic With A Message” anti-bullying assembly program at half-a-dozen schools in California that week, and my show on Wednesday morning was a $900 gig. I didn’t want to lose it. So I told the U.S. Air representative that I would be happy to drive to Rochester, or even Buffalo (a three-hour drive from Ithaca) if he could get me on a fight from there. But, no, he couldn’t. So I said okay, I’ll rent a car and drive 325 miles to Cleveland. But there were no available flights out of Cleveland – or Columbus, or Cincinnati, or Youngstown, or, in fact, anywhere out of Ohio.
So I said okay, I’ll drive 435 miles to Detroit. I figured I would drive to Cleveland on Monday (a five and a half hour trip), spend the night with a couple of good friends there, and drive the remaining three hours to Detroit early Tuesday morning. Well, yes, he said, that he could do. My flight would leave at 11:15 a.m. from Detroit, and arrive in Bakersfield around 5:30 p.m. Wonderful! I tried to look on the bright side: at least I would get an unexpected opportunity to spend time with old friends I hadn’t seen for a couple of years. The rental car would cost $150 for a one-way drop, and about $50 for gas. But, hey, if I got to California Tuesday night and could do my show Wednesday morning, I would make $900 and still net $700.
I booked the Detroit flight and immediately called my friends in Cleveland. Unfortunately, they were out of town for their wedding anniversary and would not be available. However, they arranged for me to stay at their daughter’s home; and while I would miss seeing them, I looked forward to getting to know Mindy. So, I figured, all things considered, I had successfully jumped all the hurdles and was coming out on top of this situation.
My triumphalism was only a bit dampened by the rains that splattered my car without surcease for hours after leaving Ithaca. Optimistically, I kept expecting the clouds to part at any moment; but the closer I got to Cleveland the worse things were looking. When I pulled up to Mindy’s house it was dark on the street, and sheets of cold and heavy rain were smacking the windshield. Not wanting to get my suede jacket wet, I left it in the backseat despite the intensely cold and biting wind, and made a dash with my luggage for her front door. I had to cross the street and fumble with a gate – but she saw me coming and quickly opened the door. I stepped inside wet and cold, then had to make another trip to the car for more luggage, and came back even wetter and colder.
The warmth of her home sank into my bones as I plopped down into an overstuffed chair. A television news anchor quickly caught me up on Cleveland weather conditions: power outages, flooding, traffic problems, and things getting worse by the minute. But at least I was drying out, and had a nice meal with Mindy. Best of all, I confirmed that all systems were “go” in Detroit. Mindy printed my boarding passes. I had done it. Home free, at last!
As mentioned earlier, I passed a rather sleepless night that evening. The storm wasn’t “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head”; it was more like “Night On Bald Mountain.” Since I was awake at 4:30 and knew I would never go back to sleep, I figured what the heck, I might as well get up and leave, since I didn’t know what road conditions I might encounter. I reached to flick on the bedroom light, but it didn’t work. I tried the bedside lamp, but that didn’t work either. In fact, none of the lights worked. The house had no power. I was left to fumble around in the dark, using the tiny bit of illumination my cell phone could offer to get myself dressed and packed. And all this while tip-toeing around in an effort not to wake up Mindy.
By 5:00, after a last check to make sure I hadn’t overlooked anything in the dark, I was ready to head out the door. And then it hit me: where were the rental car keys? They were not in my pocket, so they must be in my briefcase. No, not in my briefcase. Really? Look again. Stick that cell phone in there and rummage around, make sure the keys didn’t accidentally slide into one of those little compartments. Perhaps I had left them on the bedstand, since I often place small pocket items like that next to my bed in hotel rooms. I moused my way back to the bedroom… but, no, not on the bedstand. On the floor? No. Under the bed? No. At least not that I could see given the paltry level of illumination I was working with.
Okay, perhaps the kitchen table where I had sat drinking tea and chatting with Mindy. Well, again no. The floor under the table? No. The dining room table where we had dinner? No. But of course, how about the big, overstuffed chair I had plopped down into when I first arrived? They probably fell out of my pocket right then! But, again, sadly, no. And, no, not under the cushion either.
Well, then, could they somehow have gotten into my big luggage? That made no sense at all, but since I had looked everywhere else I got down on my knees, unzipped the large suitcase, and started unpacking. Holding a cell phone with one hand while unpacking and searching a large suitcase in the dark with the other, with a growing sense of alarm in one’s gut, is no easy matter. But I soon satisfied myself that the keys were not there, and now I was struggling to hold back a feeling of panic. It was now 5:15. I had been looking for fifteen minutes and run out of options… unless the keys were still in the car. It was the only remaining possibility, so I ran out into the howling, icy wind and pouring rain, wearing nothing but the tee-shirt I had worn when I first arrived. I ran down the path through her front lawn, fumbled through the gate, and dashed across the street to the car, where I stood in the dark holding my little cellphone against the car window trying to spot my keys. But with rain blurring the windows and lack of a powerful light I could see almost nothing. Freezing and wet, I soon gave up and ran back to the house – only to discover that when the front door had closed behind me, it had locked me out.
Pummeled by wind and cold, and feeling terribly foolish, I stood banging on Mindy’s door, hoping to rouse her from sleep. But my poundings seemed lost in the hubbub of the storm. If Mindy could sleep through this she certainly wasn’t going to be disturbed by my knockings. So, for the first time, it seemed, on this trip, I used my cell phone for a function it was actually meant to perform: I called Mindy. Thanks be to God, she answered! It was obvious I had awakened her, and I apologetically explained my situation.
“I’ll let you in,” she said. A minute later, wrapped in her robe, she opened the door and I stumbled in. Now the two of us began to search the house, Mindy lighting a few candles – which were no help whatsoever – and using her cell phone as well (which was also a poor substitute for a flashlight). Once again, I went back through all the places I had searched before: overstuffed chair, cushions, kitchen and dining room table, floor, bathroom, bedroom floor, bedstand, under the bed… this time I ransacked the sheets, pulled the bed from the wall to look behind it, felt between the pillowcases… crazy places, any wild possibility that occurred to me – but all in vain.
It was now 5:30, but no need to totally panic yet. I figured that I could leave as late as 7:00 and still make the airport by 10:00, leaving me an hour and a quarter to return the rental car, take the shuttle to the airport, go through security, and board the flight. I would probably have to run through the airport, but it could be done. We finally concluded that the only possible place those keys could be was in the car – unless I had dropped them in the street!
Out again I rushed, thoughtless of my lack of protective covering, and retraced my steps down the path, through that damned gate, and across the street to the car, eyeing the ground in all directions as I went, kicking aside branches and blown piles of leaves, and finally getting down on all fours to peer under the car and sift through handfuls of wet muck hoping, like a prospector, to find the hidden nugget. But it was hopeless. Piles of wet autumn leaves littered the street everywhere. Finding a set of keys among those leaves in the dark was indeed the proverbial needle in a haystack.
“I could call the police,” Mindy said when I returned. “They’re only about ten minutes from my place, and maybe they can break into the car for you.”
Ten minutes later a police cruiser came down the street and I ran out to hail him. As the officer sat comfortably in his car, I stood outside in my tee-shirt, once again pummeled by cold, wind, and rain while I explained the situation.
“I can’t do that,” the officer said. “If I break into the car the alarm will go off, and I won’t be able to shut it off. At this hour we can’t have a car alarm blaring through the neighborhood.”
I wanted to say are you crazy, in case you haven’t noticed, this whole storm is a freaking alarm! Who’s going to hear a niggling little car alarm among this racket? But I didn’t say that. I just stood there melting in a drench of water like the Wicked Witch of the West. The officer was nice enough, however, to offer the use of his flashlight for a few minutes if I wanted to go back inside and search again. So, once again, ring-around-the-rosie through the house and back again, looking, looking, under pillow, over bedstand, unpacking and repacking the large suitcase – a task made no easier by having to hold a large heavy flashlight with one hand. All for naught. No blasted keys.
Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more. Out into the rain I ran to thank the officer and return the flashlight, standing there soaking in still more water, while he casually suggested the option of calling the rental car company to see if they might deliver another set of keys. I knew, of course, that that would take too long and would mean missing my flight… unless I could catch a later flight. Back inside, I called U.S. Air and explained my situation. Were there any later flights from Detroit that would get me into Bakersfield that night? Ten minutes of checking, putting me on hold and checking again, and again, and again, finally brought an answer from the representative: no. It was either the 11:15 flight or nothing.
I began to figure up the damages. Missing my flight would mean losing $900. Plus the cost of the rental car and gas, another $200. Plus a $150 penalty for changing my reservation. This escapade was going to cost me $1,250 if I couldn’t find those damn keys and escape from Cleveland by 7:00. It was now 5:45.
Not knowing what else to do, having descended into a kind of numb befuddlement, I floundered about the house absently repeating the same search yet another time, until I had no choice but to take the officer’s advice and call the rental car company. Oh joy, I thought, I have an opportunity to explain my situation to yet another person.
“No problem, Mr. Warren. But in a case like this we don’t bring you another set of keys, we bring you a completely different car.”
“Really?” I said. “Well, that’s okay with me as long as I get out of here.”
“Very good,” said the rep. “That will cost $375.” Literally, my jaw fell open.
“Thanks,” I managed to squeak, “I’ll keep looking.” I hung up while mentally calculating the addition of $1,250 plus another $375 – the ever-mounting damages if I couldn’t find those keys. What could be my next move in this chess game with an autumn hurricane? Short of believing that poltergeist ran away with them, the keys had to be in the car. So the next move was to call GEICO. Maybe I could get them to break into the car.
“No problem, Mr. Warren. We’ll get that taken care of and get you on your way.”
“However, this is a rental car, and we’re not allowed to break into rental cars without permission from the rental company. I’m going to put you on hold while I contact them.”
“Fine.” Several minutes later (that felt like hours) the rental agent came on the line.
“Mr. Warren, I’m going to need the vin number of the rental car. It’s located on the inside of the windshield.” Oh God, not again! Out I ran again into pouring rain and blasting winds; although not, this time, without grabbing Mindy’s coat (hoping it was waterproof), which I spotted in the corner. I was already soaked to the bone, but at least I would have some protection against the frigid gusts. It was still quite dark outside. Once again using cellphone illumination, I could barely read the numbers through the wet windshield as I shouted into the phone to make myself heard over the windy ruckus, while squinting away the rainwater that tumbled down my forehead into my eyes. Then I ran back inside and panted breathlessly as the GEICO agent put me on hold yet again to contact the towing company.
“Mr. Warren, they will be there in half an hour to forty-five minutes.” Past experience had given me good reason to hope that in fact they might arrive in fifteen. Of course, none of those past experiences had involved a hurricane. I gazed at the time: 6:00. Well, even if he takes the full forty-five minutes, I thought, he’ll be here by 6:45, and if it takes ten minutes to break into my car I’ll still be out of here slightly before 7:00.
I had made a good move on the chessboard. In the meantime, there was little to do except stand around and wait… and wait, and wait, and wait, and wait… and gaze at the time on my cell phone every five minutes. And search my briefcase for the fifth time, even though I knew those keys were not there. And every so often walk blindly back to the bedroom, or the bathroom, or the kitchen, struck with a sudden “inspiration” about some nook or cranny I had overlooked where those keys might be hiding. Of course, they were never there. I was like the man caught in the proverbial definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results.
I stood at the door gazing into the raging storm, watching for the glint of headlights so I could run out and flag down the driver, aware of each second rapidly cascading over the precipice of time, while I chanted to myself: turn it over, turn it over. Let it go. Trust. Surrender the results. Don’t panic. What will be will be. Turn it over….
Thoughts intruded: But what if those keys aren’t in the car? No, Jim, don’t go there. Let that thought lie like a sleeping, vicious dog. Don’t awaken it! Take this one step at a time. Worry about that if and when it happens.
This inner conversation went on for about twenty minutes while I stood at the door, the bedlam outside echoing the welter of inner feelings threatening to explode. But I held myself together, and at 6:40 my phone rang.
“Mr. Warren, this is the rescue company. I’ve been trying to get to your address, but the road is blocked by flooding and fallen trees. It’s terrible out here. I’m not sure I can get into your neighborhood.” Just what I wanted to hear.
“I do know another route, and I’ll try to get in that way. But it’s going to take me probably another twenty minutes.” Oh God, I thought, I’m being squeezed like orange juice here! I calculated the time. If the guy could get through, he would arrive right at 7:00. If he broke into the car quickly, and if the keys were in the car – which of course they had to be – I would be able to leave by 7:10 or so. That meant I would have only about an hour to go drop the car and go through the boarding process. I held my breath for the next twenty minutes of ever-intensifying suspense.
And then, it happened! Headlights appeared in the distance. Donning Mindy’s coat, I ran into the street to hail the driver, signed his form, and watched while he broke into the car in less than a minute. Bravo! Fabulous! I thanked him profusely, jumped in the car, turned on the overhead light, and looked for the keys. And looked, and looked, and looked…. Zip, zero, zilch, nada, nix, nothing. No keys!
Surely that could only mean that I had dropped them in the street when unloading the luggage. With a pang of despair, I jumped out and began kicking piles of wet leaves all around the car, then grabbing handfuls and shifting the wet muck once again. But it was an impossible task, even for a magician.
Back inside, I told Mindy the bad news. “What are you going to do?” She asked. Good question. Next move? Her smashed windshield was going to prevent her going to work that day, and she said I was welcome to spend another night, and maybe the keys would turn up sometime later that day. I was out of moves. Despite my best maneuvers, Sandy appeared to have won.
Not knowing what to do, but unable to contemplate the reality of calling U.S. Air and canceling my flight, costing me $150 and the loss of my Wednesday morning $900 gig, I made what in retrospect I can only characterize as a kind of “faith gesture.” For no apparent reason except perhaps some blind faith in the impossible, the kind of faith that can only arise when one has exhausted absolutely one’s own efforts and nothing more can be done, and one stands, as it were, in the calm eye of the storm – an impossible space, it would seem, given the raging surrounding it; for no apparent reason except in the spirit of this strange faith that asserts itself contradictorily over against the impossible – although “asserts itself” is not really the right phrase, since it is more trust, more surrender, than assertion – but in the spirit, perhaps, of this strange faith, which is no merit of the believer because it comes more as something given than as something achieved… I did something absurd. I decided to load up the car. I couldn’t go anywhere, of course. I knew that. But I decided to put my luggage into the car. I decided to go out into the storm once more, be pummel and splattered yet again, for no apparent reason except the absurd.
It was still quite dark in the house when I grabbed the handle of my carry-on bag to extend it so I could wheel the bag behind me. And as my hand went down into the little cup-shaped cavity in which the handle rests – a little recess built to facilitate getting one’s fingers around the handle – my fingers made contact with the keys. Two rental car keys with big black handles were perfectly hidden within the cavity, and perfectly camouflaged against the suitcase’s black exterior. Had there not been a power outage, the house lights would have exposed them to view; but, as it was, they were cleverly hidden even from the eyes of a magician. The principle is in fact known to magicians, who call it “black art”: black hiding black. Ironically enough, I have it used myself to fool the eyes of many an audience. Even though I had more than once laid the carry-on bag on its side to unzip, unpack, and repack, the camouflaged keys had not fallen out, being slightly wedged in behind the handle.
I said a hasty goodbye to Mindy and loaded the car. It was 7:15. If all went well I would arrive at the airport by 10:15, an hour before flight time. But could I return the rental car, take the shuttle to the terminal, check my bag, crawl through security, and make it to the gate in time to board? First, I had to get on the freeway. The entrance ramp was barricaded. Damn! I hit the “detour” button on my GPS. Instead of a quick jump onto the freeway, I soon found myself plodding through downtown Cleveland traffic. Lights were out everywhere, police directing traffic, and once again I was taking Sandy’s sucker punch. I couldn’t believe that after all I’d been through for the past several hours, having finally found the keys and gotten myself into the car, still with a chance, however slight, of catching my flight, that I was going to be defeated now by road conditions in Cleveland. But time was slipping by torrentially like the downpour that had repeatedly soaked me during the last few hours. By the time I found another freeway entrance and was home free, my GPS showed an airport arrival time of 11:15 – exactly the time my flight was to leave.
What exactly am I planning to do once I reach the airport, I thought to myself. I might as well have stayed with Mindy. If I miss the flight (and of course I will), what am I going to do? Spend the entire night in the airport? Or am I going to spend still more money on a hotel room for the night? – not to mention the extra fee for keeping the rental car an additional day! Was I going to make any money from this trip?
Unable to accept these dismal realities, I put off contacting U.S. Air. Instead, I glided along on a haze of denial. Maybe the GPS is wrong, I thought. Maybe I can make up the difference if I speed up a bit. Maybe all kinds of crazy things. But no craziness now could help me catch that flight. After half an hour of driving the reality caught up with me, and I finally surrendered and made the call.
“I’m not going to make my flight,” I said, hardly able to believe I had been finally reduced to uttering those fateful words. “I’m going to have to rebook.”
“Certainly, Mr. Warren, I can help you with that. What is your final destination?”
“Bakersfield, California,” I said, while visualizing my $900 gig winging away into the sunset, along with all the other accumulated financial loses of this fiasco. “I had wanted to get there tonight because I have a job in California tomorrow morning. But I know that isn’t possible.”
“Well, actually, Mr. Warren, I have one seat left on a flight to Bakersfield that leaves at 5:30 p.m. Cleveland time and gets you into Bakersfield at 9:30.”
“9:30 p.m., as in today?!”
“I’ll take it!” I cried in disbelief.
“I’ll have to check on the cost, Mr. Warren. It might be more than the standard $150 penalty.”
Now, I would like to say that at this point the story ended. But this was a cliffhanger right to the very last agonizing second of suspense. For the U.S. Air representative put me on hold for at least seven minutes, then came back on the line to tell me that she was having problems with the system and was going to have to seek help from her associates. Oh my God, I thought, this is insane! I just want to get that seat! Another five eternal minutes crept by until finally I heard a voice saying, happily, “Sorry about the wait, Mr. Warren. You will only have to pay the $150.”
“Wonderful!” I said. “Let me give you my credit card number.” I proceeded to read off the numbers – irresponsibly, yes, while cruising down the freeway in the rain.
“Thank you. I’ll be right back.” On hold again. One minute, two minutes, three minutes and counting. God knows how many minutes later I heard her voice again: “Mr. Warren, for some reason the system is not accepting your credit card.”
Okay, enough already! Life was starting to feel downright creepy! Was Rod Serling peeking over my shoulder, I wondered? I could almost hear his voice: “Meet Mr. James Warren, traveling magician, encountering audiences around the world, but soon to be encountered by The Twilight Zone.” Could this really be happening?
“Let me read the numbers to you again,” I said, as calmly as possible. It turned out she had gotten one digit wrong. Phew! Close call. Relieved that we had gotten to the bottom of the problem, she transported me yet again into the dead zone, where I remained catatonically suspended for yet another five minutes, and wondered why this was once again taking so long. I had been on the phone with this woman for twenty minutes now, and most of that time on hold, anxious lest I lose cellphone connection and have to call back and start all over with another rep, only to discover that someone else had in the meantime scarfed up that last seat to Bakersfield. Boy, that would have been the coup de grace!
“I’m sorry, sir, but your credit card is not working.”
“What?! Okay, Here’s another card!” I pulled out a different credit card and read off the digits. On hold again – but this time for only a minute.
“Got it,” she said. “You’re booked!”
I arrived at the Detroit airport at precisely 11:15, as per GPS. I hung around the airport for four hours, got on my flight, and was in Bakersfield at 9:30. By the time I waited around for my luggage, got into my new rental car, and finished dinner at a local restaurant, it was 10:30. My show was at 8:00 the next morning, in Oxnard, and I would have to be at the school by 7:30. So I drove the two and a half hours from Bakersfield to Oxnard, arriving about 1:00 in the morning. It was too late to take a hotel room, so I slept in the car. By the time I found a secluded and safe place to park, and got everything arranged so I could be half-comfortable, it was 1:30. That’s 4:30 Cleveland time: I had been awake and traveling for exactly twenty-four hours.
I caught about four hours of sleep in the car, changed and shaved in a Denny’s bathroom the next morning, then walked into the school and did two high-energy assembly programs for hundreds of wide-eyed, amazed children. When the shows were over, I faced a seven-hour drive to Sacramento, where I had gigs the next morning. Somehow I managed. But I had a hint of how Lindbergh must have felt flying over the Atlantic in a kind of numb torpor, keeping himself awake by flying just above the waves to feel the ocean spray in his face. I had no ocean spray, but I did have my trusty iPod with its downloads of audible books. They held my attention until I crossed the threshold of my sister-in-law’s apartment in Sacramento, and went promptly to bed. The life of an itinerant magician.