I have never understood the Zen of running. No mixture of sweat, spandex, and battered joints will ever elicit any semblance of euphoria. I tried.
I have not, however, abandoned running all together. On those rare, excruciating moments when my flight is late and I must run to make my connection, Olympic records are broken. Have you ever seen anyone running through an airport looking euphoric?
There are ways to minimize the odds you’ll be doing the gate gallop. First, begin by accepting the immutable law of travel which states, the less time you have to make your connection, the farther your connecting gate will be from where you landed. Armed with this knowledge seasoned travelers plan accordingly.
My two-week trip aboard a Russian icebreaker to Wrangel Island, known as the 'polar bear nursery of the world,' had all the makings of a flight route that could implode without proper planning. Best case scenario I would fly from Maine to New York (change flights), New York to Alaska (change flights), Alaska to Alaska (change flights—Anchorage to Nome), and then take a small charter flight from Alaska to Russia before boarding a small ship to get to the big ship.
And so, I added not one but two, “Just in case days.” Just in case the plane has equipment problems. Just in case there’s bad weather. Just in case my fight’s delayed and I am not able to sprint through the airport fast enough to make my connection.
On day one of my four-day journey, I arrive at Portland Maine’s Jetport, which is so obscenely congested with summer tourists I am relieved to be heading to Siberia—for real.
I have my backpack which has more camera equipment than I properly know how to operate and a single piece of carry-on luggage. That’s it. I board at the head of my group number and make my way to the last seat. Actually, it is the second to last seat. There was one seat behind me—the toilet.
It is a small plane with single seats on one side and double seats on the other, probably twenty rows in all. As I try to jam my backpack under the seat in front of me, I hear a thump from the bathroom and notice the entire door vibrate. I don’t give it much thought. Those potty doors are kind of flimsy on these smaller planes. Perhaps, the person inside inadvertently whacked it while flossing their teeth or putting on mascara. I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about what people do in airplane bathrooms.
And then, it happened again. I leaned my head by the door.
“Are you okay?” I ask somewhat nervously.
“Can you please get the flight attendant?” The man sounded remarkably calm.
I turn around and buck the tide from the very back to the very front of the planes as Zones 2 through 8 are shoving and huffing their gear down the aisle.
I gently tap the flight attendant on her shoulder and in a hushed tone, I inform her that there is a gentleman stuck in the bathroom. “He wants to talk with you.”
From the moment I tap her shoulder I sense she's annoyed. When she turns around and looks at me. I know she's annoyed. I want to say, “Don’t shoot me, I’m only the messenger.”
Instead, she continues to glare and motions for to me to turn around and head back down the aisle. I return to my seat as “potty man” and the flight attendant began to bang and jostle the bifold door so hard, I thought for sure it would come off its hinges.
In case you don’t already know it, the little sign outside the bathroom door that reads “vacant” or “occupied” is attached to the door’s locking mechanism. Equipped with a screwdriver (not TSA approved), the flight attendant jammed the tool in every direction, prompting potty man to cry out, “It’s stuck . . . It’s not moving. . . I’ve tried.”
Frustrated, the attendant marches back up the aisle but not without giving me yet another look of disgust.
What the heck? I didn’t lock him in there.
For the next several minutes, no sounds come from the bathroom. I start getting concerned. It had to be getting hot in there not to mention the undeniable indignity of being stuck in the potty.
I won’t tell you at what time my concerns changed from poor, stuck, potty man to how late is this flight going to be? But I had calculated three and a half hours to make my connection, so my anxiety was still manageable.
By now, all of the passengers are seated, baggage is stowed, and we appear ready for take-off save for the one gentleman incarcerated behind me.
An imposing looking woman from maintenance arrives. She is wearing a blue maintenance jumpsuit and unlike our flight attendant, there is not a trace of make-up (I suspect there never has been.) Secretly, I’m hoping she might be carrying a blowtorch or some minor explosive so we can blow open the door and get on our way. But she is armed with nothing more than her own brute force, that manifests in several professional wrestling style maneuvers that would have put her opponent on the ropes.
After several minutes of heavy grunting and a few high kicks, she pauses and soon, we are chatting like old friends about the absurdity of the situation. Truth be told, I can’t ever remember anyone getting locked in the bathroom much less having a women come onboard to kick the door down.
The PA system crackles and above the whir of the fans to keep the passengers cool, I hear the announcement telling everyone to evacuate the plane.
Like virtually all orders that come from the cockpit no one moves. Betty the Brute leans down towards me and confesses that she really just needed to take a running start to kick the door down. As for the trapped passenger, well… presumably he will manage to get out of harm’s way.
It should come as no surprise that by this time we should have already landed in Newark. I am still trying not to seize hold of the panic button, but my optimism is waning. Supposing they actually manage to kick the door down; will we have to wait for someone to come and fix it before we can leave?
Betty left her post by the injured door. I assumed she is going to forgo the karate kick and just get a blowtorch. In the meantime, I hear the voice from behind the door say, “Have all the passengers left?”
“No. We’re still here.”
A few minutes later a folded note is passed over the top of the door. Potty man asks me to deliver it to the flight attendant. For the first time in this unbelievable series of events I wonder if there is something nefarious afoot?
Are we going to be hijacked from the toilet?
Seriously. Who gets locked in an airplane bathroom for two hours and then starts passing notes?
Once again, the announcement to deplane is made with a reminder to take all of our belongings. This does not fall into the good news department. I am beginning to seriously worry about missing my connection. I run through the various options, (grateful that I have a few) but none are particularly appealing.
As I begin extricating my backpack from under the seat in front of me, Betty the Brute reappears.
“Are you going to kick the door down?” I ask enthusiastically.
“Yes, after everyone deplanes.” She is clearly more excited than I am.
“Oh dear,” I pause, for but a moment. “I feel so badly for the man that’s stuck inside.”
“Ahh, don’t worry,” says Betty. “It’s the pilot.”
My jaw drops
“Yup.” She says with a grin.
As we are herded off the plane, I wait for just the right moment to spill the beans with my fellow passengers as to exactly who is responsible for our delay. The news goes viral.
At this point I am neither calm nor hysterical. I am amused that I have unknowingly been conversing with the pilot for the past two hours. However, my serenity shifts when I glance out the window and notice they have begun unloading the gate-checked luggage. One of many reasons why I insist on my "Carry-on luggage only" rule is that in the event I need to switch flights on twelve seconds notice, there is no pushback from the airline saying, “We can’t get your luggage.” The other reason is practicality. No one has ever said with a smirk, “Aren’t those the same black pants you wore yesterday?’
The fact that the luggage was being unloaded indicated the delay was going to last longer than it would take Betty the Brute to Kung Fu the door down, which, I assumed had already happened. But just as I am reaching for my phone to call the airline on my "special status” number, the gate agent announces we would be begin boarding shortly, when, and only when, all passengers had gone to the bathroom! We were told the bathroom would not be available during the flight.
I was so disappointed when she doesn't say, “Because the pilot broke it!”
Everyone begins frantically charging the restrooms as if they have just eaten too much Mexican food. We resume our queue in record time with tickets in hand when who should come waltzing off the plane but Ms. Congeniality, herself—the flight attendant, looking even more disgruntled than before, muttering something about needing to use the bathroom, too.
I returned to my seat for a third time as the flight attendant walks back and puts a yellow Post-it note on the bathroom door, “Out of Order.” And then she takes a picture with her phone, no doubt related to ensuing paperwork regarding proper documentation of “potty door broken by pilot” see Section 27, Paragraph 19 in the Operator's Manual, which is stowed in the glovebox.
Once again, the PA system crackles and I begin hearing the standard announcement regarding flight time, route, estimated time of arrival, etc. I listen extra hard as to how the pilot is going to address the delay. Would he man-up and confess or assume social media had already rendered any statements all but redundant.
He opted for the latter and soon we are taxiing down the runway. All of my “just-in-case” timing has now been gobbled-up, save for a few minutes. As long as we proceeded without further delay, I will make my connection, but I will need to run . . . fast.
As we taxi down the relatively short runway we stop. The engines shut down. Every passenger holds their breath as eyes start darting side to side all asking the same question. Now, what?
“We apologize for the delay, but we are on a weather hold from Newark,” chirps the pilot, sounding far too relieved he is no longer culpable. “We will let you know when we have been cleared for takeoff.”
Only a fool travels without a supply Ativan or some type of stress-releasing tincture and I admit to being a complete fool. The seconds slowly marched on. I know, I counted every single one. Eventually the engines roared back up and we were airborne. Thirty minutes into the flight we could see nothing but gray gauze outside the window as we entered the weather that had put the curse on Newark. I always keep my seatbelt buckled, but now I tighten it. For those of you who "envy" we road warriors who spend almost half the year at 36,000 feet, remember this moment as we are shaken about like a bottle Newman’s Ranch dressing.
And then the cursed PA system crackles again. Newark is apparently so backed-up, we are in a holding pattern for at least another twenty minutes. I calculate that by the time we land, my connecting flight will be somewhere over Detroit. My dream of going to the polar bear nursery of the world is beginning to fade.
Fortunately, our delay lasts only ten minutes—not twenty, but once we land and deplane, I must still wait for my bag which has been gate checked since this teeny, tiny plane can take no more than a large knitting bag and a box of Tic-Tac in the overhead compartment. Still, it’s less time than if it was checked in the belly, but as I line-up along the jetway, waiting for my black roller bag to be belched up from below, I notice a man with stripes on his lapels step onto the jetway and begin distributing the bags. Smiling and joking with the passengers, it takes only a moment to realize that it’s Potty Pilot, and somehow my anxiety vanishes. He has a sweet avuncular manner, and clearly, he was rolling-up his sleeves to help broker peace with his flustered passengers.
It worked. By the time I walked forward to get my bag—the last bag to come out because it was the first bag in—I shook his hand and said, “Thank you. I’m a writer and you will understand if I put this story in print.”
Such the big smile I got in return as he pumped my hand and reached in his wallet for a business card. “My name is Cedric Grimes. Promise me you will send me a copy when you do.”
I grabbed my bag and went into gate gallop mode. Of course, I was two terminals away from where I needed to be and as I huffed and puffed my way to Gate A91, I was screaming, “WAIT!! I’m coming.”
I was the last person to board the plane. But there was another flight in six hours . . . just in case.