Sartre Was Right

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You know my last entry, the one about my New Year’s Resolution to convince myself that “a stranger’s a friend I just haven’t met yet”? Well, I’ve already revised that resolution, because I’ve already seen the limitations of that attitude. And it all has to do with travel, with the fact that getting back from Chicago was as stressful and difficult as getting there in the first place.

I didn’t go into the whole rigamarole here, because it was painful and not that interesting, but it took 48 extra hours to get to Chicago. Mercifully it was the first leg of my journey that was canceled or delayed each time, so I just ended up leaving two days late, sleeping in my own bed each night. This is what you get when you travel so close to the holidays, I thought, and vowed to avoid it again in the future if I could. I thought about canceling the whole trip, but I’d made my plans and had stuff to do, and anyway, I wanted to go. Given how much fun I had, I’m really glad I did.

But then there was the trip home.... I left on schedule, got to Detroit on time, sat down to wait for my connecting flight which was scheduled to depart at 10:10 p.m., and was informed at 9:30 p.m. that it was canceled.

There was one agent at the gate to rebook flights for every last passenger on a completely full flight; it took her 25 minutes to deal with the first stranded passenger, a young mother with a very unhappy, tired baby. No one begrudged the fact that this woman was taken care of first--that poor baby was really tired--but we all resented the fact that no one else showed up to help the rest of us too. Some of us called the 1-800 number, because spending 20 minutes on hold was still quicker than waiting in that line, and learned that there was not another available seat for the next 48 hours, not on any flight into the airport closest to home, or, for that matter, into any surrounding airports.

So my choices were: spend two days in the Detroit airport, or do something like fly to Atlanta on standby then fly to LaGuardia on standby then fly to Buffalo on standby and rent a car. Yeah. And then a woman in line near me said, “I guess my husband and I will just rent a car here, because we’ve got to be back tomorrow--he’s a doctor and he has to see patients. It’s not that far to drive; just four hours.”

At that point I turned to the woman next to me, who was trying to get home for her grandmother’s funeral. “Want to split the cost of a rental car?” I asked.

She paused. “Sure,” she said. “If you drive.”

Then the woman married to the doctor said, “Maybe we could all go together, if you don’t mind riding with our daughters.”

And that’s how I ended up sharing a minivan with five strangers on a four-and-a-half hour trip through some very bad weather. It beat the alternatives, I admit that. I was glad to get home. And I was also glad I’d thought carefully about how I wanted to interact with strangers.

Everyone, including me, was really nice at first. The husband took care of renting the car and also volunteered to drive. That left me time to chat with the daughters, who, at age 9 and 13, were the same age as two of my nieces and even reminded me of them in some ways. The youngest had a fearless curiosity I found charming, in part because I’m not really bothered by snoopy questions: Where were my children? If I didn’t have children, did I at least have a husband? How old was I? Wow, I was a year older than their mother. What did I do all day, since I didn’t have a family to take care of? The older one was excited to learn that I was an English professor and talked about her plans for college.

The weather was awful, and the younger one had this thing about black ice. She was fine as long as the road was so covered with chunky white snow that the rest of us were gripping our arm rests and wondering when it would be safe to exceed 30 miles an hour, but as soon as the road cleared a little and her father resumed the actual speed limit, she shrieked, “Daddy, slow down! It’s black ice! It’s dangerous! I hate it when you drive too fast, just like I hate it when you drink too much!”

Then the older one took off her shoes and socks. Her feet smelled TERRIBLE, which I know as well as anyone because she kept putting them on the back of my head rest. That was upsetting, but more upsetting was the younger one complaining, “Mommy, Sister took off her socks! Her feet really stink!” Then the farting began, silent, deadly farting.... Yes, the older one had a gas problem, and it was profoundly unpleasant, much worse than the foot odor problem. But equally unpleasant was the younger one yelling, “Mommy, Sister farted on my Nintendo!”

And then there was the Nintendo! Why do these electronic gadgets come with sound events?! Why does there have to be a dreadful repetitive jingle while you play some stupid game? Why can't people who play the stupid game hit the mute button?

And there was an argument about whether Topaz was the birthstone for November or December, and what it even looked like, and the older one was wrong, insisting that Topaz was a blue stone and the birthstone for December, but even though everyone told her that her information was incorrect, she refused to accept the possibility that she might be wrong. And then she insisted Carnegie Mellon was in Cleveland.... it’s in Pittsburgh, but at 1:30 a.m. in the middle of a blizzard, who freakin’ cares, which is one of the reasons I didn’t say a word. And then we got a spelling competition: the older one wanted to show that she was smarter than her younger sister, so they’d spell words like “hydrogen” and “nitrogen” and “dioxide” and the father would say who spelled it right.

I’ve only hit some of the highlights here--the drama was pretty much constant from the moment we got onto the interstate until the girls finally fell asleep about 2 a.m. (Though falling asleep does not tend to interrupt farting--if anything it can make it worse.) Every so often the mother would say, “Girls, no more talking. Only grownups can talk. Go to sleep. You have school tomorrow.” And the older one would say, “I don’t want to be quiet, and I can't sleep in the car.” And only after three hours did either parent say, “OK, that’s it: when we get home, you’ll get a time-out.” Which wasn’t much of a threat since we were going to get home at 3:30 and at that hour, a time-out is the same as going to bed, which is pretty much what you want to do.

And I thought, Sartre was right: hell is other people. To be stuck in that minivan forever could serve very well as a form of eternal torment, perhaps not the worst one ever devised, but still effective. I kept telling myself, It will end; it will end; I will get home, and then I will never have to see these people again as long as I live. They’re not new friends; they’re just strangers who have kindly helped me out; and I’m grateful and I wish them well, but I really want to spend the rest of my life as far away from them as possible.

The whole thing was so traumatic that I hardly left my house the next two days. I am not sorry I got into that minvan, because it beat the alternatives, but still, it sucked. I am only now starting to recover. And I have also remembered something from Fight Club about single-serving friends, people with whom you have brief, unrepeated pleasant encounters. I like that terminology. Some strangers turn out to be life-long friends; some turn out to be single-serving friends, some turn out to be people you interact with as long as you need to and not a second longer; and some turn out to be assholes you avoid at all costs. This family fell into the “interact with as long as you need to” category; they weren’t assholes, just not very good at accommodating outsiders introduced to their family circle. Still, had we met under different circumstances, I might have liked them all very much--or rather, I might have continued to like them all as much as I did when I first met them. But the situation played an significant role, and that’s important to remember too. It’s more fun to meet people at parties than in a long line at the airport, and I hope a long time will pass before I have to do that again.

3 Comments

Your road trip may have been much more entertaining for me than you but don't you know the first rule of fart club? Careful!

I submit that hell is also having all 4 teenage step kids visit at the same time. Wish they came in single servings.

No, Dale, I don't know the first rule of fart club, unless it's simply not to join the club and to stay away from anyone who does....

ME, I think you're probably right about the visit from the step kids. I don't even want to know what it was like.

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This page contains a single entry by Holly published on January 5, 2008 1:14 PM.

More on the Kindness of Strangers was the previous entry in this blog.

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