This is a story about the stupidest thing I ever did.
It’s not dumb because of what happened as a result of my doing it. It ultimately all turned out just fine. No, it’s the potential of what could have happened; the fact that I could have ended up as nothing more than a picture and a story on the ten o’clock news. It’s that potential that makes this, hands-down, the worst decision I ever made.
When I was in my early 20s I was heavily involved in online message boards for a television show I loved. I had become friends with a fellow message board user named Cheryl, who lived in Manhattan. It transpired that another friend of ours, an penpal from Australia, was coming to the States and would be visiting Cheryl at her apartment in NYC. I was struck by the sudden desire to go, so I did. (This is not the stupid thing.)
There was some trouble with the plane (an entirely different story that loosely involves Donald Trump, which I will save for another day). Owing to this my flight, which was supposed to arrive in Newark at 9pm, didn’t get in till after 11. Cheryl, being a typical New Yorker, had no car, and would not have been able to travel out to Newark to meet me anyway, due to having to wait at home to hear from the Australian friend, who was coming in that night, as well. Cheryl had given me instructions on which bus to take into the city. This particular bus was to drop me off at the Port Authority, which was within walking distance of Cheryl’s apartment. I would call her from there and she’d come meet me. I was fairly anxious about this arrangement to begin with, so imagine my reaction when, upon investigation, I discovered the last bus of its kind had left at 11:00 carrying numerous bodies, none of which were mine.
Here was one rather impressive quandary. For readers who are tempted to judge me keep in mind that I was very young and very sheltered. I’d come from California, sure, but a very small town. There’s no such thing as public transportation there, even on a micro-scale. I’d never taken a taxi in my life and had never even seen a subway. The extent of my travels, at this point, consisted of drives to L.A. or Oregon with my folks (where we hung out in relatives’ houses and did not explore urban areas) and one trip to Virginia to visit a penpal. A more seasoned traveler might have been able to identify more options available for conducting herself into Manhattan — but not I, not then.
It was at this point that, Murphy apparently not being finished with me yet, it occurred to me that I only had a little bit of cash on me. The rest of my money was in traveler’s checks (remember those?) At that point I began asking the waiting cab drivers how much the ride into Manhattan would cost ($40) and whether they took traveler’s checks (no). If I recall correctly, there were very few official-type people inside the section of the airport I’d arrived in. Between the fact that it was late, and I’d flown El Cheapo Airlines, which dumped me off at a lesser-used terminal, there wasn’t much in the way of help to be found. Plus, that thing they say about New Yorkers not being friendly? Well, I can’t speak for all of them but I can tell you that plenty of them heard me asking questions and explaining I’d missed my bus and nobody stepped up to offer any sympathy or even suggestions. Take that as you will. Now, as for why I didn’t go back inside the airport and start walking until I found someone who would help me? I don’t really know. I got into the mindset that I was stuck, and panic started to set in.
In the midst of this I was approached by a skycap, who saw my distress (which, by then, could likely have been detected on US Army satellite). The skycap informed me that he was getting off duty just then and, if I wanted, he would take me to the Port Authority for the same $40 the cab drivers wanted — only he’d take my traveler’s checks.
Y’all — I agreed to this.
My rationalization, at the time? “He can’t be a bad guy. He works for the airport!” Because, as you know, psychotic axe murderers are never gainfully employed. Go down to the unemployment office sometime. Place is crawling with serial killers.
Despite my blazing naivety, I was still thinking, “This is stupid this is stupid this is stupid,” as we were walking to the skycap’s car. When we arrived another man showed up out of nowhere to ride with us. At this point the little bells that had been tinkling gently my mind turned into full-blown air raid sirens.
And yet…I got into the car.
I knew this was insanity. I may have been from a small town but we got the LA news. I wasn’t ignorant of what went on in big cities. I was just innocent enough to think it wouldn’t happen to me. It actually never occurred to me the extent of just how bad this decision was until years later. I could be nothing now. I could be simply a memory; a cautionary story whispered to my friends’ kids about the girl who went to visit “online people” and was never heard from again.
But, being that you’re reading this right now, today, you can surmise how the story ends. The details are this: Skycap and friend drove a very nervous me all the way to Manhattan. I kept my hand on the door handle the entire way, ready to throw the door open and fling myself from the vehicle if I got wind of even the slightest oddity. I did almost pass out when we got off the interstate and the skycap locked the car doors. But (likely noticing all the blood draining from my face) he explained it’s best if you don’t drive around the city at night with your doors unlocked. Once we arrived at my destination, I signed over two traveler’s checks and thanked him, and he allowed me to exit the vehicle without grievous bodily harm. He even gave me back my bag instead of driving away with my valuables (bonus!) It was thus that I found myself at the Port Authority at midnight, which, when you think about it, is rather a case of jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire.
I called Cheryl (from a pay phone, because I am An Old™) and she arrived, promptly, before further calamity could find me. I went on to have a lovely trip. I even cried when I had to get on the bus to head for home. I never did tell Cheryl how I’d gotten into the city and I most certainly never mentioned it to my parents. I knew what they’d all say. I was saying it to myself.