Wednesday is, in my experience, a dependable sort of day. A routine, run-of-the-mill, get-stuff-done-and-go-home sort of day. Especially Wednesdays in the Purple Valley, where excitement can be hard to come by. My typical Wednesday generally involves a 10 a.m. Political Science lecture, an afternoon holed up in the library, and, if I’m feeling particularly wild and crazy, dinner at Greylock instead of Mission. You see, Wednesday is just not the sort of day when tornadoes strike or jackpots are hit or adventures are begun. Not the sort of day you’d expect, say, to find yourself utterly lost by the side of a highway somewhere in upstate New York at one in the morning in a rental car with two Italian businessmen. But don’t let Wednesday fool youâ€”because sometimes that’s exactly what Wednesday has in store.
I just wanted to get myself to Princeton, for an interview scheduled for 7 a.m. the following morning. This is not a particularly complicated task: Continental runs regular flights out of Albany airport to Newark, New Jersey, and a shuttle service will take airline passengers to Princeton. My tickets were all pre-purchased, and I had allowed plenty of time at each stage of the journey. My taxi dropped me off at the airport at 11:30 Wednesday morning, giving me a full hour-and-a-half to get settled before my flight. This Wednesday seemed to be behaving just as a Wednesday ought to behave.
The first sign that things would not go smoothly was hanging on the wall at the Continental check-in desk: “1:00 p.m. flight to Newark canceled,” it read. The desk attendant assured me that I would be transferred to the 4:00 flight, a change I found mildly annoying, given the lack of entertainment to be found at the Albany airport, but not particularly alarming. I settled into the plastic waiting room chair with my history packet and a bottle of Diet Coke, determined to make use of the unexpected delay.
Nine hours, five Diet Cokes, two vending machine meals, and countless trips to the filthy airport restroom later, I was still there in that same plastic chair, waiting. Fog and thunderstorms had blocked all flights leaving out of Newark airport, and not one of the five flights expected to arrive in Albany that afternoon had actually made the trip. The mood was lightened somewhat by the presence of Father Tom, an enormous Irish priest on his way back to County Cork, who regaled us with folk songs on his beat-up old guitar. But even Father Tom’s equanimity was challenged by the announcement that all flights to Newark had been canceled and that, given the unexpected bad weather, no alternate travel plans on other airlines could be arranged.
Frantic and exhausted, I made my way to the front desk with the hordes of other irate travelers to seek help, advice, a train ticket, a ride to New Jersey, anything. Something in my face must have communicated to the attendant that, if she did not help me get to Princeton, I was going to have a Diet Coke-induced nervous breakdown right there on the carpeted airport floor. But her phone calls produced no possibilities of a seat on any of the New Jersey-bound trains or buses leaving the Albany area. Next to me, two wildly gesticulating European men were yelling in heavily accented English about how they insisted that they be given lodging for the night so that they might make their flight home to Provence, Italy, the following morning, while the harried desk assistant next to mine tried to explain that when flights are canceled due to weather conditions or other “acts of God,” Continental takes no responsibility, and that she could not give them a voucher but would be happy to call area hotels for them. The men were having none of this. Finally, desperate to shut them up and go home, the attendant turned to the woman assisting me, held a brief whispered conference, and announced that she had a plan.
She would give the men vouchers for hotel rooms in Newark, from where they could fly to Providence the next day if they would drive me with them to New Jersey. What could I say? I may be a Williams student, but I am not, even in the best of circumstances, known for my abundance of common sense (for instance, I’m a religion major), and these were hardly the best of circumstances. The men looked friendly, and I desperately needed to get to Newark; the whole day had taken on a sort of surreal quality anyway, and my options were limited. So, willing myself to ignore the voice from grade school safety films saying, “Never, ever accept a ride from a stranger,” I hopped into the rental car. Thus, the adventure began.
We had hardly made it out of the airport parking lot before it became abundantly clear that the trip was not going to be an easy one. None of us knew upstate New York from the inside of a paper bag, nor did we have the least idea where Newark wasâ€”one of the Italian businessmen had obtained directions from the car rental service, but they were printed in ungrammatical Italian and were of little use to any of us. At each intersection, the two men would argue heatedly, “A sinistra, a sinistra!” “Non, non, a destra!” “Si, si, a sinistra!” And so we would go left, at least until we hit the next intersection, at which the entire dialogue would be repeated. Finally, by some small miracle, we reached the highway. There, new difficulties emerged.
There was the small matter of which side of the road to drive on. We had several near misses before it was established that one must never, ever attempt to pass on the right, no matter how many lanes are available. Also, it seems that in Italy one stops directly below the traffic light, rather than several yards before the light, a small cultural difference that resulted in several more close encounters with death.
Once these issues had been resolved, however, the trip was a joy. We found numerous topics of conversation: the new European currency, the state of international politics, the Pope’s health, Clinton’s sexual indiscretions, and, of course, Baywatch. They laughed at the way I pronounced “Pavarotti,” and I taught them how to say “Schenectady,” a word which delighted them so much that they cried it out in unison every time we passed a sign bearing the name. We argued about nationalism and the state of the Japanese and European economies. And we discovered that there are some things that transcend all cultural and national differences: the Titanic theme song, for example. As soon as those familiar flutey tones came on the radio, we all groaned, “Oh no, Titanic…” And so we continued into the night, in the direction of what I sincerely hoped was New Jersey, wailing along with Celine Dion.
Sometime after midnight, we stopped at a McDonald’s for sustenance and directions. The Italians were amazed and bemused at the hugeness of their soft drinks and the vast list of possible meal combinations. They demanded to know exactly how each menu item was prepared, but the fact that our cashier’s English was as shaky as their own did not speed the process along. Finally, our bellies full of French fries, we hit the road again. Unfortunately, the directions we had been given proved inadequate. We found ourselves by the side of the highway, somewhere between Teaneck and the Tappan Zee Bridge, at 1 a.m., utterly lost. The policeman who stopped to help us out looked more than a little concerned to see me alone with these two men, and it occurred to me that if I had any sense, I would be equally concerned. But I had an appointment in Princeton in under six hours and no time for sensible scruples.
At long, long last we arrived at the Newark airport, where we bid each other fond farewells. My journey was far from overâ€”I had yet to meet the unscrupulous cab driver who was to charge me $100 to drive me and four other passengers all the way back to New York City, accumulating fares as he went. Finally, he took me back to
New Jersey and down the Garden State to Princeton. I arrived at three o’ clock in the morning, seventeen hours after having left Williamstown the previous morning. And I had yet to dead bolt myself out of my hotel room at 3:30 a.m., requiring a hotel engineer to come and force his way into my room. But those are other stories.
When I collapsed into bed at 4 a.m., I had a brief moment of sheer retrospective panic. After all, I had gotten into a rental car with two complete strangers who, because they are foreigners, could never have been traced by the police, for a middle-of-the-night road trip without directions or a competent driver. Nobody in the world had any idea where I was, and nobody would have known where to look for me. Once the panic passed, however, I realized that, stupid or not, I was glad to have gotten in that car. Life is more fun if you live it creatively, and I don’t believe in avoiding adventure. But, for those of you who plan on venturing out of the predictable confines of the Purple Valley any time soon, keep your wits about you. After all, you never know what a day is going to hand you, particularly if it’s a Wednesday.