I didn’t technically wake up yesterday. My day started in São Paulo and finished (with me sound asleep) in Toronto. In the middle I was briefly in Colombia and, even more briefly, in Newark.
Fifteen years ago my parents actually lived in New Jersey. I’d become a full-time Kingstonian, but when I’d go “home” it’d be to a place called East Windsor, which is fifteen minutes from Princeton and about halfway between Philadelphia and New York. One weekend in November 2011 it was the launching pad for an epic Johns family Tristate adventure: The Producers on Broadway (with the original cast!), the Leafs/Devils at the Meadowlands, a Princeton/Yale football game, and the Vikings/Eagles at the old Veteran Stadium in Philly. (The Vikings were blown out 48-17, and afterwards Randy Moss uttered his infamous “I play when I want to play” line. Good times!) On Monday, November 12, after saying goodbye to my parents and our dog Chieftain (RIP), I took the train to Newark airport and boarded a 9:20 flight to Toronto. So far absolutely nothing out of the ordinary had occurred.
The first indication that something out of the ordinary was occurring–albeit unbeknownst to us–was when we sat on the airport’s taxi apron for twenty minutes without moving. A couple planes took off. We moved forward. Two planes from the front of the line we stopped again, and this time we didn’t move for forty-five minutes. This was the pre-cellphone era. No one knew why we’d stopped moving.
And then the pilot came on and made the following announcement:
Ladies and gentlemen. There’s been an air traffic accident over Manhattan. We’re returning to the terminal. Please be ready to evacuate the aircraft. Flight attendants, please assume the crash position.
Now…in fairness we were on the ground, so the chances of crashing seemed remote. But the rest of that announcement? Scary shit. This was two months after 9/11; we could literally see Ground Zero from the plane. And remember, no one knew what was happening. What was happening was Flight 587, which had crashed seconds after taking off from JFK. Meanwhile, back in East Windsor, my mom was cleaning the kitchen when the news came on the radio about a crash at “one of the three New York City airports.” At 9:20. In her mind, I was dead.
Back at the airport I called my dad, who was at his office in Newark. He told me to call my mom who, by this point, had learned that the downed aircraft wasn’t mine. Still, no one at the airport knew what was going on. While lined up at the Air Canada desk I met a woman who, in addition to being in the air on 9/11, was supposed to leave New York that morning on Canada 3000…which had gone bankrupt the previous weekend. The guy in front of her gave her his business card and asked her to let him know the next time she planned on flying. Eventually I called dad back; he told me that there’d been a bomb on board the plane and, I quote, “Get out of New York.” An hour-and-a-half later I was back at Princeton Junction train station, where my mom and Chieftain were waiting…and we drove the nine-and-a-half hours back to Kingston, listening to New York AM radio and the revival cast recording of Guys and Dolls. Remember, when we left we still didn’t know whether it’d been another terrorist attack or not; we had no idea when the airports might reopen. Before leaving I called my roommates, asking them to call my Queen’s Entertainment Agency manager and tell him I wouldn’t be making my shift that evening. When I walked in the front door of 396 Johnson Bob was putting up shelving in the living room. He looked at me, shook his head, and said: “These things only happen to you.”
The weirdest thing that happened to me yesterday was being charged 171,000 pesos for what was effectively fifteen minutes on Colombian soil. 11/12 remains, by some distance, the weirdest travel day of my life. I’ll be very happy if it keeps that title forever.