Just My Luck – Chapter 6 – Part 6
It Ain’t Over Yet
When our emotion-filled call was done I checked the times and track numbers of the outbound trains and found the next one scheduled to South Norwalk, CT. As I reached the indicated track and platform, the public address system announced that Metronorth was switching over to its emergency schedule. Every half hour a train would depart on the New Haven Line and another would depart five minutes later on the Harlem/Hudson Line. Each train would stop at every station along its line to discharge passengers. The next New Haven Line train would leave at 10:45 a.m. from Track [X] and the Harlem Hudson train at 10:50 a.m. from Track [Y].
The race for seats was on. Fortunately, the New Haven bound train’s track was close to the track I had come to for the regularly scheduled ride. A seasoned commuter, I knew the importance of finding a good seat for the 55-minute ride to my station. That value on this train was inflated because the all stops ride between GCT and South Norwalk would probably be close to 90 minutes. I knew that in the context of this particular day, competing for a good seat was a very petty concern at best, but my pace quickened more from muscle memory than from rational thought.
I was among the earliest on the train and got an aisle seat – a prime location. As I expected, the every stop schedule pretty much dictated that eventually there would be standing room only. When folks occupied the aisle, I thought it might have been better if I’d taken a window seat.
My suit jacket and wheeled piece of luggage was in the overhead rack above me. I’d taken out my novel for the ride and was well settled. The train was about due to depart when the conductor virtually shouted over the PA, “Attention Please! Everyone gather your belongings and leave this train and the terminal as quickly as you safely can. I repeat, please exit the train and the terminal as quickly as you safely can.”
It had to be a bomb scare.
The standing passengers fled first. I grabbed my jacket and bag and joined the parachute jump line of commuters taking their turns spilling out the door. No longer at the head of the crowd, I was in its middle. As I quick-walked down the platform at the crowd’s motivated pace I asked myself, “First downtown, now here. What, are they doing, following me?”
I eventually joined those leaving by the Lexington Ave. exit, and wondered, “Now what?”
Vehicle traffic on Lexington Avenue was at a complete stand-still. Traffic lights cycled green-yellow-red over and over but the buses, trucks, taxis, limos, and ordinary cars were going nowhere. I decided that I didn’t care what it might cost, if I could find a taxi to take me home, it would be worth it.
I might as well have been looking for a polka-dotted helicopter.
The traffic one block over on Third Avenue flows one-way, uptown, away from the southern end of Manhattan where all that was left of the towers was billowing smoke. Traffic here was dense but moving. But the sidewalks and areas between the parked cars on either side of the avenue were crowded with GCT refugees trying to hail taxis or any other vehicle to no avail. Every single taxi heading down Third Avenue was occupied. Over next 15 minutes, I saw not one cab, limo, or vehicle of and kind stop to pick up one of the hundreds of people trying to flag them down.
Not interested in an exercise in futility, just as I had when facing the Fulton Street Subway crowd, I sought another way. Pulling my luggage behind me I moved on to Second Avenue, which flowed downtown towards the WTC. Here there were only occasional emergency vehicles speeding by with lights flashing. Nearly empty of any other traffic, there were no stray taxi cabs or other vehicles to be found.
After a half hour of trying, I began to consider the distinct possibility that I could very well be stranded on Manhattan Island overnight. My office was gone and I couldn’t think of anyone I knew who lived on the island. Where could I spend the night if, as it was beginning to look, it became necessary?
Then I remembered. I’d been pulling my little wheeled suitcase around all day because I had a reservation for a room at the University Club for the rest of the week.
The gentleman behind the desk at the University Club was gracious. He politely informed me that the Club had “no rooms available tonight.” When I told him I had a reservation he asked for my name and identification and checked my credentials against his reservation book. A place steeped in tradition, the club didn’t use computers at the check-in desk. Satisfied that I was who I claimed to be and that I did indeed have a reservation, he rescinded his opening remark. Apparently several members of the club had inquired after rooms and were not happy to be wait-listed for cancellations or no-shows. He would, of course, honor my reservation.
Thank goodness for tradition.
I gave him my credit card, which he returned with a key and directions to my room. When I entered the room I switched on the TV and started working the phone right away. After calling Doris again to let her know where I was and why, I tried calling Bob.
Still working when I’d left his office at 8:00 p.m. the night before, Bob had arranged to have his wife driven in to stay the night with him at the apartment the company kept for him in lower Manhattan. I called the number there and was surprised when Ann answered on the first ring. No, he wasn’t there but she thought that he’d come to the apartment when he could. I was about to give her the number of the phone I was using when Ann suddenly shouted, “Oh my God, he’s here! He’s all right! And he has Gary and Jill (our administrative assistant) with him! I have to hang up and call the girls (their daughters).”
Smiling broadly, I said “Okay” to the dial tone a moment later. It was the first great news I’d had all day.
The TV networks were making good use of their split screen capabilities. A live image of the two towers burning had a permanent place in an upper corner of the screen. Beside that was a larger portion of the screen showing a continuous loop of images over and over: fire trucks, ambulances, and police cars arriving – people streaming out onto Church Street, or standing with heads raised skyward to look at the fires, or just stunned and milling around aimlessly. And a scrolling message board at the bottom of the screen rolled snippet summaries of what had happened and updates of breaking news and public service announcements. All the while news anchors, men and women, filled the audio capacity with commentaries on what was obvious and speculation about what wasn’t. Broadcast multi-tasking at its finest.
I couldn’t know it then, but I was going to be plagued by images of the burning towers and the moments of explosion over and over on TV and on magazines and books and signs and postcards for the next 18 months. They were everywhere and inescapable. Multiple daily reminders of those I lost and my own mortality. To this day, I still feel a tug in my gut whenever I see one. Once an avid television watcher, I was cured of that habit by the special shows about 9/11, the daily news reports on the progress or lack thereof of the clean up, and anything else that might even remotely involve the opportunity to show footage from 9/11. I still seldom watch TV anymore.
I muted the sound and kept my eye on the scrolling message board while trying to call colleagues who were among the “contacts” in my cell phone. One of our co-workers who worked in our Greenwich, CT office was compiling a list of people who were confirmed as survivors and asked me to spread the word. Ever resourceful, Marie had gone so far as to contact the local affiliates of the local broadcasters to give them her phone number and ask them to broadcast that Aon folks should call her. I saw her request on my TV screen and called her to report Bob, Gary, Jill and me as accounted for, and to compliment her on creating and administering this project.
Tired as I was, I purposely didn’t touch the nicely made bed in my room. Neither did I put anything in the wastebasket or enter the fresh, clean bathroom. If I could find a way back home, I didn’t want anyone to have to tidy up my room for another guest. Before too long, the TV message scroll informed me that train service had been restored at Grand Central Terminal.
Determined not to be homeless for the night if train service at GCT was again shut down, I took my luggage and room key with me and left the University Club to try again to take a train home. When I de-trained in South Norwalk, I called the desk agent at the University Club to thank him for his consideration and to release my room for someone else to use. I told him that I would be happy to pay for the night’s stay I’d signed for, and mail back the plastic credit card sized key, but he assured me that neither was necessary.
It wasn’t until I tried to remember where I’d left my car in the parking garage that I realized I needed a ride home. I’d forgotten all about the conference and the fact that Doris had dropped me off at the station just nine hours and a different world ago.
(to be continued)
©2016 James Ash