Before yesterday, I could count on one hand the number of times I’ve traveled by airplane. (Hard to believe, isn’t it? But it’s true. I’m a very inexperienced traveler.) So I felt a little anxious when a business client asked me to come to Pittsburgh for a meeting, along with our company’s Vice President, Brian. I wasn’t nervous so much about the meeting itself. I’ve been the account manager for this client for a couple of years now and I speak regularly by phone with my contacts there. I’m comfy with all of them. What bothered me more was the thought of navigating airports. I knew I could rely on Brian once we met up at the departure gate. I was just worried about making it that far on my own. In spite of the fact that I wasn’t entirely sure what I was doing, I didn’t want to look like I didn’t know what I was doing. But it all came out well in the end and I have a new experience behind me. I know I could do it again with more confidence, but business travel isn’t going to turn into a regular thing and I’m actually glad for that.
We had plans to travel to and from Pittsburgh all in the same day. I was all set to drive myself to the airport on Tuesday morning and made sure I had a good idea of where I had to go to park and get to a security check-point. Then the day before, my boss mentioned that I might want to check the parking ramp status online before I left home. If the ramp was full, I’d have to drive over to the other terminal and park, then take the light rail back to the main terminal. I tried not to show it, but this information caused my anxiety level to jump to the next level. She said not to worry, though. I’d probably be fine. But the idea was planted and I worried some more.
Thankfully, Mark offered to drop me off on the morning of my trip and my friend, Tammy said she would pick me up when I returned. I could breathe a little easier knowing I didn’t have to worry about parking or traveling between terminals and trying to make it where I needed to be on time.
Monday night, I went to bed early, hoping for a good night’s sleep before my big meeting. I hadn’t been sleeping much the past week because I pulled a muscle in my back while bowling last week. Every time I turned over in my sleep, a sharp pain would wake me up. I was hoping it would ease up after a week but it hadn’t. Not much. I didn’t sleep but a few hours the night before my trip. It was partly because of my back and partly because I couldn’t turn off my brain enough to get back to sleep once I’d awakened. So I was wide awake and ready to head to the airport at five in the morning. Mark dropped me off and I found the security check point. There was a huge, snaking line of travelers and I went to join them. Two TSA agents were positioned at the entrance of the security area, checking boarding passes. One of them looked at my pass and said, “You have express check-in,” (or something like that.) He pointed to an empty lane along the back of the snaking lanes of travelers. “Just go right through here. You don’t have to take off your shoes or jacket.” I didn’t know why I’d earned this privilege, but I was happy. I breezed through security and was able to figure out pretty easily where my gate was and how to get there. Things were relatively quiet that early in the morning. That wasn’t so hard! I got started reading a book while I waited for Brian to arrive.
The flight to Pittsburgh was uneventful and after watching out the window during takeoff, I went back to reading. We arrived on time and Brian steered us through the airport to the tram. We rode the tram to where the rental car kiosk was and Brian took care of the necessary details for getting a car. Soon we were on the road and headed to our client’s place of business. Brian paid attention to the GPS directions while I looked out the window at the Pittsburgh landscape. I noticed how some things were so similar to home and others were so very different.
We arrived at our client’s offices and were given a quick tour. We got to put faces to the names and voices of the people we’ve been working with for so long. After lunch at the Spaghetti Warehouse, it was time for business and our three-hour meeting began. I marveled at how different people appeared in person, as opposed to the images I had created in my mind of each one. And I also marveled at how closely the appearance of one person matched the picture I had in my head. One woman impressed me with her knowledge and passion. Another struck me as such a character. She chewed a wad of gum dramatically while she spoke and she had the biggest, hot pink water jug I’ve ever seen in my life! I swear, it was the size of an ice cream pail! The meeting itself was good, with nothing earth-shattering to discuss and we were simply able to affirm that the business relationship is strong, our client is happy and we’ll continue to grow and move forward with the services we provide. Our client had scheduled the meeting to go until four o’clock. We had a 5:23 pm departure.
Someone forgot to consider the effect of rush-hour traffic on our travel time back to the airport.
A wrong turn added another ten minutes to our drive and soon we were racing out of Pittsburgh and watching the clock while Brian commented that we were really pushing our time limits. I sat in the passenger seat thinking how much I didn’t want to spend the night in Pittsburgh. I was exhausted and anxious to get home to my family. Brian did his best to get us to the airport without drawing the attention of any law enforcement officials. We finally arrived and I checked the clock again. We still had maybe a half hour until take-off. Brian pulled into the rental car return and asked me where I thought he was supposed to leave the car. “You’re asking the wrong person,” I said. “Remember? I don’t get out much.” Finally, he pulled up in line behind another car and we got out. He asked me if he was supposed to leave the keys in the car. “Brian, I don’t know!” I said. Thankfully, an employee saw us standing around looking uncertain.
“Returning?” he asked.
“Take the keys to that guy over there in the booth. You have to do something before you go.”
The guy in the booth came out to meet us and took the keys. “Need a receipt?” he asked.
“Not today,” said Brian. We hustled across a street and into the airport where we came upon a line of travelers so long that we couldn’t actually see the security checkpoint. And Brian hadn’t printed out his boarding pass ahead of time. (And he had made fun of me for my lack of travel experience just a few days earlier!)
“Where do I print out my boarding pass?” he asked me.
“Brian! I don’t know!” I said. We looked around but couldn’t see anywhere for him to do so. He told me to hold our place in line while he went to look around. I was just standing there, thinking how I’d have to find my way back to the tram, then take it to the departure gate. I might have to manage it all without Brian’s help. I was nervous, but I’d come this far and knew that I could follow the signs or ask for help along the way. But I wasn’t even sure I would make my flight on time and then I’d be left to figure out how to get home on my own. This was all just so much for an inexperienced traveler.
I was standing in line, trying to read the departure board and figure out where my gate was, when out of the corner of my eye, I noticed someone waving. It was Brian, yelling, “Come on! I found it.”
We had to go up another level and I waited while he printed his pass. When he was done, he noticed a sign and turned toward a TSA agent. I followed close behind and saw what Brian was looking at, a sign that said Alternate Security. Brian confirmed with the agent that we could go there and we soon found ourselves in another snaking line of people. At least this time, we could see the security checkpoint.
Brian checked his watch over and over and kept saying, “We’re not gonna make it.” I had been excited to experience a new place, but by this time, all I wanted was to get back to Minnesota. I started praying that somehow we’d make it. As we slowly moved closer to security, Brian asked another agent if he could shortcut us to the front of the line. We were surely going to miss our flight. The agent had the decency to look apologetic but said he couldn’t help us. He pointed to another agent and said, “Once you’re a little closer, she might let you through.”
The line moved painfully slowly, and Brian checked his phone for other flights. He was that sure we were going to miss ours. He was just saying that we could catch a six o’clock flight, have dinner in Atlanta, and then go back to Minneapolis when the woman agent who’d been pointed out to us came over and asked, “You two together?”
“YES,” we said!
“Come with me.” There were only about five people ahead of us at this point, but she got us through ahead of them and we were grateful. After making it through security, I asked Brian, “Think we’ll make it?”
“No,” he laughed. “We still have to take the tram!”
“Sh*t, I forgot about that,” I sighed. But still, we hustled. We were standing, waiting for the tram when Brian held up his cell phone and said, “I missed a call. It’s a Pittsburgh number.”
He called back and I heard him say, “This is Brian X. I just received a call from you. Yes! We’re waiting for the tram right now. Thanks!”
He was smiling when he said, “That was Delta. They’re holding the flight for us but we’ve got to get there fast!”
The tram arrived and we boarded. I willed the doors to close so we could move faster and we finally made it to the right place. Our gate was in sight and suddenly we heard our names over the loudspeaker. “Brian X and Terri X. You have one minute to board.” I didn’t even wait for Brian. I took off sprinting and he quickly followed suit. The ticket agents scanned our passes and waved us through. As we were running down the ramp to the airplane doorway, a male flight attendant with a good sense of humor cheered us on, saying, “Mr. Brian X! Come on down! Terri X! Come on down!”
We were laughing and out of breath as we walked between the rows of seats. I tried not to notice the disapproving looks on the faces of the other passengers as I located my seat and sunk down into it with a sense of complete and utter relief. I sent a quick text to Mark to let him know I was on my way back and then turned off my phone. I took out my book and picked up where I’d left off earlier that day and only a while later did I realize how tightly wound I must have been all day long. The lack of sleep and all the nervousness had caught up with me. My eyes felt like they would pop out of the sockets and my head was pounding. I just wanted to get back home. But as I sat there feeling completely exhausted I heard a woman’s voice behind me singing Head and shoulders, knees and toes, knees and toes…. And then the belly laugh of a toddler. Such a sweet sound. It made me smile. Not long afterwards, I heard the little one begging Mom, “Wanna hi. Wanna hi! Wanna HI!” Then right over my shoulder, I heard, “Ha-eeeee, Ha-eeee, HA-EEEEE!”
I turned around and saw the cutest button nose, a baby smile squished behind a pacifier, and a little set of eyes twinkling at me over the back of my seat. I realized that the little guy had been asking Mom if he could say hi to me. I couldn’t help but return his smile. He melted my heart.
“Hi!” I said to him. “What’s your name?”
“Whshwhshy” he said from behind the pacifier.
“Oh… how old are you?”
“Whswhsy,” he said.
I held up two fingers. “This many?”
Cutie Pie nodded at me and then Mom said he had to sit back down and that cute button nose disappeared again behind my seat. A while later I heard again, “Wanna hi. Wanna hi! Wanna HI!” But this time, Mom said no more. I was a little disappointed.
I couldn’t read any more. My eyes hurt. I couldn’t sleep either. So I rode out the rest of the flight just staring ahead. Finally, we landed. I texted Tammy to let her know I’d arrived and then called her to let her know at which door I was waiting. We chatted all the way home and when she dropped me off, I grabbed a quick bite to eat and went straight to bed. And slept. All night long.
I did it. Without making a fool of myself or getting completely lost. I’d do it all again if I was asked. But I’m not in a hurry.