Houston, We Have a Problem

Laura and I had been anticipating this trip since last spring, and now we were packed and ready to go. The annual AWP Conference and Bookfair were finally here…

Boston. Getting there.

We head for Concourse D but pass it. Twice. Too much talking, too little attention to our surroundings. With luggage that was heavy and unwieldy at times, we keep stopping to switch hands. It’s not until we reach the circular end of Concourse C that we know we’ve made a mistake.


A big black sign with a large white arrow pointing the way, and beneath it, the short list of restaurants waiting for us when we arrive – how could we have missed that?

Concourse D. Finally, No, almost. First we must go down into the abyss before we come up again at the other end.

As we descend the steep escalator into the airport’s subterranean area, I tell Laura a story about an escalator in the Dallas/Fort Worth airport years ago.  Six members of the company I worked for were

English: Lower landing platform and wooden tre...

English: Lower landing platform and wooden treads on a historic Otis escalator at Wynyard railway station, Sydney, Australia, installed circa 1935 and still operational today. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

there for a convention. One of them, Tom, had just stepped off at the top when a woman on her way up fell on the risers and was struggling to get up. It was her hair I remember, thinking if she didn’t get up in time, it would catch in the metal grid and disappear under the metal plate. She’d be scalped. Ila and I were too far behind to reach her, but Tom tried going down, against the onrush of the risers. He lifted her head and shoulders, half dragging her off with but seconds to spare. She was a bit flustered and embarrassed, but not hurt, and we all shared a good laugh and went on our way. Over the years this story has taken on a life of its own, its comical aspects garnering their share of laughs.

At the bottom, Laura and I take two moving walkways to the up escalator some distance across the way. Colorful patterns appear and disappear along the walls framing this horizontal shaft but they lack the musical pings that sometimes accompany modulating light-shows like this.

We arrive at the up escalator, each maneuvering a heavy carry-on and a tote bag containing a purse, laptop, book, a notepad, and crossword puzzles – that which we’d have to force under a seat the size of a child’s potty chair in a regional airline that would pack us in like sardines.

Laura goes first.

“I’ll go behind in case you fall,” I say, “so I can catch you.”

Photo of Porter Square's record-length escalator

Photo of Porter Square’s record-length escalator (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A joke. We laugh.

Stepping on, she deftly maneuvers her carry-on into position so her personal bag, its flexible strap twisted around the carry-on’s extended handle, will ride without falling off as it has done several times already.

I look for the right moment to place my foot on the metal grid rising in front of me.

Up I go.

Pulling my carry-on onto the step behind me, I hold fast as it, too, begins to rise – but I can’t tell which step it’s actually on until we’re two steps higher and I see its wheels teetering on the edge of the grid. Most of the bag’s weight faces backward so I seize the handle more tightlyto pull it forward. But it won’t come. It’s perched like a diver poised to execute a back flip, its toes losing their grip on the edge – as am I.

But I can’t just let go, so I try stepping down one but the suitcase is stuck, willing enough to retreat but on its own terms – head first.

As the steps continue to rise at what seems like an ever-steeper angle, the carry-on pulls me backward.

Balance, poise, and certainly grace, desert me en masse.

Going down.

My bag drops several steps dragging me with it. I’m virtually upside down trying to get up when the boarding passes fly out of my hands. I’m forced to choose – the bag or the passes.

“I’ll take the boarding passes for $800 Alex.”

I let the suitcase go in favor of those precious pieces of paper.

“I’ll get it,” a man about to board the steps to nowhere says, “Are you okay?”

I am, but there’s collateral damage – thumb joint, knee. Aaarrgghhh, my good jeans. Why always the good ones instead of the ratty ones with the holes in the knees? No time to think about that, though – we’re still on the move. All of us.


It’s Laura’s voice but I can’t right myself to see her. Her own bags are going on without her as she steps down, attempting to give me her hand. She is above me, the man is below – none of us can grab the other. Suitcases, bags, papers splayed all over a disaster zone. I’m a cartoon character on television, stuck in slow-motion between them.

Laura’s bag combo continues its upward march like a dutiful soldier, scouting the territory ahead. She rushes back lest it decides to take its cue from mine. Finally on my feet, I joke with the man behind me.

“You’re all right,” he says, “and that’s what matters.”

That depends on how many other people witnessed this.

As I pull my suitcase off the top step, Laura’s piggybacked GI pair tumbles in front of me, going in different directions. We pull and push to get the bags out of the way so the guy behind me doesn’t get knocked backward, too – because those stairs stop for no man.

Sitting at the gate with only a modicum of composure, we periodically erupt in gales of laughter, tears streaming down our cheeks. People probably think we’re crazy, and who knows, maybe we are.

“I wish I’d gotten a picture of that,” Laura says. “I could have put in on my facebook page.”

That would have been funny, I have to admit.

In the end, it’s a good reminder that people are just people who do dumb things and look ridiculous sometimes. What’s important is how you handle these minor missteps when they occur – and afterward when everyone hears about them.

AWP’s keynote speakers were Cheryl Strayed (Wild) and Augusten Burroughs, (Running With Scizzors). In his keynote address, Burroughs talked about the importance of “being present in the moment.” He recounted a speech he once gave where he took a wide sweep with one hand (he gestures a lot) and in doing so, knocked a glass pitcher full of water off the podium. It fell to the stage, shattering as it hit the floor. Instead of standing outside that moment, getting flustered and apologetic, or attempting to ignore what just happened out of embarrassment (not that he could with water, ice cubes, and broken glass all over the place), he fully immersed himself in it. Taking a step back, he paused, looked at the mess on the floor, and with impeccable comedic timing gave the audience a moment to consider what he was going to do, then said:

“Wow. Will you look at that.”

What might have been, for some, the worst disaster ever became a funny episode, garnering no more or less importance than any other. Instead of allowing it to become a problem, he turned it into great fodder for conversation at dinner tables for years to come.

In the end, we all remain members of the family of man, laughing not at each other but with each other. At least that’s the way it should be. The way it can be if we lighten up a bit and save serious responses for that which truly merits them.


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