I had to go back to Cleveland. The city is now permanently associated with good people, hard times and an inability to take three steps forward. And so I have a tale.
I was stuck in Charlotte on Sunday evening. There were thunderstorms in the area with more lightning than I can ever remember seeing out of a plane window. Before we landed at Charlotte, the plane I was on, an A321 which is slightly larger than a Boeing 737, took a huge dip. I was weightless and listened to people around me scream as we bumped and dived closer to our destination. It was the biggest dip I can ever remember on a plane that size. I was relatively calm and tried to figure out what kind of drop is one you can feel in a plane. Is it a roller-coaster drop? A couple hundred feet? Or is it just 20 or 30 feet at a time? Sure it feels like you're dropping out of the sky but it can't be that bad. They say that they halt traffic during storms, but I'm sure it's for the benefit of the passengers, not that the pilots can't handle it.
The pilot of my plane landed on the twisted left ankle of the landing gear and I could feel it skid sideways before the other wheels came down. The people clapped for a minute and then started calling on their cell phones. And so I found myself in Charlotte in the middle of a thunderstorm with my connecting flight still on the ground in another state. I charged my machine huddled in a corner after a search and then watched the other migrant hunters searching desperately for a power outlet. Electricity blasted arcs of light from the sky but we need the tame kind. That and wifi. The hour ticked by. I had a crabcake dinner, I boarded 90 minutes later. I arrived at Cleveland airport at 1am. I waited for my luggage in baggage claim trying to sleep standing up - I had an 8am meeting.
As I dragged my Oakley bag towards the taxi dispatcher, I could see a man in a dark trenchcoat looking in my direction across 100 yards of empty airport. It turned out to be Gary who along with Jerry were in possession of the first cab in line outside. I got in, we talked. They were a couple of men in their 50s wearing ball caps and grey moustaches. Weather turned to work and I explained that now I know how much it costs to run coal mines in West Virginia and Alabama. My client owns them, and I built the system that helps them do their budgets. Gary loves Cleveland, especially for what it used to be. He used to drive a locomotive for one of the steel mills that used to be owned by Americans. Now he drives cabs and helps others do the same. After a 20 minute ride I took his card and promised to call for my return trip. I gave a fat tip because I know some days that makes all the difference, and I feel that a lot when I'm in Cleveland.
I crawled into bed. I got to sleep at 2:30. At 2:30 pm two days later it was time for me to leave and I couldn't find Gary's business card. I couldn't wait to get out, but I felt sick about not being able to call as I promised. So I went downstairs to the lobby and figured I'd get another cab around the way.
A woman called after me in the lobby. She had that Cissy Spacek look about her, holey jeans, searching eyes, classic Midwestern disheveled look. She asked if Gary had brought me here. Yes it was me. What a break. She apologized and brought me out to her van. Faye was in the shotgun seat, dark hair, glasses and attitude. There were no markings on the van, and I had already checked to find that I was out of cash except for 25. The fare was 32. I tried the ATM again as they waited outside with my bags. I'll have to get a cash advance on my Visa. I had traveled so much in the past 3 weeks that it completely depleted my cash to the tune of around 5000 bucks. I could smell a perfect storm.
Belinda apologized again and we found a bank. Faye observed that Chase bank sucks, along with several other banks. She reminded me of a Californian. It was true. I got out of the van on 9th, made a mental note of the license plate and told them to spin around the block while I got a cash advance. As I opened up the door, I realized that I left all my stuff, including this new MacBook Pro and another laptop, and my clothes with two women who didn't know my name or phone number, and they just drove off while I'm trying to squeeze cash out of a credit card that could be over the limit.
I got the moola, stepped back outside and there they were. We headed off. Belinda apologized again. Gary had just gotten her set up. She knew the steering was making funny noises but don't worry. As we got on the freeway she pointed to another cab. She's going to get the panels and stickers soon. I talked about my talk with Gary and Jerry. Told them I was from California and couldn't wait to get back. Faye said she'd lived in Bakersfield and Riverside. She was a Harley biker chick. Cool. I knew there was something I liked about her - about all of them. People working on the edge, trying to be polite and making the best of a situation that could be a whole lot better. Or a whole lot worse.
We ran out of gas. We were 7 miles from the airport and coasted to a stop at the top of an incline. Belinda called Gary who was fortunately nearby. I watched her mash the pedal as we crossed four lanes and the automatic kept downshifting as we lost speed. I had just been on the phone with the Spousal Unit trying to figure out of that healthcare bill I incurred last year had been paid. We sat on the side of the road. Faye said I should have taken a ride on her motorcycle instead. All the time, I am in good humor and good spirits. After all, I'm going home. I know that every system breaks and I wake up in the morning asking what broke while I was sleeping. It's just a question of how the system is being pushed. But the cell phones worked and I spoke to Gary who apologized at which point I told him to stop apologizing. We can't control the weather or the gas... well we can control the gas, but the needle was broken so I don't blame anybody - as long as I make my flight.
I started calculating how long it would take me to walk the 7 miles with my bags as Belinda stepped out for a smoke. Pall Mall menthol. Gary should be along in a few minutes with a gallon of gas. I hope so, the walking math doesn't work. I have 40 minutes to get there. Before Gary shows up, CVS shows up. CVS? Yes, the drug store chain apparently has a fleet of Samaritan vehicles, and one with flashing amber lights was coming up on our six. The man had a gallon and poured it in, left us a survey card with his name on it and kept the lights flashing as we cranked up and started into traffic.
I had just watched Die Hard 4 and remember the line that it took FEMA four days to get water to the Superdome. In fact, Home Depot had water there sooner, and food, and clothes. For my predicament, Chase had my money, CVS had my gas and four hustling people from Ohio had my back. As Jason Statham said, transportation is a precise business. It takes a lot to get my ass from LA to Cleveland and back in one piece. That includes the pilots, the girl who served up my crabcakes, the flight attendant who poured my Jack & Coke, the programmer who let me buy my ticket online. I do and I don't take it for granted. I know all things work together for good, most of the time. But at any moment things will break.
What can't break is trust.
As soon as you inject cynicism into the system, the free country we inherited begins to fray and fail. As I unfailingly say, it's all about 'do', not about 'be'. But even more fundamentally it's about trust and try. At every point before a job is begun, much less a job well done, it's about people giving somebody a chance to make it work. I trust that you're going to try. You try to earn my trust. Then we both can do, and it's all about the doing, come what may. It's the trust in the try that says, OK maybe you fail, but that's OK. Try again. I trust you.
The chances are fairly slim that any of those folks will find this story. But our rewards have already been taken care of. The deed was done. This tale is for the rest of us.