Here’s a spoiler: I didn’t win.
When our overnight flight from Maui – delayed by an hour – touched down at SFO just fifteen minutes before the departure of our connecting flight to Houston, I knew it was going to be a close one.
“No way are we going to make it,” we all said, as we hefted rollerboard bags from overhead bins.
As it turned out, everyone was connecting to Houston. It was one of those oddly charming moments of commiseration among the randomly miserable. We had shared the same row of this Boeing 767 for the last six hours and hadn’t said a word to one another; but now that we shared the same unhappy fate with respect to our prospects for getting to IAH on time, we were best friends.
“We might be able to do it,” I said, to no one in particular. No one particular responded, but I think a couple of people nodded slightly in encouragement.
Adding to the hopelessness of the situation, the pilot came on the intercom and announced that we would be deplaning in the international terminal. Our connections, should they be of the domestic nature, would take place in the domestic terminal. Of course.
Although I wasn’t intimately familiar with the layout of the SFO airport, I was pretty sure that the distance between our arrival gate and connecting departure gate would be no less than a long f*cking way.
(Because that’s always how it works. When your connection is three hours, you’re at the gate next door. When it’s twenty minutes, you’re all the way across the damn airport, in a separate terminal, at the very last gate at the end of an interminable hallway.)
“I’m going for it,” I muttered as we shuffled forward through the aisle. I hefted my purse over my shoulder and resolutely extended the pulley arm of my carry-on suitcase, and I sprinted off of the aircraft and up the jetbridge like I was coming out of blocks on a track.
What happened next should have been one of the most heroic running performances of my lifetime. Seriously; in terms of sheer athleticism, it was nothing short of incredible. In spite of the uncomfortable chafing of my pajama pants and sloppy slippers, I sprinted. Against the protests of my rollerboard bag – which wobbled perilously as I pushed the limits of its little plastic wheels, derailing on to its side approximately every seven seconds – I persevered. I flew past confused morning commuters and started sleepy employees as I streaked through the terminal like an awkward adrenaline-fueled comet.
And for a few glorious moments, I was sure I was going to make it. Everything seemed to work itself out: my fuzzy slippers stopped slipping off of my sweating feet, my suitcase stopped flopping around, and I was just running.
I pre-played the coming scenario in my head. I would stride up to the gate like an Olympic champion just as the boarding door was closing. I’d then graciously but firmly demand a pause in the boarding process, and, a few minutes later, stand by to accept the praise and thanks of my fellow Maui-to-Houston connectors as they filtered by me, peering back shyly to marvel at my athletic prowess as they descended the jetbridge onto the plane that was supposed to have departed without us.
This fantasy fueled my legs further, and I picked up the pace even more as I rounded the corner of a long corridor and headed toward our gate, positioned (of course!) at its terminal end.
I broke in to a full-on sprint, as best as I could with my burdens, and it was every bit as difficult as those last few minutes of a hard-run 5K.
At last, the gate was in sight. The boarding door was still open, attended by a gate agent who was giving the boarding area a frighteningly final look. Like a farmer surveying his field of crops before heading in for his supper and thinking: Good enough for today.
“HOUSTON CONNECTION HOUSTON HERE HOUSTON!” I yelled maniacally. I put on a final surge toward the finish line. My suitcase topped over yet again; I dragged it on its side as I staggered toward the port.
And that gate agent? She looked me directly in the eye – there was eye contact! I swear! – and shut the door to the jetway.
“BUT!” I exclaimed, holding my side and panting. “BUT I’M HERE!”
She gave me a blank look.
“Our flight! It was delayed! And I ran here! And I’m here! And the plane’s there! And there are like twenty people coming…they’re right behind me…we’re all here!”
She blinked and replied: “I’m sorry ma’am, it’s not possible to open the door at this time.”
At that precise moment, the jetway door clicked open and two airline employees emerged from behind it. I raised a sweaty eyebrow in my best attempt to appear cleverer than the system.
I tried again: “But…the plane’s there! It’s right there!”
But it was all for naught. My delusions of heroism were shattered. I’d been too slow. I’d hustled my ass off for a total of perhaps five minutes, and missed my window by just a few seconds.
“I can rebook you,” she said, holding out her palm for my boarding pass, her face still remarkably blank. I stood there, perspiration dripping down my face and my pajama pants sticking to my sweaty legs, expecting an “I’m so sorry” or a “My hands are tied” or maybe even a “Wow, this must really suck for you.”
But all she did was tap on her computer in the endless way that airline employees tend to tap on their computers. (Seriously…it takes me four clicks to see what flights are available on Kayak? What is with all of the typing that they always have to do?)
And then I sighed, resigned. The inevitable crush of displaced passengers – my former compatriots from that flight from Maui – had begun to arrive. They queued up behind me and all of a sudden I understood the gate agent’s indifference. She probably was not thrilled about having to report to work before dawn and deal with the likes of us. For her, this was just another of the endless workplace transactions that make up her day. All of the drama and potential heroism that I’d assigned to the situation was routine to her, and to the scores of people who run the airport and who deal with this sort of crap every single day.
Three hours later, we were on a flight to Houston. And just a couple of hours later than planned, we were turning the key to our apartment door in Raleigh. Slightly inconvenient, but not exactly the catastrophic disaster that I’d concocted in my mind while I was gunning down the airport passages, hoping to save the day.
But still. Five seconds? Ten seconds?
No matter how unimportant, it always sucks to lose a race by a hair.