I travel in and out of NYC more than some people, less than others, and often through the much bemoaned LaGuardia and John F. Kennedy airports. But like Louis C. K., I am always aware that air travel is basically a miracle in which you sit in a chair that floats around in space and moves you speedily from Point A to B on the planet.
So on a recent return to JFK from India, after a 14 hour non-stop leg from Dubai, I didn’t grumble when we landed 15 minutes behind schedule. Nor did I let out more than a quiet sigh when we were told that there was no gate free so we’d be sitting on the tarmac for an unknown period of time. I continued to watch Mother’s Day and fantasize about getting through immigration at a superheroine-like speed, thanks to having signed up for the Global Entry program. When the plane finally started to crawl toward a gate an hour later, I gratefully gave up on trying to understand Kate Hudson and Julia Roberts’s problems in the movie. Instead, I flexed my feet in anticipation of that leap everyone does to reach for the overhead bins as soon as the seatbelt sign is off and then crowd the aisles. I am usually foiled in this endeavor despite my lightning reflexes because I’m too short to reach the bins and have to enlist the support of normal-sized fellow passengers, as was the case here.
Thanks to being in row 2, however (and in an Airbus, which seats the Business class on the upper floor), I was on the gangway as soon as the doors opened and set to speedwalk like a champ. This lasted for all of 20 yards before I came to a complete stop, foiled by a dozen other people who had also stopped in the corridor that led to the immigration pen. For a few minutes, I thought they were just controlling congestion in the hall because of the huge backup of planes that had landed at that point. It soon became clear that this was not the case. Even from my short height, I could see security personnel holding passengers up on both sides of the immigration area entry ways, and the ground crew of Emirates appeared equally confused by the bottleneck. Soon, the flight crew appeared from behind us, and were also sent back by the security guards without any information. People milled about restlessly, some clearly regretting not having gone to the restroom before exiting the craft. A passenger managed to get online and found a tweet about a suspected shooter–in another terminal. An Indian-Canadian complained loudly that he would never fly through JFK.
At one point, I overheard the the pilot telling his crew that perhaps they should get everyone back on the plane as the delay was apparently going to last for a couple of hours. The head flight attendant returned with news that the ground staff would not allow anyone access to the craft now. I was starting to think I was in an old Cecil B. DeMille movie–unwilling to go backwards and unable to move forwards, thanks to mysterious forces outside my control. Miraculously (isn’t that always the case?) we were suddenly allowed to descend down the gangway toward immigration after about an hour. The immigration lines were massive but the Global Entry sign told me to turn toward a row of empty machines, just waiting to clear me through. After some puzzling attempts to scan my passport and greencard, I was able to get myself fingerprinted and photographed. Just as the machine was spitting out my receipt, however, a wave of people came rushing back from the exit, shepherded by staff (I think). The night wasn’t over.
At this point though, I really needed to use the restroom, so I grabbed my receipt and ducked into a roped off one right by the scanners. There were a few passengers in there and no one seemed that worried, so I stepped into a stall. Within a minute, security personnel (I think) were calling us to vacate the premises immediately and go back toward our plane. I resigned myself to being in some other movie involving a bystander sitting on a toilet seat when something crazy happens. Fortunately, I was actually in just an arthouse movie so nothing happened. I washed my hands and went back to the gangway. I was at the tail end of the crowd but no one was going anywhere, so I found a spot on the floor and sat down to wait out the drama. After about a half hour of no more news, staff started allowing groups of 8 people to go down to use the restroom. The remainder sat, stood, grumbled about how terrible JFK was, tried to get a cellphone signal, etc. I worked on a difficult Sudoku and wondered what kind of world we lived in where a newspaper had a Sudoku and that other weird math puzzle but no crossword.
Finally, another hour later, we were suddenly released without explanation. Not looking for one, I sped down the same gangway, waved my receipt at the security guard by the scanners, sped off to pick up my one checked back (sitting forlornly with all the other waiting baggage on a silent carousel), and ran through the empty customs pen to the Border Security agent. He appeared to be in a cheerful mood and just took my receipt and waved me through. Just wait, I thought silently with a pang of sympathy–après moi, le deluge.
Stuffing my carry-on into my checked bag, I stepped out of the secure area and saw that it was midnight. I’d been at JFK for 3 hours after landing, which had been after a 20 hour trip. If there was ever a time to take a cab, I told myself, this is it. The cab line inside the terminal, usually a soul-crushingly long one, was empty. This should have told me something but I was on a high from the rush through immigration and customs. On stepping on the sidewalk, however, I was reminded that nothing is that easy. The usual taxi attendant was missing, as were the cabs. Passengers wandered about in angry disarray. This was clearly not going to be the fast option.
I turned around and headed back inside and went up to the Airtrain. The monitors on the platform said–you guessed it–“Airtrain not in service”. I heaved a slightly louder sigh than the one I had expelled three hours ago and sat on a bench, out of ideas. Finally, about 15 minutes later, a train hove into sight. Now, there are two Airtrain routes from the airport into the city–the Jamaica one that connects to the E train, which goes through Queens, and the Howard Beach line that connects to the A train, which goes through Brooklyn. There was no announcement about which one this was, so I just got on. And then got off at the next station because it was–ding, ding, ding–the wrong train. The following train was also announced as a Howard Beach one first, but then somehow the monitors said different, so I got on it.
As we rode past Terminal 8, everyone took out their cellphones to document the flashing lights of the police cars and ambulances that were still blocking off the access to it. I was too tired to bother. Instead, I eavesdropped as locals on the train tried to advise confused tourists about the subway/MetroNorth/NJTT. From the Airtrain, I hopped on the E, and in the absence of a 7 train or a bus at 74th street in Jackson Heights, took a cab home for the last 12 blocks. I arrived close to 1:30 in the morning.
Over the next two days, information emerged about what had happened that night. In all likelihood, some staff had been watching the men’s 100 meter dash at the Olympics and celebrating, and a passenger in earshot decided that they had heard a gun. Pandemonium ensued. People screamed that “They are coming!” Some ran out onto the dark tarmac that had active runways. I’ll never think of Usain Bolt in quite the same way again.