Cross Words at JFK

Don’t you hate when you’re struck with an uncontrollable desire to do a crossword puzzle, only to discover the newsstand at JFK International Airport doesn’t sell crossword puzzle books? Well, they do, but only PennyPress brand, and not the far-superior Dell?

Perhaps my experience is too specific to spark a smile of recognition in the reader. You will have to take my word for it, then, that the scenario described is indeed a frustrating one. It is perhaps as frustrating as when you just barely got your windshield repaired, and then you got another chip in it from a rock that flew out of a gravel truck when you were driving to Salt Lake City with your friends Josh and Chanel.

The crossword puzzle incident occurred because I had missed a connecting flight and had to sit at JFK (the airport, not the person) for nine hours. I had nothing to do, of course; airports are not exactly bustling with diverting activities. In the end, though, it was an enlightening experience. It gave me time to ponder: Is God punishing me, or blessing me?

I don’t think it’s presumptuous to assume God had something to do with it, one way or the other. This wasn’t as light a matter as the waiter bringing you the prime rib instead of the sirloin, or a basketball game pushing the local news back to 10:30 instead of 10. Missing a flight by 10 minutes and thus losing half a day of your vacation seems too major a thing to have happened simply by pure, random chance. It’s the sort of convergence of events that can only happen on purpose. So the question is, was it for good or for bad?

I kept one eye on CNN all day to see whether the plane I should have been on had plummeted headlong into the ocean or something like that. I was mildly resentful when it didn’t.

So maybe sitting in the airport all day was a punishment. But for what? The mind boggles at the wide range of things I might have done that deserved punishing. But what sin could I have committed for which a nine-hour layover would be the appropriate punishment? Buying gasoline on a Sunday seems more like the “your car breaks down” kind of sin than the “sit in a stinky airport all day” kind.

Unable to work out the nature of my predicament, I did what I always do I’m when faced with a difficult theological question: I took a nap. I curled up on a bench in the terminal, put my coat over my torso, and closed my eyes. That’s right, I became one of those people. The people who sleep in airports. I learned, however, that it’s impossible to sleep in an airport, due to the prerecorded lady telling you every 10 minutes over the loudspeaker (there’s a reason they call it that) that you are not allowed to smoke in the terminal — which it seems to me everyone already knows. You can’t even bring nail clippers into an airport anymore; does anyone really think you can have fire?

Not having showered, now, in 24 hours, I went into a restroom to try to freshen up a bit. I was optimistic. I had my toilet kit with me, so I could apply fresh deodorant, wash my face — heck, I could even shampoo my hair in the sink, if I was really ambitious. Life had handed me lemons; I was going to whip up a big batch of Uncle Eric’s Old-Fashioned Down Home Country Time Lemonade.

This was naive and stupid of me, of course. You cannot “freshen up” in an airport bathroom. No matter how long you wash, you will come out filthier than you went in. It’s the nature of the bathroom.

I decided that instead of making lemonade, I was going to start throwing the lemons at people. Alas, they were figurative lemons, and I was forced to return to considering my fate. Blessed or cursed? I didn’t arrive at a definitive answer, but I do know this: My failure to show up for the first flight means someone had an empty seat next to him, and thus more elbow and leg room. I hope he appreciates how blessed he is for that.

I wrote most of this in my head as it was happening. (I actually do a lot of columns like that.) When I got home, it was just a matter of transcribing it and reworking a few parts. And I really did give serious consideration to washing my hair in the sink. I can handle not having showered for a day or two, but the feeling of greasy hair -- and mine is, I believe, abnormally greasy if I don't wash it vigorously and often -- absolutely drives me insane. It was for that reason that, just a few months after this column ran, I began shaving my head regularly and keeping my hair very, very short.