by Alex Bernstein
Friday. December 23, 1983.
Hello. Hello. Hello.
I’m at the airport. I hate the airport. But you know that.
It’s the most miserable time of the year.
My flight’s not for another hour and 45 minutes. It’s unbelievably crowded – mostly with students flying standby, paying to get the cheap fares on People Express. The planes fly all night long and they’re dirt cheap – you actually pay cash on the plane for your ticket – which is insane. What if you’re on the plane and don’t have enough cash? Do they send you back? Do they make you stow other people’s luggage for four hours? Do they put you in the brig? Do they have a brig? These are the questions.
I can’t stand the crowds. It looks and smells like a Grateful Dead concert. College students and teenagers attending prep schools (like me), trying to get home for the holidays. A sea of flannel and jeans. Kids have backpacks and sleeping bags. Some of them have unrolled their sleeping bags and are actually sleeping in them. I’m obviously avoiding the MOH girls. Six of them – in pajamas – are actually playing the Mystery Date board game on the floor at one of the gates. It’s like a surreal summer camp inside the airport.
I decided to hole up at a gate with no outgoing flights just to get some extra space to myself. And I got bored quickly, so I unpacked my props and set them all up on the seats around me. And now it looks much more pleasant, if not a little fantastic. And why shouldn’t it? If I’m going to be stuck here for hours, I might as well entertain myself. Besides, I’m so loaded down, I kind of like unpacking it all. A couple of Mystery Date girls already called me “Mrs. Claus” because the bag I was lugging was so huge. Yes, okay, it was probably stupid to bring all this stuff home. But if I had left them at school they would have just gotten stolen like last year. And besides, I wanted to show Beth and my family some of this stuff – not that they’ll care. I had this great idea that some of my props might make great Christmas gifts. (Not to mention, they’ll be collector’s items after I’m rich and famous.) So, why not bring them home? I’m not 100% attached to all of them. I even thought I might leave a couple at the airport, so that they’d become “found art”. My only worry was that some philistine would think they were garbage and throw them away.
For the record – since I know you’re keeping a record – here’s what I set out on the seats: a baby doll that’s reversible and becomes a super creepy baby pig doll and a flag with bright red flamingos all over it (both from Alice); a huge, incredibly cool Coat of Many Colors (from Joseph, but it’s really much more Dr. Who, 4th Doctor); a Rat Warrior, Nutcracker soldier, and a mini, plush, tie-dyed Santa (all from Nutcracker); Bondage Paddington Bear – covered in leather and metal studs (not from any specific show yet); a couple papier-mâché boulders (Lost in Space!); a pith helmet (no specific show); a couple other odds and ends; and of course, Buster.
I’m trying not to look at him directly but there’s an Indian kid sitting an aisle over who’s been staring at me for like the past five minutes. He looks about my age – maybe a year or two younger. He’s not even pretending not to stare. He’s creeping me out, but I just unpacked all this crap, so I really don’t want to move. He’s wearing a bright blue prep school blazer. So, I assume he’s from one of the academies. I’ve seen a lot of these kids wandering about. They’re much more formal and don’t go in for pajamas or sleeping bags like the Mary Olive-Harris (MOH) girls or the Deadheads. He looks pretty polished actually – except for the big fro. Wonder why they didn’t make him shave it. He doesn’t appear to have any bags. Just a cup of coffee he’s been nursing and a paper that he’s not even trying to pretend to read. Creep.
Or maybe he’s an exciting, mysterious stranger?! But he’s probably just a creep. I’m also creeped out by the homeless guy sleeping across two seats behind me who’s snoring incredibly loudly. But I hate to move. I’ve got almost this whole gate area to myself.
So, guess what? I actually started talking to the Indian kid!
First of all, his name is Bala. Bala Vijayan. (No idea if I’m spelling that correctly.) And he’s only half-Indian. His father’s from Bombay, but his mother’s from Marin County. And he was doing the exact same thing I was doing – hiding from his classmates at an abandoned gate. I was right about the blazer, too. He’s a ninth grader at McCarter Academy in Westchester. He hates crowds. The crowds here have made him extremely claustrophobic – and he saw me with all my stuff and thought I was doing performance art or a Christmas display or something – which would totally make sense if you didn’t know me, right?
So, now I feel great that I pulled everything out of my bag. Even if it is a little freaky.
Which is what he first said to me, by the way:
“So, that’s a little freaky.”
“What is?” I said, pretending like I didn’t know what he was talking about, but then admitting I did. Ha ha.
So then I explained how I’m the Prop Manager for the MOH theatre department and made these props for the shows this past semester. And that, of course, these aren’t all the props I made. These were just the most significant and/or the easiest to bring home.
“You did a lot of shows in one semester,” he said.
I really did!
I found out more about Bala. (He’s in the men’s room right now.) He’s been coming here – to Newark airport – as long as he’s been at McCarter. Almost three years. I figured we must have been here at the same time at least a couple years, right?
His parents are divorced and he hates them both, particularly his dad, who he spends Christmas with. But they don’t get along at all. He said he spends so much time at the airport that he actually knows a lot of the people who work here on a first name basis. He knows Jesus, the guy at the Chock Full ‘O Nuts kiosk. (Bala drinks a lot of coffee.) He knows Millie at the Hudson Newsstand, and Paula the heavy Polish woman at Sbarro’s. He doesn’t like their food, but he likes Paula a lot. In fact, he actually prefers the airport to spending time with either of his parents.
He seems to have a lot of money. And, from what I can tell, his life kind of sucks. His father – who’s a partner at a law firm in Boston – left Bala’s mom for another woman. And now they already have an entirely new family together. Bala’s dad had kids with this woman before he and Bala’s mom even broke up. After that Bala got into so much trouble with drugs and stealing that his dad sent him to McCarter just to get him the hell away from the new family. Isn’t that sad? You’d think he’d be more traumatized by all of that. But he seems pretty normal. (This, of course, coming from a girl who carts around a reversible baby pig and a talking plant.)
Oh. I freaked him out, by the way. I saw some woman throw out a perfectly good airplane sleep pillow. The big fluffy U-shaped kind that wraps around your neck that you can buy at the newsstand. I’ve always wanted one. Not just for the pillow, but because it’s just so weirdly shaped and has so much personality, and it’s gotta have like a million uses onstage. It could be like a tribble hotel, or a plush boomerang, or just a weird thing sitting on a dinner table. Pulling it out of the garbage almost made Bala throw up. But it was only in there a second and nothing touched it. I mean I’m not that gross. Oh! AND! The woman also threw out a sleep mask! I’ve always wanted a sleep mask! You can do anything with that and it packs easily.
And Bala said, “If you want them so badly, why don’t you just buy them?”
And I said, “Of course I could buy them, but the hunt is everything. Finding these two things at once is a total jackpot!”
And he said, “What about diseases?”
And I said, “I’ve had enough experience haunting thrift stores to know when something’s unhealthy. And these are a-okay.”
And then he asked me who Buster is.
And I explained that Buster is my constant companion, my soulmate, and also a beautiful, stuffed, potted frond plant. He’s my oldest and most favorite prop, and the first real one I ever created. Buster’s been in every show I ever worked on. (He fades perfectly into the background.) We travel everywhere together. He’s very lucky. And yes, sometimes I talk to him. What’s it to ya?
“So, it’s a security blanket?” he said.
“No,” I said, “he’s a close, non-judgmental piece of art, who knows me, intimately. And – since you didn’t ask – he’s named after Buster Keaton.”
Bala didn’t know who that was.
So, anyway, when Bala returns from the men’s room, he said he’s going to teach me how to play mancala. I already know how to play mancala. But I think it’s cute that he wants to teach me, so I’m going to pretend I don’t know how to play.
I think this is turning out to be much more of a fun airport story that I had expected it was going to be. Even if Bala is a bit snooty.
The planes here suck!
So, my flight got rescheduled to midnight. And Bala’s flight got completely canceled.
We played like nine games of mancala – I beat him every time – and then he said why don’t we go to the food court? So, we did – and everyone really does know him. The steak and fries guy, the Chinese food guy, that Sbarro’s woman. They all knew his name and talked to him. It’s surreal. They’re giving him free food and the steak guy gave us free chef’s hats. And we’re still surrounded by all the thousands of students in jeans and pajamas, cause all of their flights are delayed too. We pass the Mystery Date girls and they see us with our chef’s hats on, and they’re so jealous.
I got jerk chicken from the jerk chicken place which was pretty good. I thought it’d have bugs crawling around it – at Newark you expect bugs to be crawling on everything – but it was actually pretty good.
And then they called Bala’s plane. So, we said goodbye and he left and I was sad. He was actually kind of growing on me, y’know. So, I went back to my abandoned gate and started re-reading Nurse on Terror Island.
But then, ten minutes later, Bala was back.
“They canceled my flight,” he said. “They haven’t got another flight until two in the morning.”
“That sucks,” I said.
But I hate to admit that I was actually kind of thrilled. More mancala!
I’m in the Delta Crown Room!
I made a joke about sneaking into the Crown room and Bala said,
“I have a membership. We can go in any time. Want to go in?”
He said he finds the Crown Room too snobby and quiet, and prefers the main terminal crowd. But I am lovin’ the Crown Room. It’s a big lounge with attractive people and friendly waiters who treat you like royalty. And – and! – Cher is in here! Cher! (No Sonny, tho.) (Or Greg Allman, for that matter.) She looks great! I thought she was talking to Eli Wallach for a moment – but I think it was just some other short, angry man. But hey! Cher and I are in the same room together! I’m getting the same service as Cher!
I’m suppressing a major major urge to show Cher my props. Cher would love my props – especially Bondage Paddington Bear or my reversible baby pig. But I don’t want to create a scene. Dammit. Next time.
Bala told me he’s never been to India, even though he has family in Bombay. (But his dad goes frequently for work.) Essentially, he’s completely Americanized and has only the slightest Indian accent. And I realize I know nothing about India or Hindu culture. Nothing. And I feel so stupid. But he doesn’t care. Just another stupid American.
I should get ready for my flight.
My flight was delayed until 6:30 am tomorrow morning!
So, I left the Crown Room to find a payphone to call my parents to tell them.
6:30?! What are you doing?! You can’t stay there!
“I’m fine. I’m fine. It’s perfectly safe. There’s a million kids here who’s flights are all delayed. In fact, I just met this one kid who –”
Why are you even talking to anyone?! Stay away from him! Airport kidnappings happen every day! White slavery!
“No one,” I said, “wants to make me a white slave. Trust me.”
But now they’ve got me all creeped out again. I’m not a kid. I’m fifteen. Assholes.
I thought I just heard them call Bala’s name over the PA system.
I got back from the payphone, but Bala wasn’t in the Crown Room, so they wouldn’t let me back in. At first, they acted like I imagined the whole thing – no, he doesn’t exist. He never existed. But then they double checked and yes, yes, he was here. And they brought my prop bag back to me. Thank God. And Buster and everything else was still inside. And I asked if they knew where Bala went? Was he the one that they called on the intercom? They didn’t know. They weren’t paying attention. And I realized I don’t even know what airline he’s on. People Express or Delta or God knows what. Something going to Boston, I guess. So, now I’m…kind of freaking out.
So, Bala was taken to a Delta security office!
Millie, the woman at the Hudson’s newsstand, said she saw a Delta attendant escorting him through an “employees only” door to what was likely a security office.
And then she told me something that freaked me out more. She said she’s pretty sure that Bala has been at the airport for a couple days now. She said she’s definitely seen him here since Wednesday morning – because she’d left early on Wednesday when she got a call that her kid was sick – and Bala had been in there talking to her when the school called – and that was definitely Wednesday. Two days ago.
So, then I ran over to Sbarro’s and the woman there said,
“Yeah, Wednesday seems right.”
And Jesus at Chock Full ‘O Nuts corroborated their story.
“At least Wednesday,” he said.
“But,” I said, “I just saw his flight get cancelled. I mean – that’s what he told me.”
“Well,” said Jesus, “Maybe he had a lot of flights cancelled.”
I knocked on the door to Delta security but they wouldn’t let me in.
But I could see Bala there in the back of the office.
I can’t decide if I should help him or not. I mean – he lied to me. I should just let him rot.
Son of a bitch!
I broke Bala out of the Delta security office.
We are now basically the Bonnie & Clyde of Newark Airport – if Bonnie was a pudgy 15 year old girl with a bag of weird props and Clyde was a 14 year old Indian boy with a mancala board and a huge afro – and neither of them had guns. Jesus at Chock Full ‘O Nuts was instrumental in my Escape Plan. (And could have easily lost his job!) He brought a tray of hot coffee to the Delta security office and when the guy opened the door, Jesus “accidentally” spilled coffee all over him. C’mon! How Charlie’s Angels is that?! The attendant was furious and drenched. And when he ran out to the men’s room to clean up – I snuck in and freed Bala! Then we ran down the airport midway to hide. After a couple minutes, they were calling his name over the PA system again – but then I got another great idea.
We went over to the remaining sea of Deadheady students (more like a small lake, now) still camped out in the People Express area and literally lied on the ground right next to them. Bala took off his academy blazer and put on my Coat of Many Colors. And I put the tie-dyed, plush mini Santa Claus over us. And we were totally camouflaged!
So yes, sure, I had gotten Bala out of security, but I was still pretty incredibly pissed at him. And then he got real quiet. Which – y’know what? – is fine, because I have had it. I want nothing more to do with him. I helped him escape. And that’s it.
We are done.
So, it was a long, long night. Here’s what happened next.
So, I sulked for a super long time, but by 1 am, I couldn’t contain myself anymore.
“Have you really been here since Wednesday?”
“Yes,” he admitted. “Early Wednesday morning.”
“So, when you said your flight was cancelled –”
“I lied. I skipped my flight.”
“I – don’t know.”
“How many flights have you skipped since Wednesday?”
“Uh – eight? Ten?”
“You made me think that that was the only flight you skipped!”
“Why did you skip eight to ten flights?!”
“Because – I told you – I prefer the airport to going home.”
“I’m aware of that. Nevertheless –”
“You can’t stay here forever!”
“No, but you’d be surprised how long I’m capable of dragging out the inevitable. I have tremendous staying power. McCarter’s been very good for that. Discipline.”
“You dislike your father that much?”
“Dislike is a weak word.”
“Why don’t you talk to him about it?”
“I do. Of course. Nothing changes.”
“He’s going to be unbelievably pissed at you.”
“Yes. That’s why the longer I’m here – the less time with him.”
And a wave of anger washed over me.
“I know families suck! Mine suck, too! But they’re supposed to suck and you just deal with it!”
“I trusted you.”
“I liked you.”
“I know. I like you, too.”
Wait. Whoa. What?
“I’m sorry I got you all caught up in my bullshit. I thought you looked like someone I could – I don’t know – talk to. You seemed – interesting.”
“Yes. In a weird way. With all your junk.”
And then, at that moment, Delta security guards with dogs – dogs! – came by. So, we put our heads down. And one of the dogs barked at a college student near us, who grabbed his bag and ran off down the midway. And the security dogs and guards chased after him.
And we looked at each other, tired and exhausted.
And we laid there for a few minutes.
And we tried to play mancala.
And fell asleep.
“Hey! Hey! Both of you! Come on! Rise and shine! Let’s go!”
was the voice I woke up to at 5:30 am.
It was Bala’s father – a gangly, older man with white hair and a very similar face to Bala’s – but with anger lines etched into his forehead. He hauled Bala to his feet, forcefully.
Bala, groggy and disoriented, put up little resistance.
“Hey!” I said, angrily. “Stop it!”
His father ignored me, so I yelled louder. “Stop it!”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “Who the hell are you?”
“It doesn’t matter who I am,” I said. “He doesn’t deserve to be treated like that.”
“Doesn’t deserve?” stammered the man, fuming. “Do you have any idea what I had to do to get here?! What I have to do now just to get him home?! You have no idea!”
“Well,” I said, “if you weren’t such an a-hole maybe he’d have gotten on that first plane Wednesday morning!”
He glared at me, furiously, then glared at Bala, and wrenched him up by the arm.
Surprisingly, Bala resisted.
“Stop,” said Bala.
“People are waiting!” shrieked his father. “Do you know how fucked up this is!?”
“And who’s fault is that?” yelled Bala back at him.
I think Bala might have never yelled at his father before that moment. And now all of the student campers were awake and tired and grumpy. Who the hell was doing all this screaming? And they surrounded us. And Bala’s father looked at them and me and Bala.
And Bala’s father took a breath, and looked Bala in the eye.
“I know it’s screwed up,” he said, helplessly. “And I know it’s my fault. But – I – am – trying. I am truly trying to make this right. Maybe you can’t see that. But it’s the truth.”
And he put a gentle hand on Bala’s shoulder, and spoke – what seemed to be – sincerely.
“I need your help, Bala,” he said, “to try to make this year just a little less screwed up. Okay? Could you please try to do that for me? For once? For Christmas?”
And Bala looked at me.
And I nodded.
And he looked at his father again.
“I can try to do that,” he said.
“Good,” said his father.
“But another thing,” said Bala.
His father took a deep, worried breath.
“This is Vera,” said Bala, introducing me.
I grinned, stupidly. Bala’s father glared at me.
“Vera’s been here all night. And she may be in trouble now with Delta because of me.”
“Fine,” said Bala’s father, annoyed. “Fine. Fine. Fine.”
And so, that’s why I’m now travelling on Delta first class back to Milwaukee!
Bala’s father, out of guilt – and also probably in an attempt to make peace with his son – upgraded my flight. And that’s a-okay with me. I think it’s the first time I’ve flown first class, actually. Almost as nice as the Crown Room! (Although no Cher.) I do feel a little bourgeois – like maybe I should be in the back with the losers and the proletariat. But hey! I earned this! Right?
So, I am considerably prop lighter now, by the way. I still had half an hour before takeoff and decided to see who was still on shift in the food court. I gave my Coat of Many Colors to a very excited Jesus. Paula was happy to get the reversible pig baby. And Millie was thrilled to get the pith helmet for her son. Bala requested the tie-dyed Santa. And I considered giving his father Bondage Paddington Bear – but I imagine that that would be a one-way trip to the circular toy box.
I’ve discovered that the neck pillow, by the way, makes an incredibly great – wait for it – neck pillow! (Although, it does smell a little garbagey.) And Buster is squeezed in right alongside me, here. Don’t worry. He’s not going anywhere.
So, that was my holiday airport adventure. Not what I planned when I started out. But hey, you go where life takes you. I think the best part is what Bala whispered to me as I left the gate:
“See you, next year.”
And that’s a-okay with me.
Alex Bernstein‘s last story for us was “The Rottweiler.”
We reviewed his book Miserable Adventure Stories here.