Mike Vouri: Black Ice, White Christmas and the Kindness of Strangers
- Written by Mike Vouri
I made it home for the holidays on San Juan Island after a tough week in the San Francisco Bay Area and a journey that seemed right out of the film, “Planes, Trains and Automobiles.” For awhile there, I thought the fates were surely against me as obstacles, generated by polar weather, were thrown in my path one after another.
A sheen of black ice as shown above greeted us on Seattle’s hills.
But then…well…here is my Christmas story.
Thanks to the full-throttle Arctic blast sweeping the northern hemisphere, my flight from San Francisco to Seattle, scheduled for 9:40 p.m. Thursday evening (December 22), did not depart until 11 p.m. The Airbus 320 aircraft was inbound from Seattle, and the situation was a mess owing to a cascade of cancellations and delays across the country. Temperatures had plunged into the low 20s in Seattle with ice collecting on every surface. That, combined with aircraft marooned at the gates, ensnarled a normally efficient process.
When the aircraft finally arrived, I was reminded of a clown car. It was as if the passengers were disembarking from a 747 rather than a 320. They just kept coming in clusters of two to four. But this was nothing compared to the loading process.
These days when an airliner is fully booked, the ground staff will offer a complimentary bag drop to free up the overhead bins and speed the loading process. They were seeking 30 bags for this flight, and when I counted a mere 10 individuals arriving at the podium, I knew we were in trouble. Late-night flyers especially do not want to wait at the baggage carousel in the wee wee hours, or risk their belongings being shot down a conveyor and into the ether. So instead, almost all of us streamed aboard wheeling our bags, many of them with a carry-on nearly equal size affixed to the top. In no time the queue in the aisle ground to a halt as those denied a bin were frozen in place, as if awaiting a solution that would magically unfold.
The cabin service manager looked at me and sighed. “We deal with a lot of novice travelers during the holidays.” she said.
As predicted, the bins filled up. More than 45 minutes passed as people were forced to return to the front of the plane with their bags to check them, sending them down the jet-way stairs to the ramp, where the cargo doors were re-opened, the load shifted and the tardy bags shoved in place.
My Alaska flight to San Francisco, a shuttle inbound from Seattle, because of a cascade of polar weather delays.
By that time, we had lost our push window as well as our taxi and take-off positions. Following a long crawl to the end of the runway and the interminable take-off roll of a fully loaded aircraft, the lights ringing San Francisco Bay winked below as we climbed out and set off for the great white North.
Once in the air, we enjoyed a remarkably smooth flight considering the weather. It was to be the most uneventful and seamless experience of the long night. We arrived at SeaTac in an ice storm at 1 a.m., the wind kicking up and the wings rocking. But the pilot, a tall, balding man with the weak smile I’d seen during loading, greased it in and reversed the engines. On hearing that satisfying roar, I expected that we’d taxi to the gate, experience that little nudge when the aircraft brakes to a halt and then hear the ding that precedes 180 seat belts unsnapping in unison.
No way. Instead, we pulled off the active runway and sat. And sat. A giant wide-body jet thundered in one runway over. It rained, the droplets caking, not streaming, down the cabin windows, turning the airport lights into a sparkling haze of reds, greens and blues with the occasional blinding white of aircraft taxi lamps. And still we sat.
At long last, there was a ding and the captain spoke. Evidently there were not enough gates to go around, as the tarmac was clogged with delayed and stranded airplanes. Five other recently arrived aircraft were queued ahead of us and we had to wait our turn. He apologized, then reminded us once more to keep our seat belts fastened. I checked the time on my phone. It was 1:15, which immediately triggered a yawn.
At 1:30, we finally crossed a runway and taxied in the direction of Concourse D, which took us around the cavernous N Satellite where airplanes were nosed into every gate, and then ground to a halt. Ten minutes went by, and the captain returned to the intercom. He apologized, but there were two aircraft blocking the path to our gate, D-4. We would have to wait until they cleared. Ten more minutes passed. The captain returned with an explanation. The tow bar on the tug that pushes airliners from their gates had broken. They could not detach it from a departing airplane. Fifteen minutes later, we painfully inched forward, but stopped short of our gate. The captain returned with a slight edge in his voice. Ground crew with the marshaling wands were nowhere to be found. We could not approach our gate without them.
At 2:15 a.m. the cabin bell finally dinged, signaling the end of our journey. Duration? One and a half hours inflight, an hour and 10 minutes on the tarmac. Save for the unsnapping of belts, the cabin was strangely silent. Not one moan or complaint. We were relieved that it was finally over. Or was it.?
The hatch opened and I bolted down the deserted concourse, where sleepers sprawled in the waiting areas, to the cab stand on Level 3 of the parking garage. I expected to simply step into an awaiting cab and make for my brother-in-law Joe’s house in Ballard. Perhaps I could get in at least a couple of hours sleep before we packed up and headed for Anacortes and the 9:30 ferry that would reunite me with my wife and dog and the rest of the family on San Juan.
I might add here that I had attempted to arrange for an Uber while we sat on the tarmac, but the network to that car service had crashed. I soon discovered why. While we were literally cooling our jets waiting for the errant marshaller to wave us into our gate, that wide-body, long-haul aircraft had disgorged its 300-plus passengers. Don’t understand.
When I reach the cab stand, a serpentine of at least 50 pilgrims shivering in sub-20-degree temperatures extended from the curb to around the elevator block, waiting for cabs that came in dribs and drabs. Forty-five minutes later, I reached the front of the line where a driver, recently immigrated from Ethiopia, invited me into his Toyota Prius along with couple from Yakima who had been stranded at SeaTac for a second day trying to catch a flight to Sacramento.
The journey on mixed snow and black ice was sporty. The windshield wipers chirped like nuthatches and barely made a dent as they scraped over a corrugated landscape of snow and ice. That, added to the driver’s penchant for stepping on the gas whenever his wheels spun out on the slick surfaces, caused some second guessing. Maybe I should have waited out the night in the terminal? But it was in downtown Seattle that the fun really began. Rather than exiting into town via Seneca and taking advantage of a straight shot down 6th Avenue, the driver vectored to the hilly east-side, where he soon realized his mistake. When he attempted to double back on a steep side street, the cab lost traction and tobogganed into a parked Toyota Highlander with an agonizing thud. We were stuck.
Substitute a battered Toyota Prius cab with the gray vehicle above and you have our predicament in Downtown Seattle at 4 a.m.
With the driver’s side door firmly pressed on the Highlander’s rear hatch, the cabbie had to climb over the console and exit the car by way of the passenger seat. I climbed out ahead of him, and my feet went one way and my rear end the other on a film of glistening black ice nearly an inch thick. Just as I pulled myself up, legs splayed and clinging to the side of the cab, the driver emerged and clutched my arm in a panic. We windmilled together like a pair of novice skaters, but somehow managed to remain upright. It was slapstick at its best, right out of a Pink Panther movie. It was so cold that the freezing rain crystalized on his bare curls and my stocking cap. After detaching himself from me, the driver inched around the car, shook his head and attempted to turn the right front wheel by hand. He stood then and looked at me, as if I had a solution. I crawled back into the car out of the rain and tried Uber again. Nothing doing. Meanwhile, the driver was also focused on his phone, oblivious to the jeering and laughter of the drunks who had materialized kitty-corner across the street. There was no offer of assistance.
A few minutes later, another Prius cab came along—the only vehicle on the street, I might add, at that time in the morning. The driver, a fellow Ethiopian named Yuanis, had been on the receiving end of our driver’s call and only a few blocks away. As the cab pulled to the curb, following a carefully executed U-turn in the deserted intersection, a slight young man with a coppery complexion and nose reddened by the cold emerged along with a towering and amiable young passenger. Yuanis sized up the situation and proceeded to engage his countryman in a staccato consultation, the result of which was a decision to add me and the couple to his cab.
“Hey, I don’t mind sharing,” his passenger said with a shrug. He had to be at least six-foot-six, and the enormous cross-trainers on his feet had uncanny traction compared to the rest of us.
Our hearts soared. The cabs were operated by two different companies, and we discussed payment.
“You pay him, and I will finish his fares without charge,” Yuanis said, to our astonishment.
With that we left the battered cab and its disconsolate driver behind, still standing by the passenger side door and soaking wet. It was a treacherous 50 feet between the cabs on asphalt and concrete, even with hiking boots, and my feet flew out from under me again when I reached for the door handle. As we crawled into the rear seat of the Prius, we quickly discovered it was not designed to accommodate three adults in winter clothing. Our upper arms were pressed to our sides, forearms extended in midair. And because there was no room to maneuver to fasten our seatbelts, a relentless pinging ensued from the car’s safety system once underway.
“This is a story we’ll be telling for years to come,” said the man from Yakima.
We crossed the freeway and into downtown, carefully avoiding the city’s more treacherous slopes in a quest to reach the couple’s hotel without spinning and crashing. It was unavoidable in one stretch, where, after two donuts, we came to rest against a curb just ahead of a line of cars. That was enough for the Yakima folks, especially after the front-seat passenger pointed out that they were a mere block from their hotel, though downslope. He would join them. I’m certain they rued their decision because the last I saw of them, they were inching along holding onto parked cars.
With only a single passenger left (me), Yuanis turned and proclaimed that he could not go to Ballard. I too would have to leave the cab and find some other way of getting there. I suggested that he drop me at a hotel (somewhere other than downhill). It was far too dangerous to get out and walk on the icy streets. I was ready to give up going home. Yuanis regarded me for a long moment, and then in a resolute tone said he would take me to Ballard after all…IF and only IF, he could avoid hills--a fantasy in Seattle.
After a few more circles around blocks, one spin, one wrong way down a one-way street and a swaying stop, we found our way to Aurora Avenue thanks to Google Maps. As we crossed the bridge and zig-zagged over to Fremont Street, a by-now buoyant and talkative Yuanis explained how his colleague had gone wrong.
“You must never brake on snow and ice, you allow the car to find its own way,” he said as we closed on 42nd Street and into the Ballard neighborhood. But the surface streets were perilously thick with ice, and Yuanis spun out again as we closed with a traffic circle, the center exit of which was blocked by a fire truck and ambulance, strobe lights radiating on the mirror surfaces.
As we ground to a halt, much to the alarm of the firemen standing on the corner in their yellow slickers fringed with reflective tape, Yuanis turned and shook his head with finality. This would have to be the end of our journey, he said. Any farther and he would be risking his own black ice disaster. Was the house close enough that I could hoof it there with my roller bag?
There was no way to safely navigate the ice on these hills, so I decided to call Joe to ask if he felt safe venturing out in these conditions. Turned out he was nothing short of a hero. He had to chain up, which required about an hour lying on his back on a frozen curb while fastening the clips around the rear tires. With Joe apparently on the way, Yoanis left the car to relieve himself in a hedge just off the sidewalk. The experience undoubtedly convinced him that I would not survive for long standing on the corner, and he announced he would not leave until Joe arrived.
While we waited, I learned that Yoanis had lived in the United States for 10 years, has four daughters and sends money home monthly to his relatives in Ethiopia. “Two-hundred dollars goes a long way there,” he said. I explained to him that I had been in California helping my sister tend my mother, who died at 96 two days before. When I asked him how much I owed for the ride, he said “nothing.” I had already paid his colleague, and he was doing this as a favor to him. Also, he said, he truly believed that one good turn deserved another. I had helped my mother and he was helping me, as well as his friend, and that’s what people do.
“Paying it forward?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said. “I have heard of this expression.”
We sat there for nearly an hour until the head lights of Joe’s chained-up SUV appeared in the rear-view mirror. It was 5 a.m. Yuanis pulled my bag from the trunk and extended his hand.
“Enjoy your time with your family,” he said.
I pressed all the cash I had into his hand, a pittance for his kindness.
Upon arriving at Joe’s house, we had just time enough to pack the car with Christmas gifts, wine, suitcases and have a cup of coffee before heading for the ferry. Another adventure ensued in trying to remove the by-now icebound chains on the shoulder, once we reached I-5. Joe and I struggled with frozen clips as the traffic roared past, sending up fans of ice and slush, motorists bizarrely unheedful of the hazards in their hurry to escape the storm.
But finally we reached the Anacortes terminal in plenty of time for the 9:30 crossing where we were joined by only seven other vehicles and four foot passengers! The few of us on board were rewarded by the sight of a single gray “Christmas” whale off the bow in Lopez Sound.
In retrospect, my experience pales in comparison to the folks in Buffalo, or those thousands who were stranded for days in airports across the nation. No one will be “…dreaming of a White Christmas” anytime soon. For me, it was dicey here and there, and disaster could have struck at any point. But I luckily slipped under the wire. Despite the long night, I made it home, thanks to Yuanis, Joe…and the kindness of strangers.
Happy New Year.
Postscript: On Christmas Eve I received an email from Alaska Airlines apologizing again for the extended time on the Seattle tarmac and offering a discount on any future flight within the year. Yuanis would approve!