We were sitting in the B terminal at LaGuardia International Airport waiting what we hoped would be our first successful attempt this week at flying to Memphis in time for the IBC. A man I will call "The Professor" was sitting, relaxed, in the row of stiff seats of the gate waiting area. I do not want to reveal too much about this man. He could be easily identified and I do not want that. He scares me.
But at that moment, the reverse was true. He seemed genuine and pleasant.
He gestured toward me. Smiling broadly, he told me he liked my style. I knew what he was referring to. I recognized him from the previous day's second attempt to fly to Memphis from Philadelphia. After spending 3 hours or so sitting on the plane waiting to get the "equipment" (that's airline talk for the jet) de-iced, our flight had been re-routed from the de-icing station back to the terminal because American Airlines had failed to put enough fuel in the jet to get us both to the de-icing station and to Memphis in one trip. You might think they would have thought of that. Did they hire all new management with no experience flying in the winter? Perhaps they had the team from Florida coordinating the prep and fueling on the plane.
After being instructed to remove all items from the jet and return to the gate and wait some more, I decided to break the monotony by playing some blues. I wrote, right there on the spot, " Sitting on the Tarmac Blues", much to the delight of passengers and AA gate staff. Then John got out his harps and we played some. One of the folks enjoying the show and taking pictures was the Professor.
He too had been stranded and had now flown from Philadelphia to New York in order to get to Memphis. I still can't say that without laughing. We got to talking a bit. He looked like a professor. Glasses hung on the bridge of a wide nose that rose out of a gruff of gray beard like a rock from the canopy of a winter forest. He had a sport coat, or it may have been a cardigan sweater... I can't say for sure as I was not taking notes at the time. He was just disheveled enough to make him the perfect slightly eccentric professor. He seemed pleasant and loved the blues. In other words, seemed like my kind of people.
After sharing pleasantries, I went about making phone calls to try and find a ride from the Memphis airport, if we ever got there, to our hotel at Front and Beale. As I hung up the phone and was about to dial another number the professor piped in. "I have a car and I'm from Memphis. Do you need a ride down town?"
I did, of course, as he had clearly over heard.
"That would be great if you can, but I don't want to take you out of your way." Then I added for clarity, that we were staying at the Hyatt Beale Street. I wondered if he was going that way.
He told us it wouldn't be a problem at all. Memphis is not all that big. We learned that he grew up there and lives there part time and New York part time. He didn't know the hotel specifically, but was confident he could get us there. Memphis was his home town.
The flight actually did make it to Memphis! We were late for the IBC, but not too late yet. Registration was 12- 4 with an orientation at 2 o'clock. We had already missed orientation having arrived at the airport at about 2:40PM. But if we drove directly to the hotel we might make it in time to register by 4.
As we disembarked in Memphis, the professor found us and told us he would meet us at "Dullughcah".
I didn't understand him. Lots of airport noise, you know. "Dullagh" - he repeated and seemed a little irritated at having to do so.
I tilted my head and tried to do one of the post-uttered-audio-input-analysis things where you try to repeat the sounds you think you heard over and over in your head until it makes sense.
It wasn't working
He repeated it again, loudly and added the word "rental".
Oh! Dollar car rental! I got it!
I told him we had to go pick up our luggage and my other guitar and we'd meet him there - and then asked him if he was sure he wanted to wait. I did not know how long baggage claim would take.
As it turned out it didn't take long to find out that American Airlines had, apparently sometime after promising me upon my specific request that our bags be on the same Philly to LaGuardia to Memphis flight, sent them instead to Charlotte. A nice city I am sure and that is where they still were.
We met the professor at Dollar rental and I piled my guitars into the trunk of the rental Honda. The professor inspected the car carefully, and I don't blame him. I sat in the back and John in the front passenger seat. Inspection complete, the Professor got behind the wheel and told us about growing up in Memphis and how great it is to comeback.
I first suspected that getting into this vehicle with him may have been a bad choice when he turned left out of the row of rental vehicles and proceeded to try to exit via the one-way garage entrance.
Ha ha! John and I laughed together. Wrong way! I've done that. Ha ha. It wasn't that he had made a wrong turn so much, because yes, it's easy to do in those garages... but when he started to curse at the incoming cars, I began wonder.
I let my unease be fleeting. I allowed that anyone can make a mistake and the incoming cars might have been... less insistent and allowed him to make a u-turn more easily.
I asked him if he knew where the hotel was and told him 33 Beale Street. He admitted he didn't but said Beale Street isn't that big and if it's downtown he'd find it easily enough. I told him it was right behind the landmark Orpheum Theater. Oddly, that did not seem to click with him either.
I turned on Siri GPS just so I could keep an eye on things. "I can find it", I told him, "on the GPS."
He did not want to hear that. "Turn that thing off!" His request snap-whipped out of his mouth. It was a demand. It was not conversational. "I don't need it". So I turned the volume down. But I kept the screen going. I was getting an increasing bad feeling about this guy.
We left the airport and the Professor repeated that he grew up here and had been driving in Memphis all his life. He was obviously proud of it. He was glad to be able to do us this favor he insisted. I noticed that he had deviated from what Siri was indicating as the route, but natives often know better routes to take than GPS. I know I often ignore Siri when I am driving, because she doesn't have a clue much of the time.
The Professor stopped. He made a U-turn. As we continued Siri re-routed. We seemed to be back on the right track again until the Professor suddenly looked to his left then to his right, and then looked all around. He seemed confused. The car slowed down.
"Shit, what have they done to these roads?" He accused no one in particular. "I don't want to be here!" There was a disjointed edge of temper in his voice that seemed out of place. "We need to be here!" The car lurched to the left, down a little hill of the snow laden medial strip and catacorner across the two lanes of cement highway meant for cars traveling the opposite direction.
"This is where we're supposed to be!" he said triumphantly as he made his way across some snow and gravel and onto the on-ramp for Rte. 55 North.
"OH shit" I said. Reaching forward from the back seat, I put my hand on John's shoulder.
I sat back in the seat and drew a long, carefully controlled breath. What to do? Were we on a highway in a rental car driven by an unstable man who might not have taken his medication this morning? My sphincter tightened.
I consoled myself. 55 north was at least the right direction. But the GPS was having none of it. There was construction.
Soon enough we were on a looping cloverleaf leading us to a highway that was clearly going west. The highway led to a bridge over the mighty Mississippi River. The Professor uttered an under his breath “what the fuck?”
Now I was getting worried. "Um", I said gently, "We're on a bridge going over the Mississippi River?" It was a question....
John pointed out the irony of my question. "Yes, it's a bridge over the Mississippi."
The Professor exploded. "I know where I am!" The pitch of anger in his voice was alarming and inappropriate. “I don't need you to sit back there and tell me I'm on a bridge! I know where I am going! I grew up here! We're going to Arkansas!”
Although there was not a banjo or canoe in sight, in the back of my mind, stinging like a splinter up my ass, was the phrase "Sure has pretty lips". My sphincter tightened a little more.
We had to get out of this somehow. We were in trouble. John was quiet.
I looked at my GPS. In 2.5 miles, take exit 4, make a right and another right onto Martin Luther King road, cross a different bridge back over the river, and then, basically, we're right where we need to be, just a few blocks from the hotel! It'll all work out, I thought.
Kind of like a person who has just spilled coffee over a priceless manuscript and is mopping it up with a soggy paper towel and saying "I just have to get this cleaned up" - the professor was saying: "I just got to figure out how to get us back."
I offered that the GPS said to take exit four up here on the right and then you just come back and you're pretty much at our hotel, but before I could finish the professor cut me off.
"Shut the fuck up!" he raised his voice.
"Suddenly YOU know more than me?" He boiled. "I know how to get you to your hotel! YOU shut up and let me drive! That other bridge is ten miles from here!" And with that he took a left hand exit , made a u turn, got on a service road , then an on-ramp and started back toward Tennessee on the same bridge we had crossed.
It was 3:20. We really had to get to our hotel. We were going to miss registration. I had a bad, bad feeling.
So, there we are on this bridge heading back to Tennessee. The GPS was saying to make a U turn and go back to Exit 4 in Arkansas and take the OTHER bridge. It had a reason and that reason was the construction that we got into on Rte. 55 North, that lead us to this very bridge. The one place I knew we didn't want to go was Rte. 55 North.
We crossed back into Tennessee, the Professor getting the little Honda up to a very angry 80 Miles per hour. The GPS was still saying to go back over the bridge and take EXIT 4.
Instead, the Professor takes a left off the highway and starts heading north. North is the correct direction. My GPS is telling us to make a u turn.
We get to a point and the Professor utters yet another "what the fuck "and makes a U turn.
I look at the GPS. It has re-routed. I say as encouragingly as I can, "Yes, this is the way the GPS says too. Great! If you come up there to the next light and please take a left we'll be...."
"WHAT THE FUCK! " Screams the professor. He is livid. "What the fuck is this fucking "please" shit? What kind of condescending asshole are you? The please word? I am doing you a fucking favor giving you a ride and you're saying 'please" ?"
He apparently found the word “please” repugnant. It triggered a truly frightening rage.
He couldn't let it go. "PLEASE? " he continued to spew, "Using the please word! I can't fucking believe you! You want to get out of the car now? Mother fucker? "
This was the point where my priorities changed. My sphincter was so far up my ass it was touching my tonsils.
He came to the road where the GPS said turn left but instead he headed toward the ramp back onto the 55 North.
I had to say it: "No! No! Please don't take this ramp!" I say it firmly but very calmly so as not to ignite another explosion. "It'll take you to 55 north and that's where we went before!"
The professor, erupts. He seems unable to grasp that I am being polite while in the throes of desperation. " I know it's 55 north!" he screams at me. "That's what we want! I'm driving not you! And you doing the please thing again? Mother fucker! Where do you get off?"
I interrupt him and calmly say "Sir, I appreciate the ride but this is the wrong way. Please is a polite word and I am saying" please don't go this way!"
"I'll stop this car right now and you can get out the fuck out! Right now, you fucker! You want me to stop the car now and put you out?"
The following rushes through my head as he once again takes the ramp onto Rte. 55 North:
Eventually the car will stop. It will have to.
If this guy is a psycho and it sure seemed like it - is there a chance he might get violent? I had to think about it. If he did, I know he doesn't have a gun or knife because all he had on the plane was carry on and it's a rental car. He's the same age as John. He's in better shape than John, for sure. But if he actually tried to get violent I could definitely handle him. I think about my 8 years of karate training. It's been a while. Decades since I practiced. But I could still take a 70 year man. (I am not bragging here.) This was a thought of necessity. It was odd , indeed, to need to contemplate the scenario where I would have to fight another human. Let alone a 70 year old.
All of that went through my head as we got back on 55 North.
"Listen" I say. "I'm sorry. But we're going to go back over the same bridge again and we really need to get to our hotel before it's too late."
"Shut the fuck up! One more fucking word and I will put you out! You ungrateful fucker"
I sit silent, biding time. Soon enough we are, as I told him we would be, going back over the same fucking bridge to Arkansas.
I wait to see what he is going to do. Patience.
"Fuck" He says. He is so irritated that the veins in his ears are throbbing.
Alright what's your GPS say? he hisses. He has given up trying to prove that he knows his way around Memphis. I let myself feel a little relief. But he is seethes.
Gently, ever so carefully, I suggest that he just go up to exit 4. Two and a half miles is all. Just a couple of minutes, no big deal. Turn right and then right again onto Martin Luther King.
"That's 10 miles away!" he counters. He can't let his anger go but he now recognizes that he doesn't know how get us to our hotel.
I don't say anything. I look at the GPS, it isn't miles away. In fact, it looks like less than a mile. If we had done this 20 minutes ago we'd have been at the hotel and down Beale street and all registered by now.
He starts toward exit three.
"No." I say. calmly. "It's exit four. It's easy really." I try to sound assuring but not bossy. Soothing but not patronizing. It's a fine line when you're dealing with an irrational human. "It will take us right to the door of our hotel. It'll be great." I try to offer the hope to him that his pain will end soon because this route will get us to our hotel quickly and then we will no longer be the burden that keeps saying the word "Please". I avoid that word. I learned a long time ago to recognize the transitory trigger words of an unstable alcoholic. My dad once beat me for picking up my glass of water with my left hand not my right. One needs to anticipate these things and avoid them.
He abandons exit three and continues to Exit four. I take a breath of relief. He seems calmer.
"This is it" I say. "Turn right and then right on Martin Luther King." He bristles, but says nothing.
We start over a bridge back to Memphis. It seems like he has calmed down realizing that perhaps we are nearing the end of the escapade.
"Once we cross," I offer, "the first exit, exit 1, takes us to Front and then it's four or five blocks to Front and Beale where the hotel is.
But he is not calm.
"How many fucking time I got to tell you? " he yells. "I know where I am going! I know what exit it is. I don't need you telling me where to go or how to drive!" He says that as if it should be obvious to me by now.
I am uncertain he will take the exit. He does, but exit one offers two options to the right. He is uncertain which to take.
"Take this one to the immediate right" I say as the car seems to waiver between the two options. He does. And I pray I am correct because it is really not clear. I'm not from Memphis.
But we end up on front street heading south and I am beginning to feel relieved. This is where we need to be!
I had images of having to explain to police after him taking off with John and my guitars in the car. How do you explain that you got into a car with a complete stranger you met at an airport and that person turned out to be a psychopath, without feeling really, really stupid? Didn't I learn in grade school not to get into cars with strangers?
"Where's your Hotel?" he asks as we head south on Front. He sounds almost like a normal person, asking a normal question. Again, I mistake his now calmer tone for calm.
"Looks like it's three blocks up just keep going straight."
"What the fuck!" he says, suddenly angry again. "Jesus you are just some back seat driver, aren't you! You can't fucking help yourself!"
"Here we are!" I say "Just pull up here. Thanks!"
I have no idea if he will pull up or not. But he does. I get out of the car and dash around the back to try to open the trunk and retrieve my guitars as John struggles to get out of the passenger seat. I figure The Professor won't screech away as long as John has the door open and is still trying to exit. Luckily the trunk opens! I quickly grab my guitars. I've never seen John exit a car so fluidly!
John and I thank the Professor profusely for the ride. We wish him safe travels and hope with all fervency that we never see him again.
What a culmination to a two day nightmare of travel.
I am glad we made it. It adds one more surreal element to our week of misadventures in Memphis. We may not have won anything or had much opportunity to make important connections at the IBC. We may or may not have advanced our music careers or secured festival gigs. But we have a hell of a story. Don't we?
I have no animosity toward the professor. Whatever his mental health issues are, his motive to do us a favor and get us to the hotel turned out to be genuine. As frightening as the ride was, he did get us there.