The Great Mandel

A couple of years ago, I made a trip to Washington D.C. with some of my fellow elected officials regarding the high flood insurance premiums that were about to wreak havoc on our local economy. Our legislators didn’t seem to understand the ramifications of their actions… but that’s not what this story is about. It’s about our journey home.

Two days into the trip, a blizzard was bearing down on us and flights out of Washington began to cancel. Several of our colleagues were able to leave early but Commissioner Kiker (Larry), Mayor Mandel (Alan), and I were not able to escape early, so we decided that we would meet at 8am the next day and go to the airport together.

At 4am the next morning I woke up and looked outside. The usually busy street had disappeared, the cars parked there buried under several feet of snow and more was still coming down. Being a native Floridian I’d never seen anything like this and apparently neither had the people at the airport, because when I checked my email I found that they had politely informed me and thousands of other people that all flights had been canceled. For a week!

Now, the hotel we were staying at was nice, but the thought of staying there a week completely freaked me out, so I got dressed and went down to the lobby. I found Larry and Alan sitting in the cafe staring intently at their computers. I plopped down at the table. “Well, should I go to the front desk and extend our stay?” As Alan typed away at his computer, Larry said “I don’t know. The only flight I can find is out of New York City today at 4pm.” I yawned and stretched, thinking it was useless. “Well, that might as well be Los Angeles!” “Hey…” Larry said pointing over at our friend Alan, “He says he’s got it all figured out.” Alan looked up from typing. “We just take a train to New York!” Larry and I looked at each other and then started laughing. Alan took off his glasses and looked at us and with a big grin “What?” I started counting down fingers one at a time. “Here’s what! We have to get packed, check out, somehow get to the train station and then to New York City, then somehow get to JFK, and to our gate before our flight leaves!” Then I pointed at the window. “Oh! And there’s a blizzard outside heading straight towards New York too with no planes, cars or even people walking anywhere in Washington D.C.!” Alan was unfazed. “Look, Union Station is just five blocks away. We’ll just walk there, take the train to Penn Station in New York, get tickets on the Long Island Railroad to Queens, transfer to the JFK Shuttle and then take that to the airport!” He leaned back, smiled and put his hands out to his sides like he had just finished a magic trick. “Simple, but Larry has to buy the tickets for the plane and I have to buy these train tickets right now!”
Larry shrugged. “Well, I’ll try anything at this point.” I looked at them like they both had antlers growing out of their heads, then around at the hotel. (7 damn days.) I stood up. “That’s the dumbest plan I’ve ever heard in my life! Let’s do it!”

A half hour later we were trudging uphill in our suits and dress shoes, through the abandoned streets of Washington in windy, snowing, white out conditions, dragging our suitcases in calf deep snow, following Alan to where we hoped the train station was. Somehow we got there alive and then rode the near empty train through the blizzard all the way to New York’s Penn Station. Larry and I ran after Alan through the maze of tunnels and the crowds of people to the right ticket booth, to the right tunnel, to the right train, to the right stop and onto the right shuttle where he got us off at the right stop and the right gate. I was amazed! We made it with three hours to spare. But the storm was bearing down on us again, so we stood in the large crowd watching the flight information waiting for our flight to get canceled, again. All of a sudden Larry said “Hey look! There’s a flight leaving for Fort Myers in 30 minutes!” And then, he and Alan took off on a dead run. I stood there for a stunned second and then took off after them yelling. “Are you guy’s nuts? It’s not a train! They aren’t going to just let you walk onto it!

When we got to the gate they were already boarding and when Larry asked if there were seats available, the stewardess working the counter quickly shook her head no. Alan turned to us and said in a low voice. “We’ll get on. Give me a minute.” Larry and I went over to a couple of chairs about 50 feet away and watched Alan. Larry elbowed me in the ribs. “Watch the master.” I couldn’t hear him, but as Alan talked to the stewardess, he shrugged. He smiled. He laughed. He leaned forward and talked some more. And then… she smiled! Alan waved to us frantically and we followed him right onto the airplane, into our seats and back home! Magic!

I still can’t figure out how he got us home and so far, like any good magician, the Great Mandel won’t share his secret.

The Quest for Ice

When my wife told me that the Rotary International Convention was going to be in Montreal, Canada I just shrugged and said “hmppph!” I thought… (Well, I know lots of Canadians… It hardly seems like they’re from another country.) So, for the next few weeks I went about my day-to-day business, not giving the trip much thought at all while my wonderful wife made all the arrangements.

When we got off of the plane in Montreal it immediately became clear that a bit of pre-trip preparation would have been wise. “Everything’s in French!” I said staring up at the signs. Lori shook her head as she walked past me. “That’s right Mr. Obvious! What did you think it would be?” I grabbed my suitcase and began following her, mumbling quietly. “I don’t know… English?”

Soon we found ourselves in line at the customs station waiting to talk to an agent who was tucked away in a glass booth. I was busy people watching, when over the intercom I heard an impatient “NEXT!” I stepped forward dragging my bag and handed all of my paperwork through a slot to a pleasant looking young lady in a uniform. As she studied my passport I started looking around at all the other activity around me. “LOOK AT ME SIR!” The agent yelled. All of a sudden I felt like I was in elementary school, so naturally I started acting like it. I thrust my face forward and stared at the agent with wide open, bugged out, unblinking eyes. She and my wife were not amused. “Stop it!” Lori whispered through her clenched teeth. The agent looked at me, then down at my passport several times thru narrowed eyes. Then she asked, “Have you brought any gifts for the people of Canada?” That snapped me out of my bug-eyed stare and my head cocked to the side as I thought (clearly not long enough) about the odd question. “No.” I finally said and then wrinkling my nose. “Was I supposed to?” Again, neither the agent nor my wife was amused and without her eyes ever leaving me the customs officer rather firmly stamped my passport… and we were on our way.

Instead of staying at a hotel, my wife had arranged for an apartment in the downtown area so that we could better experience the city… and our inability to communicate. But despite the language barrier, we managed to find our way there. As we began unpacking and exploring we discovered that the apartment was comfortable, the area was beautiful, and the neighbors very nice. Of course… I went straight to the very modern looking refrigerator. “Hmmm… that’s weird!” I said, as I stood there with the door open. “There’s no ice machine and no ice cube trays. Oh well. Add a bag of ice to the shopping list!” Our quest for ice had begun.

Now, you would think that a city that was completely frozen for a good portion of the year would have vast storage bins of ice… everywhere. But no! Apparently, after ten months of everything being frozen, they didn’t want to see or even talk about ice. And to make matters worse, as we wandered through the city, we couldn’t tell from the outside what a store actually sold. So we wandered in and out of stores for hours, babbling to confused retailers, grunting and using sign language. When we would find a cleverly disguised grocery store, we would first wander aimlessly around the store, then ask for ice with a combination of bad French and sign language. We would blow on our hands, fake shivering until they would finally nod and send us to the sweaters or the heater department. Finally, someone directed us to a liqueur store where we found a lone, drunken, English speaking Canadian who sent us to a Shell gas station. We couldn’t believe it! Only five blocks away, and there it was! It was beautiful! It looked like… AMERICA! Guarding the front of the store in an identical glass cubical as the customs agent was a fellow who, after I handed him five loonies, gave me a little plastic bag of ice the size of an IPad.

I really liked the people of Montreal, so when I go back and they ask me if I’ve brought any gifts for the people of Canada… I will proudly show them a box full of ice cube trays.