essay

A man, a van, a rolling drama unplanned

I’m not sure what lesson to draw from a near-nightmare travel experience not long ago on the way into Washington D.C. But you know when someone says, in a tender act of inspiration, that it’s not the journey but the destination, don’t always believe them. This one was all about a most harrowing journey.

I flew into the Baltimore airport and, having sifted the options for getting into Washington, I booked a shuttle van that, with the likelihood of multiple stops, would eventually take me directly to my hotel.

The first hiccup was a mere Hadley Hemingway moment. When my van number was called, I was all the way to the door before I realized I’d left my backpack behind -- the backpack with my laptop, my life’s work, inside. Not unlike the tragic day in 1922 when Ernest Hemingway’s wife lost a valise with all his early manuscripts in a Paris train station. That legendary crisis, of course, was going through my head as I ran back to the bench where I’d been waiting. OK, the pack was still there. Onward.

The van had three other passengers and two stops. The driver turned out to be somewhat tentative, though often insistent when adjacent to more aggressive types. I ended up navigating when he missed one exit and nearly missed two others. And by my count, in something more than an hour’s journey, our van encountered four near sideswipes and maneuvered into two near T-bones.

But the real drama came from the seat behind me. An older man was expressing some discomfort and by the time the van made its first stop, somewhere in exurban Maryland, it seemed he was undergoing something like a medical emergency or psychotic episode. He let out a scream, he said he was going to kill himself, he tried to escape out the back door of the van as the first passenger was getting out the side door. The driver pushed him back inside. I asked the man’s wife whether her husband should go to a hospital or whether we should call an ambulance. She said he’d be OK once he got to their daughter’s place in Virginia. I asked whether the daughter could meet the van somewhere, but, no, she was working.

 I tried two or three times to determine from the driver how long it would take to get to their stop. He was a little rattled but finally consulted the GPS and came up with 20 minutes. I relayed the news to the ailing man. His wife had given him a nitroglycerine pill, and he began to calm down. Not for long. We were in the midst of bumper-to-bumper highway traffic when he stirred again, making a gesture toward the side door handle, which was locked and unable to be opened from the inside. I wondered how an ambulance or a police car could ever find us in the stream of slow-moving traffic. I told the man gently to chill out and assured him we’d be getting to their destination soon. He sat back.

At one point the man muttered something to his wife about killing two guys and how it wasn’t worth it because he didn’t know them. I was pretty sure he was talking about the driver and me. I tried to remember the name of that hi-jacked bus movie with what’s-her-name. And I felt at times as if we’d been deposited in a cosmic episode of Law & Order. If only Mariska Hargitay or Ice-T were on hand to save the day.

After recovering from one of those missed exits, the van finally arrived at the narrow, tree-lined street in Arlington, where the couple’s daughter lived. As they departed the woman turned to me and mouthed a thank you. After the man alighted, with help from the driver, he turned, looked at me and stuck out his arm for a firm handshake. “Take care” was all I could muster.

As the driver sat back down I gave him a tap on the shoulder. “We made it,” I said. He thanked me, said we couldn’t have survived without my help. “It’s tough getting old,” the driver said. I couldn’t agree more, though I realized the man might not have been much older than me. There but for fortune. Next stop: my destination, a D.C. hotel.

From the Archives: Checking Out of Reality TV and Into a Folk Alliance Weekend

The Folk Alliance International conference is coming up again in Kansas City. For four glorious days in February I plan to immerse myself in a mind-blowing kaleidoscope of musical experiences. This will be the fifth and last (for now) KC conference, and I can hardly wait. I was poking around in search for something this morning when I came across the following, a quasi-political column that I wrote on the verge of Folk Alliance in 2016 and as that horrendous presidential campaign year was unfolding. I don't think I knew at the time that I'd be retiring just a month or so later. This column first appeared at kansascity.com and The Kansas City Star on Feb. 19-20, 2016. Sorry if it takes you back to a scary place.

"Steve Paul: To quote a sage, this land is your land"

By the time you read this I expect to be in the midst of a lost weekend. Yes, I suffer from an uncontrollable addiction — to music — a condition that has been exacerbated by the annual influx of song slingers and guitar players who gather at the Crown Center hotels in Kansas City for the Folk Alliance International conference.

I’ll spare you some of the high points of lyrical heartbreak, dextrous finger-picking and free-form, nocturnal goings-on of the “folk tribe” to which I pay tribute.

But I will thank the organizers for providing a timely and immersive break from that other tribal ritual consuming so much air space these days. Most of the music-making has taken place out of range of any 24/7 news coverage of the presidential campaign, and I’m happy even to give up glancing at my Twitter feed for at least an hour or two at a time.

That’s not to say this presidential campaign has unfolded without a certain entertainment value. But, Donald Trump in a pissing match with the pope? Who could have seen that coming?

Speaking of torture, the results from two more contests will be flowing into our screens this weekend. It has been difficult to sense any shift from recent trends in momentum, which has the leading candidates of both parties locked in unexpectedly close and death-to-the-finish battles.

If we’re lucky, the Republicans could lose a candidate or two after this weekend’s results. (When exactly will Ben Carson get the message that, aside from not having a clue, he doesn’t have a chance?)

As the GOP field narrows, it won’t be quite so easy for Trump to dominate in the race for committed convention delegates. With fewer candidates in the mix, runners up will have a better chance to reach voting thresholds (often 15 or 20 percent) that will allow them to land apportioned delegates.

So the acid-drenched battle, primarily between Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, for second and even third place will mean more as the race churns through the Super Tuesday contests (March 1), Michigan (March 8) and a group of meaningful primaries in the middle of March.

Among the Democrats, it’s fair to ask the Hillary Clinton camp exactly when and where did they miss the signal that Bernie Sanders was riding forth on an express train.

Did anyone expect that Nevada, with its large Latino and union factions, would wind up neck and neck? It’s quite reasonable to suggest that Sanders’ message of income inequality resonates in a place that is so much defined by the haves and have nots and so largely populated by those who toil to serve the wealthy.

Clinton’s baggage remains heavy, though a majority of Democrats still view her as the party’s best chance to defeat whichever contorted Republican survives his party’s offensive demolition derby because, of course, no candidate is ever perfect and no politician is ever an angel.

Sanders’ appeal to the idealism and rebellion of youth (and many of their feel-the-Bern elders) will be a strong storyline when the history of this presidential campaign is written. So will the utterly surreal and weirdly American story of Trump, no matter what happens in the coming months.

I’m looking forward to dropping out for a couple of days. It might feel something like having a real life, not a constant loop of polling updates, attack ads, verbal inanities and solemn dissection of all of the above. I’ll miss the Sunday morning shows. I’ll take the news in small doses.

Maybe I will think a bit about Nevada this weekend, given that I’ll be holed up inside a hotel where time will stand still and machinations of the outside world will hardly penetrate. Just like Vegas, that is. But for this weekend at least I’m hanging my hat with the music makers. And if there’s any justice in this world, they are the ones who will inherit the earth.