personal 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.