Where to begin.
I am on a plane, the third of four coming from Naples, Italy, final destination,
El Paso. With too short a layover to justify a hotel-and many were closed-and too long a layover I slept overnight in the Rome airpot with other masked travellers.
We tuck ourselves into corners, into a deep window ledge, scarves and coats pulled over our faces, our luggage under our heads, legs and feet, strapped to our wrists so it doesn’t walk away. In the morning the police stroll though looking fresh in crisp uniforms and combat boots. ” Senora, Senora”, they say, motioning me to get up. Those of us still left waiting for flights groggily consider our surroundings, quickly accommodate and make to the restroom to brush teeth, adjust hair, change clothes. I order a cappuccino. It is not enough, more caffeine, and order an espresso. There we go, the brain hums, my legs move, I smooth out. I know what to do next, check my bag for the leg to NYC. As I wait my connecting flights in the US are getting cancelled or rerouted. Before the flight leaves Rome I must decide what to do if stranded in New York, without strong friendships there and the possibility of quarantine, my mind races for solutions.
It’s not too late to turn back, I think, feeling the soft tug of my city. I can just go home, to Naples. Flummoxed. My friend on lock down in India waiting to return to Italy, is awake, she says, “go to the US”. I wake a Colorado friend at 2:30 a.m., who soothes me, “just get here and we’ll figure it out”. Lastly I call the American consulate in DC, a female advisor tells me she would want her daughter home, not an official answer she is clear to point out, ”but I’d want my daughter home".
I do not mention I am over fifty and my mother is dead.
I throw the dice and don the first real, (and required) mask I have had since the virus pounced on Italy and board the jumbo-jet where approximately twenty other passengers are spread out hither and non. Up and away we go, America’s pearly gates beckons wide, sons, daughters, come home, come home.
From a king to a jack. John F. Kennedy Airport is a cavernous warehouse of zombies Ill prepared for the apocalypse. It is culturally forgivable when one is dismissive in another country but when it’s your own countrymen....The ladies gathered at the Information desk reluctantly offer information.
I need a place to sleep,I am not spending another night in an airport. ”Pick up one of the (unsanitized) phones (points> over there) and dial 43 for the better of the nearest hotels”.
Even masked, my face must read weary disbelief. I step in closer and say “I’ve just arrived from Italy”, they shrink back like Buffy from vampire. I’m not sure why. They were not wearing masks or gloves and displayed no social distancing in an international airport still accepting travellers from abroad as the virus is exploding in New York.
Elsewhere someone mentions the TWA hotel, design feat of Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen, only a few terminal stops away. On the verge of a nervous breakdown, over-heated and dragging a suitcase with un-cooperative wheels I promise my inner child, “ if it costs three hundred dollars a night, we are sleeping in a bed!”
Without asking for my ID or whence I came, I am assigned a room on the eighth floor of the hotel overlooking the entrance, the former 1960s terminal building restored to its original modernist details, complete with vintage cars and mannequins garbed in era-appropriate costume.
Mumbling curses I drag my luggage up a set of stairs, (god help me Eero Saarinen!) to the endless mirage of red carpet leading to the elevators. In the room and so very near hysterical, I guzzle a large bottle of Smart water that will likely cost twelve dollars, then settle into a hot shower, followed by a can of fifteen dollar IPA. Life has taught me money isn’t everything, unlike sanity and good health.
Lets face it, I had no business flying, but having run ragged my time in Italy, my financials blown, a promise of an English teaching job- to begin in October- I was living on borrowed time. And feeding a small troop of homeless men, all Eastern European, Polish, Czech, often dirty, lost teeth, raucous, they fought like children over change, beer, locations, dogs. With gnarled hands and eyes alive in battered faces when they weren’t drunk, or sprawled out over a twin mattress tucked into a corner of the Galleria Umberto, when they were.
There is Paul/Pavel from Czech, about forty, trim, speaks English, Czech, and Italian. Never able to ascertain how he had arrived in Naples, he claims he’s lived in Naples for twenty-five years, he has no one and no reason to return to in his home country. His dog Kika, a beautiful tan terrier, who according to him, cannot be trusted not to bite so she is muzzled when he leaves to take a piss or kept on a very short leash, so that I believe it has changed the tone of her bark, no longer clear, but a raspy, choking. Despite this she is healthy and well loved. It is the circumstances. I want always to intervene but have learned that is not the thing to do and drop off coffee and greetings instead.
They do not rely solely on me, perhaps it is I that rely on them, to prove I exist, that something I am doing in this life matters, someone is happy to see my face. “Carissima”, they call me,"Bella”. I am addicted too.
Andrea is Polish and claims three daughters who live in Bologna and a house in Ancona, to the east. I don’t know. I learned to shop for him at the European Mercato near Garibaldi station, a tiny store with treasures from eastern Europe. Andrea gloats over pickled beets, cabbage in a jar, smoked fish, sausages, candies, anything that might last a few days without refrigeration.
And his dogs. Little black Angel, part schnauzer, small head, fat belly. Too much human food and sedentary ways. I suspect she needs to see a vet. She rolls over for me, peddling front paws, delighted for belly rubs. And Stella, my jewel, a white and spotted black beauty with David Bowie eyes, an Australian shepherd. When she sees me she starts a series of low yelps pushing into my bent body nearly knocking me over. Her face in mine. I join her, We sing, tuning up to a small howl. It always makes Andrea laugh.