My travel woes have become legendary. I get that, once in a while, everyone who travels with any degree of frequency has experienced a hiccup or two – an unexpected mechanical or weather-related delay, a carry-on bag you were certain would fit in the overhead compartment above seat 42B that wouldn’t cooperate, a three year-old in the seat behind you with titanium vocal cords capable of screaming for an entire cross country flight – even an occasional cancellation or lost piece of luggage when you could least afford it. But, I take travel issues to a whole new level and somehow manage to “elevate my game” seemingly with each new trip. A few examples should suffice to illustrate the point. I once arrived for and boarded a 5:30 a.m. flight only to learn that the overnight crew had “forgotten” to fuel the aircraft for our trip to LA! Then there was the time when, needing to make a tight connection, I and my fellow travelers on what was to be the originating flight were advised by gate agents that the jetway being used to deplane the aircraft we were to board had jammed 3 feet short of the exit door, making it impossible for those on board to get off! Or the time when, moments before we were to push back from a gate, the pilot embarrassingly announced that the caterers had mistakenly taken all the food and drinks off the aircraft and were nowhere to be found! Still not convinced that I’m the Joe Btfsplk of travel? Imagine being at a nice resort and having the desk clerk accidentally grant you early check-in privileges to a room that already was occupied! Fortunately, the 5″ stiletto heels and lingerie strewn across the room that greeted me when I opened the door immediately alerted me to the error in time to make a hasty exit before its occupant(s) got out of the shower. Suffice it to say, friends, family, and business colleagues demand to know my travel itinerary well in advance of trips so they can be certain to make alternate arrangements.
A few years ago, however, I outdid myself. I was covering a deposition at Christmas time for my partner, who had a last minute scheduling conflict. The deposition was being held at a hotel in a VERY remote part of Florida and was supposed to last the entire week. In fact, my office had reserved a room at the deposition site with a Friday checkout anticipating that schedule. But late Wednesday, the group I was with expressed certainty that we would finish a day early (i.e., on Thursday). So, in an effort to avoid a bill for an unused extra night, I checked out of the hotel early that morning only to discover several hours later that the deposition would not conclude until Friday after all, due to an unexpected shift in the witness’ health. “Well, that’s inconvenient, but no big deal,” I thought to myself, as I headed to the front desk to rebook my room only to learn that, in the intervening four hours, this hotel – located in the MIDDLE OF NOWHERE – was SOLD OUT for the night! After several emails, my assistant advised that she had found a hotel 18 miles away that had a room. What neither of us realized at the time was that it was located in an area that was EVEN MORE REMOTE than its predecessor. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t have minded a change of scenery, but after four long, contentious days on the road, I was hoping for a much shorter commute and a good meal. You can then imagine my surprise (and frustration) to be told by the front desk at check-in that, aside from a Waffle House less than a block away, the nearest restaurants with any name recognition were those found near the hotel I’d just left – 18 miles away. Disheartened, I headed to my room to unload my stuff and make a quick call to my office to get caught up on the day’s events – convinced that, when I was done, I’d be heading back to restaurants I’d already eaten at the three nights before and whose food and service I’d found less than inspiring.
It was then that I remembered seeing a roadside billboard for a local Italian place about 5 miles down the road, a place I’d passed a short while later, but dismissed as a possibility based on its side-street location and appearance. When I shared my day with my legal assistant, she was adamant that I give the Italian spot a try, “You’ve got nothing to lose,” she insisted, “and, who knows, you might just run into some friendly people.” I took her advice and headed out. She was right! As I walked through the door of the quaint, beautifully Christmas-decorated neighborhood restaurant, I was greeted by the friendliest hostess you’d ever want to meet as if I was a longtime favorite customer. She escorted me to a seat at the small bar just steps away from a large manger scene that illuminated the front of the restaurant and introduced me to one of two bartenders, who, it would turn out, couldn’t possibly have been any nicer, more attentive or more engaging. I went with my go-to dish – spaghetti and meatballs – which just happened to be the “Thursday Night Special” and the three of us spent the next hour and a half exchanging stories. I told them about the series of events that had brought me to their doorstep and had to smile when one of them, a spunky young woman, whose effortless sense of humor and engaging personality reminded me of my daughter, cast her gaze to the manger and with a wry smile asked rhetorically, “Oh, so you’re here because there was no room at the inn?!?” They, in turn, shared stories about the restaurant – how it had burned to the ground a few years earlier and only recently re-opened after the owner had generously taken financial care of the entire staff during the rebuilding – and pieces of themselves. One is a working mom of three, including a recently born little girl – the other, aptly described above, was playful and a bit on the eccentric side. The food was amazing, but it was the connection made between three complete strangers, under the most unlikely of circumstances and in the most unlikely of places that took me by complete surprise and warmed my heart. Still, it was what happened next that took my breath away.
Moments after the check arrived, I shared that, while I was a lawyer, writing is my real passion. “I wrote a book,” I blurted out – not entirely sure why. “I don’t know if I have a copy in the car, but if I do I’d like to give it to you as a gift for being so kind. I set the check down with my credit card and headed to the car. Buried in the back of the trunk, I found a copy of “Dear Ashley” I didn’t think I had, hurried back to the restaurant, and presented it to the mother of three. Soon my other new friend and several curious servers gathered to look on. One by one, they smiled broadly at the cover photo and commented on how “priceless” the picture is. Then, with the exception of mom, they all returned to work. “It’s not just for people who have daughters,” I volunteered as I focused on signing the check and, at her request, the title page of the book. “It’s also for people who are daughters.” “Oh, and one more thing,” I continued, sliding the signed check in her direction. “It’s not really a light-hearted read. You see, several years ago, our daughter nearly died battling an eating disorder. Her courage is what inspired me to write it.” Suddenly, her eyes became soft. She leaned in, reached across the bar, placed her hand on mine, and said quietly so as not to be overheard, “Don, God brought you here tonight. This book is going to save the life of someone in this restaurant. Thank you.” And with those words still hanging in the air, she turned, put the book in a safe place next to the register, and walked away. I paused for a moment reflecting on just how many things had to go “wrong” at the same time to create a moment so “right”. As I, too, turned to leave, with goosebumps racing up my arms and tears welling up in my eyes, I passed the manger and smiled – suddenly grateful for another day of deposition, a random rebooking, a billboard, my legal assistant’s insistence, a buried copy of my book – and that “inexplicably” there was no room at the inn.