In August of 2003, I was flying from San Francisco to Paris, joining a friend of mine on a trip to Europe. But just as my plane touched down in New York City, the power went out across the eastern seaboard. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was going to be three days until the lights came back on and normal operations were restored. Here I was, without power, without technology, without food and without money.
I’ve been backpacking before, but this pushed me way beyond that. What I experienced over the next few days turned out to be much more valuable than the trip I planned. Surrounded by others thrust into these dire circumstances, I learned how to survive in a worst-case situation. Those lessons have affected my attitude toward work, money and life ever since.
They are key lessons to the success you will need to get to financial independence.
“What is the worst thing that can possibly happen if I …”???
In his TED talk last year, Tim Ferriss asked that important question. You may be thinking of starting a business, moving to a new area, investing in the market, selling your belongings to travel, or quitting your job. Is fear holding you back?
As I tell my story, think about what Tim Ferriss is getting at: “Is this the condition I feared?”
First Things First
It was early evening by the time they got us a ladder so we could exit the airplane. Before leaving, I made a trip to the bathroom, which turned out to be the last time I would have a lighted toilet in days. Oh the luxury. But I didn’t know that.
I was thinking the power would probably come back on in 4 or 5 hours, like it did in 1996 when there was a blackout across most of the west coast. My first priorities were to stake out a place to sleep and wash my laundry.
Yeah, laundry. The ladies room was pitch black. As I reached to hang my sweater on the hook, it fell into the “abyss”. There was water all over the floor. Oh, great. Blindly, I washed it in the sink completely by feel. This wasn’t a good start. But right after that, I was lucky to find a nice spot to claim.
I found a very small edge of carpeting on the otherwise all linoleum floor. Spotting a great piece of real estate, it was a business that was buttoned closed by a folding barrier that exposed a foot or so of rug, just wide enough to spread out on. I set my carry-on down and hung my sweater up on the partition. Grateful for my temporary home, it was time to try to catch a little sleep.
Yesterday, All My Troubles Were So Far Away
All through the night, people were walking through the terminal and yelling out people’s names at the top of their lungs. At first I didn’t understand. Then I realized that all of New York City was shut down. It took people hours to make their way to the airport and pick up passengers that were arriving home.
The yelling went on all night long.
And then I heard some singing. It was coming from outside, where hundreds of people were sleeping on the curb.
Softly at first, I could hear a few people singing the Beatles song “Yesterday”. Then I heard more and more voices. An unplanned flash mob, it was the first thing that bound us together as strangers, wishing for life as it was the day before. I started laughing, and joined in.
The Kindness of Strangers
I was hoping to see the world, and lucky for me, I was stuck in the International terminal.
Unless you count the 10 euro bill in my money belt, I didn’t have a dollar on me. I was proud of packing light. Nothing to weigh me down. I had just 2 credit cards, a debit card and a couple of old Paris metro tickets saved from a previous trip.
How was I going to eat, contact family, or schedule another flight when the power came back on? I hadn’t imagined a world without electronic transactions or fast food.
I started chatting with Santos. A New Yorker that lived through the nightmare of September 11th, he told me how he had driven his van the night before to help transport as many people as he could fit inside, giving them a lift across the city. He described the sadness that people who lived there felt with the power down and a similar night of walking home in a city shut off from the normal transportation and communication.
Santos loaned me his cell phone which was very low on battery. No matter, he was a giver. A person who helps others. I could tell he was a person who would give you the shirt off his back with ease and a big smile.
I couldn’t get a call to go through. Nobody could. We kept getting the “all circuits are busy” recording. Then he reached into his pocket, pulled out a wad of random, crumpled bills, and thrust them out toward me.
“You need this. You need money.”
I Get By With a Little Help From My Friends
Stunned by his kindness, I accepted the money. It could have been a hundred dollars or it could have been ten. I am not sure if he even knew. After thanking him for his generosity, he waved me away, assuring me that they had an eye on my luggage. I searched for any possible way to even spend the money. It was twelve dollars.
I was able to buy what I needed most at that time and it wasn’t food. There was hardly anything for sale, but the airline officials were selling telephone cards and I had just enough to buy one. I could use it on a pay phone and try to reach my family.
A crowd surrounded the nearby bank of phones. With so many people packed together, it was really hot and sweaty. There was pressure to keep calls short, and we each did what we could to conserve our time. Over the next three days, I would end up in that line about twenty more times before I was able to connect with my friend in Paris and book a flight that wasn’t canceled a few hours later.
I dialed my husband. The call failed. I tried my parents and then other numbers in my city. Nothing. Too many people were using those lines. Getting nervous, I tried my in-laws in another area code. They answered! Yes! A voice I knew.
This first call formed a network of people, friends and family, who began to work together on my behalf to get me out. It was amazing. And touching. I felt a grateful sense of the connections I had helping me from afar.
When The Lights Came On
We were in the dark for two days and nights. It is hard to explain the bonds that we formed during that time. Helping each other with simple favors, passing the time with stories, sharing any news or plans that people had. There were some people with crucial business deadlines, organizing a car rental that would get them to another airport 3 states away, with hopes of getting to a meeting. Most of us opted to stay put, figuring it would still be the fastest way out.
After all that time stranded, sleeping on the floor, eating nothing but airline pretzels, bearing the sweltering summer heat and humidity, out of the blue, the lights came on.
I was in the bathroom at the time. I heard it, more than saw it — the sound of people screaming. YEAH!!!
The moment felt like victory. But in truth, it was short-lived. It would not be easy to get things going again and for most of us, the soonest a flight would still be 20 hours or so later.
Now the air conditioning made it too cold to sleep without a blanket. The glaring lights were too bright to shut out. We found that the very things we wished for were now part of a new discomfort to bear.
But people were giddy.
About 2am, my group of new friends, from Finland, Russia and France, were awakened by four guys breakdancing on some milk crates. It the oddest thing, but hilarious and a totally fitting type of entertainment for that long, endless night. People all around woke up and started clapping and hooting, egging them on. It was great.
Learn from the Crowd, But Don’t Follow it
Throughout the ordeal, I kept trying to get a seat on the next flight to Paris. And it kept getting canceled. As I wandered around the terminal, I met up with a large group of French people who were trying to get home from their tour of Brazil. They were really nice. We shared information we had about flights as they became available.
Later when the power was restored, I went alone to the pay phones in the middle of the night. I succeeded in booking a single seat on the first flight to Paris. The next morning when the check-in desk reopened, I waited in a long line to confirm with the airline and I saw this group from France was denied seats. Why? They were trying to get a large block of tickets and there were only so many available.
The event was classified as “an Act of God”. Not the airlines fault, this meant that ticketed passengers who were arriving now, 3 days later, had priority over us. Those of us who had been living in the airport were out of luck. We were on our own.
It makes me think of an article by the Finance Stoic, asking whether you stand with the philosopher or the mob. These were wonderful people, but if I had joined forces with them and gone with the crowd, I would have remained stranded.
Letting Our Guards Down
It was nearly 24 hours later that I sat with others outside of our assigned gate, waiting to get on the plane. Even with the power restored, operations were still limping along.
We were happily discussing the details of how one French woman got snails from her garden, had them checked by the local pharmacy and made them into Escargot. The next thing you know, we looked up and the area around us was deserted. Everyone was gone. We nearly missed boarding because there were no announcements and we were having such a great time sharing stories. How crazy is that?
Once we hurried onto the crowded aircraft and took our seats, we prepared for takeoff.
The pilot came on the loudspeaker. “Due to the days of delay, the food has spoiled and standard meal service will not be possible. If any passenger wants to leave and get food, we will hold the plane and wait”. Everyone looked around, hoping no one would budge. But of course, people got up and the next thing you knew, nearly everyone bolted out the door.
As people headed to the exits, the pilot’s voice announced “May I have your attention. It is strictly against the rules of the FAA to board with alcohol purchased from the duty-free shops located just outside our gate”. Wink wink!!
I just couldn’t believe that the food had spoiled and all they had offered us was pretzels.
Once everyone finally returned with their food and booze, the flight was ready to go. As the plane lifted off, applause thundered through the cabin. We were airborne!
I reached to for the button so that I could recline and finally catch some sleep. But my seat was broken. No way! I just couldn’t believe it. It wouldn’t budge. I called the flight attendant. She looked around the completely full cabin. All she could say was sorry. She suggested to try trading with another passenger. I surveyed the plane and saw so many familiar faces — people who went the same ordeal, many of them now friends.
I took a deep breath and grinned to bear it. Discomfort was my new normal, changing me for the better. I stayed put.
Other writers in the personal finance space have talked about some of same the “powerful” lessons I learned in the airport those three days.
MySonsFather explores vulnerability reflecting back at the funeral of his dad. Mr. Tako compares comfort to a bottle of vodka, and Michael from FinanciallyAlert considers how someone can learn to give random acts of kindness.
I particularly like this recommendation from Coach Carson via Twitter. Here Bill Eckstrom explains why growth only occurs in a state of discomfort:
I lost a few days of vacation. There were museums and restaurants I missed. My friend and I had to skip one of the cities we planned to visit. But those three days in the airport gave me much more than any of those typical tourist stops might have.
I know it changed me. Because when I headed home from the London airport, I handed in my extra British pounds and walked into the airport without a dollar in my money belt. And I was not afraid.