Is there any cliche more annoying than “Life happens when you are making other plans? I hate this expression for the obvious reason — because it speaks the truth.
My father planned family vacations three years ahead of time. No joke. I have tried desperately to rid myself of this ignoble inheritance. But it is stuck in my brain like the writing on my father’s calendars hanging over his desk.
I recently took a trip to Maryland to visit some friends. I spent a week planning it out beforehand, like my father might have done, mapping it out as precisely as the storming of Normandy, or more accurately, a housewife on that Extreme Couponing show looking to buy $2000 worth of pasta and Ivory Soap for $1.59. I wanted to go as inexpensively as possible, another trait I inherited from my father; I splurge on others more than myself.
Using my advanced Google research skills, honed from years of looking up my own name on search engines, I accumulated the data that I needed and created the ultimate cheapskate’s road trip from New York to Maryland.
I would take the Bolt Bus from NYC, a bus line familiar more to college students than myself. I could go round-trip to the Washington D.C. area for a mere $30 round trip. While not the most glamorous methods of travel, seeing that it picked up passengers in New York a block away from Penn Station, in between a Sbarro pizza restaurant and a XXX Peep Store, it was only $30!
Next, I needed a nice hotel for two nights in the D.C./College Park, Maryland area. I found it in Greenbelt, Maryland, via Priceline bidding, for $50 a night. After those two nights, I would head east towards the coast and stay with my friend Jennifer, which would cost me nothing.
My best deal connected with my trip was for the rental car. I discovered a weekend deal with a Maryland Enterprise Rental Car for only $9.99 a night! Woo-hoo. My father would have been proud.
The Bolt bus was surprising comfortable. I leaned back in my chair, proud of my perfect planning. I thought about applying for a job with Arthur Frommer Travel Guides as a consultant. I am a traveling God.
“Smooth sailing,” I said to the college dude sitting next to me in his Columbia University hoodie. “I went to Columbia, too, you know!” I added.
He didn’t seem to care. He was listening to music on his iPhone. But I didn’t mind his rudeness. I was in a good mood because of my perfect travel plans. I just wouldn’t donate to the alumni fund this year.
After two hours of traveling, we stopped in Wilmington, Delaware at a food court. I knew about this, as any seasoned travel expert would, from reading the Bolt Bus Forum online ahead of time.
The bus driver bellowed into his microphone, “If you need to use the restroom, go fast, because I’m leaving in ten minutes, with you or without you.”
On the Bolt bus forum, there were several stories of passengers left behind in the food court in Wilmington, Delaware.
But I was relaxed, even as I strolled into the food court to stretch my legs. Our affable bus driver, a middle-aged African-American with a deep voice like Isaac Hayes, would never leave anyone at the food court. He was just too nice of a guy. I had read on the Bolt Bus Forum that the company had improved their hiring process ever since one of their passengers had videotaped a driver nodding off at the wheel, and promptly posted it on YouTube. Yay, social media! Our bus driver rocked!
Here is a photo I took in the food court and posted on Twitter, providing proof to the world, that yes, I have now peed in Delaware! Add it to my list.
After arriving in Maryland, exactly on schedule, as I expected, I called Enterprise Rental Car to pick me up at the station, just like I had pre-arranged with the office. Within ten minutes, an SUV appeared in the terminal pick-up area, driven by a young Enterprise employee wearing a snazzy green tie.
The rental office was a few minutes away. As he drove, we discussed Washington politics. He knew way more insider gossip than I did. I wondered if everyone in the DC area followed the latest federal government news, much like every supermarket checkout girl in Los Angeles knew the latest Hollywood box-office numbers.
“Let’s get you in and out,” he said as we stepped into the office, which was located behind a Cadillac dealership. “By the way, we have a few extra Cadillacs available to rent. If you want, I’ll give you one for the same price that you have now.”
$9.99 a day for a Cadillac?
“No, thank you,” I said. “It will be easier for me to park a smaller car.”
He seemed surprised by my refusal, even a little disappointed, but he shrugged it off.
My reason for not wanting the car was a white lie. I didn’t want the Cadillac because I had already ordered a compact car, not a Cadillac. The compact car was pre-ordained, like the visions of Nostradamus. Everything was proceeding on schedule, and I worried that one slight change in the stacking of the dominos could cause them all to collapse. Since I ordered a compact car online, it would BE a compact car. There would be no dreaming big when I have a plan.
“Whatever you want,” he said, stepping behind his computer system. “I’m here to make your experience with Enterprise a superior one.”
I made a note to myself to commend this employee, even filling out one of those “How Did We Do?” cards before I left, giving him a “helpful” score of “10.”
I handed him my California Driver’s License and my Mastercard, even before he had the chance to ask me for them. I knew the rules. And I was on a schedule. Soon, I would be relaxing in my non-smoking with a King bed and free wi-fi hotel room, taking a breather before I headed out to a tapas bar in D.C. to meet some friends.
“There’s a little problem,” said the Enterprise guy, as he handed me back my driver’s license.
My California driver’s license had expired on my birthday, a month ago. My new card was apparently 3000 miles away, on Sophia’s kitchen table in Los Angeles. I called her and she wasn’t home. Enterprise wouldn’t allow me to rent me a car.
I didn’t know how to get to my hotel from the rental car office. Or into Washington D.C. for dinner that night. Or to the University of Maryland for a web conference the next day. I also knew that Jennifer was busy cleaning her house on the Maryland shore, awaiting my arrival in two days. My perfect plan was crumbling like stale coffee cake.
Is there any cliche more annoying than “Life happens when you are making other plans? Yes! It is annoying.
But we have no choice but to accept this as reality.
After all, when we later sit down and tell our stories, it is never the planning that holds any interest to the listener. It is the life that seeps into the cracks. That is the story. My Maryland trip ultimately became more interesting and fulfilling without a car as I scrambled from one location to the next, like a contestant on “The Amazing Race,” jumping from buses to taxis to shuttles to trains to subways to boats. It was only when I was rushing to catch a connection, frantically reaching it within seconds, that my heart would race and my mind would spin like a top, and I would understand, finally, in some metaphysical way, what absolutely unbridled passion must feel like when making love to a woman with complete abandon, not knowing where or why or when.
The whole week in Maryland was a gift to me. It became a lesson that I had never received from my dear father, as wonderful a man as he was, because he was so rooted in the planning the journey rather than the embracing it.
Life has very little to do with the plans.