Last month I was one of more than 600 agricultural editors, writers, designers, photographers, publishers and other communications professionals invited to New Orleans for the Agricultural Media Summit . I hadn’t been to New Orleans for more than 20 years and I was going there to teach a couple of writing workshops, which I enjoy, so I was stoked about the adventure.
And besides, New Orleans is home to one of my favorite sandwiches in the world: The Muffaletta. (Of course, for my money, you could spread olive tapenade on cardboard and I'd consider it good eating. Anything with sufficient quantities of olive tapenade gets my thumbs-up.)
I got to the Kansas City airport at a leisurely pace, with plenty of time to get through the security check point. I had remembered to put socks in my handbag before I left home so I wouldn’t have to walk barefoot through that icky security area, so at the checkpoint I dutifully put on my socks, stuck my shoes in one tub and my laptop in the other and off I went to my Louisiana adventure.
At the St. Louis airport, I had a two-hour layover so there was plenty of time for a leisurely lunch. Except ... when I reached into my purse to pay for aforementioned leisurely lunch … there was no wallet. Knowing for a fact that this couldn’t really be happening, I calmly took everything out of my purse, stacked it all on the table, literally turned my (very large) handbag inside out and discovered that, yes-indeedy-roo, it was utterly true: My billfold was gone.
Suddenly I remembered the two or three moments I had left my purse on the floor while I went to fetch the tubs and put on my socks. Exactly enough time for someone to reach into the open purse and adopt my billfold as his or her own.
This meant, of course, that my credit cards were gone, along with my debit card, my driver’s license, my checkbook, my insurance cards, random scraps of paper that I once thought were important enough to keep in my wallet, and two adorable photos of my brand new grandson. I was completely without money and without identity.
Looking back, I can say that this moment of complete flat-out broke anonymity was one of the more interesting moments of my life. For one thing, I had to look that poor waitress in the eye and tell her, “I can’t pay for my lunch. I don’t have a penny to my name.” And, of course, within minutes, I got to have the same conversation with the manager, all the while trying not to look utterly pathetic.
I must have looked pathetic enough, however, because my hands were trembling and I know my face was telegraphing the panic I was trying hard to tamp down. The manager looked at me for a minute and said, “It’s OK. I’ll just comp you the meal.”
Thank you, God, that I don’t have the look of a dash-and-diner.
Then the manager waggled a stern finger and said, “But you better get to your bank and credit card companies fast and cancel everything.” Since I still had my cell phone and had at some point had the presence of mind to put my Mastercard, Visa and bank numbers in the address book, I could do that.
All I could see in my mind's eye was a long train of unpleasantness on a beeline in my direction, beginning with getting from the airport to the hotel. I called the hotel to see if there was a free shuttle, forgetting the insistent truth that in New Orleans, nothing is free. Once I got to the hotel, how would I eat? How would I get back to the airport? How would I get on the plane with no photo I.D.? Then, oh rats! My car needed gas. How would I get my car out of airport parking and full of gas?
At that moment, I did the only rational thing: I went in the ladies room and bawled as silently as I could. Then I heard my mother’s voice clearly in my head saying, “All right, Kathryn. Go splash some cold water on your face and snap out of it!”
So I obeyed Mom’s command. I realized that I could either be a mess about this or I could come up with a plan. Blanche Dubois’ line from A Streetcar Named Desire popped into my head and I decided that the new context for this trip would not be business-as-usual, it would be about depending on the kindness of strangers.
Almost instantly I remembered that I had the cell phone number of the Ag Media Summit coordinator, the competent and kind-hearted Kenna Rathai. As I explained the situation to her, she paused for about five beats, then said, “Well, just get yourself down here, we’ll sort it out.” So I did. I took a cab from the New Orleans airport to the hotel, texted her when I was a few blocks away and there she was, standing in the doorway with cash in her hand to pay the cab driver.
“No worries,” she said about my concern over how I was going to eat. “There are meal events throughout the summit.” And then, that merciful angel from Heaven gave me two drink coupons. My dad always told me never to take a drink when you feel like you need a drink. In this instance, I ignored my father’s counsel.
Looking back at the experience, a couple of things strike me. One is that the context of depending on the kindness of strangers somehow had me encounter a lot of kindness, beginning with the staff and volunteers at the Ag Media Summit. I called my neighbor, who kindly went into my office at home and found my passport, then kindly went to his church and faxed it to me. My kind friend Nancy (whom I rousted out of bed at 7 a.m.), wired me sufficient cash to get myself home. The guys at the Western Union place couldn’t really tell from the fax that the photo on the passport copy was actually me, but they eyeballed me a few times and figured no one that Midwestern could be much of a criminal. I got the cash and practically galloped down the street to find that muffaletta sandwich – I had to have some New Orleans flavor. On my way, I did some unintentional sightseeing and actually ended up right in front of Jackson Square. Ta-DAH! A tourist moment!
And even the Transportation Safety Administration agents at the airport, while not exactly kind to me, at least did not beat me with sticks and ask me about that letter I wrote to the President 20 years ago. The worst part of their questioning me for 30 minutes was the looks I kept getting from other passengers. All in all, it could have been much, much worse. I have no idea how this might have turned out if I fit one of their profiles.
The other takeaway from this experience was just how weird it was not to be able to buy what I wanted when I wanted it. Nothing extravagant, mind you – I don’t live that way – but just thinking in the airport, for example, that I’d like a magazine to take on the plane and not having the money to purchase one, or wanting a latte instead of the airline’s coffee and having to say, “Nope.” For me, the condition of wanting and not being able to have was temporary. It’s sobering to have a gut-level experience of that need and to realize that for many, many, many people in this world, that’s a way of life, not a transitory and surmountable inconvenience.
I had been reading a magazine article about the famine in Africa just before this mess occurred, and just as my emotions were ramping up for a great big hissy fit after I discovered my loss, I saw the image of a mother holding a child she couldn’t feed. And I said to myself, “Seriously? You’re gonna get all bent out of shape because you’ve lost your credit cards?”
Sometimes all it takes is a little perspective to dramatically shift the way the world occurs.