It's a Wonderful
Life (on the Road)
THURSDAY, JANUARY 7, 2003 -- At 7:03 p.m. on Christmas Eve, Fat Boy the Frequent Flyer folded himself into his tiny black Ford, pointed it toward the airport and decided to feel sorry for himself.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. Fat Boy and his wife always spent Christmas Eve in a fancy New York hotel and lived the lush life over the holidays. But not this year. His wife was 5,000 miles away, stuck in a shabby motel without a phone and shuttling to a hospital to care for her ill father. Fat Boy was trying to catch up, flying a tricky, three-flight, continent-spanning, ocean-hopping Christmas Day itinerary.

The hell with White Christmas, Fat Boy thought as the falling snow coated the windshield and the road. What did he do to deserve being in an airport hotel on Christmas Eve and on the road on Christmas Day?

Fat Boy turned off at the airport exit, but missed the turn for the hotel. He doubled back and realized the snow had become freezing rain. Great, he thought. He had already calculated his chance for an on-time departure tomorrow at near zero and the slush and the ice would play havoc with his 30-minute connection in Houston. What a wonderful life, he muttered to himself.

Trudging through the hotel parking lot without a coat, an umbrella or even a hat, Fat Boy noticed the guard in the booth gesticulating wildly. He negotiated the icy blacktop and approached the booth.

"Merry Christmas!" said the man. "Have a great holiday!"

Fat Boy the Frequent Flyer shrugged his shoulders. "Oh," he said, "I thought I parked in the wrong space."

"No, no," said the guard, "it's free tonight. Merry Christmas!"

At the front desk, Fat Boy waited silently as the clerk cut his card key. The key didn't work, of course, and, moments later, he was back in the lobby, watching the clerk cut another piece of plastic.

"I'm so sorry," the clerk said. "This'll just take a moment. Sorry for the delay."

"Doesn't matter," Fat Boy said. "This is what I get for being on the road on Christmas Eve. Who did you offend in management that you pulled this shift?"

"Oh, no," said the clerk, a thin, hard-featured woman who didn't seem like the jolly type. "I volunteered. This way employees with families can be home tonight. I'm happy to do it."

On Christmas morning, in a cold, hard rain, the shuttle driver was impossibly merry. "You're awfully happy for a guy working on Christmas," Fat Boy said.

"It's not so bad," the driver said. "I get off at three. Besides, the other drivers are home with their kids on Christmas. Makes me feel good to do it."

The airport was empty. Fat Boy headed off in search of his lounge and came across a sign offering the TWA Ambassadors Club. That reminded him that his club once belonged to Eastern Airlines. "Ghosts of Christmas past," he murmured.

Inside the club, a lone employee--her name tag said "Ruth"--was cheerfully doing it all: greeting guests, checking flights, tidying tables, fetching coffee and handling phone queries. He heard her say into the receiver: "Yes, Mr. Thomas, the Houston flight is showing an on-time departure."

That was his flight, so Fat Boy the Frequent Flyer wandered over and asked Ruth how the morning had gone.

"The earlier flight to Houston went out five minutes late," she said. "Not so bad for a day like today."

"No, I guess not," Fat Boy replied. "But I've got a 30-minute connection."

"Wow!" she said, "that's tight," and, before he could respond, she was reeling off alternate connections from her computer terminal.

"Thanks," said Fat Boy, "I appreciate it. How come you're working today? You diss the station manager or something?"

Ruth laughed. "I only live a few minutes away and the weather was bad this morning, so I just came in. It was easy for me--and someone else got to stay home with family. Least I could do on Christmas."

After Fat Boy boarded his plane, a flight attendant whose badge said "Kristi" knelt down next to his aisle seat. "Ruth from the club called ahead. You've got a 30-minute connection in Houston?"

"Yeah," Fat Boy said.

"I just checked," the flight attendant said. "We're arriving at Gate 34 and your connecting flight is at Gate 14. That's across the C terminal, through the shopping area. So I ordered an electric cart to meet you at the gate. We'll get you there."

But fate intervened. A mechanical delayed departure by about 30 minutes. Halfway through the flight, Kristi came up to Fat Boy again. "I just checked with the cockpit. We've got headwinds and we're going to be wheels down about 25 minutes late. I don't think you're going to make it."

"I figured," Fat Boy said glumly.

In Houston, a service-counter agent rebooked him for a flight to Los Angeles that would leave him stranded there for the night. There was nothing else available, he knew, so he called and made a hotel reservation at an airport hotel in El Segundo.

After an uneventful flight, Fat Boy headed out into the Los Angeles evening and wandered over to the shuttle-bus stop. He was alone, except for a flight attendant waiting for her bus to a crew hotel.

"Tough day to be working," he said to her. "You look way too senior to be pulling a Christmas shift."

The flight attendant looked at him and smiled. "My husband and I celebrated Christmas the other day," she said. "I worked today so some of the kids could stay home.

Fat Boy was about to say something else, but her bus arrived. His was right behind. "Merry Christmas," said his shuttle-bus driver. "Have a good flight?"

"I'm not even supposed to be here," Fat Boy said glumly. "How are you today?"

"Pretty good," said the driver. "I get off in a couple of hours."

"Hard duty on Christmas, huh?" Fat Boy said.

"Not really," the bus driver said. "All the other drivers have family, so I worked. My girlfriend and I will have Christmas tonight. It'll be fine."

By the time he reached the hotel, Fat Boy the Frequent Flyer realized he had developed a cold. So he walked over to a supermarket on Sepulveda Boulevard, bought himself some drugs, then drifted across the street and into the Mariposa Diner.

It was a big, ugly, empty, worn-looking place, with blue vinyl chairs, a wood-grain Formica countertop and dreary, fluorescent lighting. Merry Christmas, Fat Boy thought to himself.

By the time he had plopped himself on a stool, a waiter in a white shirt and a bow tie and a name badge that said "Perfecto" had appeared with a menu and a smile.

"Merry Christmas, sir! What can I get you?"

"Coffee and your veggie sandwich, I guess," said Fat Boy.

Moments later, Perfecto returned with the sandwich and a coffee refill. "Anything else I can get you?" he asked.

"No, thanks," said Fat Boy.

"Very well, sir," Perfecto said, backing away. Fat Boy looked up and saw Perfecto bow deeply. "Enjoy the meal!" Perfecto said with a huge grin. "And Merry Christmas!"

Fat Boy the Frequent Flyer didn't know what to make of the bow, but that's when it finally hit him: In the 30 or so hours since he had pointed his Ford toward the airport and decided to feel sorry for himself, he had been met with nothing but good will, good humor, genuine Christmas cheer and an endless stream of helpful, happy people who took holiday duty so their co-workers could be home with loved ones.

After he finished his sandwich and coffee, Fat Boy threw a $10 tip on the counter for Perfecto, paid his bill and headed back to his hotel room. He flipped on the television and turned to CNN in time to hear the anchor say that a ferocious snowstorm had closed several airports back east, including all three in New York. Fat Boy figured his flight, mechanical and all, had probably been the last flight out.

Then Fat Boy the Frequent Flyer sat on the bed and took stock of his life on the road. No, El Segundo wasn't where he needed to be. It surely wasn't where he would have wanted to be. But he had beaten the storm, been helped by a relentlessly merry crew of people who were happy to be doing someone else a favor on Christmas--and at least he had gotten halfway to his wife.

Not exactly the stuff of a Frank Capra movie, he had to admit, but not bad. He reached into the pocket of his jeans, fished out a cough drop--you weren't expecting Zuzu's petals, were you?--and began changing TV channels in search of a Christmas movie. He stopped when he reached TNT, which was screening The Wizard of Oz.

"Close enough," said Fat Boy to himself.