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It's never a good thing when the flight attendant is crying. Franklin, strapped into the seat beside me, his seat back and tray table in the full upright position, headphones on and deep into Columbia Journalism Review, doesn't notice her tears. But I do.
She's wearing a name tag that says Tracy, a navy blue pencil skirt, a bow-tied striped scarf, flat-heeled pumps and dripping mascara. We're sitting on the Baltimore airport tarmac, still attached to the jetway, a full fifteen minutes past our scheduled takeoff for Boston and home. And Tracy's crying.
I nudge Franklin with my elbow and tilt my head toward her. "Franko, check it out."
Only Franklin's eyes move as, with a sigh, he glances up from under his new wire-rimmed glasses. He looks like an owl. Then, without a word, he slowly closes his CJR and finally looks at me. I can see he's as unnerved as I am. His eyes question, and I have the only answer a television reporter can give.
"Get your cell," I whisper. "Turn it on."
"But, Charlotte" he begins.
He's undoubtedly going to tell me some Federal Aviation Administration rule about not using cell phones in flight. Like any successful television producer, Franklin always knows all the rules. Like any successful television reporter, I'm more often about breaking them. If it could mean a good story.
"We're not in flight," I hiss. "We haven't budged on this runway. But one of usyouis going to get video of whatever it is that's going on here. The otherme is going to call the assignment desk back at Channel 3 and see if they know what the heck is happening at this airport."
I look out my window. Nothing. I look back up at Tracy, who's now huddling with her colleagues in the galley a few rows in front of us. Their coiffed heads are bent close together and one has a comforting arm around another's shoulders. The faces I can see look concerned. One looks up and catches me staring. She swipes a tapestry curtain across the aisle, blocking my view.
Part of me is, absurdly, relieved that our takeoff is delayed. I hate takeoffs. I hate landings. I hate flying. And if something terrible has happened, all I can say is, I'm not surprised.
But I have to find out if there's a story here. Maybe Tracy just has some sort of a personal problem and I'm making breaking news out of a broken heart. I yank my bag from under the seat in front of me and slide out my own cell phone. Bending double so my phone is buried in my lap, I pretend to sneeze to cover the tim-tee-tum sound of it powering up, then sneeze again to make it more convincing. As I'm contemplating sneeze three, I hear my call to the assignment desk connect.
"It's me. Charlie," I whisper. I pause, closing my eyes in annoyance at the response. "Charlie McNally. The reporter? Is this an intern?" I pause again, picturing a newbie twentysomething in over her head. Me, twenty-two years ago. Twenty-three, maybe. I start again, calm.
Taking the snark out of my voice. "It's Charlotte McNally, the investigative reporter? Give me Roger, please." I glance at the curtain to the galley. Still closed. "Right now."
Franklin's up and in the aisle, holding his cell phone as if it's off as he pretends to take a casual stroll toward the galley curtains. I know he's got video rolling. I know his phone has a ten-minute photo capacity, and he's done this so many times he can click it off and on without looking. Talk about a hidden camera. Our fellow passengers will only see an attractive thirtysomething black guy in a preppy pink oxford shirt checking out the flight attendants. I see Franklin Brooks Parrish, my faithful producer, getting the shots we need. Whatever is happeningall caught on camera. Exclusive.
"Roger Zelinsky." The night assignment editor's Boston accent makes it Rah-jah. "What's up, C?"
"We're in Baltimore, on the way home from the National Journalism Convention," I say, still doubled over into my lap and whispering. Luckily Franklin and I had an empty seat between us. A hidden camera is one thinga hidden forbidden conversation on a cell phone is another. "We're at the airport. In a plane. On the tarmac."
"So?" Roger replies.
"Exactly," I say. "That's what I'm trying to find out." I give him the short-version scoop on the tears, the delay, the closed curtain. Franklin's now made it to the galley, his phone camera nonchalantly pointed at the spot where the curtain would open. But it hasn't opened. Maybe Tracy broke up with the pilot. Maybe they don't have enough packages of peanuts. Maybe someone decided to smoke in the bathroom.
Then, even through the fuzzy phone connection, I hear all hell break loose at Channel 3. Strapped in and surrounded by passengers and pillows and carry-on bags, on Flight 632 there's only the muted sounds of passengers muttering, speculating. But about five hundred miles away, in a Boston television newsroom, bells are ringing and alarms are going off. I know it's the breaking news signal. The Associated Press is banging out a hot story. I bet it's centered right here. And any second, I'm gonna know the scoop in Baltimore.
"Runway collision. Two planes. A 737 and some commuter jet. Cessna. I'm reading from the wires, hang on." Roger's voice is now urgent. I can picture him, eyes narrowed, racing through the information coming through on his computer. Bulletins appear one or two sentences at a time and with every new addition more alert bells ping. "No casualty count yet. One plane taxiing toward takeoff, one on the ground."
"The little plane," I begin. "How manywas it which"
"Don't know," Roger replies. Terse. The bell pings again and our connection breaks up a bit. "Fire engines," he says.
I've got to get off this plane. I've got to get into the terminal. This story is big, it's breaking, and I'm ready to handle it.
"Call you asap," I whisper, interrupting. "I'm getting out of here." I snap my phone closed, tuck it into my bag, unclasp my seat belt and stand up. Franklin looks over, and I signal with widening eyes and a tilt of my head. Come back.
Franklin glances at the still motionless curtain. He points his phone backward and returns to our seats. Camera rolling. Just in case.
I grab his arm and yank him back into seat 18C.
"Listen," I hiss. "There's been a collision on the runway here. Fire, Roger says." I pause, hoping no one can hear me. "I've got to get off this plane and into the airport."
Franklin wipes away imaginary creases from his still-perfect khakis. I know this means he's thinking. Calculating. Taking in the information.
"Listen, Charlotte. I know you're addicted to the news," he says, voice low. "But you've got to get to Boston. Our interview with the Prada P.I. is scheduled for tomorrow morning. She's meeting us at the airport. It's between flights for her. It's tomorrow or never. That's her schedule." Franklin apparently has a BlackBerry implanted in his brain.
"She's got the specs and some inside scoop on counterfeit bags," he says. "She's giving us documents from the purse designers. Without her, our ‘fabulous fakes' story may not be so fabulous."
He glances toward the galley curtain, so I do, too. Nothing.
"Local reporters can cover the runway incursion," Franklin continues. "They're probably already on the air with whatever the story is. And you're the big-time investigative reporter, remember? You don't do breaking news like this anymore. You've got to stay on this plane and get back to Boston."
I know I'm an aging Dalmatian. But when the fire bell rings, I can't stand to be out of the action. The secret to TV success is being at the right place at the right time. And recognizing it. I flip up the armrests between us, stand up again, and try to edge around Franklin and into the aisle. Luckily I have on flats, so I'll be able to run if I need to. And my black pants, white T-shirt and black leather jacket will look appropriately serious when I go on camera. I'm heading for significant airtime. And a big story.
"Piffle," I say. "I can cover this story, make Channel 3 look good, thrill Kevin by providing him with the news director's dream ‘local reporter on the scene to cover national news' segment, hop the next plane to Boston and arrive in plenty of time for the meeting. It's at eleven, after all. You worry too much, Franko. Now, move it."
Franklin doesn't budge. "You don't worry enough, Charlotte. You're not going anywhere," he says. He points to seat 18A. "Sit."
I don't. But I can't get out unless Franklin moves. I twist toward him, my back crammed against the seat in front of me, my head bowed under the too-short-for-my-five-foot-seven-self curving plastic ceiling of the 737.
"Your suitcase," he says. "It's checked. And you ain't goin' nowhere without it. After September eleven? Nobody checks a bag, then gets off the plane. Forget about it."
"Nope," I say. I try my exit move again, but Franklin is still blocking me. "I got the lattes. You checked both bags, remember? They're both attached to your ticket. Far as this airline is concerned, I have no baggage. Which means you can pick them both up in Boston and I'll get mine from you later. There is certainly a morning flight. Which means I'm free to go. And I'm going."
I see Franklin hesitate. I've won.
"Call Josh, okay?" I say, edging my way closer to the aisle. "Tell him " I pause, one hand on the seat back, considering. It looks like yet another news story will keep me from my darling Josh Gelston. Maybe I should just stay on the plane. Go home. Let the locals cover the story. Have a life with the first man in twenty years who isn't interested in my celebrity. Or jealous of it. Who isn't intimidated by my job. Professor Josh Gelston is also the first man in twenty years who, I realize, makes me want to go home. Well, as soon as I can.
"Tell Josh what happened," I say. "Tell him I'll be back as soon as I can. Actually, he's at some school event tonight, so just leave a message. And ask him to call Amy to feed Botox. And I'll talk to him tomorrow." Josh will understand about the cat sitter. And my situation. I hope.
Franklin smoothes the wrinkles again, then shrugs. And this time, he slides his knees to one side, allowing me to squirm my way out into the aisle. "They'll never let you off this plane," he predicts.
The unfamiliar airport blurs into a collage of gate numbers, flashing lights and rolling suitcases as I snake my way past luggage-toting passengers, blue-uniformed flight crews, maintenance carts and posses of stern-faced TSA officers. I'm focused on finding gate C-47. My cell phone is clamped to my ear, the line open to Channel 3, but no one is on the other end yet. I'm waiting for more updates from Roger. So far all I know is I'm supposed to meet the Baltimore station's crewa camera-person and a live satellite vanfrom our local network affiliate. We'll go live as soon as the uplink is set. And as soon as someone tells me what's happened.
No one in the terminal is running, which seems strange. I don't see any emergency crews. That's strange, too. Maybe because it's all happening in a different terminal. They don't want to scare anyone.
I wonder if anyone is hurt. I wonder what went wrong. I wonder if there's a fire. I think about survivors. I think about families. I've covered too many plane crashes over the past twenty years. And part of me knows that's why I'm so unhappy about flying. I try not to admit it, because an investigative reporter is supposed to be tough and fearless. When it comes to air travel, I pretend a lot.
"Yup, I'm here," I answer the staticky voice now crackling in my ear. The block-lettered signs for Terminal C are pointing me to the left. Following the arrows, I trot through the crowded corridor, listening to Roger tell me the latest. I stop, suddenly, realizing what he's saying. A Disney-clad family divides in half to get by, throwing annoyed looks as they swarm back together in front of me. I barely notice.
"So, you're telling me there's nothing?" I reply. "You're telling meno big collision? No casualties? No fire?"
"Yep. Nope," Roger says. "Apparently one wing tip of a regional jet just touched a 737. On the ground. No passengers in the smaller plane. But the pilot panicked, Maydayed the tower, they sent the alarm, fire crews powered in. Every pilot on the tarmac picked up the radio trafficguess that's how your flight attendant got wind of it. And the Associated Press, of course. It was a close call. But no biggie."
"So " My adrenaline is fading as I face reality. I plop into a leatherette seat along the wall, stare at my toes, and try to make journalism lemonade. "So, listen. Should we do a story about the close call? Should we do an investigation about crowded runways? Is there a pattern of collisions at the Baltimore airport?"
"Charlie, that's why we love you," Roger says with a chuckle. "Always looking for a good story. Does your brain ever turn off? Come home, kiddo. Thanks for being a team player."
It's the best possible outcome, of course, I tell myself as I slowly click my phone closed and tuck it back into my bag. And it's certainly proof of how a reporter's perspective gets warped by the quest for airtime. How can anyone be sorry there's not a plane crash? I smile, acknowledging journalism's ugliest secret. A huge fire? A string of victims? A multimillion dollar scam? Bad news is big news. Only a reporter can feel disappointed when the news is good.
But actually, there is good news that I'm happy about. Now I can go home. To Josh. My energy revs as I race to the nearest flight information screen and devour the numbers displayed on the televisions flickering above me. Arrivals. Departures. If I'm lucky, my plane is still hooked to that jetway, doors open. I can get back on board, into 18A, and get home for a late and luscious dinner with Josh. I imagine his welcoming arms swooping me off the floor in a swirling hug. Our "don't stay-away-this-long-ever-again" kisses. I imagine skipping dinner.
I find what I'm looking for. Boston, Flight 632. I find what I'm not looking for. Status: Departed.