A Gift From The Travel Gods And A Failure To Pay It Forward

I had been awake for nearly an hour when the 6am wake up call came through. A thunderstorm was moving through Atlanta, and the last and most precious hour of sleep was spent watching from bed as lightning flashed over downtown. It didn't really occur to me that in just a couple of hours I had to walk to the MARTA station to catch a train to the airport, but soon I was face to face with that cold, wet reality.
Rain in Atlanta
The rain continued to pour in the pre-dawn darkness, while I stood under the awning outside of the Georgian Terrace hotel debating my lousy options. I could make a run for it, but I'd end up soaked, breaking an ankle, or both. I thought of getting a taxi, however I didn't have the guts to ask a cabbie to drive me two blocks, and I certainly wasn't paying the full fare to the airport. Just then, another guest joined me and asked if I knew how long the walk was to Georgia Tech.

Uhh...right now, you'll want to cab it.

He laughed and had the valet call one over, but before shutting the door to the van he asked where I was headed. I explained the predicament and he insisted we share the cab. I sheepishly declined by explaining that, as usual, I had absolutely zero cash.

Dude...don't be silly, hop in.
Atlanta Skyline
What a difference 12 hours makes.
After no more than a single minute, we arrived at the station and following a quick shake of hands I made a mad dash through the rain. My walk took on that purposeful pace which seems to come naturally to those riding the subway, but soon I'd hit a brick wall. More specifically, an "Access Denied" message on the turnstiles. 

Like some doofus rookie traveler, I made the assumption that the day pass I'd purchased when I arrived was good for 24 hours. Apparently I haven't learned my lesson about assuming things, because naturally the pass went dead at midnight, meaning I needed to reload my card. A simple task, but an annoying inconvenience that should have been avoided.

I walked up to the bank of machines and tapped my card where the big blue sticker said "Tap Card Here" but nothing happened. Tap. Tap. Tap.


Figuring it had to be the machine - as opposed to operator error - I slid down to the next unit. Tap. Tap. Tap.

Should be easy enough, right?

Now, there's a good reason why MJ usually handles this type of stuff when we travel. Like the computer at Al Pacino's casino in Ocean's 13, when my brain detects a threat it goes on lock down and takes three minutes to restart. As I stood there stupidly swiping my card and expecting a different result than the previous 23 times, a voice called out from the entrance to the station.

Sir...excuse me. Sir. 

Naturally, I did what most people do when someone yells out "Excuse me" at a subway station...I ignored it and just kept on swiping.

Sir...you have to tell it what kind of card you want to purchase first.

By this point, that voice was standing right next to me. He hit the "Reload Card" button on the screen which I had overlooked in my state of brain paralysis.

There you go, try it now. 

I extended a completely hollow thank you, pretty dumbfounded by my own stupidity.

While you're at it, would you mind reloading my card with a single trip? It would be nice to get out of the cold and rain.

It was only now that I actually turned to face this man, and I realized this wasn't the first time we'd encountered one another. I had noticed him the night before sitting on a bench outside the station as I was on my way to The Varsity. And now, it occurred to me that he had still been sitting there when I sprinted by a few moments earlier out of fear of getting wet. 

What was I going to say? "Thanks for the help but sorry about your luck." I'd spend the rest of my life working that one off, so of course I agreed and swiped my credit card in the machine.

He was slightly ahead of me as we approached the turnstiles and I noticed that the gates didn't open when he swiped his card. I went through the adjacent turnstile and checked out of the corner of my eye to see if his card ever worked. It didn't, and in that split second I had a choice to make. Do I turn around and try reloading his card again, or do I get on the escalator and walk away?

As Atlanta passed outside the window of the train, a pit started to grow inside my stomach. In the span of just a few minutes, the travel gods had sent two very different people into my life to bail me out of a jam. When the shoe was on the other foot, however, and it was my chance to return the favor, I just kept on walking.

I could have turned around. I should have turned around. Why didn't I turn around? 

Looking out on the rain soaked airport and downtown Atlanta in the distance, those few minutes kept replaying in my head, and the guilt continued to fester. Perhaps I'd have let it go were it not for my own words as I bid farewell to the stranger who had let me jump in his cab...

Thanks man, I need to pay this forward.

I had my chance, and I totally blew it.

Enjoy Your Stay

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