Last week I was supposed to deliver a car to a woman in Jupiter, Florida on the east coast. Then I'd ride the Amtrak to Orlando where my next car waited to be picked up. As I was driving down the Florida Turnpike, I got a call from the lady.
"Hi Bill, this is Louise."
"Hello Louise, I was just about to call you. I'm about three hours away, and--"
"Stop right there, Bill. I called to tell you that I'm not at home."
"OK, when will you be there?"
"I won't. Can you bring my car to St. Petersburg?"
St. Pete is on the west coast, a few hundred miles from her home in Jupiter. I reluctantly agreed, then started calling for bus, train, and rental car schedules to get me to Orlando. I ran into a lot of problems, because so many people had fled Hurricane Matthew, and now those who rushed to the west coast for safe haven wanted to get back to the east coast. So travel options were difficult.
Louise had asked me to meet her at a Panera Bread location where she was set to have a business meeting. I arrived and let her look over the car, and then she signed the paperwork. "Where do you go from here?"
"Well, I'm trying to Orlando, but most forms of transport are booked solid."
"Exactly, that's why I asked you to come here. I came on the train to stay with my parents until the storm passed us by. But then I couldn't find any way to get home."
"I think outside the box, and I'm pretty good at travel arrangements. I'll just go into Panera and find myself a way there on my trusty laptop."
Louise looked towards the entrance to Panera Bread and saw another woman. "There's my appointment, thank you for everything, Bill."
I grabbed my bag and went inside. Ordered an Asiago cheese bagel and hot green tea. Opened up my laptop in a comfy booth and started looking for options. As I began to find some possibilities, I overheard the family in the booth behind me. They sounded a bit desperate, running out of ideas as to how to get home to Cocoa Beach. After hearing them sound so worried about the condition of their home and being so anxious to get back to it, I popped my head over the back of my booth to face them.
"Hi, I'm Bill Thomas. I don't mean to interrupt, but I think I might be able to help you."
"Help us get home?" asked the Mom of the family.
"Yes. I'm good at making travel plans outside of the ordinary, if you're willing to give me a chance."
"More than willing," she said enthusiastically.
Her husband stood up and extended his hand. "I'm Caleb, and this is my wife Stephanie. And these are the kids." There were three kids, and they all looked bored and eager to go.
I shook with him. "The pleasure is mine, Caleb. Let me see what I can do for you." I got to work on finding them a way back to Cocoa Beach, and Caleb came and sat next to me in my booth. Twenty minutes later, I had them booked in a rental van for a one way trip. It was pretty expensive for a car rental, but they didn't seem to mind at all. They were just glad for a way back.
As Caleb and his family were getting up to leave, two women came up and introduced themselves. "I'm Sandy, and she is Claire. We saw that you were helping those people and wondered if you could help us, too." And so I did.
This started the ball rolling, and before I knew it there was a small line of people waiting to be next for my travel services. Anyone could look up travel sources, but I have developed a knack over time of finding unexpected ways of getting around by searching with unorthodox methods. And it really felt good to help these people out. Every single one of them was so nice and so grateful.
After I helped the last family, I went back to looking for myself. Greyhound, Megabus and Amtrak were all booked solid to Orlando. But I did find a rental SUV at four times the usual rate, which would cost about as much as I had just earned on the car I delivered. As I was trying to decide what to do, Louise stepped up to me. "You still here?" she asked.
"Yep. How did your meeting go?"
"Fantastic, I think this is going to move me forward in the company. At least I made a good impression. Seems like you made an impression too, I kept hearing people talk about this guy who was booking travel for people on his laptop. And I looked over and saw it was you."
"I like to help where I can."
"So do I."
"Hurricane Matthew caused enough trouble, I feel that we should all come together and help each other."
She nodded. "When times get tough."
"Really anytime. I keep trying to do good for others where I can, and keep hoping it will catch on and spread."
"I really love your attitude. So did you find your own transport to Orlando?"
"Not yet. Still hopeful, though."
"Then why don't I give you a ride?"
"That is very kind of you, but Orlando is going way out of your way from here to Jupiter."
She shrugged. "So what? Didn't you just say we should come together and help each other?"
"No buts. You just helped more than a few people get home, now let me do the same for you."
I wasn't actually going home, just to my next pick up, but I decided to shut up and accept her generosity. While it took three hours longer than usual to drive the 100 miles from St. Petersburg to Orlando, I had a great conversation with Louise and found her to be funny and quite smart. And I couldn't help having that feeling again that when times are rough, there's an angel on my shoulder.