Autumn Phillips; More information


I think her name was Isabella, or maybe that was the name of her three-legged dog. We met in the Paris airport, both of us caught in limbo.

We both had tickets to New York through AirHitch, which is exactly what it sounds like -- hitchhiking on airplanes. At the time, you paid $100 a ticket, and AirHitch sent you a list of airlines you were allowed to use and places you could fly from and to in the United States and Europe. They put you on ridiculous airlines, such as Tower Air, where the flight attendants are surly if not outwardly hostile.

AirHitch is the scavenger's way to fly. The secret is to get to the airport as early as possible to be the first in line on the flight of your choice. If there is an empty seat, you give them your AirHitch voucher and they give you a ride over the ocean. Most people plan to fly into Paris, but after getting turned down on flight after flight (it costs $100 for a reason) they happily catch a flight to Barcelona or Shannon, Ireland, instead and wing it from there.

I made my first flight from New York to Paris, but my trip back was not nearly as easy. I'd been standing in line all day, begging for rides, without luck. The ticket counter closed for the day, and I was preparing for a long night at the Charles de Gaulle airport.

Isabella and her dog (or vice versa) were doing the same.

She was tall and thin with dreadlocks and an army green tank top. I'd seen her boyfriend earlier in the day. I noticed him because of the tattoo on his face. He'd caught a flight that afternoon and left her behind.

We started to talk, immediately hit it off and thus began one of the stranger nights of my life.

I've been thinking a lot about her lately, as I read "Rolling Nowhere," Ted Conover's book about leaving Amherst College for a semester to ride the rails with American hoboes. In four months and 250 pages, he enters a world completely unlike his own and walks out again, back into his own life as easily as crossing a room.

And that's how it was for me. As I reached over to pet her dog, it was as if I walked through a door.

First, I was hungry.

Second, I'd gone to Europe for three weeks with $300 and spent every penny.

Isabella was hungry, too.

She told me to follow her for a walk around the airport. When we returned to our chairs, Isabella produced from her pockets and from under her shirt -- bread, a jar of Nutella chocolate spread, a plastic knife and a small bottle of wine.

I didn't ask, and she didn't tell.

The next morning, we caught the early flight to New York and accepted a ride into the city from the girlfriend of a guy Isabella met on the plane. The ride took us as far as Brooklyn, and we walked across the bridge to Manhattan.

Halfway across, Isabella saw a paper bag sitting on the sidewalk. She started going through it until a construction worker shouted down from above us. It was his lunch.

She kept walking, not the least embarrassed. And I realized this was her life. Surviving from meal to meal. Digging through meals. Stealing.

Outside of the airport, she looked different to me.

I followed her home, to an abandoned building in Lower Manhattan. They call themselves squatters -- people who make homes out of places others have forgotten. During the next few years, I would meet a lot of New York City's squatters. I would see buildings that were transformed by artists and craftsmen into beautiful, livable, rent-free apartments. But hers was not one of those.

The floor was dirt -- more likely years of collected grime than actual ground. The "living room" was windowless and dark except for a worklight hanging from the ceiling on the end of an orange extension cord. At the back of the room was a stage for the regular punk rock shows hosted at the house.

After I met her friends and saw her house, Isabella walked me to the nearest subway station so I could catch a train to the Port Authority. I had a bus ticket to Maine. She distracted the man at the token booth while I slipped under the turnstile.

When I arrived at work the next morning, the receptionist complimented me on how much weight I has lost during my trip. I smiled and pushed open the swinging door to the newsroom. I expected to regale my co-workers with stories of Europe and New York and all I'd seen, but the current was too fast and I was pulled back into my old life the second I entered the room.

My editor turned the corner and started yelling at me about a story I'd written almost a month ago about sleep deprivation. They held the story, he said. I needed more sources.

I sat down at my desk and listened.

Yes, you're right, I said. I need more information.


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