06 May 2011

traveling with strangers.

window seat. by Luna Soledad
window seat., a photo by Luna Soledad on Flickr.
Last month I managed to escape the clutches of North Carolina for a long overdue, albeit much too brief, getaway to Dallas, Texas to spend some quality time with one of my most favorite, life-long people in the universe - my dear cousin Greg.

Even as I excitedly counted down the weeks, days, and hours to departure, I was riddled with guilt over leaving my husband at the mercy of the children for a long weekend. Especially when they all came down with whiny, snotty colds. Although that did not stop me from getting on the plane... or trying to anyway.

March 31st, Thursday evening the clan dropped me off at RDU two hours prior, all packed up properly with travel-size everything in two carry-on bags. --An ugly floral roller bag for clothes, toiletries, etc. and a shoulder bag strictly for my purse and camera bag, least the airline nazis fine me for the extra baggage. It was all a pretty uneventful process initially; I checked in, took my shoes off, did the security thing, found my gate and settled in to read, “Night” by Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel (a truly amazing and painfully poetic account; a definite MUST read).

Shortly before boarding, an announcement calling all final destinations for Dallas to the AirTran service desk... I approach and am told that my Atlanta connection has already been missed due to extreme weather conditions - you know, the hurricane-like precursor to the recent tornado epidemic up and down the southern coast as well as all the crazy winter-storms that happened up north. Yay. My choices were: 1) (have Kevin get the kids back up, turn around and come get me) stay the night in Raleigh and (get back up at 4 am with the kids and) fly out at 6 am to Atlanta, or 2) fly to Atlanta and stay the night in a partially comped hotel for a 10 am flight to Dallas... either way, I would arrive in Dallas around the same time Friday morning. --Kevin and I agreed the lesser of the evils was to stay the night in Atlanta and get a good night’s sleep.

Ha ha ha.

So I arrive in Atlanta, the airline equivalent of an overpopulated ZOO, on the last flight of the evening, call the number on the voucher, make a reservation for the Clarion (four start hotel my ass!) for fifty bucks, and then make my way to the other end of the earth to stand and wait a half hour for an over-crowded hotel shuttle bus whose final destination would be my good night’s sleep.

Ha ha ha.

In reality, the forty or so of us tired, hungry disgruntled travelers from a great number of flights were dumped off to form a long-ass winding line throughout the hotel lobby with our bags of crap for check in... I was finally assigned a room and given a room key around 1 am, wished the other weary souls well, got a glass of overpriced house wine in an unwashed glass, and went to my room... to discover the bathroom sink was leaking and I had no toothpaste. An hour later, wine finished, teeth brushed, and sink fixed, I crawled into bed utterly exhausted... only to be awakened not two hours later by a drunken middle-aged cat fight in the hallway outside my room. SERIOUSLY?!! We’re not on spring break here you assholes! WTF? --Normally, my inclination would be to step into the hall and yell at these two twats, but I was just too freaking tired and pissed at the whole scenario and the fact that I had already missed an evening with Greg and decided it would be a good idea not to get hauled off to jail in Atlanta so I lay there cursing in my room until I fell back asleep.

The next thing my barely cognizant brain registered was the sound of the hotel room phone ringing with my morning wake-up call and scaring the crap out of me. Holy hell. I felt like I had been run over by a truck. --The irony that it was then April Fool’s Day was not lost on me.

I was already set to be in a foul mood, mentally daring anyone to jack with me, and sulked back to the too small shuttle bus for the 10 mile ride back to the airport... where a handsome young man promptly gave up his seat for me. I was neither prepared nor accustomed to such chivalry (heck, even as a notably miserable pregnant woman, I don’t recall someone doing that; you’re lucky if they hold the freaking door) and softened my mood accordingly in gratitude. Then a middle-aged African American man boarded the shuttle bus with a warm, happy smile and plopped down in the driver’s seat announcing, “Okay folks, my name is Darryl and I am your driver this morning. I’ll be taking you back to the airport quickly and safely and want to make sure that you have as positive an experience with me as possible so maybe you’ll want to come back and visit the great city of Atlanta and not hate us for screwing up your flights.”

In spite of myself, I smiled inside. He had that infectious kind of happy energy that would not allow otherwise. And for the next ten miles he gave us a brief “tour” of Atlanta, the beloved city in which he had lived all of his life... He tossed out geographical facts and history lessons all along the way - everything from downtown attractions to MLK events and memorials. He told us where four-time World Heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield lives and how his mansion is now open to the public to supplement his cash flow in paying off his eight baby-mamas “but we aren’t going there ‘cause we don’t feel sorry for him...” And he pointed out the $159 million runway overpass at Atlanta airport which took ten years to complete and was only used once for landing causing a massive pile-up on 285 when several terrified drivers erroneously thought the plane was about to crash into the highway.

A hard-working father of two (one in med school and one aged 7), Darryl was a natural “entertainer” with a genuinely likable personality. He truly made my day, lifting my spirits in ways I did not realize at the moment until I caught myself chuckling later remembering his commentary.

By the time I checked in and trekked across the enormous airplane metropolis with its many concords and subways, my back was on fire from carrying the shoulder bag - which I saw as more than enough justification to pop into a baggage store and purchase another wheelie bag. Of course nothing I could afford came in just a simple black so I quickly grabbed a black and white giraffe print to compliment the ugly couch-looking floral I was dragging around, then made a bee-line to Starbucks for some desperately needed caffeine. --It soon became clear that I hadn’t thought this process through when I was handed my coffee and had not an extra hand for the new extra wheelie bag - which would not stand on it’s own and kept falling over. Doh! The man behind me kindly offered to carry my coffee and follow me to my gate. I was so tired and grateful, I almost cried.

Found my gate, sat down the flowery couch bag and my coffee and turned to a couple across from me to ask them to please watch my bag a moment as I went to exchange the other. They politely obliged. When I returned 10 minutes or so later (with a hideous, though better constructed, primary-color blue bag capable of standing upright) and thanked them, they smiled, said I was welcome and told me that they had been waiting at the wrong gate as they stood to leave. Even after their realization, they had sat watching my bag as promised and patiently waited for my return...

My former boss, Dr. Mary Ruth Coleman, truly one of the most remarkable human beings I have ever known, refers to such happy, uplifting surprises as “blessings” and believes that life is full of such if you're open to it... I felt then in that moment, truly blessed. --Sometimes it is the kindness of strangers that makes all the difference in our lives, and sometimes when we’re lucky, we get to be the strangers.

I remember the day in June of 1999 when I returned to the states from living in Germany, leaving behind my husband and father of my child, and the only place that ever really felt like home for me. It was probably the hardest decision I have ever made... I had my entire life crammed into three of the biggest, heaviest suitcases ever packed in the history of people packing things as they were each filled with the stuff that meant the most to me: boxes and boxes of photographs and other priceless mementos I thought I might never see again if I left them behind (I mailed my clothing). In addition to the mega-luggage, there were four carry-ons, a stroller, a car seat, one hysterically barking Pug in a kennel, and my 18 month old non-ambulatory, non-verbal angel of a daughter, Isabel. --I foolishly left Frankfurt with no money what-so-ever and by the time I landed in LaGuardia (where I was soon confronted with the absolute rudest people I have ever met in my life), my bank account back in Germany had been emptied. Realizing I had less than an hour to get to the opposite side of the airport, I desperately asked for help with my bags and was dismissively told that was not the problem of airport personnel. An older woman who had been seated near me on the plane overheard my situation, turned and gave me eight dollars, hugged me, and disappeared before I could thank her. Out of nowhere appeared an immigrant porter who offered to help me with my bags. He told me we had to hurry. I followed him blindly with swollen eyes and tear-stained cheeks for what seemed like miles and into a tram. Halfway to my stop, another military wife who had been on my flight turned to me and said, “There’s twenty dollars under the lining of your daughter’s car seat,” and with that, she gave me a warm smile and exited the tram. --I have never ever forgotten either of those women. I don’t know their names nor do I even recall their faces, but I have never forgotten their immeasurable kindness on one of the worst days of my life... I gave all twenty-eight dollars to the porter.

Yes, MRC, you're right, life is full of blessings, often when you least expect them... I am grateful for all the blessings I have received in my travels through this life and I always try my best to pay it forward each and every time I am lucky enough to be the stranger.

"The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference."

...Elie Wiesel

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