The Kindness – or not so kindness – of Strangers

Do you need any help? 

Well… I do have a lot of luggage, I admitted.

Let me help you…

She was tall, elegantly dressed in a gray suit.  Her skin was chocolate brown, reminiscent of people in my recently lost homeland.  She heaved my luggage out of the trunk of my rental car as if they weighed nothing and, once they were collected around her feet and next to her one modest carry-on, she shooed me over to return my rental car, assuring me that she would watch everything while I was away.  When we boarded the bus, she reminded me that the driver would get my luggage.  Overcome with gratitude, I sat next to her and explained that I was just back from Rwanda and headed to Nepal in a couple of weeks and that I was still moving belongings around from my recent move from Vermont to Florida.    But the truth is, I never travel light when going somewhere for a year.

When we got to Southwest, she got off with me and made sure that I had all my bags, counting them for me and then wheeling them with me to the Sky Cap.  I explained that I needed a wheelchair because I had fallen at a previous airport and badly bruised a toe and he immediately leapt into action, ordering  a wheel chair, checking the two bags that could be checked outside, and then carrying the extra one into the ticket counter for me.  As we passed into the terminal my elegant rescuer smiled and bid me farewell…. Her flight was actually leaving from another terminal!  She had gotten off the bus with me just so she could help me.  When I thanked her, she echoed the words of my Rwandan colleague (earlier post about paper clips):    Well, that’s what friends are for….to help each other

Traveling alone is an interesting project.  Sometimes I feel  lost and abandoned, left to fend for myself in an international airport with signage that leaves something to be desired for my jet-lagged state-of-mind. Other times it feels like people go out of their way to assist me.  I  just never know what is around the corner, which is why I need to keep my wits about me.  Just last week, when I I had not been paying attention,  I went flying over a suitcase being dragged behind a five year old child who came out of nowhere, it seemed, to cross right in front of me in order to reach his parents who were standing on my other side.   Unlike my elegant rescuer, they simply stood and watched as I fell to the ground.  The father absently asked, are you alright?  without moving from where he stood.  The mother said to her son with that inquisitive reserved for talking to children Did you trip the lady?   Of course, had it been my child, or even if I had only witnessed the affair and had no relationship to the child at all, I would have been on my knees in a flash to see if the fallen one needed assistance.  I brushed myself off and went on my way, grateful that the fall on my hip had not broken it, unaware that the toe that was hurting was only going to get much much worse as time went on.

The ways people treat one another when traveling by air are as varied as the individuals themselves.    Some people go out of their way, some don’t seem to notice that anyone else exists and some, unfortunately are confrontational and aggressive, as I discovered when boarding  not one, but two of my first domestic flights after arriving back in the U.S.

You fucking asshole, you just think you can…….. well, I don’t remember everything she said to the poor man at the back of the plane who had complained when she, apparently, hit him not once, but twice, with her hand luggage.  I was so shocked by her outburst, the sheer hot energy of it, it was so nasty that the words totally flew past me, leaving only a residue of burning discomfort.   I didn’t need to hear exactly what she said to know that it was mean and cruel.  I was appalled, embarassed for her, and certainly sympathetic for everyone who was within her range.   Of course, she had been short with me when she boarded after me, telling me to get out of her way when I was putting my luggage in the overhead  bin.  I had no idea what would have befallen me had I not hopped aside on her command as fast as I could; even then her irritability was palpable.   Perhaps I too would have fallen prey to a personal attack if I had not done as she asked.  I shudder now to think about it.  I know that my relative lack of experience with verbal abuse leaves me poorly prepared to defend myself in its presence; I would have been a total wreck had her anger been directed at me.

Why am I the bad guy?  I just said “excuse me” when you hit me for the second time….  Unfortunately, the man whom she had bumped with her luggage was not wise enough to see that arguing with her would only lead to another stream of insults, which it did.  Only in America, I thought…

Please, there are children here…. Another man, presumably a father, said.  No response.  No apology.

I heard people helping her with her luggage, and the tone of her voice when she thanked them suggested that they had, somehow mollified her, but I remained grateful that I wasn’t sitting next to her.

Rwanda taught me to appreciate freedom of speech in a way that I had not before, but public insults and public displays of aggression are, for me, still a down side of our tresured right to say whatever we want, to whomever we want, whenever and wherever we want.

On my trip from Bradley to Orlando, a battle among those in wheelchairs and an older gentleman, whom I suspect had some degree of dementia, developed at the gate when he arrived brandishing his early boarding ticket and pushed ahead of all of us who were in wheel chairs because he thought he was supposed to get on first.   He must have been at least 70 and clearly not aware that he was somehow “cutting in line”.    He was clutching his ticket in his hand for dear life and I had the impression that it was taking a great effort on his part to get to the gate and get onto the plane by himself, and he was just trying to get to where he thought he was supposed to be in the right manner.

I was clearly a minority in this perception.   A woman escorting her mother in a wheelchair launched her verbal attack on him for trying to get onto the plane before it was his turn, which ended with the words Grow up!    She muttered something about how 60 year olds behave and I said, trying to intervene on his behalf, he is much older than 60, which had the reverse of my intended effect.   Well, there, see?   She muttered, as if to suggest that being older than sixty made it even more of a transgression in her eyes.   In the meantime, he was walking back and forth and saying.   Yes, grow up!   This behavior, of course, confirmed my original informal assessment of mild dementia, which was probably why he had a pre-boarding pass in the first place.  It was obvious that he wasn’t even aware he was being insulted.  I also couldn’t figure out why anyone would tell an elderly man to grow up.  I must be missing something, I thought.

A Southwest staff member then jumped into save the day, or so she though. In an attempt to calm the man down, she explained that he had to wait for the wheelchairs to go on first before he could pre-board.  Again, rather than achieving the desired effect, her remarks escalated the situation, because he woman who was trying to get the elderly gentleman to behave himself as she thought he should, was the daughter of a  woman who, although she had had arrived in a wheelchair, had already given it up so she could walk onto the plane herself.   But she was still planning to get on first as a wheel-chair passenger since she had arrived in a wheel chair.   However, now she was not in a wheelchair, nor did not have a pre-boarding pass like the elderly man,  the Southwest staff member could not let her on before the man with the pre-boarding pass.   The staff member’s attempt to explain this to the erstwhile wheel-chaired passenger then led to  another whole argument, because she couldn’t let someone who was not in a wheel chair on before someone who had a pre-boarding pass, just because she had arrived at the gate in a wheelchair.

Not to be deterred,  the daughter was ordered to go and retrieve the wheelchair so that her mother could board with the rest of us in wheelchairs, before the elderly gentleman.   To do this, her daughter had to push the chair through the crowd gathering at the gate which included, in addition to the elderly man whose actions had precipitated the entire misadventure,  another man in yet another wheelchair who simply raised his arms in mock defeat as the chair was pushed in front of him.   My wheelchair then became a problem, since it was parked right at the front of the line, despite the fact that the woman who had given up her wheelchair had arrived ahead of me.  By then, I was in the thick of it, and found myself reluctant to relinquish my spot to someone who, more and more, appeared to be working the system for all she could.   She was carrying a small dog with a jacked marked “companion animal” but she was completely mobile, no physical injuries and her mental faculties were definitely working over time to assert her right of passage, as she kept saying to me and anyone else who would listen I came in a wheelchair, you saw me, didn’t you?    She was there to to escort her two grandchildren down to Florida for a trip to Disney World.  Definitely not a candidate for special assistance, for all I could see.   So I simply stayed the course, sat quietly in my chair, and when the gate finally opened, I gently suggested to my personal wheel-chair pusher that she move on ahead.

Definitely there is a downside to Southwest’s open seating policy although I had never witnessed it before, let alone be caught right smack dab in the middle of it.  Once again, freedom of speech took another hit in my book.   Worse still, ageism also appeared to be alive and well.

I thought that the elderly gentleman’s offense had been forgotten, but re-wheel-chaired woman confided to me at the baggage claim area while we were waiting for our luggage that the older woman whom I had thought was accompanying the man, had decided to lodge a complaint against him for trying to beat  the wheel chair gang onto the plane.   That was it for me.  I said:   He clearly has some degree of dementia, why would you lodge a complain against him?   I felt even more deeply for his plight knowing  now that he had been traveling alone.  He did not deserve to be treated as he had been and, in hindsight, had I known that he was traveling alone, I would have certainly done more than I did to intervene on his behalf although, to do that, I would have had to get up out of my wheel chair, which would have undoubtedly been a source of consternation for him, since he was being told that he had to wait for people in wheel chairs.  Plus, of course, it was not my job to resolve disputes among boarding passengers.

In the end, I couldn’t help but wonder what will happen if either the woman or her daughter one day find themselves face to face with a reduction in their own mental faculties due to age.   Will they remember the man whom they had regarded with such disdain and realize what they had done?

I feel blessed that someone had seen my age as a reason to help me at the airport, rather than attack me.  Perhaps as a black woman, my elegant stranger was more sensitive to the needs of other marginalized groups than either of the able-bodied, trash-talking white women whose unseemly behavior I had had the dubious pleasure of witnessing although, as women, they would presumably have their own stories to tell about being mistreated, disrepected, or ignored.    As I reflected on my new friend’s height, her angular facial features, which were unique and beautiful in an unusual way,  her long straight hair tinted a golden brown, possibly a wig, and how she had effortlessly hoisted with one hand a duffle bag that I could barely lift with two, I wondered whether she herself had had to fight for her right to be a woman and it was through that process that her compassion was born.





2 thoughts on “The Kindness – or not so kindness – of Strangers

  1. Extremely interesting. I am not looking forward to the flight to Scotland. Once I’m there, ok, but the travel part, not at all!


  2. Ani. I loved your post about kindness. It reminded me to show up in the world with a positive attitude and a smile on my face no matter the negative energy swirling around me.💕


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