Monday, March 2, 2015

"How Are You Doing Today?"

The lady quickly caught up with me. "I hate flying into Atlanta," she said. "They all like that. Shameful's what it is."

I landed in Atlanta hungry and tired and with only a small window of time to get to my shuttle, set to depart in 25 minutes and having to make an absolutely essential pit stop before being stuck in a van for two hours.

Worse, I took the "plane train" in the wrong direction, which added to my stress.

By the time I get to the top of the domestic baggage claim area, I had 10 minutes to find a restroom and also get to "Parking Space 13 or 14 in Ground Transportation." There were two wings to the baggage claim, and each wing had two exits to "Ground Transportation." My intestines and I knew we didn't have time to trial-and-error our way to the right location, not if we were to take care of other matters.

The first human beings you encounter at the top of the escalator to baggage claim are TSA officers, whose sole job, it seems, is to ensure that no ter'ists attempt to sneak into a terminal and onto an airplane via the baggage claim. Two TSA guards stood to my right, and one to my left. Because it's a fairly tedious job*, people like myself are inclined to think of them as "TSA security and/or Information." In fact, four people were lined around the guards to the right asking them questions. So I went left.

"Excuse me, ma'am, can I ask you for some help finding how to get to my shuttle?" I asked.

Nary a muscle in her body moved. Her eyes remained transfixed on her phone. And she said these words: "And how are you today?"

I paused. Seemed like an odd reply. And then I said, "Um, I'm good? I think?"

"No sir," she said. "That is how you might consider addressing someone if you want their help and they ain't gotta be helping you. A little courtesy."

She didn't stop there. This was the genesis of a sermon she was now preaching at a sinful congregation of one, which is to say me. When it dawned on me, that I was being sermonized to, I held my hand up and interrupted (except she kept talking).

"Okay okay thank you and nevermind. I'll find a decent and happier human being to ask for help. But I sure do hope your day improves, 'cuz it must not be going well." I walked backward away from her, a bit worried that this woman might have the authority to create serious problems for me.

An older black woman apparently witnessed the entire odd event walked up to the agent and said, "Woman, what is wrong with you?" Salt and pepper short hair. Sharply dressed. Confident and clearly in an upper or upper-middle status in life. Her words bounced off stone. She walked quickly to close the distance between us. She was pissed.

"I hate Atlanta," she said. "They all like that."
"I've never had an encounter quite like that one," I said.
"You must not travel this airport much."
"I mean, I get her point about politeness, but I don't see why that's -- "

"No no, honey. You didn't do anything wrong. You were plenty polite. She just a pissed off lady taking out her misery on you. They doing that here all the time. I'm tellin' you, I travel for my job, all over the country, and Atlanta is the worst. The. Worst. They oughtta be ashamed of themselves, but they're not. Shameful is what it is."

A lady from the next booth -- a different shuttle company -- was more than happy to help me out. I asked how she was doing today first.

Life went on. No big whoop.

I know this was about race. I just don't know how much of it was. Or which parts.

I know it was about unhappiness and the impact we can have for good or ill on others we meet only briefly. I just don't know how much of it was about that. Or which of us, or if either or both of us, failed.

I know it was about not knowing what she brought to the table in that moment. Maybe she had just ended a bad conversation or a fight, or there's a break-up pending, or maybe a death or illness in her life, or just some random news item that made her, in that moment, really hate the look of me. Maybe she was up all night drinking, or crying, or dealing with a sick baby or a disrespectful teenager.

I have no idea what she brought to the table. I only know she was either deeply unhappy in the oment or deeply unhappy in a more disturbing way. Regardless, my regret is not finding a way, in that moment, to do something more positive, to show some kind of patience or warmth or compassion. If she rejected it or responded with more anger, so be it. I only know that her anger felt like my failure.


goofytakemyhand said...

I remember a fantastic 7th grade English teacher from many years ago who would have sermonized you for responding "I'm good" rather than "I'm well."

I loved that class.

Anonymous said...

Your reflections remind me of that David Foster Wallace address at Kenyon, "This Is Water." Nice post, Billy.

troutking said...

Worthy of discussion at Kumo. Nice post.