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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Kindness of Strangers

I sat in the Frontier terminal, stunned. What had the flight attendant just said?

She pressed the mouth piece to her face again, repeating, "Flight 415 to Los Angeles has been cancelled. Please make your way to the Customer Service desk for your re-accommodations."

We had gotten to the airport extra early that morning, and my mind flitted through our last four hours of waiting. Noelle had been taken with everything. Like a ping pong ball she bounced from attraction to attraction: the moving walkways, the magazine stands, the baggage holders, the phones behind the check-in desk. How on earth was I supposed to stand in a customer service line and keep my daughter still?

"Good luck," said a sun-tanned college guy walking out of the customer service office. "That line took me three hours." My stomach dropped. Noelle squirreled around me pretending to take a nap on the terminal floor with her blanket. She flipped and flopped like a salmon, occasionally whapping the heels of the man in front of us.

I apologized a couple of times when I saw him glance back and shuffle forward irritated, but really, what was I supposed to do? I was just glad that she was staying close to me. She was a toddler for goodness sakes, and here I was about to make her stand in a three hour line.

"Just pull the mom card," my friend advised over the phone. "Really, Christin, you need help."

I nodded and hung up the phone. I watched as workers with green Frontier vests buzzed in and out of the office.

"How many today?" one worker asked another.

"Twelve have been cancelled so far."

I noticed a woman who seemed to be in charge. She was petite with brown hair and just as she was passing me, I summoned the courage to grab her arm.

"Excuse me," I said. She turned toward me with a blank expression. "I'm traveling alone with my toddler. Is there anyway I could get extra help?" Her blank expression continued and I realized I needed something else, some other reason to invoke her help.

I glanced over at a mom and new born baby sitting comfortably next to the office door. The mother was dabbing her eyes with a Kleenex as a kind middle-aged worker walked her through some papers.

I turned back to the supervisor, "I'm feeling a little emotional and stressed out by all the changes."

As if I had flipped a switch, the supervisor reached out and took my arm. "Oh honey, you just come with me." She lead me to another line for special cardholders and members, which was only two people long.

"Thank you," I said feeling the push of anxiety ease, but the worst hadn't come yet. I still wasn't home.

The lady behind the counter was of course overworked and stressed out. She didn't know where to look to help me, and the best she could come up with was a flight at 10pm on a different airline that would require Noelle and I to not only wait another seven hours but to take a train to another part of the airport and re-check in.

I felt the clouds of dizzy roll in again, and my chest constrict. I took my new tickets and moved out of the line, back to the terminal.

We had half the day, so I took a moment to gather myself. Noelle and I dropped our bags in some empty seats, and I scanned the people around us. My eye caught a sign for a gate across the hallway, "Los Angeles 5:50pm."

There is something called "Serendipity", and then there is something else called "asking." You never know what will happen if you ask, if you push and nose around just a little bit. Sometimes the act of asking is just enough to open the door to let serendipity in.

I scurried over to the gate check. A young fair-skinned attendant was walking out of the tunnel toward the desk. "Excuse me," I stepped in his way.

Trying not to be too obnoxious or overly frantic, I quickly explained my situation. I pointed to Noelle who was busy investigating the planes through the massive glass windows and then asked him, "Do you think there is anyway I could just hang around, see if there are any empty seats on this flight?"

"I just finished a flight and I have to take care of all these people waiting on me," he said shortly and pushed past me.

I heard a man behind me grunt his approval, "Mm-hm."

Until this point, I had kept the flutter of tears at bay, but this unfortunately was more than I could take. I was trying so hard to be calm, to hold myself together, but something about a stranger being unkind when I was already so stressed out punctured my composure.

I picked Noelle up and promptly began to cry. There was nowhere to turn where people couldn't see me, but I managed to hide behind a life-sized cardboard cutout of a flight attendant waving cheerfully at the passing crowds.

In a moment of unbearable cuteness, Noelle saw me crying, smiled and then hugged my neck with her chubby little arms.

When things dried up a bit, I turned back to the gate check. I was totally stumped. Should I just pack up my things, and take the train ride to the other part of the airport and wait for the flight that had been given me, or should I push and ask for something better?

Two things are true about myself: 1) I tend toward the sensitive side and am prone to verbalize every single emotion I feel, but 2) when all the tears or exhaustion or anger have been unleashed, there is a resilience at my core. I bounce back.

And so I did exactly this, bounce back to the gate check, though it was more like a slink. The gruff young attendant was typing away on his computer and as far as I could tell, no one was waiting for his help.

"I'm sorry to keep bothering you," I rushed in, "But I just need to know, do you think it's worth me staying or should I just go now?"

He looked up, saw my tear streaked face, Noelle quietly chewing on her finger, and welcomed me with a rush of warmth.

"I'll take care of you!" he said. "Just you sit down there and get yourself together and I'll sort everything out."

What is there about an emotionally distressed woman that culls people's sympathy? I mean truly, wasn't it enough that I was traveling alone with a toddler? Did I also have to be a basket case for the supervisor and this flight attendant to help?

But oh well, if that's what I had to do to get home, then let the tears flow.

I sat down with Noelle, sniffling, sighing, nodding my head and saying "thank you" profusely. In a few minutes, the young man came back with some papers. I dabbed my eyes with a kleenex.

"Okay, I've put you number two on the standby list. You just wait here and take it easy."

Sure enough, there were plenty of empty seats on the plane back to Los Angeles. So many flights had been cancelled that day, people were missing their connections and chaos was reigning through the Frontier terminal.

As a result, I got on the plane with an extra seat for Noelle (which I hadn't paid for in our original tix) and I sat next to the sweetest Morman Grandmother who showered us with snacks and treats and good advise.

Not to mention this cosmic bit of luck:

"Christin!" I turned around to see one of my sister's friends from Azusa Pacific University standing on the plane. "What are you doing here?" We gave each other a big hug and I felt myself ease into the gift of a familiar face, and the kindness of strangers.


Blogger Anne Canright said...

And strangers are all around. A lovely exploration of connection and disconnect--and then connection again. I'm glad that compassion ruled the day. And that you got home safely and with all faculties intact. (And the picture is perfect!)

10:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry you went through what has unfortunately become so regular on airlines. However, you made a great story of the experience.


8:48 AM  
Anonymous Sarah F said...

Ah Christin, I've experienced one too many grumpy airline employees too (w/ the exception of flight attendants...They all seem to love doting on a cute baby). Now I know to add the tear card to the mom card. :-)

5:36 PM  

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