In a relatively short span of time, at Gate 72, awaiting the boarding of Flight 344 from San Francisco to Portland, I have several interesting experiences. I am wandering through the waiting area at Gate 72, looking for a place to sit – there are none to be found except upon the ground, as everyone without exception is sitting with at least one vacant seat (where they deposited their carry-on items) in between themselves and the people on either side of them, unless they are traveling with families or companions, in which case they might be sitting in adjacent seats.
As I am making my way through the crowded waiting area I notice a spectacular array of humans, including a Buddhist nun. Shaved head with dark stubble, round face with gleaming dark eyes – Asian, but I am not sure if she is Chinese, Tibetan, or Japanese, or any of the many other ethnicities she may be. He robe is cream-colored and quilted, her bloomer-like pants cream as well but constructed of a rougher fabric than the robe. On her back, she has a fabric pouch-like backpack; like a pillow case with drawstrings and straps. On her feet, white socks and martial-arts-like white slippers. She holds prayer beads and I can tell by her eyes, the look on her face, and how she is holding the beads that she is meditating or praying. I let myself look at her; in my mind, I imagine bowing to her. I wish that she would look at me – maybe later.
Finding not one place to sit and seeing that no one is making a gesture to make room for me, I find a space on the floor upon which to squat for a few minutes. After a time I realize we will be boarding the plane late, and so I take the opportunity to visit the restroom one last time. Upon my return to Gate 72, after finding a good place to stand where I can watch the Buddhist nun, who now is walking slowly back-and-forth between the rows of seats, still praying with her string of beads, it is only minutes before I become aware of a disturbance; I feel it and hear it, feel it first. It comes from the ticket counter, where a very small Asian man – very small and very old, and very dapper, dressed in a tweed jacket and trousers – is speaking loudly and with some mild but growing agitation to the also-Asian gate attendant, tall and dark, who was with obvious impatience telling him where to go to catch the bus to the international terminal.
He is not understanding her – at first I think because English is not his native language. But then I realize it is perhaps that, but also because he has a hearing loss – I can see his hearing aids. He repeats his questions, and the agent repeats her answers, and they do this tense awkward dance several more times until it seems they are on the verge of a mutual melt-down. All of this happens in a span of minutes – I think perhaps no more than two minutes – and each time through the dance, more of my flight-mates are taking notice of the commotion.
In an even quicker moment, I decide to intervene – the plane is boarding late, I was assigned one of the last boarding spots in the queue, and something has to be done so the agent can start boarding the plane to Portland and the lost little ancient man can find his international flight. I walk over to the ticket counter, and say to the old man, “I will show you to the right place, sir.” Good timing on my part--The agent is in the process of literally dragging him out of the waiting area and into the busy concourse so she can point him in the right direction, and he is frantic, saying, “You must understand, I have a hearing problem, you must speak slowly.” I tell the agent, “I will make sure he goes to the right place”; I put my hand on his elbow and say, “follow me, I’ll help you.” He asks me if I am going to Taipei as he is, and I say that I’m not, I’m on the flight to Portland. He tells me that the gate agent had confused him and I commiserate with him, saying that she seems overwhelmed and impatient. So off we go, in the direction I remember the agent was pointing him – turn left at the end of the concourse – but the signs I see don’t match-up with the agent’s instructions. I have a moment of panic! What if I tell him to go the wrong way and he gets even more lost, misses his flight? What if she told him to go the wrong way? I have taken responsibility for this person and I must see him to where he needs to go, but what if I miss my flight in the process and don’t arrive to Portland in time to get my daughter from school? Understand that my mind is racing, I’m spinning a bit like a top, but I’m also reassuring him with calm and slow words that everything will be okay. At that very moment, a flight attendant who recognizes him from his previous flight walks up to us and offers to show him all the way to the bus that will take him to the international concourse. The gentleman thanks me for my help and off he goes, under someone else’s care.
I return to Gate 72, which now is even more crowded; not only are there no seats to be found, there are few places to even stand. I find a patch of ground next to the phone kiosk and a caucasian man with freckles and strawberry blond hair. We smile at each other and then he tells me that he thinks what I did for the little old man was great, that he’s been watching the whole situation unfold. We talk a bit about it – I tell him that the man has a hearing loss and the gate agent was harried and that something had to be done to help the situation. He agrees and says to me, “Well done—good for you!” Then we talk a bit about how agitated everyone seems, how difficult air travel is, because of the hurried and impatient energy that seems to be in the atmosphere. I tell him about my various strategies for staying calm and unhurried – arrive early even if it means waking up at 3:30 a.m., plan a lay- over so I have time to re-collect my wits and take care of my body, and board the plan toward the end of the line so I don’t have to battle with people who are more rushed than I am. He asks me what I am traveling for –I tell him briefly about it. I ask him what he is traveling for – he tells me that he’s an Oregon State Trooper and has been in San Francisco for diversity training. He was doing recruiting for ethnic minorities and women. He’s had his position for 8 years and he loves it. Before doing this job, he was a parole officer. He says that he believes in what he does and so everything about his job excites him.
He asks me more questions about what I do, what I teach, why I was out-of-town. I tell him about my faculty position at Marylhurst and the guest teaching I just did at Pacifica Graduate Institute in Santa Barbara. He asks about the course I taught while I was there and who the students are. I describe the program, how adult students from all over the country fly once a month to Pacifica in Santa Barbara for a four-day intensive stint of doctoral-level courses. I tell him about their insanely busy lives, deep commitments to their education, and their anxieties around doing well in graduate school in the context of their complex lives as grown-ups, and how I have to account for all of these complexities when I show up for a day to coach them in how to do scholarly research and writing, how to survive their dissertations. He said that I must find such work to be very gratifying. "Yes, indeed," I say. "Gratifying and transformative."
Then it is time for him to board the plane to Portland and he walks away to get in line. He doesn’t say “goodbye,” or “nice chatting with you,” but when he gets in place in the line, he turns back and waves and smiles at me – I return the wave and the smile.
I look for the Buddhist nun. She isn’t where she had been before, and then I see her, on the edges of the line, waiting her turn to board the plane. She looks at me – eyes to eyes – and I see her recognize me, really see me. And she smiles warmly and I return the smile, bowing to her ever so slightly.