Its not headline news that flying today stinks. Being in the air, I don't care if its first class, business or economy, is now a half step up from traveling in the back of a Greyhound bus. Only Greyhound buses are more punctual. I've got nothing against Greyhound. They got me home from college reliably during Thanksgiving and spring breaks.
It's just that if I'm paying a hefty fee for a ticket, I'd like to be rewarded with a little gratitude. Instead, there I am feeling as if I'm being stripped of my possessions at the gates of Sing Sing as I prepare to board the plane. "Only two carry ons, no bigger than a small wallet," the bored security guard screams just inches from my ear as I stand barefoot, holding every accessory I own from belt to necklace in my hands.
"Sorry Ma'am, stand over there while we run our electro-charged probe up the underside of your thigh." Or what about the equal opportunity racial profiling of poor Grandpa, as they strip search his dentures and hearing aid batteries for incendiary devices?
My personal favorite is the zip lock bag Gestapo -- all liquids must fit in one tiny PB&J sized zip lock bag. I love the female security guards who examine EACH tube of mascara or tiny vial of lip-gloss, each pot of eye cream as if I have raw explosives or TNT inside. And what woman, who is remaining hygienic, is able to wedge her toiletries into one sandwich bag?
By the time I'm seated and the battle-axe of a stewardess takes her turn with me, she is clearly out of gas for displaying compassion. She's wrestled with one too many suit bags. She is now yelling -- I mean yelling at the passengers so she can repeat food options by row instead of individually. Just as I've dozed off, her megaphone beak starts squawking at the top of her lungs--DO YOU WANT THE TORTELLINI OR CHICK- EN? Wow -- wide-awake now!
Like passengers on a stuck elevator, at least you'd hope for a bit of solidarity from your seatmates. Especially when your plane is an hour delayed and you've taxied out to the runway only to be told you need to head back to the gate for mechanical difficulties. This news forces steam of out of the ears of every home bound evening traveler.
So it was actually the woman next to me, the unfriendly, prim woman that made me think of gratitude.
First, a little background. I was on my way home from a funeral. And that funeral had made me think about what a short time we really have here on this earth, as funerals can do. And the man who was gone, in an instant, Tim Russert, was someone who I understood lived just about every day being grateful for his kid, his wife, his job, his life, the fact that he loved what he did and got paid for it too. He never forgot that kindness and gratitude are what sets humans apart from barnyard animals. They are the currency of legends. Which is why he had become one.
And it was in this frame of mind, contemplative, grateful, not sweating the small stuff, thinking about Maureen and Luke, and how the reality of loss would begin to seep in as friends went back to their routines, that I had taken my seat on the plane.
I was feeling grateful for what I had, even up to the moment when the pilot announced we were turning back at the gate due to a broken dashboard light. It was at this point I made a comment, aimed at solidarity, to old prune face next to me.
Let me just say here I am not a chatter on planes or public places. I am a put-my-book-out and stick-the-ear-phones-in kind of gal. I take the offensive before they can open their mouths.
I'm not searching for companionship on a plane. I'm not asking the person to let me into their MySpace page. I was just looking for a little garden-variety human kindness in the face of travel woes.
Prune face fit a stereotype, to be sure. She had trimmed gray hair, a diminutive figure, big, owlish glasses and a clipped British accent. She was NOT a smiler.
And as I kvetched to her jocularly about being so delayed, she glared at me and turned down the corners of her mouth as if I had let out a noxious gas aimed at her head. I retreated.
And then came the second sign of a stingy shriveled heart -- the Diet Coke fiasco. As I cracked my soda can open a spot of diet coke flew onto her black polyester pants. You would have thought I had just spray painted DDT in her face. While I yammered my apology, she jumped up, squinted her face at me and clucked her tongue in disgust as she rubbed and rubbed the area where the drop had fallen. I offered napkins, a travel wipe and practically took off my underpants to help her blot it up.
From there it went to my un-acknowledged "bless you" in response to her sneeze, and her baffled, disgruntled look when the stewardess said there were no extra nuts -- she'd given them to the pilot. Jesus -- feed the pilot, I thought -- lets not let him slip into a low blood sugar coma.
And so it continued as she searched for her lost Ecco shoe before landing -- which I found for her. Not even a thank you for that random act of kindness.
These are little things, to be sure. Minor transgressions. The world has a whole lot worse problems. But if we don't start by tinkering at the margins, by merely smiling in the grocery aisle or nodding our heads in the elevator, or being kind to the chamber maid who we turn away at the hotel door, how are we going to make it infectious? How are we going to counterbalance road rage and hate crimes and domestic violence and all the other ills of society that might be able to use an infusion of gratitude?
I propose we start with the prune-faces of the world and just kill'em with kindness.