09/28/2005 05:01 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

We're American Airlines

What better metaphor for America today than an injured man on a cross-country flight? You get an up-close look at our decaying infrastructure, hear misleading information, throw your fate in the hands people who deny your humanity ... and then find kindness in unexpected places. You depend on the powerless, the people you meet hate their jobs, and security's an empty ritual. Throw in last week's JetBlue flight – 200 people suspended between heaven and earth watching their own fate unfold on TV, and the metaphor's complete. Fly American.

I arrived at the airport extra early, cane in hand, ready to be taken to the gate by wheelchair as arranged. The agents on the phone had assured me there would be no problem. The bell captain accepted a generous tip, muttered something into a walkie-talkie, and disappeared. A half-hour later, too uncomfortable to sit, stand, or walk, I tried flagging down anyone with a uniform. They all had the same suggestion: walk – to the check-in counter, back to the curb, or directly to the gate. I tried, but couldn't make it.

Finally, I stopped two airport employees with a wheelchair and told them my story. From that point on, they adopted me. I was their cause and their ward, and we were going to get to the gate. A few dozen “excuse me's” later we were at the security gate. “You just relax now, baby. We gonna get there.” We rolled past elevators under repair, a little light construction, and some scuffed freight elevators. The gates of that newly bankrupted airline were not far away, and they certainly knew about the jobs being lost.

Airports look different in a wheelchair, and you have even less humanity to the people trying to crowd past you than you do when you're walking. My escorts kept having to ask people to do what should've been automatic and make room for me. But when you're in need, you become an obligation, and people resent obligations. I met their eyes as often as possible, and thanked them for stepping aside. The response was almost always immediate – suddenly I became a person, not an aggravation, and I got a human response in return.

The most concern and care I got at every point from California to New York came from minority, lower-income workers. It's no surprise that surveys show that poorer people contribute far more, as a percentage of income, than wealthier individuals. They certain gave more of their time, care, and attention to me. The security guard who patted me down left my wheelchair where I could “enjoy the view” of the “pretty people” passing through security, their images multiplied on a dozen monitors.

Studies confirm that we're no safer now than we were before 9/11, and it shows in the empty ritual that is the screening process. You know the drill, and so do the terrorists. If you and I know that they always search you when you buy a one-way ticket, then they do too. Same with the shoes. But like a cargo cult playing with airplane parts and expecting to fly, we and the security guards go through our motions and imagine we're safer.

The inflight news program played footage of JetBlue's emergency landing, a close call its passengers watched live on the same onboard monitors, the ultimate self-referential news story. My airline – was that the same one where two pilots were convicted of flying drunk? There at 30,000 feet, not knowing if we were in the hands of the sober or the sane, fed on news programs and insipid movies ... the metaphors were coming too fast and cheap now.

We arrived in JFK late at night. My immigrant wheelchair aide wasn't disturbed by anything – even the fact that I had forgotten to bring cash for the cab ride into town. He spent a lot of time with me, and we solved the problem together. A cab was finally hailed and I headed downtown for a night's rest. No metaphors left – just an injury that would heal with time, and an early morning meeting on Wall Street. The human drama over, it was time to think of commerce.

We're American Airlines, doing what we do best.

A Night Light