by Susan Becker, RDC
I don’t spend much time in airports. Two or three trips a years don’t qualify me as a seasoned traveler, much less a relaxed one. But on those occasions when all the pieces actually do fit together, I am able to sit down, breathe, and just watch. And it’s not so much the travelers that catch my attention – as a group they look a lot like I feel, alternately worried, bored, tired, excited. More often it’s the men and women in the blue (or brown or gray) company uniforms who push cleaning carts, swab up bathrooms, patrol with broom and dustpan, and wipe off the tables in the food court. The airport’s invisible people whom we’d begin to notice by their absence.
On a trip I was taking a few years ago, these folks came into focus for me. It might have started with the short, stocky woman and her cleaning cart, moving down one of the concourses, eyes on the floor ahead of her, seemingly oblivious to the rush of people around her. Then the others began to appear . . . outside the Starbucks kiosk, in the ladies’ room. . . all over the place.
It was probably good flying weather that day, and my flights were connecting well, because my imagination took on a life of its own. First of all, I decided that, if this was their life, it must be pretty deadly. They come day in and day out to the same place to do the same thing – collect the derelict newspapers left at a gate, keep tables free of spilled Pepsi and catsup, and sweep up candy wrappers and Kleenex. The collateral damage of the traveling American public who, by the very fact that we managed to get to a gate at all, suggests some sort of privilege in that we can afford the luxury of travel.
I imagined their lives: limited income, struggling families, dark, cold commutes on public transportation, cramped apartment life. Ask me what they ate for dinner, and I could tell you, and also what they must be thinking, and all the reasons why they don’t make eye contact, don’t smile, and really have nothing to do with us.
They became my cause. I took it upon myself to acknowledge them. Read the name on the tag or on the shirt pocket and say thanks. Say their name out loud, smile. In retrospect, my motives were pretty mixed. I was and am grateful for the work they do. I take “clean” for granted and realize it doesn’t just happen on its own. Too, there’s the fundamental desire in me connect with someone who looks disconnected (as I always feel in airports,) and partly, I’m embarrassed to say, out of a “Lady Bountiful” attitude. I felt sorry for their lives.
Taking Another Look
On the last trip, or maybe the one before that, as I watched “my people,” I began thinking about what I was thinking about and it brought me up a little short. Airport cleaning people work in a universe that is parallel to the one we travelers inhabit. It dawned on me that probably not one of the hundreds of men and women who show up every day to maintain that huge space had anywhere near the frustration about delays or cancellations that passengers do. If they thought about the weather at all, it was probably the local forecast and related to buses and subways and what they might encounter on the trip home. Not Denver. The maintenance people I noticed didn’t check the departure monitor even once or seemed to need information from a gate attendant. None of them was sprinting along the concourse in the hope that boarding gate wasn’t closed. I’m pretty sure that whether to buy the $5.99 wrap at the kiosk or the seven-dollar in-flight sandwich was a non-issue. Or wondering what the movie was. Or anxious about the girth of their seatmate for the next six hours. I wouldn’t be surprised if their blood pressure was a whole lot better than mine and that of the people around me at any given moment.
While I rush past strangers with whom I share space for one moment of eternity, their space holds colleagues, work-mates and friends. They know something of one another’s lives and can count for a human connection on familiarity and a moment snatched for a shared story. To them we who come and go might all begin to look alike after a while, or maybe we’re the invisible ones.
Ties. . .
To stop here is to miss the container that can hold both universes. When the immediacy of this day is done, there is a place where differences dissolve. I can imagine that all of us think about a lot of the same things: peaceful countries and peaceful neighborhoods, what the future holds for us and our children, the price of milk and gas, taxes, job security, health, family and friends. We who travel and we who clean up are not so different after all. We all get to be happy and sad and fearful and anxious and joy-filled.
These are the ties that bind us and bond us and really tell the deep story that belongs to all of us. I won’t stop connecting with my airport people. They are my people, and I am theirs. Maybe on my next trip I’ll ask the stocky lady with the cart if I can walk along with her for a few minutes, or maybe we could grab a cup of coffee. Who knows where that might lead . . .