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A Little Lower Than Angels: Flying Across America (pre-9/11) August 28, 2009

Posted by vsap in Blogroll, Uncategorized.
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It was a dark and stormy night. For however ridiculous and contrived it seems it’s the sort of night that tries the soul of the traveler. On this particular evening, I am standing in line at United Airlines’ Red Carpet executive class hideaway in O’Hare (or ORD as we insiders know it). This is a place where people have paid for the privilege of escaping from the huddled masses yearning to be free. Not on this night. A fierce thunderstorm has all but locked down the airport’s prisoners. There is revolution brewing on the B Concourse and I’m afraid it has found its way into this refuge.

A tall, smartly dressed blonde woman stands at the far right of the counter. She is adorned in a beautifully tailored blue business suit and accenting her white blouse is a scarf of muted burgundy and hunter green. If Snow White lived in the 90s, this could be her stunt double. At first, she appeared poised. She spoke clearly, yet with an unmistakable stress in her voice, to the clerk who she no doubt believed held her fate in his computer. The clerk was a middle-aged black man, dressed in company colors with those little half glasses that could just as well been purchased at Wal-Mart as they could have been prescription. If he seemed bored by her story, he probably was since he had heard some form of it at least a few dozen times for the last four hours and prospects weren’t good that he’d hear a good joke.

“I’m booked on the 8:30 to Albany and it’s been cancelled,” she said firmly to the clerk, “I must get there tonight. I must. It’s critical.” She handed the clerk her ticket as she spoke. He investigated it thoroughly as if he might miss something. It was almost as if he was studying the sports page agate. Combing it for the latest statistics on his favorite baseball player.

“Well?” she more or less demanded.

“Well, let’s take a look here,” he responded like a doctor checking a x-ray. After a few taps on the keyboard, which I believed was more for show than for anything else, he responded, “Miss, it doesn’t look like we’ll be able to get you to Albany tonight, but…”

He didn’t get a chance to finish his sentence. Her body language changed. Her face contorted and her body quaked and she became momentarily unstable on her patent leather heels. This Snow White transformed into no less than the Incredible Hulk(ette), color change and all. Or, for the cartoon buffs, she was like Yosemite Sam before he explodes into “Ooooo, Ima gonna git yowho varment!” Her voice elevated and thickened.

“What? What? I have been standing in this line for 45 minutes. I had my flight postponed four times since 6:30 only to have it cancelled at 9. I can’t believe it. I can’t believe it!” She stomped her pumps and pumped her fist on the counter. (I have modified the expletives in the next segment in the event small children or teenagers get their eyes on this story.) This mother huggin’ airline is the absolute friggin’ worst I’ve ever flown on in my friggin’ life. You cancel the gull dern plane and I’ve got to take that load of crap? Well I friggin’ well don’t! I’ll fly friggin’ American next time, friggin’ A, you bet!”

Now, due to the din of the place, this volcano blew mostly all over itself. I think that only the gentlemen next to her on her left at the counter and me were the only witnesses to the horror. But the gentleman on the left took less than a nanosecond to check it out, being too busy arranging new schedules to exotic places like Minot, North Dakota, and Shreveport/Bossier City, Louisiana. The two gentlemen immediately in front of me, and next in line, were deeply engrossed in some business discussion about layoffs and budget cuts. The older gentleman and his wife behind me traded stories of their various ailments suffered through two days of attempting to reach Grand Rapids, Michigan, from Helena, Montana. I expected everything to stop and everyone to look, however briefly and silently, to acknowledge the verbalization of the feelings all of us shared, if not on this night, one recently past. I realized I was the only real witness to this devastation. Of course I was, until I left my revelry and remembered the clerk. During the torrent he never lifted his eyes or moved his head.

The clerk was the sort of middle-aged man who I was certain did not choose this kind of work as a career. My mind bounced frantically between picturing him as a laid off hod carrier or postal worker on disability. In any event, I knew public relations weren’t his strong suit. Now that Snow White had become Cinderella’s most ill-tempered step sister, it was unclear if he would become equally ill-tempered or quietly attempt to assist her in the face of incredible, if not unexpected, verbal abuse.

“Miss,” he looked up over his half-glasses with the sublime glee of a cat that caught his canary,  “If you’ll allow me to finish I’ll tell you we can get you to LaGaurdia where we have a flight to Albany about an hour after you arrive. Now, you will be late, but you will get there. Shall I book it for you?”

At that point the guys in front of me stopped cold and chimed in unison to themselves, “What a witch (sanitized, again)!” They sniggered, shrugged and then continued their conversation as if nothing had happened. The older gentleman behind me tapped me on the shoulder and offered, “How’d you like to be married to that? I hate people who make a bad situation worse, don’t you?” He laughed heartily and then turned to his wife as if to explain the whole situation I was sure he had ignored.

Meanwhile, I had almost forgotten that Snow White hadn’t responded to the clerk. What possible shred of dignity could she salvage? She had three options, I thought: humbly accept his gift and maybe even apologize in some small way; quip back sharply “I don’t understand why people have to get mad before you can get things done”; or, “Great! It took long enough but I knew you could figure it out.” As it happens in these things, emotion overrides reason and my experience has proven people will say some pretty amazing things. She had stood there motionless, like a marionette waiting for its master’s pull.  Now she jerked, straightened her blouse and jacket and said with a snarl, “You people not only make things difficult, you make them impossible. I’m takin’ your friggin’ ticket. Yah, book it, damn it anyway, but I’m marching across to American and if they get me out even a half hour earlier, (he is now handing her the new ticket) I’m coming back here to shred this ticket in your face.”

Of course, there wouldn’t be a client or co-worker in the place who had seen even a portion of this that would have reported him if he got up, reached across and popped her a good one so her next stop would be the dentist instead of another airline. But to his credit, this ex-postal worker/hod carrier, leaned back and said peacefully, “Thank you ma’am, (sigh) it’s been a pleasure to serve you. I hope we have the opportunity to serve you again soon. Next!”

Snow White turned a dozen shades of red, picked up her things walked briskly toward the door, tousling the hair of those she passed and even jarring the hat from a child’s head. My guess is that if there is any justice in the world, she’s not yet arrived in Albany to this day.

Based on a true incident on the evening of August 27, 1998.

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