Two people. One young, one older. Both working in an environment where they’re underpaid, overworked, taken for granted, ignored, hassled and sometimes abused.
I saw them at different times in the same airport, and for me, they laid bare some of the realities and fallacies of today’s society, and what many of us think about certain demographic groups.
As I walked to my gate for a return flight home, I saw him. He appeared to be in his early to mid-20s. He was wearing a uniform (dark blue pants, red polo shirt and a blue windbreaker) and he was pushing not one but two empty wheelchairs, deftly navigating them through the busy crowd as though they were connected. As he passed, he was singing, no doubt to the song that was coming out of his earbuds.
I didn’t give this a second thought as I too navigated the crowd of tourists and businesspeople, all looking to get to or return from somewhere as efficiently and painlessly as possible. After a quick stop in the rest room, I continued the long walk toward my gate.
Suddenly, a voice broke through the audio pollution that marks every busy airport (P.A. announcements, crying children, restaurant conversations, people on their phones talking to loved ones or business associates, etc.), and it was him, the young man with the wheelchairs.
This time, he was coming up behind me. This time, he didn’t have earbuds stuffed in his head. This time, he wasn’t singing. He was talking, and as he passed, I watched and listened as he pushed an elderly couple – each nestled comfortably in their respective wheelchairs – and made pleasant conversation.
Immediately, I was struck by his energy toward his work and his focus on this couple. I’m a fast walker, but even I had trouble keeping pace with this trio, yet I so wanted to stay close, to feed off that energy and to learn just a little more about this guy, not in a creepy way, just tangentially, as an observer.
For the next 10 gates, I stayed just off his shoulder, never letting on that I was following him. During that brief period, I heard him telling stories of his life, stories that had his customers laughing and asking him questions. At one point, I heard him say, “This is why I love this job so much. It’s not the pay, it’s the fact that I can spend time with people.”
This coming from a member of the “younger generation” so many of us all-too-often disparage for their lack of work ethic.
Was he “B.S.ing” to earn a better tip? Maybe, but I don’t think so. Generally, I have a keen “B.S. meter,” and this guy didn’t fit the bill. (Even if he was looking for a better tip, do you blame him?)
At any rate, he and his passengers eventually peeled off to head for Terminal A, and I continued through Terminal B, our paths never to cross again.
Fast-forward 15 minutes. I found a place to grab a quick bite before making the final journey to my gate. The place was busy, and after waiting for a long period at the host stand next to a sign that read, “Please wait to be seated,” a passing server yelled, “Just sit anywhere, Sweetie, we’ll get to you,” and so I did.
After sitting for 10 minutes without acknowledgement from any of the three servers constantly passing by me on their way to other tables (it was obvious they needed two or three more at that moment), she approached. She was easily in her mid- to late-60s age, and likely had been on this job – or one similar – for a long, long time. I could tell by her approach and the way she carried herself.
“You never know when you’re gonna get run over in this job, and Honey, we just got run over. Get you some coffee?” I nodded and smiled, even though I’d been waiting upwards of 20 minutes (first outside at the host station, then at the table). I appreciated her “non-apologetic” apology because it immediately let me know she felt bad, but because she didn’t yet know her audience (me), she wasn’t going to show any vulnerability. Her experience told her that, more often than not, airport customers will take advantage of that vulnerability.
“That’d be great, and no hurry,” I replied, and she shot me a look, her jaw hardening as a reflex to what she took as a sarcastic remark. “No, seriously,” I said, understanding her misunderstanding. “Do what you have to do. I’m in no hurry.” With that, her eyes softened, and I could tell through her mask that she was smiling.
Over the next 20 minutes, she brought me coffee and my breakfast, each time with a smile that didn’t necessarily say, “I love my job,” but more as a sense of relief that even on the busiest days, the days when she and her co-workers were getting “run over,” there could be bright spots.
As I paid my bill, I thanked her, and again, her tired eyes brightened. “It’s been a long haul,” she said, and without hearing the rest of her story, I had an idea what she meant. “Thank you, sir, for understanding.”
“It’s David,” I replied as I stood to leave. “Joanna,” she responded, as she looked me in the eye and continued. “I hope you have a wonderful day, David.”
“Hang in there, Joanna, and don’t take any crap from anyone.” She laughed as she walked away, saying to anyone within earshot, “You know I won’t, David. You know I won’t!” This too, cut through the airport’s audio pollution, and got several tables laughing.
These are the people that take care of us, in airports, grocery stores, hospitals and clinics, repair shops and millions of other places where we need assistance every day. And every day, we take these hard-working people for granted and often make assumptions and generalizations about who they are based on tiny sample sizes we have, or even second-hand information based on stories we’ve heard.
I felt the need to call out these two individuals because they stood out as people who bring life, character, focus and fun to what they do. They aren’t wealthy, and they work in a place where every day they see people enjoying themselves, going on adventures and escaping reality while they stay back and keep the lights on.
I learned so much from Joanna and that young man that morning, about gratitude, confidence, perspective and what it means to live your life regardless of what hand you’ve been dealt or where you find yourself on life’s journey: old, young or in between.
I wish I could have talked to the young wheelchair attendant, to get to know him a little bit. And I’m guessing I could have sat and talked to Joanna for hours, listening to all the stories she has working all those shifts in the airport restaurant.
But, what I have is a brief memory of two people who made me smile, two people who I saw going over and above for so many who take what they do for granted.
For me, it was a reminder to be more observant, and to appreciate everyone for who they are and what they’re going through. And I need to celebrate those who overcome their realities and can still give me a smile, a laugh or a story without missing a beat.
© 2022 David R. Haznaw