A grounding experience

It was my fourth hour in line at the Delta ticket counter at LaGuardia last month, and people were bursting into tears at the thought of being stuck another night in New York - due to flight cancellations caused by weather in Chicago. Cellphone talkers screamed at travel agents. One guy pushed another for cutting in line and then screamed at the ticket-counter clerk for letting him cut in line.

Renee, a sales exec from Charleston, S.C., declared, "I am not - repeat, not - staying in this godforsaken cement forest another night."

Fred, a wiry-haired retiree from Nantucket, asked Renee and me every 15 minutes to hold his place in line while he visited the bar.

When it was my turn, the clerk coolly typed my information, her cocoa-colored nails clacking against the keyboard. With approximately 97 irate travelers waiting to get their mitts on her, she stopped to take a personal phone call from her mother about what she'd like for dinner.

Forget fear of flying, it's airports that bother me: Too many people too crammed together and hardly anyone talking, except via cellphone - it's like a giant elevator ride, minus the quiet.

But recently my work has required a spate of airplane trips around the country. Just as summer hit, accompanied by a 20.5 percent increase in air-traffic delays, I was suddenly all over the friendly skies.

Back at LaGuardia, I caught the last flight to Washington, where it was my hope to rent a car and make the four-hour drive home to Roanoke, Va.

But when I arrived in D.C. there were no rental cars left. I faced yet another ticket clerk at another counter in another overcrowded airport. She arranged a next-morning connection. She had no hotel vouchers, no taxi tickets, no phone cards - just another boarding pass to add to the souvenir stack from my previous canceled flights. "I hear all the hotels around here are booked," she added. "But thank you for not screaming at me."

I phoned a friend, Evelyn, who'd just had a baby and lives nearby. It was 10:30 p.m., and I wondered what new mother would answer the phone that late, but suddenly there was her comforting voice, telling me, "Come on over! We've just ordered a pizza!"

By the time I left the D.C. airport, there wasn't another passenger in sight. I caught the last available taxi.

The driver, a large, 60-ish black man with a thunderous voice put my suitcase in the trunk and opened my door. I gave him directions and told him briefly about my day.

"My name is Roland," he said, "and I'm going to take care of you."

He handed me a book, told me to turn to page 33, and recited from memory a Maya Angelou poem about child abuse. "I love what she says because I went through all that, too," he said.

"Now, to page 19." He read another, this one about wanting "a cool drink of water before I die." He didn't miss a word.

"You're so good, I think I'm going to cry," I said, and he laughed.

"Yeah, I had an archaeologist in here earlier today, and she was crying like a baby."

From Evelyn's front porch, I blew Roland kisses. He waved, tooted his horn, disappeared in the dark. I was only halfway home, but I was calmed by the cry of a new baby and an older man with the voice of James Earl Jones.

Tell me what miracle of technology could top that?

*Beth Macy teaches writing at Hollins University.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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