Predispositions.

11 Mar

One of my less glamorous assignments is picking guests up at airports, assisting them with their luggage, and transferring them, with a little banter on the side, to their destination hotel. Taking public transportation to any of the three international airports here takes time, often involves the noxious smell of diesel, and standing outside in whatever miserable weather is currently raining down from the sky. Hanging out in an airport is what I imagine Purgatory to be: wandering around waiting for a plane that never seems to arrive as the fabric of time tears itself to shreds while surrounded by the homeless, awful over-priced food, and the screaming displaced babies that fell through a wormhole out of Limbo.

Guests getting off planes are already primed to pick a fight. They’ve been sitting squeezed in among the sneezers and wheezers carrying diseases on an international scale and bags that clearly don’t fit into the overhead bins despite their angry efforts to shove them in with the hopeless determination of Sisyphus. They are fed tasteless tiny packets of astronaut food while developing thromboses in their lifeless limbs. Finally, they are dumped in a foreign terminal and must maneuver through acres of misleading signage to find me, smiling and dressed to kill, standing at the wrong carousel. Confidence is in short supply all around as the fucking luggage never slides down its intended shoot in my fourteen years of experience.

This day, I was meeting a mother and son who had flown from Heathrow to JFK. They had a limousine waiting for them, as most guests do. Not the jitney-turned-subway-turned city bus that I had to take to meet them. From yards and meters away I could tell there was a problem, not from the wobbly wheelchair that Owen was sitting in and struggling with, but from the furrows turned Grand Canyons on their foreheads.

Forced to relinquish his chair to the cargo hold, British Airways had somehow popped one of his tires. Owen’s mother was livid. Owen took it all a bit more in stride. My dumb dopey frantic scientific explanations about air pressure and icy temperatures did little to assuage the situation. Owen’s mom would hear none of it. She misplaced all of her anger directly towards me, yelling at me in her East End ways as if I had personally piloted the plane and purposely taken an ice pick to her son’s rubber wheel.

I continued to try to calm her and in the resourcefulness that is part and parcel to my profession, told her I would take them to a bicycle shop in my neighborhood that was exactly one block from their hotel.

That shut her up, but didn’t end her ire, so the three of us stood there in stony silence while we waited for the limo/ambulette to pull around to the terminal.

Once it arrived, it was an ordeal getting Owen locked into place. It seems the dimensions of ambulatory devices are not standardized across time zones and we had to jerry-rig Owen into position using an embarrassing array of seat belts, ropes, and bungee cords. The procedure was interminable, but Owen displayed a grace and sense of humor that his mother lacked entirely. I can understand. It must be beyond difficult to watch your son be wrapped up in impossible tethers like JonBenet, or Houdini about to be thrown off a bridge and left to his own magical devices.

Now on our way, I asked the usual conversation starters to pass the hour-long drive back to Midtown Manhattan. Where are you from in the UK? Have you always lived there? Have you ever been to NYC before? Have you made plans to visit anything specifically? Despite Owen’s effort to keep up his end of the bargain, his mother preempted him with snippy one-word answers. This was Purgatory turned Hell.

Finally, I directed a question specifically at Owen and asked the very fresh-faced and rather cute young man how old he was, figuring his mother might have a momentary lapse of memory and give her son the edge to answer. It worked. Owen told me he was thirty-years old. I found that surprising given his youthful demeanor. I’d have guessed twenty, tops.

I should have said that and that alone, but so rattled by this entire experience, the reptilian fight-or-flight part of my limbic brain took the pilot’s seat and I said,

“Wow! You look so much younger!”

And in an epic failed compliment intended for both mother and son, I continued, “Great genes there!”

Great genes. I said to the guy in the wheelchair.

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