I find it hard to believe that another year has passed since I wrote about my interaction with a security guard at the World Trade Center in commemoration of the eleventh anniversary of September 11th. In that post I attempted to make the point that small encounters can make a difference as I still think of that man every year, now eighteen years after making his brief acquaintance. I tread lightly in these sort of discussions, as I’ve always believed that if you need a national tragedy to remind you to hug your children or be nice to your neighbor or what have you, that you may indeed be a clueless putz.
I did report to my sky office today. As usual, the airplane was relatively empty. People were especially kind, a plethora of “please” and “thank you” and copious eye contact. Every day that I go to work I come into contact with people in all different states of mind; to come across someone crying their eyes out is almost as common as someone laughing or staring blankly out the window. My standard operating procedure when faced with a weepy passenger is to go get them a box of tissues, ask them if they need anything, often suggesting a cocktail or a glass of water, which I get for them immediately. I try to check back later and see how things are going, but mostly I attend to the needs of the other forty odd people I’m typically responsible for and then bury myself in a New Yorker. This is usually combined with my signature “How soon until we get there?” face, as if the highlight of my day could possibly be eating cold nachos out of a styrofoam box on a Holiday Inn mattress and watching Cold Case Files. AS IF. This year on September 11th, I’m going to admit that as well as I talk the talk, I’m not always walking the walk. The Kleenex and cocktail response, although passably hospitable, could stand an upgrade.
I know this because this last Friday, the passenger sobbing inconsolably in 18F was me. I was returning home from my friend’s memorial service outside Los Angeles, which was a beautiful, albeit melancholy, affair. I was surrounded by supportive friends, I met many lovely people, and I was immensely glad that I went. But I was overcome as soon as we took off out of LAX; by stress, by grief, by exhaustion. But also by gratitude for all the people who did not know my friend who had passed away, people whose job it is every day to facilitate people’s worst days, people who have chosen careers built around being compassionate. As I discussed them with my roommate, I kept emphasizing to her that those people are doing some of the most important work there is to do in this world, that their kindness had made such a difference on an occasion that was so important to everyone involved.
About halfway through the flight, I managed to pull myself together and I realized that I also have one of those jobs, should I choose to look it that way. Then I wondered, if I had been working and seen me sobbing in 18F, what would I have done? The Kleenex, the cocktail, the New Yorker? I was fortunate that I had my roommate there to comfort me on the flight, after leaving a group of truly lovely people, heading towards my home to the waiting arms of more concerned folks. But I could have easily been all alone. I’d like to think I’d have had more to offer than the mandatory minimum amount of caring.
As an example of a flight attendant getting it right in the meaningful work realm, a handful of years ago I was flying with my friend Blain on Thanksgiving. It was the usual scene, a plane packed full of amateur travelers in colorful sweaters off to see their loved ones. Blain made an announcement on landing that there was a serviceman onboard who was on leave from Iraq to spend the holiday with his family who was seated in the last row, and could everyone just remain seated when we got to the gate so he could deplane first and meet them? I told Blain he was wasting his breath, that enough people weren’t listening or didn’t care about anyone else’s holiday plans that our military guy would still be stuck waiting to get off. When we got to the gate, not only did everyone remain still as he made his way up the aisle with his backpack, but they cheered with reckless abandon. One holiday sweater clad soccer mom towards the front of the plane was so overcome with emotion that she threw her arms around the soldier and hugged him as if both their lives depended on it. Many people wiped away tears as he made his exit and thanked us for making his speedy departure happen. The solider was visibly moved, but the collective joy was the wonderful surprise. I was never so happy to be wrong about humanity.
My work is not the dispensing of Cokes and peanuts. My work is not debating with Businessman Bob about why he needs turn his Kindle off. The former is mechanics, the latter is an obstacle. To some degree the most important element of my work is being prepared for emergencies, but thankfully thus far they have been few and far between. I used to really look for opportunities to be helpful, but the mechanics and the obstacles have dulled my edge in that department. I’m renewing my efforts to keep my eyes open to find the real work in my work, recognizing that all the goodwill I have put out in the past keeps coming back to me tenfold.
This poem by our former poet laureate, Philip Levine, never fails to move me. Although I have never waited in the rain for auto assembly line work in Detroit, I feel like it captures what I’m trying to say. Also a reminder that finely crafted creative work can bridge the gap between individual experiences and universal emotions. That's always what I strive to do with my writing, my work that is also my bliss.
What Work Is
We stand in the rain in a long line
waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.
You know what work is—if you’re
old enough to read this you know what
work is, although you may not do it.
Forget you. This is about waiting,
shifting from one foot to another.
Feeling the light rain falling like mist
into your hair, blurring your vision
until you think you see your own brother
ahead of you, maybe ten places.
You rub your glasses with your fingers,
and of course it’s someone else’s brother,
narrower across the shoulders than
yours but with the same sad slouch, the grin
that does not hide the stubbornness,
the sad refusal to give in to
rain, to the hours of wasted waiting,
to the knowledge that somewhere ahead
a man is waiting who will say, “No,
we’re not hiring today,” for any
reason he wants. You love your brother,
now suddenly you can hardly stand
the love flooding you for your brother,
who’s not beside you or behind or
ahead because he’s home trying to
sleep off a miserable night shift
at Cadillac so he can get up
before noon to study his German.
Works eight hours a night so he can sing
Wagner, the opera you hate most,
the worst music ever invented.
How long has it been since you told him
you loved him, held his wide shoulders,
opened your eyes wide and said those words,
and maybe kissed his cheek? You’ve never
done something so simple, so obvious,
not because you’re too young or too dumb,
not because you’re jealous or even mean
or incapable of crying in
the presence of another man, no,
just because you don’t know what work is.