Be Nice To Strangers
by Bruce Northam

On any journey in our lifetime, the first bag we pack is ourselves. Right? At least it's true in a spiritual sense. But you still have to pack your other bag.

I subscribe to the tried–and–true adage hinting that the people you meet on your way up in life might be the same ones you'll encounter if you happen to be on your way down. Can more than one proverbial wheel roll in the same day? I never imagined that someone I met on the way down would rescue me near the bottom.

From war to weather, trade to travel, aviation reinvented civilization. Nonetheless, much of the toil required to fly contradicts civilization. Life, defined, is the ability to respond to stimuli, and stimulus regarding airline departures should always be double–checked.

Many authors supplement their incomes with publishing perks like paid speaking engagements. One such San Francisco presentation required boarding an early morning plane in New Jersey's Newark Airport. The previous night's compelling rock concert meant token sleep and hall of fame hangover.

Because I packed presentation handouts, 100 copies of my book (each weighing three quarters of a pound), and gear for a subsequent writing assignment, my torso was sandwiched between two backpacks while a free hand balanced the box of books like a waiter's tray. Resembling a burro–loaded hiker who'd been fired from camp, I stumbled up Seventh Avenue. I also had a container of plain yogurt––supplied by my girlfriend with whom I was quarrelling about my behavior at the concert––zipped into my around–the–waist fanny pack. She offered to escort me to the train station but actually walked backwards in front of me, repetitiously reminding me why I'd overslept and how out of sync I was with virtue.

Lumbering into Manhattan's Penn station, airport rail ticket in hand, a conductor verified that I'd been misinformed on train departures. A woman wearing a blue suit appeared beside me and frowned when she learned we had the same dilemma. I asked her if she wanted to share a cab to the airport. She glanced at me optimistically, then at my agitated girlfriend, and politely declined.

So a costly taxi I hailed, one that bucked and stalled in Lincoln Tunnel traffic for an hour. Exiting the taxi at the terminal required perching forward, which audibly exploded the yogurt container in the fanny pack around my waist, saturating its contents including my plane ticket, presentation notes and wallet.

Using frequent flier miles from one airline to fly another, someone (don't recall it being me) confused the two so I waited in line for a hopefully delayed flight at the wrong terminal. That customer service expert swore I wouldn't make the flight at the correct terminal anyway. Eyeing him suspiciously, I darted onto the monorail to switch terminals, a running pack mule with slimy milk product oozing from my midsection and drooling kneeward.

The line for departing flights at the correct check–in desk wrapped around eternity and faded into oblivion. My flight departure in ten minutes demanded being that slither who cuts the line. The boarding pass issue cutoff time had passed. I pleaded with an insistent clerk. After emptying the contents of my waist–sack on the counter and waving my ticket, a thin rectangle marinated in ivory slime, she urged that my only chance was at the boarding gate. I sprinted to the security post where an x–ray lawman denied my advance without a boarding pass, until his eyes scrolled south from my tortured face to the marinated ticket, and then down my leg where creamy lava had invaded a shoe.

Bolting toward hope on the moving walkway, combating nausea, 125 pounds of tackle rabbiting about my body, a frothy meringue dribbling from my private area––just as the gate hazed into view the airport PA system barked, 'Passenger Bruce Northam, report immediately to the check–in counter to claim your wallet.' Intent on dropping my baggage to quicken my dash back for the wallet, I plead with the lineup of passengers—who were rapidly boarding the plane––to part so I could slip through and drop my gear on a chair.

Needling between two people I turned right prematurely, causing my rear backpack to knock over a middle–aged woman. When I spun the other way to lend aid to the fallen one, my frontal backpack banged into another commuter who staggered backward, yelping for help. The entire congregation focused on me––a profusely sweating packman in a state of panic. I dropped my three oversized bags, then immediately fled at the speed of light from whence I came.

As this leg of the marathon slowed to a canter I met four policemen and two canines standing at the check–in counter, all staring at my wallet lying atop the counter. 'Why is this coated in a powdery white substance?' (It dried a bit and apparently resembled an igniting agent) a baritone voice probed. Instead of waiting for my mind to submit a new scheme I weighed every syllable and swore, 'Yogurt.' Demonstrating even–handed scholarship and maintaining eye contact with the cop chaperoned by the hulkier German shepherd, I slowly dunked my hand into my on–board milk culture pouch, inserted those five fingers into my mouth, and swallowed.

I zipped my wallet back into the fanny pack (why not) and fled. Closing in once again on the now sealed gate, dizzied between memory and dream, the airport PA system thunderclapped, 'Passenger Northam, your luggage has been confiscated and will be destroyed. Return immediately to gate 113.' In this terrorist paranoid world, it's amazing I hadn't already been tackled and tied by fatigue–wearing brutes.

The flurry of activity near the gate was fronted by a manager, facing me, arms folded, head cocked, and broadcasting a spooky intergalactic expression recalling forces that start war. I panted before her, nearly fainted, and was locked in open–mouthed astonishment. First I noticed the uniformed herd racing up behind me, then the army of security guards behind her rummaging through my paraphernalia like rabid hyenas ripping apart a rhino carcass. My belongings were spread over an acre–sized sector of the boarding area. They were even flapping through every copy of my travel wisdom books.

Hyperventilating with blurred vision, I anticipated a voice, 'God will see you now.'

Accepting a missed flight and no–show for my speaking gig, it was time for a remark verifying the crucible of my legitimacy. 'I am not a criminal or terrorist. I have never been arrested. I love airline people. Missing this flight destroyed my career and my ability to provide for my family (sort of a fib that one). Today I've missed trains, been held hostage by tunnel traffic, boomeranged between terminals and five airline desks with 200 pounds on my back. My yogurt broke (show and tell: sack, leg and foot) and ruined my ticket––(pause) My girlfriend hates me.'

The army continued burrowing into my ready–for–yard–sale belongings. Adjusting her stance, the manager unfolded her arms and made a decision.

'And I'm a frequent flier,' I assured.

She peeped at the officer radiating with the most medals, then nodded approvingly to the person blocking the gate. 'Hold the flight, open the door,' she sighed. As I made a prayer sign with my hands and rushed away, the manager suddenly reminded me of someone I'd met before.

My curtain call was a march down the crowded aisle of the plane, to a rear seat by the toilet; a hundred irate eyes burn into my saturated forehead. I sat next to a passenger who'd obviously witnessed my pirouetting backpacks trick take out those two folks waiting on line for the flight. Summarizing my beer fragrance, puss–ridden pant leg, and sweat–soaked shirt and hair, he bristled. When he beheld the squad of security guards carrying my belongings onto the plane and help the flight attendants cram my rashly re–packed possessions into random overhead luggage compartments, he evacuated his elbow from the armrest and shifted his bones the other way. I pressed the flight attendant call button to request eyeshades.

In the dark it dawned on me. The manager who let me board the plane was the same blue–suited woman I'd met earlier that morning at the train station, the one I had offered to share a taxi with to the airport.

Surely, an essential item we pack for any journey is ourselves––but the crap you lug can injure the portability, and back, of that self. 'I am not a devil,' was the first thing I told the passenger beside me. 'I am a man with a devil on his back.'

Bruce Northam is an award-winning travel writer and speaker. He is the author of Globetrotter Dogma and editor of In Search of Adventure: A Wild Travel Anthology. He contributes to a wide variety of publications and is a regular columnist for the New York City area publication The Improper.

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