Thursday, April 26, 2012

Angel on Flight #000

I had a singular experience on United Airlines.  It couldn’t be an official designation, but I wore an invisible tiara: Passenger of the Day.  Or something. 

I don’t want the lovely young flight attendant who made me feel special to get into trouble, so I’ll not mention the exact flight number or her name.  Suffice it to say it was going to be a long return flight home to the San Francisco Bay Area.

I’d already completed the first leg and was waiting out my 2-hour layover in the boarding area at Chicago O’Hare.  I nibbled on a biscuit and sipped a fake Jamba Juice, believing the four-and-a-half hour flight home would include a “meal” (the airline’s euphemism for cellophane-wrapped food-shaped facsimiles); but I had become preoccupied with food.  Like the chicken hawk in a Foghorn Leghorn cartoon, I converted all objects in my range of vision into drumsticks in the thought bubble over my head. 

That’s when the flight attendant swept past me with a white paper fast-food bag in her hand.  She sat not too far away and began to dig into the bag’s contents. 

“What did you get to eat?”  I called across to her. 

She looked up and smiled as though I were a normal person, not the greedy, salivating scavenger I’d become.  “Just wondered what the locals eat at the airport,” I went on as though any of this could be appropriate.

“Johnny Rockets is always good,” she said, friendly.  “Burger and a salad,” she continued, holding up a molded plastic container with a garden salad for my edification.

“They’ll feed us on this flight, right?”  Was I howling?

“Depends on where you’re sitting,” she smiled again, apologetically this time. 

I didn’t get it right away:  They feed folks in first class.  When I said 22D, right over the wing, she replied gently this time, “We’ll have snacks for purchase.”

I waved my thanks and turned back to my book so she wouldn’t feel obligated to keep me at bay.  But a few minutes later, she swept toward me again, this time leaving me a small bag of Garrett's popcorn, “A Chicago Tradition.”  What a nice person.  Who does that?

And let me just say, if you’re ever in Chicago, get some Garrett's popcorn!  I tried to make it last, but like our Lab with his kibble, I fear I snarfed it down. 

I’d been relegated to Seating Group 8, the last clutch in the boarding hierarchy, a “Z” in the alphabet of boarding castes.  Ahead of me were all the really cool passengers in first class, the mileage elite, grannies with walkers and mommies with strollers, and anyone else who didn’t have a lean and hungry look.

She greeted me again when I trundled onboard, then it wasn’t long at all before she stopped next to me in the aisle to ask if I’d like something to drink. 

“Diet Coke.”

“Right away,” she said, and sure enough in moments I had a cup of ice and chilled silver can.  I looked around to note that no one else around me had a drink.  Odd.  But no one glanced my way.  They didn’t seem to covet my bounty as I would have coveted theirs. 

Later, another flight attendant threaded his cart down the aisle, rolling and stopping, rolling and stopping.  He asked by rote if I wanted a drink when he saw the Coke.  He registered a query, but said only, “And you have that!” and moved on.

I watched her as she went about her duties, observing her open countenance and relaxed smile.  She liked the passengers.  Pretty much every one of them, as far as I could see.  She listened with genuine interest to each routine request, encouraged banter, smiled, and smiled again.

She brought me a cup of ice water about midway through “We Bought a Zoo,” and wondered if I needed anything else.  No, I couldn’t think of a thing.  Nevertheless, when she passed me again, she tucked a small brown envelope containing a warm chocolate chip cookie into my hand, contraband smuggled from the privileged ones.

What a little miracle she was that day.  How sweet her unexpected gifts.

I craned my neck but could not see her to wave and smile my final thanks and return the tiara.  She must have sat at the back for our landing.

That’s how a true angel does it – expecting nothing.