by Claudette Jones
article was originally published on Authspot.com January 16, 2008)
Back in the early nineties I worked for a major American airline. Unfortunately, it was one of those that would eventually
go down in a sea of red ink. The years it was good though … it was really good.
A major perk of working for
an airline then and now is flying for a reduced rate; which is exactly why I had signed on, and why I loved, my job. I was
a customer service & sales agent, but probably would have found positives in mopping floors, as long as I could fly.
after more than a year and dozens of trips, I’d never had a problem getting on a flight … until one cold, snowy
Airline employees fly standby. After all regular passengers are boarded, if there are seats still available, airline
staff have a shot at getting on the flight. This had worked well for me until that night when I was bumped from the last seat
on the last flight from Atlanta to Boston, by a senior airline employee.
That rare set of circumstances set the stage for
an experience that would impact my thinking on homelessness and the homeless.
It was after midnight before I’d been bumped;
tried other flights; given up; and called friends in Boston with the bad news.
Although there’d been
some cancelled flights due to the bad weather, there hadn’t been too many, so only a token number of passengers would
be spending the night at Hartsfield. That had me a little nervous. I knew there were always homeless people that hung out
in bus, railroad and even airline terminals.
On the way into the airport earlier, there had been a few hanging around outside. They were matted with dirt, didn’t
exactly have the aroma of a rose garden, and had some of the tell-tale signs of addictions; either to alcohol or drugs.
I always traveled with plenty
of singles for tips, and was quite a few bills short by the time I made my way into the airport.
People so obviously suffering always made me feel wretched. I wasn’t exactly rolling in dough, but in comparison,
my cup was running over. And, I always felt that there but for the grace of God.
What made me nervous was the aggression I had
seen displayed by some beggars at times, therefore being pretty much alone in a huge airline terminal didn’t exactly
inspire me with feelings of security. As tired as I was, I knew I couldn’t stay up until flight time the following morning,
which is why I felt so vulnerable.
I confirmed the departure time for the morning flight with the ticket agent as she closed the desk for the night. She
confirmed that the flight would leave from the same gate; then, finished with the closing, she wished me good-night and left.
I felt completely alone.
Glancing surreptitiously around for any lurking figures, I slung my purse over my shoulder and pulling my travel bag
behind me headed off in search of what I considered a safe nook.
In most gate areas there were just a few, widely scattered passengers slouched down in their seats … most of
them already asleep. I stopped for a moment to consider my options.
Suddenly, I heard a throat being cleared behind
I spun around and came face to face with the only security person I’d seen in the last half hour or so. This
of course, was long before 911 and security wasn’t even in the same ballpark as today.
“Can I help you, ma’am?” He
“Oh, good evening. Ah, well … maybe you can,” I stumbled.
“I have to be here until morning. All the
concessions and ticket desks are closed. Any idea where it’ll be safe to stay the night? Don't say a hotel.”
“Well, you’re pretty
safe in any of the terminals. There’s security … like me around, ya know.”
“Yes, I know about the security, but I can
hardly keep my eyes open right now. I know as soon as I sit down for awhile, I’m going to drop off.”
“In that case, the best
I can do is direct you to the vending machines where you can get some hot coffee,” he said.
“Thanks,” I replied,
just a little irritated at his unfunny joke and his nonchalance.
“Well, I’ll be passing through from
time to time tonight. So, see you later,” he answered, already on his way down the empty corridor I’d just left.
I answered as I continued walking in the opposite direction.
As I rounded the corner, I could see a gate area
at the far end of the terminal, and miracle of miracles, there were plenty of people … almost a
Heading in their direction, I hurried my steps. I figured, either these people were all traveling together or, maybe
they had the same ‘safety in numbers’ idea I did.
There were only a couple of seats left, one of them in the first row. I made a beeline for it, plopped down and parked
my bag. The group was a mixed bag: several Hispanics, a few blacks, the rest white.
“Hi,” I greeted
the silver-haired lady next to me.
“Good evening, dear,” she answered politely with a wisp of a Scottish brogue.
“Are you all traveling
together?” I asked, sweeping my hand behind me to encompass the fifteen or so people seated around us.
“Oh no. Well, a couple
of us are, but mostly we’re just waiting together.”
“I see. Well, good evening everybody!” I said raising my voice so they could all hear.
“All of you are a sight
for sore eyes. I was nervous about being alone here tonight.”
“Well, we’re glad you saw us over
here. We’ll look out for you,” a kind of youngish black man answered.
“Thanks,” I replied, settling into
the surprisingly cushy seat. I could finally relax.
The next thing I knew, we were all talking about the weather, the latest political controversy in Atlanta, and everyone’s
destinations in the morning.
I had used my bag as a footrest, and sometime during the early-morning conversation had dropped off just as I knew
When I awoke, I had my head on the lady next to me, Mrs. Sheffield’s shoulder.
“Oh, I’m sorry,”
I said, straightening up and yawning broadly.
“Quite alright, dear. You slept really hard. How do you feel?”
“Believe it or not, refreshed,” I
answered, pulling myself together.
I noticed some of the traveler’s had left already.
“What time is your flight,” I asked, glancing at my watch.
“Oh, not for a while yet,” she answered.
“Well, I have about an
hour or so before mine. Just time to run by the ladies’ room, have some coffee and check in.”
As I stood and brushed at my
crumpled slacks and sweater … “I want to thank you guy’s for taking me in last night.”
“No problem,” some
of them replied in unison.
For some reason, I felt like giving each of them a hug. So, that’s just what I did. Some of
their names I remembered from the night before, some I didn’t, but I went from row to row and gave them all a hug, wished
them a safe flight, and a happy new year. They wished me the same.
I saved the last hug for Mrs. Sheffield, then
made my misty-eyed way back down the long, now crowded terminal. It was always a little sad to meet people in passing;
people that I liked, but would never see again.
Stopping in the restroom a short distance from
them, I washed my face, brushed my teeth, applied fresh make-up and combed my hair. I’d have to hustle to get a coffee
before they called the flight.
As I hurried from the restroom, I collided with someone just outside the door.
When I looked up, it was the security officer
from the evening before.
“Wow, excuse me!” I said.
“Oh hey, it’s you!”
“Yes, it’s me. Made it through the night just fine as it turns out,” I said, with just a hint of
“Yea, I was a little worried when I came back around last night and saw who you were sitting with.
And sound asleep,” he added, with what sounded like amazement.”
“What do you mean … who
I was sitting with?”
“Yea, if you hadn’t been with them, they’d been out.”
“What are you talking about!?” I asked,
getting impatient with his pompous rambling.
“The homeless people you were sitting with … over there,” He pointed to my little group.
Before he finished speaking, I began to
turn … it felt like in slow motion … and looked back at the group I had spent the night among.
They were still sitting there.
For the first time I noticed the shopping bags instead of real luggage; the clean, yet frayed, thin coats; the run-down
shoes; the watchfulness for unkind authority.
I also noticed the intelligence, the dignity …
the looks that stated … “I may be temporarily down on my luck, but I’m still me” …
I noticed the looks of hope.
Suddenly, the boom of the intercom as my flight was called for boarding.
Eyes brimming with tears I fumbled in my purse, took
out some bills, handed them to the security guard …
“Please give this to the silver-haired lady down there in the front row. Ask her if she will buy breakfast for
everyone. She’ll understand.”
The guard took the money and looking from the money to me with a dumbfounded expression, finally shrugged and headed
down to them.
With a last look back at my group, I ran for the flight.
That was years ago, but I remember that night as if it happened yesterday. After the passage of time and some thought,
it came to me why I hadn’t noticed anything strange about my group. It was simple. I wasn’t supposed to notice.
They were just a group of people ... waiting for their luck to change.