Travel Tales 2 - I Have Bad Thoughts
"For too long we've been told about 'us' and 'them.' But there can be no 'them' in America. There's only us." Bill Clinton
I'm not proud of this story, but I fear too many of us have been there, so it's Object Lesson time. Because no matter how much you think you're a bona fide card-carrying liberal, there are times your own hidden prejudices jump up and bite you.
I flew home today from one of my regular visits to my parents in Florida. The story involves my plane trip, but first some background.
Mom and Dad, in their 80's, are still alert, aware, active, refusing to go quietly into old age. Their opinions are strong as ever. Anti-Bush, anti-war, appalled at the sorry state of education, health care, social security, terrorism, all the current hot buttons. Angry at the waste of billions on Iraq while millions go homeless and hungry in America.
In case it's not clear, they're Liberal with a capital L. I was raised on tales of Adlai Stevenson, Hubert Humphrey, Jack Kennedy. You get the point. And I grew up to work in liberal Democratic politics myself, in city, state, national campaigns and administrations.
So, back to my trip. The airport was bursting with the last of the Easter and Spring Break travelers. I'd used my frequent flier miles to reward myself with an upgrade to first class. Away from the screaming babies, the cranky kids, the Great Unwashed.
You feel the same way. Don't deny it.
The plane was packed. I settled into my comfortable seat, hoping the one next to me would remain empty. You do that too. Not such a big deal though, usually I meet interesting people when I travel. And just as the doors were about to close, a man claimed that seat.
Uh oh. Middle aged, dark, swarthy, his overall look the epitome of an FBI Watch List. He wore baggy jeans and--the piece de resistance--a shirt with a huge dragon appliqued on the back. He nodded brusquely and opened a magazine with pictures of power tools.
Here it comes.
Oh no, I thought, he's the last one on board because they must have searched him -- God, I hope they were Really thorough. And I worried that they weren't. Then I thought, what if he smells bad. A casual sniff dispelled that fear.
Still, I shrunk into my seat, making sure not to touch the armrest between us and buried myself in my book. The flight was uneventful until about a half hour before landing. The man had fallen asleep. Suddenly he began jerking, his hands turned inward, his mouth moving with no sound.
Drugs, I thought immediately. And bolted from my seat to get a flight attendant. First one, then another came to observe him. Other passengers began to notice. Murmurs of alarm moved through the cabin.
The second flight attendant sat in my seat and touched the man lightly on the arm. "Sir, sir! Are you all right?" she said quietly, "Do you need help?" One final jerk, then his eyes opened and he smiled sheepishly.
"Thank you so much," he said. "I'm okay now. I have narcolepsy. When I fall asleep it's difficult for me to wake myself up."
Well. Okay. Reassured, I sat back down and asked if there was anything I could do. "No, but thank you for getting help," he said with quiet dignity. "I'm a doctor, I know how to handle this."
I felt like an idiot.
We chatted for the remaining 20 minutes. He told me that when his disease made it impossible to practice hands-on medicine, he'd gone into public health and worked as a Deputy to Donna Shalala, President Clinton's Secretary of Health and Human Services. We swapped Beltway and Democratic Party stories ... turns out we have friends in common.
He told me he'd had a heart attack and subsequently retired. "I spend my time rehabbing an old house in the Art Museum area," he said. (The power tool magazine!) "And I mentor medical students training for careers in public health."
"It's great not to wear suits and ties any more," he added. "Now I can indulge my inner Latin with these crazy shirts my mother makes me."
Latin! And I'd been thinking Middle Eastern. Mother! Oh brother. Unknowingly he'd held up a big mirror reflecting my flaming inner racist.
Or maybe not so unknowingly. As we shook hands in Baggage Claim he said, "Profiling's a way of life now. I don't let it bother me. It protects all of us from the bad guys." Then he smiled and walked away. One of the really Good Guys.
It'll be a cold day in hell before I judge another book by its cover without first taking a cold hard read of myself.