Saturday, October 18, 2008

Philadelphia International Airport (PHL)

May 17, 2008: In Memory of Eight Belles

I'm in that crappy little bar by gate A9. It is totally packed, but I found one lonely seat near the back beside a guy frantically thumbing a Blackberry.  He asks about beers on tap, and after listening to the exhaustive list (the breadth of which surprised me), he says, "Well, hell.  I'm in Philadelphia, I'd better have a Yuengling." The giant Yuengling spout handle happens to be the one that was practically bumping his forehead. I wonder if things like that annoy a bartender who has such a long list of beers on tap.

I have a merlot.  It's crappy as usual. The guy next to me continues to thumb. I sit back and look up at the screens. All three are tuned to the same sports network.  First it's hockey. But then it's horses.  I suddenly realize it's the Preakness. The woman to my left is sitting on the edge of her stool, her back is ram-rod straight.  She is wearing a black and gray vertically pinstriped suit and gold rimmed, wide glasses.  She carefully sips her beer and wipes up the condensation drips it leaves on the counter with an extra napkin. She is talking to her child on the phone.

"You're going to fill it out NEATLY, right?" She puts heavy emphasis on "neatly."


"You're in English One, right? Did you get the section you wanted?"


"OK, good. Geography? OK"


"Read that part to me again. No, read it,"  Tiny pause, "Read it."

Pause, she shifts in her stool.

"Read it.  No, listen, read it WORD FOR WORD." She is speaking slowly, deliberately and calmly.  I feel a little like smiling at her for encouragement anyway.

"OK, I'll fill it it out and fax it when I get home."


"Well, you can fill it out if you do it NEATLY."


"OK, but you'll do it NEATLY?" Tiny pause. "OK, you can fill it out and I'll fax it when I get home.  Do it really neatly. OK, love you. Bye."  The phone snaps shut.  She sips her beer and wipes up the condensation.  Then she turns her attention to the screens.

We are both squinting to read the closed captions while "Bette Davis Eyes" plays in the bar.

I say, "Do you know what time the race starts?"


Then she grabs the bartender, literally grabs his arm.  The action is so sudden, neat and quick that I jump.

"Hey," she says to him, "Do you know what time the race starts?"

"6:00, I think."

"We're gonna miss it." I say, knowing that at 6:00 Eastern Standard Time, We'll be buzzing though the skies on our way to Chicago.

"In the air!" She says, going for the beer and the extra napkin again.

We watched as Big Brown's jockey was interviewed.

"He just won the Derby, right?" she asks me.


We watch as Big Brown's owners, trainers and Big Brown himself are interviewed.

"The horse I was cheering for in the Derby died at the end of the race." I tell her.

"Oh yeah," she replied nodding, "Wasn't that horrible? That was the one they put to sleep, right?"

Suddenly the lady on the other side of my black-and-gray-pinstripe-suited friend joins our conversation, "What happened?"

"They put this horse to sleep after the Kentucky Derby," says pinstripe woman.

"What!" The new participant is shocked, "Couldn't they save it?"  She is a red head with thick turquoise framed reading glasses sliding down her nose.  She has to push them back up so often it became hard not to watch their downward progress, forgetting to listen to her speaking.

"It broke both ankles," I reply apologetically. "It came in second place."

"There's determination for ya," She says swatting pinstripe on the shoulder-pad.

"Second place?  That's the one they put to sleep after the race, right?" Pinstripe says stiffly turning toward me.

I nod and say, "She came in second.  She ran the whole race and the collapsed immediately after the race.  They had to put her down because she broke both ankles."

"That's terrible," says pinstripe.

"Cruel!" Cried redhead, 'Why couldn't they save it?" 

"When they break both legs they really can't save it." I reply.

"Why can't they put it in a sling?" Demands redhead.  Pinstripe is now turn back and forth between us, pivoting at her hips only, like the way Barbie turns.

"A sling?" I say.

"They could put it in a sling and hold it up until it heals." Readhead says.

"No, no," interjects pinstripe, shaking her head, "That doesn't work. The horse needs to put weight on it in order to heal, right?" She looks to me for confirmation, but I've already exhausted by horse-doctoring knowledge.

Redhead mumbles about the sling until Pinstripe asks her to lean back and read the sign at gate A9.  Redhead leans way back and says, "Saint Louis."

"It doesn't say Dallas?" Pinstripe is concerned, "It should say Dallas!"

"No, Dallas is A3." Says Redhead. "I saw it when I came in." 

"When I came in it said Chicago," I say to Redhead.

"Chicago!" Redhead is shocked again. "I saw it say Dallas!"

"Who was here first, me or you?" I ask (it was a sincere question, I, along with Pinstripe, needed to know if the gate didn't say Chicago.).

Redhead doesn't answer. Pinstripe pivots toward me and asks if I'll watch her stuff so she can check.  I agree.  Pinstripe rushes out.  When she comes back she announces that we are delayed, and that the guy in the white suit further down the bar is also on our flight, "So we can watch when he leaves" she strategizes.  She orders another Coors Light (Her third, but who's counting?).  I get a second merlot, and Redhead leaves for her flight without saying goodbye.

"Where are you headed?" I ask pinstripe.

"Home." She says and asks me the same question back.

"Me too"

"Where's home?"

"Tucson," I tell her.

"Oh I just LOVE Arizona!" She tells me, with wide, doe-eyes, "I just got back from Santa Fe.  it was so beautiful!  I'd only been to Scottsdale, but now Santa Fe too." She is nodding, "It's all just so beautiful" She continues, commenting on the entire southwest.

"Where is your home?"

"Shreveport, Louisiana." She says with the thickest northern accent you can imagine.

"You're not from there originally," I declare.

"Been there 15 years, but I'm from Ohio."  (I knew it!) "I was in Philly for a nurse practitioner conference."

"So you're a nurse practitioner?"

"Yes, but I work for Bayer.  On the phone. I handle one drug."

"One drug?"

"Yes, a leukemia drug.  I handle all the calls about a Leukemia drug."

"That must be difficult at times," I say.

She swigs her Coors.

"Leukemia drug," she repeats, nodding at me, "it's tough."

I nod back, pursing my lips.

Soon we are both paying and gathering our bags.

"Be safe." she says. "Nice meeting you."

'Thanks, nice meeting you too." I respond as we squeeze our way out of the crowded bar, toward the line at gate A3, regardless of whether it's going to Chicago or Dallas.

Friday, October 10, 2008

A fitting poetic interlude

A poem by Naomi Shihab Nye.  Fits!  Doncha think?

Gate 4-A

    "This is the world I want to live in.

    The shared world."

Wandering around the Albuquerque Airport Terminal, after learning my flight had been detained four hours, I heard an announcement: "If anyone in the vicinity of Gate 4-A understands any Arabic, please come to the gate immediately."  Well - one pauses these days. Gate 4-A was my own gate. I went there. An older woman in full traditional Palestinian embroidered dress, just like my grandma wore, was crumpled to the floor, wailing loudly. "Help," said the Flight Service Person. "Talk to her. What is her problem?  We told her the flight was going to be late and she did this."  I stooped to put my arm around the woman and spoke to her haltingly. "Shu dow-a, Shu-bid-uck Habibti? Stani schway, Min fadlick, Shu-bit-se-wee?" The minute she heard any words she knew, however poorly used, she stopped crying. She thought the flight had been cancelled entirely. She needed to be in El Paso for major medical treatment the next day. I said, "You're fine, you'll get there, who is picking you up? Let's call him." We called her son and I spoke with him in English. I told him I would stay with his mother till we got on the plane and would ride next to her - Southwest.

She talked to him. Then we called her other sons just for fun. Then we called my dad and he and she spoke for a while in Arabic and found out of course they had ten shared friends.  Then I thought just for the heck of it why not call some Palestinian poets I know and let them chat with her? This all took up about two hours. She was laughing a lot by then. Telling about her life, patting my knee, answering questions.  She had pulled a sack of homemade mamool cookies - little powdered sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with dates and nuts - out of her bag - and was offering them to all the women at the gate.  To my amazement, not a single woman declined one. It was like a sacrament. The traveler fromArgentina, the mom from California, the lovely woman from Laredo - we were all covered with the same powdered sugar. And smiling. There is no better cookie. And then the airline broke out the free beverages from huge coolers and two little girls from our flight ran around serving us all apple juice and they were covered with powdered sugar too. And I noticed my new best friend - by now we were holding hands - had a potted plant poking out of her bag, some medicinal thing, with green furry leaves. Such an old country traveling tradition. Always carry a plant. Always stay rooted to somewhere. And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and thought, this is the world I want to live in.  The shared world. Not a single person in this gate - once the crying of confusion stopped - seemed apprehensive about any other person. They took the cookies. I wanted to hug all those other women too. This can still happen anywhere. Not everything is lost.

By Naomi Shihab Nye