Not long ago, I was sitting in an Airport. I have done this a lot in the last 35 years of my career. I get through security as fast as I can (well, as fast as the NTSB will let me), then grab coffee and snag a chair. I flip open my laptop and pick up right where I left off at the office. Yes, I am one of THEM. The Professionals.
You can pick them out of the crowd by their demeanor. They are the ones who never look up from their electronic device of choice, or are speaking loudly on their cell phone (as if the rest of us want to hear exactly what George screwed up on at the office). Whatever their head is buried in, it is clear they are not in the same room with you.
On this particular day however, it really caused me to stop and think about how if the airport is indeed an extension of our professional office demeanor what then, must they be like in the office? And, is being in the office 24/7 such a smart idea?
With my flight delayed, I decided to conduct a little experiment.
I closed my laptop and I looked up. Surely there must be someone interesting to talk to, get to know better, learn something from.
Nearby are my three potential traveling companions. Ahead of me was a young woman, clearly loaded down for college. She is wearing jeans, a Mumford & Sons T-shirt, and has a piece of shrapnel in her eyebrow. She was chewing on a fingernail, and checking her cell phone for text messages. Hmmm.
To my left, another Professional. Ah a kindred spirit! She is tapping into an iPad as if she just discovered a new planet and needs to let everyone know about it. Her one suitcase (Yes just the one, you know she could not be bothered to check anything through. ) parked neatly beside her. It is a complete enigma to me how one tiny carry-on can hold a weeks worth of clothes. I make a note to myself to Pinterest how people do that.
Next to College Girl, another Professional. He has his briefcase open and is using it like a portable desk. I don’t know if anyone has told him yet that the rest of the world stopped using those boxy Samsonite cases sometime ago. But he seems to like it, so….. He has this crease between his eyebrows that seems to disappear into his receding hairline. I wonder if this man ever smiles or if the crease has just caused an overall atrophy of his facial muscles. He picks up his phone and alternately types, grinds his teeth and types. Pretty much like that.
And here we sit – Tapper, College Girl, Grinder and Just Curious. I think to myself, if the plane makes an emergency landing on a secluded island, who would I rather spend the time with? Guess I better interview them. I start with Grinder, who is now holding his cell phone up in the air. Waiting to catch some bars, I think.
“It is frustrating when they don’t work, isn’t it?” On my left side, Tapper jumps slightly. I don’t think she ever knew the rest of us where there till I spoke.
“Yeah! It is more frustrating when the guy your texting decides to shut up and not finish his sentence.”
“Ahh office issues. ”
“Yeah, stupid (%#$#&$%^& thinks he can just quit talking to me and that will fix it. %$%$& I will show him.”
I am just going to move on from Grinder. I figure he is also the poster child for Road Rage when he has four wheels under him. If we do land on the island, perhaps his seat will eject on the far side.
“Hi, off to school, somewhere?” I say to College Girl.
She looks up as if I shot her. “Uh, yeah”
She is young. Perhaps a shot at personal connection here will work. “College was my favorite time. Lots of great people to meet, fun things to do. Going far?”
Her face looks like the same one Wylie Coyote makes just after the piece of cliff he is holding onto breaks off from the mountain and he crashes into the Acme box in the bottom of the canyon. No comment. I bite the inside of my lip and move on.
Tapper is still tapping, perhaps I could draw her in. I touch her arm slightly she freezes as if I had interrupted her conversation with Copernicus.
“Do you remember that time in school, the excitement of college, the fun of all the new things you do? It was great wasn’t it?” She looks at me and then at the direction of my conversation, pausing just long enough to figure out this was less of an interrogation and only now a mild nusiance with the kid and the middle aged do-gooder woman. “Not really.” she quipped. “I really didn’t have the time or frankly the patience to enjoy myself. School was a stepping stone for me.” she glances at the nervous teen. “Just keep your head down and get through it.” She returns to the electronic missive she is writing.
Grinder is too angry. Tapper is too self-involved. I slow down, take a breath and smile at College Girl. “What are you most looking forward to?”
She shrugs slightly and smiles back. “At first, just getting out on my own. Doing my own thing. Now, not so sure. It just seems big.”
“What seems big?”
“Life. Out there. You know? I wake up one morning and the biggest problem I had was sneaking out of the house in a pair of jeans my mother wouldn’t let me wear. Now, my life is my own. Going forward, I will be responsible. Feels weird.” For the first time, she smiles a genuine smile. I think perhaps grateful, someone was really listening.
I nod. “Yeah, I remember that feeling.” And just like that, with Tapper and Grinder doing their thing and our flight still delayed, I bought her a cup of coffee and we talked about the adventure ahead, school, friends, family, and some fears. Mainly, College Girl (Annie to her friends) talked. I listened. I decided fairly early on that she just needed someone to listen. It was a great time! I now know who Mumford and Sons are, for one thing. I also know that it is really probably preferable to pull your head out of your own world and look around from time to time. There are some very fascinating conversations to be had. Computers don’t talk back, they only respond to data. We all need someone to just be a touchstone on the journey.
I don’t know if I can ever close the laptop every time, but I do resolve to look up a little more often. You never know who might need you. Or what you might need for that matter.