Last Thursday night I ran into trouble coming home from Philadelphia. My flight was delayed an hour by weather, which meant I was going to miss my connecting flight to South Carolina. I waited in line to rebook with the gate agent, resigning myself to the probability that wherever I slept that night, it was unlikely to be at home.
I was eighth in line (how can you not count in times like those) and tried to remain calm about the small-scale fiasco. The woman behind me was not calm at all, though. She was on the phone with her mom. “I can’t stand this fucking city a minute longer,” she said in a thick working class accent. “I’m going crazy, I think I’m gonna have a panic attack.” Then she called a man named Dan. More cursing. More talk of losing her mind. “Remember that time you started sweating and passed out,” she said. “That’s going to be me unless I get out of this filthy fucking city.”
My heart did not go out to her. As I listened to her I thought: What kind of person swears like that in public? Doesn’t she see that the rest of us are dealing with this unfortunate but unavoidable snag like normal, well-socialized human beings? Like me, for example, didn’t she see that I’m not throwing a fit even though I really want to get home to my family tonight?
We advanced slowly in line. I watched the passengers ahead of me talk with the gate agent. Some got rebooked on other flights, others received only bad news and took up way too much time making the agent run futile queries. One guy had the agent check for flights into every little airport within two hours of Savannah. Meanwhile, I thought about the direct flight to South Carolina that I knew was scheduled to leave from Terminal F in an hour, and I pictured other delayed passengers at other gates snapping up the last remaining seats. Behind me, the woman called her mom back and continued her rant. Her distaste for Philadelphia was so vociferous, I felt like I needed to speak up for the city.
Finally, I was next in line. The passenger at the desk received good news: There was room on a later flight to Chicago. While the agent printed this lucky passenger’s new boarding passes, I got antsier, anticipating my turn to learn my fate. But just before I stepped forward, I was hit with a very unexpected feeling. Suddenly I felt cheap and small to be maintaining my position in line while the woman behind me clearly needed resolution faster than I did. I paused a moment and then turned to her. She was off the phone now.
“Do you want to go ahead of me in line,” I asked. “It sounds like you’re having a harder day than I am.”
She was startled at first and gave a quick reply about how I didn’t need to do that. But then she saw things differently, put a hand on my shoulder, and said, “Bless you, I will go ahead if you don’t mind.”
She stepped forward and received good news, too. Pittsburgh, apparently, was where she was so desperate to get to that night, and she walked away from the desk a changed woman. With a boarding pass in her hand and a new lightness in her voice, she paused to thank me again, and hurried off down the terminal to her new gate.
Later, on my flight home (things worked out for me, too), I thought about what had taken place between the two of us in line. I was struck by how dramatically she had changed, both within herself and in my own eyes, when I’d offered her my spot in line. Up until that moment she had seemed completely ugly, but when she thanked me, it was with a direct, human warmth I might have guessed she was incapable of. I was also surprised at how good it felt to have done something kind, and surprised even more by my surprise: How is it that after 33 years of life, so basic a thing as kindness still startles?
And that has been my lasting feeling about the experience. I think about all the ways I could have responded to my somewhat crass linemate, and I’m taken aback by the fact that for 20 minutes I held her in contempt, and only at the last second, for reasons I can’t explain, did I even have the thought to do something kind for her. The whole experience put a point on how judgment is a default setting, and kindness can feel like a fluke, and how weird it is that life would be made that way.