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Airport incident reminds us to be grateful


One airport. Two stories. If you want to see a microcosm of the human condition, go to the airport. At any one time, thousands of travelers from all over the world pass through a relatively contained space. They represent all backgrounds, situations and states of mind.

This was especially apparent while I waited to catch a flight out of the Baltimore airport last week. In the space of one hour, I witnessed two scenarios that illustrated the difference in social status, conduct and providence in our world.

The first involved a maintenance worker, who was maybe in his 30s and had special needs. He was trying to get a rolling garbage bin put away in the maintenance closet. The closet door had to be opened by a code, and either it had been changed without anyone notifying him or he had forgotten it.

The young man did what anyone does when they can’t figure something out at work; he asked for help. He approached another employee, whose blue blazer and self-confident swagger suggested he had higher authority, and said he couldn’t get the door open. The guy shrugged and said it wasn’t his job. The worker then called out for help to a group of blue-shirted airport workers who seemed more interested in sitting in the waiting area and visiting. “I need the code to get in there,” he explained. He repeated this, louder this time, to another group of blueshirted workers.

He was greeted by apathy, derisive laughter or downright rudeness. Some blatantly ignored him.

The custodian disappeared for a while, then came back. He tried punching a code into the lock. No luck. His shoulders slumped with frustration. He looked around for potential helpers. By now, the group of airport workers had dwindled down to a woman and a man, who sat with his arm loosely draped around her shoulders. The maintenance worker asked both what to do. “Everyone’s at lunch,” she said disinterestedly, never lifting her eyes from her phone. He tried the code again. Again, no dice.

My co-worker, who is a guardian to a fantastic young man with special needs, took it all in. Her outrage grew palpably as she watched the airport worker ask again and again – and be rebuffed each time. “I can’t believe how people are treating him,” she said. “He’s just trying to do his job. I’m going to contact the airport management about this.”

Now the guy in the blue blazer was back, and the custodian was trying to explain his situation. The Blazer looked at him with a combination of amusement, apathy and condescension.

She approached him. “This man has been trying to do his job and get this door open. He has asked several employees here for help, and no one will help him,” she said.

The Blazer listened with a look bordering on smugness and barely concealed contempt. His expression said: “Now I suppose I have to do something because this nosy tourist is bugging me.” We walked around the corner, but my friend refused to take her eyes off the scene. “I am going to stand here until I’m sure someone helps him,” she said. Her eyes simmered with angry tears. “It’s one thing if he isn’t capable of doing his job. Then it needs to be addressed, and he should receive more job training. But to simply keep him on and treat him like this … it isn’t right.”

My heart hurt, too, but it also swelled with admiration that my friend had such a fine heart. Even better, she stepped in and did something about it. While others – including yours truly – might sit and watch a human drama unfold, she was not afraid to become part of the plot.

The janitor disappeared, and Blazer Man got up, swaggered over to the door, punched in the code and opened it. He pulled the cart inside and locked it. We couldn’t believe it. Had he known the code all along or did he just find out the code himself, so he was finally able to help? If it were the former, it was unconscionable.

Right then, a businessman cut in front of us. He was silver-haired and welldressed. He pulled good luggage and flashed an impressive silver watch on the wrist. He carried himself like a person who was important – and was assured of that every day by the minions around him. He also was on his phone, speaking to someone – someone I immediately pitied. The person on the other end was being dressed down. “Was there a certain area in which I didn’t make myself immediately clear?” he asked, his voice sharp with reproach. This man obviously was used to people doing exactly what he wanted – and if they didn’t do it on his schedule, there would be hell to pay. He was a “winner” by our society’s shallow standards.

There it was, right in front of us, a glaring contrast of the comfortable and the afflicted. One was affluent, entitled – and used to telling others what to do. The other was marginalized, powerless – and used to doing what he was told.

I thought of how many advantages the older man had without even realizing it. And then I thought of how many little indignities and cruelties the younger man experienced in a day from others. He didn’t have many doors opened for him – figuratively or literally.

My colleague and I finally had to leave so we could grab lunch before our rapidly approaching flight. We vowed to each other that we would write letters to airport management about its treatment of employees with special needs. It is not enough to hire someone who is developmentally delayed, and then pat yourself on the back for your benevolence and progressive hiring practices. If you are going to do so, you need to also provide support for those employees so they could also succeed.

The incident filled me with gratitude for a life that I have often taken for granted. I hoped Joe CEO would also someday realize how fortunate he was – and that he would eventually learn about the dangers of bullying and entitlement. But my biggest hope was for the nameless custodian, so he could find work in a place where he received the respect and kindness any human being deserves.

We need to realize that people aren’t winners because they look good. The true winners are those who DO good.

Readers can reach columnist Tammy Swift at