Friday, September 15, 2006

The Pilgrim's Progress — More Ramblings From The Road

from Jacqueline

... Minneapolis ... Chicago ... Cleveland tomorrow ... and so it continues: the book tour. As I said last week, or was it the week before, it’s great meeting the booksellers and the readers of one’s books, but the bits in between – airports, taxis and hotels – leave something to be desired. Mind you, there’s much to nudge the imagination.

Take airports. Richard Curtis, the director of Love Actually, had it right when he decided to make the comings and goings at an airport the basis for a story about love – you see everything at an airport. And me? I’m a people-watcher at the best of times, in fact most writers pay attention even when they think they’re not – you notice the way a man flicks a cigarette to the floor and twists it into the ground with the sole of his shoe, or the way a woman struggles to push a buggy through a door and the only person who tries to help her is an elderly lady, herself burdened by bags. I’ve done my fair share of watching and observing this past few weeks, not because I’ve set out to look at people, but just because I’ve been at airports and you see a lot of emotion at an airport. And you see things that make you think.

Like the young woman in the ladies room in – where was it? Minneapolis, I think – in her brown, beige and white camouflage uniform and light desert boots. She was applying make-up, carefully wielding the mascara wand, then a blusher brush and finally a swoosh of reddish-brown lipstick. She brushed out her sun-kissed blonde hair, then pulled a lovely leather purse from her kitbag and threw a few essentials into it before going out into the terminal and off down to baggage claim. I thought that, perhaps, she was coming home on leave, and suspected her boyfriend was somewhere waiting to meet her outside. And I’d wondered where she’d been, and where she might go next. More than anything, I wondered what she might see, once she’s back on duty, but those desert fatigues told a story all their own.

At another airport I saw a middle-aged couple with their disabled son, a young man in his late teens, I would have thought. Both parents seemed to have a casual elegance about them, and, though burdened by bags for three, along with a few extra bags, they were so graceful in every movement. I wondered about that, as people struggled around me with over-laden luggage, or so it seemed. The woman was dressed in smart beige slacks topped with a rich yellow sweater, Her bag and scarf were yellow, and her shoes were beige and yellow. The father wore beige slacks and a deep aubergine-colored jacket. I mention the clothes because the son was wearing clothes in colors that complemented his parents’ attire – there he was in a yellow shirt, and aubergine pants. And each parent held one of his hands as they waited for their flight, only occasionally revealing a level of concern in the way that they looked at each other and then at their son. Were they going to visit friends? Taking him to college for the first time, a place where he would have to venture forward into the world on his own? Or were they just on vacation, the three of them getting away from home, with all the hassles that come with traveling with the physically challenged.

Then a couple of days ago, at another airport, there was the woman who touched my soul and whom I haven’t quite managed to get out of my mind since. I won’t say where I was, just in case, after all, you never can tell, someone who knows the woman might read this post. Stranger things have happened. I was at the gate, waiting for my flight to finally start boarding. A delay was expected and it would be a while, so I began reading my Newsweek. I became aware of the sound of sobbing. It was no ordinary sobbing, the sort you hear when someone has just said their goodbyes at security control, but a deep keening that came from the soul. I looked around and saw, about six seats along from me, a woman bent double, just breaking her heart. It was so wrenching that I could physically feel her despair. I saw the people sitting close by begin to move away. Such situations can be difficult, because approaching the person may be met with even more sadness, or perhaps aggression, so I simply concentrated saying the words to myself, “May she know peace.” It’s from what the Buddhists call a meditation of loving kindness.

A young woman from United Airlines came along, and I have to say, she was just terrific. She wasn’t in uniform, and I imagine she was some sort of caregiver who deals with such situations. She knelt in front of the woman, and just began talking to her, then encouraged her to stand and walk a few steps – at which point she sat her down next to me. The United woman and I exchanged looks, and I gathered that the distressed passenger had imbibed a strong drink or two, which of course isn’t unusual in difficult circumstances. Then she went off to get some coffee for the still-sobbing woman. People were looking across, then quickly away, or peeping over their newspapers. My heart went out to her, so I simply rested my hand on hers, whereupon she clung on to me as if for dear life.

We managed to find out who was picking her up at her destination, and the United representative made arrangements for the woman to travel later, and to be picked up from the airport, and in the midst of all of this we discovered where she was going, and why, and pieces of the puzzle began to fall into place – it’s her story, and intensely private. The woman held on to me until I left to board my flight, and I had to run as I’d waited until they were just about to close the gate.

I’ve wondered about that woman ever since, and the couple with the son, and the soldier with her make-up kit. You see it all at airports, the laughter, tears, the joy, the frustrations, the boredom, the rich and not so rich. And I know this might sound sappy, or hackneyed, but from what I’ve seen, most of the time – aside from those who are having a crabby moment – are events and vignettes of stories that make me realize why Curtis called his film Love, Actually.


  1. What poignant observations, J. I'm sure that these "telling details" will eventually appear in one your novels.

  2. That was beautiful, Jacqueline. And I know just what you mean about airports. I don't fly, but I've been the driver for plenty of people who DO, and I find airports and the people in them utterly fascinating. So many lives intersecting.

    My favorite airport story was when I was waiting for relatives from Germany to arrive, and in the meantime an entire planeload of little Chinese babies were carried by caregivers through baggage claim and the girls (because of course they were girls, all of them) were handed to their waiting adoptive parents, who couldn't have looked more happy even if someone had handed them tickets to heaven.

    Everyone watching shed some tears, and we were strangers to the event. It was inarguably moving, and the children were so lovely.

  3. Call me a sentimental slob, but I mist up when all the lovers finally come together at Heathrow in the last scene of "Love, Actually."

  4. I loved reading this post....

  5. We travel a lot by air and car, and sometimes see odd happenings as well. It's odd to see so many people ignore distress in others. I've always tried to help where I could, even if it's only talking someone through turbulence on a plane.
    You are far more observant of people, Jackie, than I will ever be, but I, too, people watch when I can. When my husband is doing the guest of honour stint somewhere, or at a convention doing panels and such, I tend to watch the people around him and others in the audience. It's lead to some interesting insights about how people interact. :-D
    Hope your book tour is going well and is not too exhausting. And thank you for sharing your wonderfully moving encounters. Something of the characters in your books are described with a similar infinitesimal care.

  6. oh Jacqueline ...