Let me tell you the story of someone who is doing right by the world in a very small way.
Michael C. -- A waiter at a restaurant in an airport. Now, being someone who spends a very large proportion of my days in airports, I'm familiar with airport food service workers. It seems like a low-rent job. I'm not sure how much it pays, but I can imagine it can't be that great to get out of your bed in the morning and show up at an airport to be a bartender or a waitress. I was both at one time. A waitress at a busy business-luncheon place, a Famous Steak House, in Brooklyn, where men in expensive suits ordered on their clients' dimes and no matter how much work I put into my smile, into my enthusiastic rendering of the Daily Specials, it was a rare moment to see more than a 10% tip. Seriously. And as a bartender in hip music bar in a Jersey town that sat on the Hudson River, I made pennies. Pennies. For hours standing up and listening to the rants of ex girlfriends and stoner rockers. Not worth it, I say. Give me an office temp job any day. But to work in an airport? You don't find many bastards cheaper than travellers, and I should know cause I'm definitely one of them. After I've shelled out the 25% more for the rental car than I'd planned because of some airport taxes that have just been imposed (the "You're in Houston so we'll just charge you $10 more for being here" tax), after having to be charged per bag, per pillow, per shoe I want to wear on my feet (seriously? are we coming to this?), you'd be hard pressed to find a generous tipper in a regular business traveller. I love business travellers. Did you see "Up In The Air"? They nod to each other with their matching Samsonite bags. Do they notice that amidst and among their breed are we musicians who hold bagazillions of frequent flier miles as well, but perhaps not the most expensive luggage. They get to put their meals on the client. We pay our own way. So this is the culture into which I want you to enter for this chapter of my saga. The tired, bedraggled, going home fliers OR the excited, distracted, chattering "did I forget my IPhone in the car, honey?" fliers who are en route to some long-planned destination. I realize airport restaurants are expensive. All food here is. Mostly I try to eat and drink beforehand, but a great once in a while, I feel the need to splurge. If I've got the time, I might take a table in a restaurant (a table???), order a nice glass of wine and eat a REAL meal. Yes, and spend money, but sometimes this luxury is worth the price of admission, even if the food mostly sucks and the wine is not top shelf. Its worth it to not eat something wrapped in white paper.
Houston Hobby Airport. I'm flying Southwest Airlines. I have 2 hours to kill, and I haven't had a real meal in 2 days, so I decide to take a booth seat at Pappadeaux, some pseudo Cajun chain, I figure. The waiter approaches--a cheery 30 something blonde man, big bright smile, too happy for a Monday at noon, but there's something quite genuine about him. A salesman, but a salesman you like despite knowing all you know about salesmen. He spots the guitar (they all do) and instead of asking me the regular question "What's the name of your band?" he says he has his grandfather's Fender Strat but he can't play it (I'm calculating the age of said guitar and inwardly drooling ... ). He leans in, elbows on table. Have you been here or to any Pappadeaux? he asks. I say no. His eyes light up. "Well...." and he points out 2 fish items and says, 'seriously, we do fresh here. I mean fresh like they were swimming 48 hours ago fresh. And if you go with the Tilapia, I'd recommend the Napa Sauvignon Blanc"... I find myself charmed and I'm no sucker. And so, yes, I say "whatever you say" and proceed to have the BEST airport meal I've ever had. Seriously. The fish was perfect. The beans weren't frozen or if they were they were masked well. The wine was light and crisp. Mike C seemed to have his beat down. He owned the four tables around me, enjoying brief yet genuine conversations with each of them as he passed by, checking on them. One couple, well-dressed, Hispanic, in linen pants and gold bracelets, sat across from me. They'd waited in line and requested to be seated in a section so as to be waited on by Mike C. Seriously. They'd been here before. Who does that? This guy, Mike--I've never seen anything like this. He created this conviviality between people who were not inclined to be convivial: frequent travellers used to keeping their heads in their Wall Street Journals and their fingers and thumbs on their Blackberries. One table had a couple that were retired Army band members. She was the lead clarinetist, still playing in nursing homes and VA Hospitals. He was a retired trumpeter. They were both originally from Long Island, heading home. How do I know this? Because Mike introduced us. Because he knew them: they travel from here all the time. As they left, he asked, "When will I see you guys again?" I'm usually the one with my head in my I Phone, checking emails, not particularly friendly. I hate the questions about the guitar, or the meek "good luck with that"s that occur after I answer the questions that lead to "I'm a folk singer" or, worse, "Are you famous?" But here, in this Pappadeaux (what the hell does that mean anyway?) there was this brief camaraderie. A kindness. A gentility. Nobody seemed to invade anyone's space for too long, but a brief nod or a "where are you heading?" as if, captained by Mike C, we were all on the same ship. This kind of person is so rare, I think. I hope not. I hope there are Mike C's everywhere, who recognize that a big broad smile and a bit of fun while waiting on a plane make a world of difference to someone who spends way too many days away from her own house, her own dog. So, I beg of you, if you are travelling through Houston Hobby Airport on a Monday - Thursday, on Southwest Airlines, go to Pappadeaux and ask for Mike C. Remind him of the girl with the Gibson guitar that I let him look at. Tell him I sent you. Tip him very very well.
Here's another thing. I love New York and I love New Yorkers and I love the honesty and brashness about the Northeast. And I'm wary of the "bless your heart" niceties of the south. All bullshit. But I wonder, even if Mike C. wasn't really that happy or that interested in everyone, is it so PollyAnna of me to think that maybe throwing a bit of southern bullshit charm around into the Karmic atmosphere can be a better energy (regardless of the veracity) than the aggressive, honest, "take it or leave it" brazenness of my previous area of the country? All I know is that my shoulder tension is gone now. 18 years of it and its gone.
Or maybe its that 1pm glass of Sauvignon Blanc.....