I was flying home from a business trip yesterday when this happened [actual text message I sent to my family, slightly edited to correct some typos]:
So I am at O’Hare and I figure I will grab a quick drink before my flight. Find a seat at a crowded bar (Romano’s Macaroni Grill, Terminal 3, K2). End up sitting next to Jackie whose iPhone is at 3% power. I offer to let him plug in to my laptop to charge up. We talk. Nice young man. Takes a sip from his glass of beer. Tells me he is going to fly non-stop 18 hours to Bejing, then Mongolia where he is from. I keep checking to make sure his phone is powering up, which it is.
Then as appreciation to my kindness and that of Jeremy, the dude next to me from Portland, who offers to let Jackie use his portable battery power unit to charge his phone, Jackie buys 3 shots of Grey Goose vodka.
Jeremy says no can do, but Jackie insists with me. Not wanting to be impolite, I take a sip. He downs his in one slug.
I get to talking with Jeremy, then a few minutes Jackie taps me on the shoulder and he is suddenly drunk. Don’t know if he took an Ambien or what, but he is a mess. And he is clinking the 3rd shot glass of vodka, the one Jeremy turned down, against my just-sipped glass: Let’s toast.
I say, “No, not a good idea.” But he slams back his shot.
“Jackie, no more for you, okay.”
I catch the eye of the bartender Pedro. He scoops away Jackie’s beer. Replaces with a glass of water.
“Here, drink some water, Jackie.”
I hold the glass for him. He takes a sip. Thumbs his phone. Hands it to me. On the screen, I’m staring at the face of Jackie’s friend. From Mongolia.
“What’s wrong with Jackie?”
“He’s had too much to drink.”
“He must come home. Family needs him. He must get on plane.”
“Okay, okay, I understand.”
Jackie is lolling from side to side.
“Jackie, when is your flight.”
“Yes, I know you’re flying to Bejing. When does the plane take off?”
He fumbles through his pants pockets. Drops the phone. I pick it up. Cash spills onto the floor. I retrieve it.
The bartender Pedro enlists the help of an airline dude: “Where’s his boarding pass?”
I dig through Jackie’s pants pockets because he is unable to function. More cash. Baggage claim check. Passport.
Finally his boarding pass.
Oops. This is for his flight from an earlier flight.
Phone rings. It’s Jackie’s friend. Hands me the phone.
“How’s he doing?”
“We’re working on it.”
“Must get home, must get on flight…”
Now several people including myself and Jeremy from Portland have marshaled forces: We are single-minded to help Jackie, who we have known for all of 20 minutes.
Finally I find his boarding pass. Jackie wobbling. Shit! His flight leaves in 20 minutes!
I jam his cash, passport, phone, charger cable (his phone now at 38% power) into his pocket as Jackie’s friend keeps calling (“We’ll get him there, we’ll get him there,” I keep saying).
By now, there are a half-dozen people at work to get this virtual stranger onto his plane. The airline representative is a freaking hero, steers a wobbling Jackie onto an electric cart to head off to another terminal (Jackie is in the wrong place).
“Thank you, thank you, good friend, good friend,” Jackie slurs, patting people on the back as they pull away.
And he is gone.
Jeremy and I shake our heads: What the hell just happened? Jeremy has to leave for his flight. We shake hands. He gives me his card. If I ever become a big corporation and need IT help, I know who to call.
While I resume sitting at the bar, several people come up to shake my hand. “That was wonderful what you did,” a guy says. He was seated at a table right next to the whole thing. “Nobody does that for people anymore.”
I say, “We’re all human beings. What else could we do?”
He embraces me.
“Yeah, what else.”
Then the whole scene is over, as if it never happened. A guy slides into the seat Jackie occupied.
He lives in Philadelphia. He and his partner want to move to Palm Springs. “It’s a big gay community there,” he tells me.
“You don’t say.”
I have kept thinking about Jackie last night and today. I hope he made it home on time. My interaction with him reminded me of two basic facts of life: First, empathy is one of the most important capabilities we have as human beings. Second, as writers, stories exist everywhere.
In both respects, we do well to keep our eyes and ears open.