Airline travel makes refugees of all of us. We obey the rules and shuffle through the lines, shoeless and ignoble. Those of us who travel a lot have systems designed to make us better and more efficient than our stocking-footed fellows, but we're all the same — pilgrims and potential terrorists just trying to get home. Friday night, I arrived early at JFK for my delayed flight, so I wasn't in my usual very-important-businessperson rush. I moved slowly enough to notice the family in front of me, preparing to go through the first of several security checks. A woman in her mid-to-late 40s was tenderly arranging the parcels and persons of two older people — her parents — in the exact same way we'd pack small children off to school.
"Dad, your glasses are falling out of your pocket. There. No, see, there? There you go. Mom, go ahead and untie your shoes because you're going to have to take them off? And keep your boarding passes and your drivers' licenses out, okay?"
As her parents walked away from her through the security line she couldn't cross, the middle-aged daughter sheep-dogged the nylon rope, watching them, waving. I struck up a conversation and found out they're from Buena Vista, Colorado, and they don't travel much anymore except once a year to see their daughter in New York and their granddaughter in Vermont. As we snaked through the long security line, the daughter watched and waved, like she was sending her parents off to kindergarten.
The older couple was flummoxed by the lines and stern directions at the x-ray scan. SHOES OFF. SHOES DIRECTLY ON THE BELT. ELECTRONICS IN A BIN. COAT OFF. BOARDING PASS OUT. "Do I need to take my sweater off? Do I put it in a bin?" As I answered their questions, I could see the daughter far away against the nylon rope. They waved. I waved. She waved back.
I went first, efficiently, but hung back to see how they were doing. The man limped through first, one leg dragging from a bum hip, and I said, "Do you need anything?"
"Oh no, dear, you go on. Have a safe trip," he said.
They carefully gathered their shoes and sweaters and parcels, unaware of the line they were holding up behind them. I could see their daughter lingering, small beyond the security glass and the ropes and the other ropes, clutching her hands, straining to see her mom and dad.
I wanted to follow them to their gate, but I didn't. I thought, If they need help, someone will notice. Flying reminds us that we are all here at the mercy of each other.