~ Monday, December 18, 2006 ~
Yesterday I left NY for another trip back west. I flew via Southwest from Islip this time, which meant getting myself to the airport was a good deal more complicated than usual. LIRR goes from Flatbush Ave., the closest station to my apartment, to Ronkonkoma, which is closeish to this particular airport, but LIRR's already infrequent service to Ronkonkoma (which, by the way, is nowhere near as interesting a place as its name suggests) was made even more infrequent because it was Sunday. I had to choose between a train that would put me in Rkk 50 minutes before the plane was scheduled to leave and one that would arrive almost 3 hours before. 50 minutes would have cut it too close, even for me, so I brought my notebooks with me (I'm still working on papers for this semester) and caught the stupid-early train. Once I reached the airport, I realised I'd forgotten my earplugs, and I knew that if I wanted to get any work done on the plane, I'd better find some. Oddly, none of the store clerks I asked seemed to have them. (Airport, right? You guys should be buying earplugs in bulk.) Sure, they all carried those damnable EarPlanes, the plastic ear-comfort things that only block 20 decibels of background noise and cost around $7 (that's 30.5¢ per decibel, for those of you keeping score), but nobody had the foam earplugs that you roll between your fingers and squish into your ears, the ones that deliver you into a world of blissful silence, so that all you can hear are the thoughts in your own head, which is really what I need if I'm going to come up with anything articulate about why Nozick's theory of justice is so very wrong.
Last time, flying out of Oakland, I'd gone into a newspaper/magazine store and found a pair of these foam earplugs with no difficulty at all. They were 95¢ and they worked like a charm (most productive plane flight I'd had to date (though it probably helped that I had a paper due the following day)), and I was hoping to find duplicates.
But as I said, I was getting nothing. I must have visited every single newsstand in Islip's airport, and I must have had the same conversation with every single store clerk. Hi, do you have foam earplugs? No, not the EarPlanes, thanks. Foam. No, not earbuds. Ear. Ppllugs. Foam earplugs. No, not Bose's Noise-cancelling headphones, I'm not that rich. Just earplugs. Please? But nobody had them. Cue the violins.
The fourth place I tried, though, suggested I check at a little shop I hadn't seen before, down toward the end of the terminal and in the opposite direction of my gate, around a corner and hidden from view until you stand right in front of it. I still had over an hour till boarding, so I ambled down.
Rather than bothering to look on my own, I asked the clerk directly whether he carried foam earplugs. "Rahhight behind you, ma'am," he said. (Okay, what is it with outer Long Island and Southerners? The taxi driver who took me to the airport, too...I haven't left New York already, have I?) I thanked him, turned around to look, and found...
Sigh. "No. Foammm...ear...plugs."
"Oh, I 'pollagize, ma'am, we're all out of those just today. And y'know the funny thing? We been all stocked up on them these last few months, and no one's been asking, and now the minute we run out, everyone's been asking for them, like all of the sudden they just can't get enough of ear plugs."
Maybe that's because when you've got them in stock, people can find them on the shelf and they don't have to ask, I managed to not say. "Is there anywhere else that might have some left?"
"Well now I could call downstairs for you and check with them if you like."
"That would be great."
He made the call and got his answer: no luck. While he was calling, I wandered over to a magazine rack, attracted by the name "Stephen Colbert" on the cover of GQ. I flipped through the pages trying to find the feature, and while I spent the next ten or fifteen minutes trying to find it (what the hell?), he made small talk with me.
"Was that your college?" he asked, referring to my sweatshirt. As I think both of you know, I own exactly one sweatshirt. It is old (almost 8 years), ratty, and has my college on it. It's also good for long flights in fiercely air-conditioned cabins.
"Yeah, that was mine. I'm no poser," I smiled. I still hadn't even found the table of contents. Damn glossy magazines with their damned endless advertisements.
"Well, you know, everyone's wearing college sweatshirts nowadays, since all those reality tv shows are all about kids in college."
"Oh really? I didn't know that." Okay, here was the table of contents...and no mention of Stephen! Was there another table of contents further in?
Oops, that was my cue to contribute to the conversation. "Um. Did you go to college around here?"
"Me? No, I went to the University of Lowalville, myself."
(Lowalville?) "Where's that?"
"Lowalville? That's Kentucky. That's where I"m from."
(Louisville!!) "Oh, Lowalville." Here was a second table of contents, after maybe ten more pages of rasor/cologne ads, but still no mention of where I'd find Stephen's piece. Undeterred, I resorted to going through the magazine page by page while Lowell here regaled me with stories about what U of L's rivals would do if you drove through their part of town with the wrong university's logo on your vehicle.
"...but I get around that," he continued. "Me, I just put stickers from both of them on my car, and then folks leave me alone no matter where I am."
"Well, that's a relief...but why not just not display any stickers at all?"
"Well, I guess I like to tell people where I'm from, you know?"
"Oh," I said, wondering how people would know if he's displaying both. I was over halfway through the magazine, and still no Stephen. Plenty of Will Ferrell, though, in case you're into that guy. I was beginning to think the name on the cover was a mistake, or that maybe GQ just put his name there to trick his fans into standing in airport newsstands making inane small talk with guys from Lowalville. I checked my phone: still an hour till boarding. I looked up at him. "Do you think you could help me with this?" I asked, figuring I already knew the answer. "It says on the cover that it has a bit on Stephen Colbert, and I'm not finding it."
He put down the t-shirt he was folding. "Sure, let's have a look. Stephen Col-berT, huh?"
"Yeah." I winced at the vocalised T. "He's got a TV show, 'The Colbert Report'?" I tried to educate without insulting. "He makes a point of not pronouncing the Ts. He says it's French." I could have been speaking French for all the difference it made.
"Col-berT, Col-berT, Col-berT..." he said, running his finger down the table of contents. Oh well.
Just then, a couple stormed into the shop. "Those snowglobes should come with a warning!" the man fumed.
Warning? Snowglobes? Colorful graphics began scrolling before my eyes:
-Warning: Gravity Works!
-Caution: This Snowglobe may not qualify as a thoughtful gift for your mother.
"We bought one downstairs," said the lady, "and they wouldn't let us bring it through security! I had to leave it with my sister!"
"Oh, because of the liquid in the snowglobe?" I asked. "Because it's over 4 ounces?"
"There's a warning on everything else down there!" the guy went on. "Water, Pepsi, juice, everything. Why don't you put warnings on the snowglobes?"
Now I felt doubly bad for Lowell. Not only was he getting a thrashing he didn't deserve, but he clearly lacked the chops to dodge or parry. I was about to step in to defend him, to point out to Mr. and Mrs. Questionable Taste that when they say No Liquids, they mean no liquids, and that it's not this guy's responsibility to put warnings on everything, and that they should have thought about that before buying the snowglobe, but Lowell was already speaking...and he wasn't being defensive, either. His face looked soft and sympathetic, and his voice was gentle.
"Those folks did that to you?" he cooed. "Well, now I think TSA's gone a little too far." He shook his head in disapproval.
"Yeah! I mean, what are we gonna do with a snowglobe, anyway?" the wife demanded.
"Exactly!" said Lowell.
"This security crap gets crazier every day," her husband said.
"I'm awful sorry about that, folks," said Lowell.
"No, it's not your fault," said the wife.
All I could do was stare. In a few words, this boy who couldn't figure out why people never ask for what's already on the shelves had transformed the savage customers into a couple of mewing pussycats. I wouldn't ever have thought to do that, and if I had, I doubt I could have pulled it off. Was that what they meant by Southern Charm?
"Merry Christmas," he told them as they left.
"Same to you," said the husband. He was actually smiling.
I wanted to tell Lowell how amazed I was by his deft bit of dissatisfied-customer-wranglage, but when I searched his face for some flicker of smugness, anything to indicate that he knew what he'd done and knew he'd done it well, I saw nothing but the same, slightly blank, little-boy face he'd had on when I came in. Was he hiding it that well? Was it just so second-nature to him by now that he no longer rejoiced over little victories like these? Or could he possibly have been speaking sincerely?
I put the GQ away and told him I had to leave then. I didn't want to say what I was thinking, and I didn't trust myself to think of anything else to say. I haven't been so thoroughly humbled in a long time.
"Merry Christmas," he told me as I left.
"Merry Christmas to you too," I said.
~ prattled by Miriam at 3:25 p.m. [+]
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