I am sitting at Gate C11 at LaGuardia, a business class ticket in my bag, typing on my laptop. I shouldn’t have the ticket or my laptop. But thanks to the kindness of two strangers and Facebook, I do.
An hour ago, I arrived at the airport to find out that my 10 a.m. flight on United was cancelled. The airport was a hot and crowded mess, packed with people trying to get on with their holiday vacations. I just wanted to get home because it had been a long week and I promised I’d speak to a class of students at Medill today about the power of social media.
Having spent the past two days in New York, I know the accepted M.O. is to push past other people and do what you have to do to get what you need. But I’m from the Midwest and I always feel like a jerk when I act like that.
So I decided to emulate my good friend and mentor, Howell Malham. Like me, he’s a journalist by background, having written for the LA Times and New York Times. Also like me, he was raised Catholic in a Chicago suburb. Both times we’ve had lunch in the last few months, he always struck up conversations with the wait staff–not just asking their names, but sincerely asking how they’re doing. The waiters have always been surprised that someone actually cares about them, not just where the food is and when the check is coming.
So, looking at the grumpy travelers jamming the ticket counter at LGA, I decided to be different. I probably was stuck there for the day anyway–what did I have to lose?
I walked up to the ticket agent, a middle-aged Indian man. I smiled and said, “Hi, I’m Tracy. How are you? How is your day going?”
He paused, looked up from his computer, looked at me, clearly confused. I smiled wider. He squinted at me through his classes, then he smiled. He looked back at his computer, chuckling. “Oh it’s going,” he said.
I laughed and said, “I can see that. Do you think you can help me get home to Chicago? I’m supposed to speak to a class this afternoon.”
“We’ll see what we can do.”
I stood there for ten minutes. An elderly couple was next to me, dressed for a vacation some place warm. Their ticket agent shook his head and said he was sorry, but the only flight they could get on left tomorrow at noon.
I gritted my teeth, wondering what I would do with my day in New York and how much a hotel would cost if I had to stay another night.
A few more minutes went by. Finally, my ticket agent looked up and said, “Type this code on the screen in front of you.”
I did. A reservation in my name came out. The flight was a United flight to Chicago at 10 a.m., the same time as my cancelled flight.
“How did you do that?!” I asked.
He went on. “You’ll notice that the flight is business class. Normally you get charged a big fee for that. Just keep that between us.”
“Oh my goodness, thank you so much. Truly! Thank you!”
He didn’t look up from his computer. No smile. No wink. No laugh. Nothing.
I thanked him again. “Have a wonderful holiday weekend, thank you so much.”
In a daze, I walked to the security line. A woman with a stroller stood next to me, telling another woman how she had been at the airport for eight hours yesterday only to have her flight cancelled. Her son, 13 months, had missed his own birthday party because of it.
“I just hope we get out on time today,” she said.
I couldn’t believe my luck. Of course, I had to share it on Facebook.
On the other side of the x-ray, I took my phone out of the bin and began typing a status update on Facebook. I didn’t notice how light my tote bag was.
Ten minutes, I was sitting at Gate C11, watching the likes ping on my Facebook status. Then a friend request popped up. Some guy named Malcolm Ray friended me. I clicked on his profile and saw we had one friend, a high school classmate of mine in common. Since I get friend requests from strangers every day, I deleted it.
A second later, a new comment appeared on my Facebook status.
I looked in my bag. Sure enough, my laptop case was empty. I snapped out of my daze and jumped up. The terminal was packed. Suitcases and strollers and people were everywhere. “Excuse me, excuse me, excuse me.” As if in a movie, the crowds parted and let me through, three gates over to C8.
Sitting there was Malcolm. I screamed. “Oh my god, you’re amazing! I can’t believe you!”
Everyone looked up, wondering who this crazy girl was. He laughed and stood up and handed me my laptop and my driver’s license. I hugged him. “You are an amazing person, truly, thank you.”
He shrugged. “We decided to take it because it would have been hard for you to get it back from TSA.” His friend stood next to him, laughing and beaming as much as he was.
“The ironic thing is I was in a daze because I was astonished at someone else’s random act of kindness and I totally forgot to take my laptop,” I said. “Can I please buy you a cup of coffee?”
“Nah, it’s all good,” he said.
“Well at least let me take your picture for the Internet!” I said, handing my phone to his friend.
He put his arm around me and I laughed as she snapped the photo. I hugged him again. “I promise to pay this forward. I’m also going to tell the Internet about your random act of kindness as well.”
He laughed and said okay. Minutes later, I posted our photo to Facebook. Then I called my mom. “You won’t believe what just happened!”
I told her the story. In classic mother form, her first reply was, “Tracy, you really need to be more careful, something could have happened.”
In classic daughter form, my reply was, “But mom, I’m fine. And come on, isn’t that an amazing story?”
“Tracy, some day you will be a mother and you will understand where I’m coming from.”
“Probably. But come on, it’s just such a good story!”
“There are a lot of crazy people in the world. He had your license and your laptop? You’re incredibly lucky.”
“Mom, I get that that world is a dangerous place and there are lots of crazy people out there. But I choose to look for the kindness in people.”
“And that’s the difference between us. This must be a generational thing. Boomers vs Millennials. So wait—how did he find you?”
“Oh you were friends?”
“No, he found me through Facebook. Within 10 minutes.”
“Oh. That is a good story. But you really need to be more careful.”
“I love you, Mom.”
“I love you, too.”
As I type this, my flight is boarding. I have to be at Medill in a few hours, ready to talk about the power of social media. Lucky me, I’ll make it on time, laptop in hand and an incredible story to share.