Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Stories of Everyday People

Stuck at home today with a foreign germ picked up recently on travels that I had seemed to tame enough yesterday for my one-day commute to Omaha from California but that raged back full-force this morning after a sufficient amount of sleep to reconstitute my entire body (I went to bed significantly earlier than usual), I have found my mind doing the traveling, instead of my body. So many stories I have accumulated through my travels that I could probably write a multi-volume compendium of them, but I have no time for that. Therefore, I will share just one of those stories, one of many like it that keep me collecting them.

On a recent flight out of the San Jose airport, which is undergoing extensive remodeling, I found myself the only person in line at security. Now, there’s a disconcerting feeling! Where had everyone gone, and if everyone had gone somewhere else, why was I here? I smiled at the TSA agents, who smiled back. (I had my choice of three!) I have often said hello to TSA agents, and they always seem surprised. Not so in San Jose where almost all of them are very friendly.

“Hi,” I said, “Where is everyone?”

“We’re all here just for you,” he responded with a grin. Then he went on to explain the empty airport. They had just that morning moved about 90% of the flights to the newly re-built Terminal A and were in the process of shutting down Terminal C, where I was. My flight was one of the few still flying out of Terminal C, and I had come a bit early, hence, my isolated status.

An incurable extrovert, I talk to all who cross my path —- the guards, the homeless, the janitors. I smile at them all. Maybe that makes me weak-minded. The Russians would say that. In Russian culture, anyone who smiles at a stranger or smiles without cause is considered “legkomyslennyj” (weak-minded, or lit. light-thoughted). Weak-minded or not, I have met some interesting people that way.

Nearly two decades ago, I was waiting for Donnie to pick me up at the small airport near to where we live (not the San Jose International Airport, which is a bit farther down the road), and, learning that he had forgotten about my return, as was his wont at the time, I called a friend to while away the time that I would have to wait for Donnie. My friend being a Russian immigrant, I chatted with her in Russian. As I talked, a janitor remained not far away, sweeping an already clean floor. When I finally hung up, he walked over to me and said in Russian, “Excuse me, I did not mean to eavesdrop, but I could not help doing so. I was wondering when you moved here.”

“In 1989,” I told him.

“Ah-hah, from where?”

I started to see where this might be going, but not quite sure, I answered, “Well, I have lived many places, but I grew up in Maine.”

He looked a little surprised at that and then asked where my parents had come from. Now I was sure that I knew where this was going.

“I am not Russian,” I told him. “I just happen to speak Russian.”

Well, we talked for the remaining 20 minutes until Donnie finally showed up. I learned that his name was Volodya (nickname for Vladimir), that he had a family, and that he had been working as a janitor at the airport for a few months. At the time, I was traveling internationally on a frequent basis (as in every week) to provide consultation on various innovations and problem-solving strategies to ministers of education in a couple dozen countries. Every week upon departure and arrival, I would run into Volodya, and we would chat.

Volodya’s jobs changed at the airport periodically. He was promoted from janitor to baggage handler to ticket agent. Through it all, over the years, our relationship, too, changed. At some point – I don’t recall when – we moved from the “vy” (formal form of address) to “ty” (informal form of address). (In Russian, one is said to be “on vy” or “on ty,” indicating the closeness of the relationship and the amount of impersonality or friendship.)

Then Donnie and I moved to Jordan for 2.5 years, and I did not see Volodya again. Not until Donnie flew home through that same airport. His flight was delayed, and as I was waiting for him, Volodya, now a bigger whig (if one can say that), walked up to me, surprised to see me. I explained where I had been, and we sat down and chatted for the 45 minutes until Donnie showed up.

When I told Volodya that I was traveling less (although one look at my current travel schedule might make one think that this could not possibly be the case), he asked where I was working. When I answered, he gasped, “My wife works there.”

“Well, it is a pretty big place,” I said. “There are nearly 2000 people working there, and only a few hundred work for me. I doubt that I would know her.”

“She works in a special program,” he answered, and named one of the myriad programs I supervise.

“That is in my division,” I responded, somewhat flabbergasted. “What is your last name?” In the ten years that I had been talking to Volodya, I had never thought to ask his last name.

The next day I went to the program office and asked for his wife. I told her that I had known Volodya for ten years and was curious to meet her.

She smiled and said, “Yes, he told me. In fact, he has been telling me for ten years that he knows this American who speaks Russian like a Russian. Now I know who you are.” Then she added, “He is tickled that he is on ty with my boss. He said to me, ‘you two are on vy, but we two are on ty!” We both laughed.

So, I will continue to talk to all who cross my path. They all have stories.

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