Air travel is hard work these days. I am old enough to remember the days of relaxed luxurious travel, even in economy class. Sure there were always lineups, the longest of which might have been fifteen minutes long. I now hear of passengers stranded in line, sometimes for fifteen hours! The halcyon days before security check-in are long gone. I remember being physically searched for the first time in 1979 as I moved through London’s Heathrow, the aviation crossroads of the world.
Beyond security necessities, there is the immense rush of people—a global privileged glitterati who can afford and justify air travel. Some of the largest shopping malls I have ever seen form the commercial centres of airports such as Minneapolis, Johannesburg and Lima. Hucksters delight in a captive audience. In modern airports, there is so much going on. Apart for the occasional airport chapel (these do exist) there is precious little space for quiet and calm. Sometimes a coffee shop is your best bet for tranquility.
The story below occurred recently at Chicago’s O’Hare field, another transit hub spread across at least three terminals. The author, folk singer and composer Carrie Newcomer shares a wonderful story as she finds the extra-ordinary within the ordinary, this time in an airport coffee shop.
Last week my flight out of Sioux Falls was delayed several hours and so I missed my connection in Chicago, resulting in a four-hour layover in O’Hare Airport. I found a comfortable booth in a busy Starbucks and settled in with a book.
There were three baristas working the busy counter. One was a young African American man with a wide smile. This wonderful man was singing mini arias in a beautiful operatic voice. He was obviously a trained vocalist, and a seriously fine baritone. He kept singing out the orders in soaring melodies as they came up, lattes and cappuccinos, the name of the patrons, and then always (with a final flourish) a thank you.
I sat there for an hour, just listening to him, closing my eyes, enjoying the resonance of his voice, the flourishes, the final gratitudes. I noticed how some people stopped, clearly delighted by something so fine and rarefied. Others hurried by, so intent on getting where they were going, they arrived at their gate, but missed the miracle.
There is a lot in this troubled world that feels like a gathering storm. All I have to do is read the news to feel the weight of a worried sky pressing in. And yet consistently (if I’m paying attention) something utterly unexpected and truly beautiful happens, reminding me of a goodness down deep, always presenting itself…a miracle that just keeps singing.
Eventually I got up, ordered a drink. But instead of telling him my order, I sang it to him “ a small latte, with almond milk please…” We began a conversation (all sung) tossing the melody back and forth to one another like game of catch.
His name was Owen, he had a show in town next Saturday. My name was Carrie, I just had a show in Sioux Falls, and what show will you be singing on Saturday? He would be singing in Puccini’s La Bohème. How about you? I sang folk music – mostly about finding something extraordinary in an ordinary day.
By that time, the other baristas were grinning and nodding to one another. The people in line had looked up from their phones. Finally, I sang a sincere affirmation, “Owen, you have a truly beautiful voice. I have been so touched today by your voice, your music, and your generosity of spirit.“ And then with a deep bow, I thanked him.
There was a moment of comfortable silence, then the other baristas when back to taking orders, the people in line went back to looking at their phones (but not all of them).
He stopped. Leaned in and whispered, “ You know…I kind of needed that today.” Then he straightened up and sang with a flourish as elegant as a quill tipped pen, “Thank you.”
Yes, there is a goodness down deep in the world…. and oh my friends, it just keeps on singing.
Check out Carrie’s blog: A Gathering of Spirits, a reader-supported publication. Consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Discover her recordings and performance schedule here.
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