Chance Encounters

I am not a seasoned traveler by any stretch of the imagination, but I do enjoy traveling. During my travels, I have discovered that I find enjoyment in the journey to and from the destination of choice, in addition to the actual destination itself. The people watching alone is a treat, as I always wonder where they are going, who they are, and what’s their story. Sometimes, like on a recent trip to Chicago, I am lucky enough to find out some of the answers to my silent questions.

Although I was meeting up with friends in Chicago, I was traveling and staying by myself, so, it was a semi-solo trip of sorts.  From the moment I blew into the Windy City until the moment I arrived back in the Derby City, I never felt alone, though, thanks to some strangers whose paths crossed with mine.

When I slid into the back seat of the taxi at the airport, I was greeted warmly and politely by the driver.  Thanks to the rush hour traffic in Chicago on a Friday afternoon, I had plenty of time to get to know more about the man who was adeptly navigating the taxi safely to my hotel.  Ten years ago, he left his home in Ethiopia to come to America to escape the economic and political strife in his country for the opportunity to create a better life for himself.  I listened in awe, as he shared that he had come here alone and had to learn the language and acclimate to the culture, all without his family and friends to support him.  He now has two sons, ages 5 and 7, and he drives the cab to provide for them and because he can end his shift in time to pick them at their daycare before it closes at 6:00 p.m.

My awe and admiration for him continued, as he spoke about some of the times when people have been rude to him or not paid their fare.  He simply shrugged and said that he does not allow himself to dwell on the lack of civility or the loss of money, as he focuses on all of the positive aspects of his job and his life outside of work.  His positive outlook on these less than positive events were a good reminder not to let the actions of others affect me in a negative way.  I exited the cab, but this lesson went with me.

Other encounters were brief, yet let their mark.  I took the elevator down to the lobby with a couple, and the woman inquired if I were on my way to dinner.  I must have looked a bit startled by her question, because she chuckled and said, I wasn’t going to ask if we could join you.  I just wanted to say that you look so pretty, so, I was hoping that you were going somewhere special tonight.  I smiled and began to blush, as I explained that I was on my way to meet some college friends for dinner to celebrate my birthday.  This was followed by birthday wishes from her and her husband, and I learned that they were in town for the wedding of a college friend and on their way to meet their friends. We left the hotel together, but went in opposite directions.

I did not see them again until I was waiting in the hotel lobby Sunday morning for my Uber driver to arrive.  I was tired and lost in thought, when I saw their familiar faces approaching me.  She immediately asked, How was the concert?  I had forgotten that I had told them that I was seeing Pearl Jam the night before, so, it made me smile that she remembered.  I responded and inquired about their friend’s wedding, and then, they headed out of the hotel and out of my life.  She will never know how much her compliment about my appearance meant to me, as beauty and fashion are just not my thing, even after 50 years of practice.

At the Pearl Jam concert, a couple was seated to my left, and as we waited for the show to start, we talked about our previous Pearl Jam shows and our favorite songs and concert moments.  I warned both of them that some songs tend to bring me to tears, and much to my relief, the man said that he was apt to cry, too.  I had found a kindred spirit!  Sure enough, during Present Tense, I wiped away tears, and as I did, the woman patted my back and pointed to her husband, who was tearful, as well.  It was comforting to be that vulnerable and feel understood, and it is one of the many reasons why Pearl Jam fans are a special tribe.

My trip back to the airport the following day provided me with another opportunity to get to know yet another driver.  It was his third day driving for Uber, which was apparent when he got lost trying to figure out where to drop me off at the airport, but I was not in a hurry and thoroughly enjoyed our prolonged chat.  In addition to this new job, he works 4 days/week from 3 a.m.-3 p.m. at a bakery.  He combined his two loves, driving and talking with people, to find this perfect side job for him..  Plus, it would allow him to earn some extra money to help with his son’s football expenses, the cost of his daughter’s cheerleading, and the care of his infant daughter, and he could set his own hours to work around his family and other job.

If there is one thing that I appreciate, it is someone who hustles.  This guy was a hustler in the best sense of the word, and his enthusiasm for both of his jobs and his children was refreshing.  He reminded me to pursue my passions with a positive attitude and to continue my own hustle to reach my goals, and he also reminded me that at the root of all that I do are my own children.  By the time we arrived at the terminal, I had caught his contagious spirit, and we even hugged good-bye before he drove away to pick up his next fare.

It is a good thing that he dropped me off on such a high note, because a text message alert that my flight had been delayed by 2 hours greeted me as soon as I entered the terminal.  This delay and 3 gate changes led to the next chance encounter.  As I waited for the boarding process to begin, I began chatting with the woman in front of me.  We quickly realized that we work for the same company, but she works in Green Bay, while I am based in Louisville.  You may think that our conversation centered around our respective jobs, but it did not.  We formed a bond over something entirely different.

She told me that she was traveling to Louisville on business, before asking me what I was doing in Chicago.  I explained that I had celebrated my 50th birthday by attending the Pearl Jam show at Wrigley Field the previous night, and this led to a lively conversation about music and the lengths we each had gone to see our favorite artists.  Music means so much to me, so, it was wonderful to connect with someone who shares a similar love and appreciation for it.

As I took my seat on the plane, I had no idea that this would lead to the most meaningful chance encounter of all.  I do not even remember how the conversation started with the man seated next to me, but I am grateful that it did.  I learned that despite looking like he was 22 years old, Justin actually has been serving in the Navy for 22 years and is currently assigned to the USS Kentucky.  He was on his way to Louisville to participate in Navy Week, which would have him and 4 other members of his crew, along with other members of the Navy, performing community service in our area.  He talked with me about life in the Navy and much more, and I shared with him a bit about my life in Kentucky.

During that short flight, I learned that he hails from New Jersey, but now, he lives in Washington state.  He recently transferred there from Georgia, after helping his mother care for his father, who died of ALS, the same disease that is said to have claimed the life of my paternal grandfather when my own father was only 2 years old.  He and his wife have 2 sons who are the same ages as my 2 daughters, and we share an immense love of trail running.  We also share a love of football, but that commonality almost ended our conversation, yet it led to another chance encounter.

When he told me that he was a Philadelphia Eagles fan, I could not hide my disdain.  After the beating that they handed my Minnesota Vikings, to dash yet another hope of a Super Bowl, I just could not help myself, especially since it came on the heels of what is now known as the Minneapolis Miracle.  As we both tried to figure out a way to get back on good terms, a hand holding a cell phone reached over the seat in front of me.  Displayed on the screen was a picture with the words Minneapolis Miracle printed over a shot of a Vikings helmet. I had found some reinforcement, who happened to work for our local newspaper and had been a Vikings fan since 1967.  That gesture gave us both a good laugh.

We were able to put this sports rivalry aside and continued to chat until we reached the baggage claim area.  As I started to make my way to the parking lot, Justin motioned me to come over to where he was seated, as he rifled through his suitcase.  When I reached him, he handed me a USS Kentucky patch, which is now one of my prized possessions.

That patch will always remind me of Justin and all of the other service people who bravely defend our country day in and day out, and it also will remind me that everyone has a story to tell.  If you are lucky enough, you get to hear some of those stories, and you may even learn something along the way.  I may never see any of these people again, but I will always remember their stories and the privilege it was to hear them.

These chance encounters were not actually by chance, either, as I subscribe to the belief that everything happens for a reason.  Maybe, the only reason was to make my trip more enjoyable and less lonely, or maybe, it was something more.  I don’t know for sure, but what I do know is that I will not forget these people.  As a shout out to my new friend on the USS Kentucky, I will end with what they say when they begin a mission, Go big blue . . . saddle up!

That’s another story . . .

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