Saturday, May 15, 2010

"Welcome to Our Country"

I had just flown back into Newark airport, and was heading straight into Manhattan to go to work. The fastest way to do that is to catch the shuttle train that circles the airport, then connect to a regular train to the city. I have to assume that space limitations dictated design when they built the Airlink system: the cars are small and cramped, with each consisting of 2 small unconnected cabins. In practice this means it feels less like a subway and more like a horizontal elevator.

The good news was that the airport was relatively uncrowded. I moved to the front of the platform, and when the train arrived I hopped into the empty first cabin. There I settled onto the lone bench seat for the 10 minute ride to the station where I would make my connection.

At the next terminal, the doors opened and a red-coated customer service agent got on pulling a cart piled with luggage, followed by an older gentleman. She motioned for the man to sit next to me. "Where are you going?" she asked me without preamble. I responded that I was headed to the station. "OK," she said as she looked at him and pointed at me, "Get off where he does." She looked at me as the chime rang to indicate that the doors were closing. "There'll be another agent meeting him at the other end," she said as she jumped off quickly.

Great, I thought, now he's my responsibility. I looked at him more closely: he was elderly, very thin and Indian. I smiled; he smiled back. "Thank you," he said in said in a soft, accented voice. "It's no trouble," I replied. I asked him where he was coming from. "I just came from India. And this is my first visit here." Suddenly my attitude changed. He was no longer a burden: more to the point, I was now an ambassador. Without thinking, I said the first thing that popped into my mind: "Well, welcome to our country."

He smiled broadly. "Thank you," he said. "I am very excited to be here." We continued talking. He had flown for 16 hours, and was going to take the train to Philadelphia, where he would be staying with friends. I asked him where in India he was from: he answered with a name I couldn't pronounce nor remember. I asked him how hold he was: 83 was his response. "God bless you, sir," I said. "It takes a lot of courage at your age to travel this far alone." He nodded: "Yes, at least I am healthy and can do this."

As we progressed, I pointed out the Newark and New York skylines. I told him I hoped he would have a chance to visit other places as well as Philadelphia, as our country has many interesting sights. With great pride, he said, "Our country is very diverse as well. Have you ever been to India?" I confessed I had not, but told him I always wanted to. I also told him I loved Indian food, which brought another big smile.

By now we were pulling into the station. Of course, no agent was waiting for us. He looked concerned as I helped him maneuver his trolley and luggage off the train. I told him not to worry: I would get him to the right place. We made our way to the elevator. As we rode up, he looked at me and said, "I am so lucky to have met you." I said it was no problem, but he must do the same for me when I finally came to his country. He grinned, and said "I would be honored."

When we stepped off the elevator, an agent was walking past. I asked her if she could help him purchase the correct ticket and get him to the right platform. She nodded and turned to first help another couple. I moved his trolley near the ticket machine, and turned to say goodbye.

"Unfortunately," I said, "I have to leave here and take another train going in a different direction. I'm sure you'll be fine. Please enjoy your stay, and again, welcome." I reached out to shake his hand. He took it with both of his, then placed it over his heart and smiled. When he let go, he put both his hands together in namaste, and bowed slightly. I put down my backpack, and returned the gesture.

I gathered my bags and went through the turnstile down to the northbound platform. Once I got there I looked over to the southbound one. A few minutes later I saw an agent leading him along, then help him unload his luggage. He turned and saw me: I waved, he waved back. Then our respective trains came, and we disappeared in opposite directions. I'll be looking for him when I finally get to India.


Marc Wollin of Bedford loves to travel. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

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