May 7, 2006

Seeing Red: Handling Your Own Baggage
A real skycap and me

Separated at birth: the real thing with his dopplegänger.

At the conclusion of my two day meeting in NYC I shed my business attire and re-entered my normal world. Donning my casual uniform, jeans and my red baseball cap (the G on its front stood for Gates not The Gap of course), I checked out of my hotel and grabbed a cab to Penn Station.

While I generally ride coach, I like to wait for my train in first class style. Usually I can sneak into the Acela’s premiere lounge for a nice seat while my train advances to the top of the departure board. But this time the Acela gatekeeper never left her checkpoint. And she was checking everyone’s ticket as they walked passed her to make sure they belonged. So I silently stood on the outside with the rest of Economy waiting for my gate number to appear.

As departure time came closer the cavernous waiting area filled. Everyone was waiting for my train. And I was waiting for the inevitable stampede to begin. But I had a plan. I stood next to the lounge attendant and listened as Skycaps checked in with her: “Any word on 93?” they’d ask. With a long line of patrons wanting help with their baggage, they too wanted to know which track my train would come in on. “No, not yet. It’s running a bit late from Boston,” she’d answer.

If you’re nice this attendant will tell you when your train has been assigned a track. And you can quietly make your way to the gate to be the first one down the escalator. This is especially sweet when your train is sold out and getting a seat home is high priority. I once had to stand all the way from New York to Philadelphia before I could rest my derriere.

I stood within earshot while leaning on my suitcase, listening for any clue. A fellow traveler approached me: “Where is Gate 13E?” he asked. I pointed the way (having scoped the station’s geography in order to quickly exit when I got my special word). A few minutes later another man came forward. “Which way to 7th Avenue if you please?” I thought a moment (the outside world was not mapped to my internal GPS system). “That way,” I pointed. The Amtrak Skycap asked the gatekeeper once again for word on 93’s arrival. Nothing yet.

A well-heeled woman, of Upper East Side vintage, approached me. Demonstrative as her station in life warranted she announced: “I’m taking Train 93 to Washington and I have a few big bags.” She expected me to fill in the rest of her request. I nonchalantly flicked the bill of my cap up a bit on my forehead as if that would help me figure out why she was asking me to do this job. We were surrounded by Amtrak employees.

Suddenly I realized my red cap along with the luggage I was leaning on was a perfect “glyph” of a waiting Skycap. My close proximity to the Acela information desk filled in the rest of her misdiagnosed context.

I had caught this woman skimming through life —sifting through the world, grabbing only the information she needed to complete her tasks. I had been reduced to a pattern she recognized in her super-saturated routine. My red hat and luggage were all she needed to complete her picture. So that was all she saw.

“Sorry,” I said. “I’m more detailed than at first glance.” And without any further regard for my odd reply she quickly moved on to the next red-capped gentleman in line.

“Your train’s coming in on Track 16. That will be Gate 15E,” my source quietly informed me. I removed my red hat, grabbed my bag, and furtively made my exit.

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