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The Line


I don’t usually talk to people in public. I would most naturally say after this comment that I don’t know why, but I think I have now realised why: most brief conversations with those that one doesn’t know are frivolous. I particularly don’t talk to people in the process of travelling: in airports, on aeroplanes, in taxis, even on a bus. Definitely on aeroplanes; almost as much in an airport.

It was a Federal holiday on the Monday, meaning arriving at the Washington Dulles Airport on a Friday afternoon could guarantee only one thing: pandemonium. Yes, pandemonium is what I got, with many people from the DC area trying to escape for the (extended) weekend. Makes sense, given many Washingtonians find their employment in the Federal sector. Dulles is not a small airport, but its check-in and ticketing area is housed in a single building; Orwellian-esque vehicles then take travellers to the different terminals to board flights. On this day, the single building was the busiest I’d ever seen.

I received my boarding pass at 4.30pm. With my flight scheduled to depart at 5.45pm I made my way straight to the line to pass through security – it was going to be tight whether I could make it to the gate. The line was long, stretching through the whole building, virtually like a slow guided tour of almost every nook and cranny of the Dulles check-in building. Not an exciting or worthwhile tour. Each time you thought you were getting close to the end of the start of the end of the line you were back to the end of the start of the start. That’s how it felt.

Put all of that together and you’ve got a large number of people who aren’t very happy; very unhappy at a rapid pace of slowness. Bad mix. Sometimes you’ve just got to see that this is the reality of the situation and we are all in it together – there is nothing we can do other than stand in line. So that’s what most did: just stand in line looking totally defeated by the helpless situation. I had been in line for about 10 minutes and was moving slowly enough to resign myself to the fact that I probably had a relatively small chance of making my flight. I guess many people around me were in the same position, but, anyway, that’s enough of setting the scene – I think we get the picture.

White male; slicked back greying hair; between fifty and sixty; neat dress: white business shirt tucked into bone coloured chino trousers with brown leather shoes. He stood next to the person in front of me in the line and started to walk slowly with the line whilst looking around him sheepishly. I saw the person in front of me look over and roll her eyes in annoyance; she didn’t, however, look at the man directly or say anything to him.

“What a line!” he exclaimed.

It was his prerogative to act in such a fashion and, to be honest, if I missed my flight because he had pushed into the line I wouldn’t have dwelled on it or found reason to blame him for my situation. To put it straight, I have come to expect this type of behaviour from my fellow human beings and take the view that one shouldn’t personalise the actions of others: it isn’t always about one's self. I don’t usually talk to people in public and I particularly don’t talk to people in airports, but seeing the person in front of me made me realise that most people in the line around me probably felt the way she did, not the way I did, and that made me feel deeply upset that the actions of one could impact the wellbeing of others in that way, particularly in an already near-hopeless situation. I tapped him on the shoulder and he turned around.

“Yes, but the line doesn’t start here, it starts back around the corner that way”

“Oh, but I didn’t know so I just stood here”

“Well, now you know and it is back that way”

“But…. Umm…. Well…. I’m here now and this is where I thought the line started….”

“Well, it doesn’t. We are all in the same boat here”

“I thought it started here”

“You should probably do what you think is right”

A troubled look came over his face and incoherent muttering came from his mouth. I could see his mind ticking over trying to work out what he thought was right to do. Maybe easiest to do? Maybe easiest to get away with? I don’t know. He slowly walked backwards, almost without turning around, and ended up about ten people back in the queue. I heard him make some small-talk about the size of the line, then his talking ceased, other than an occasional comment to his new line partner.

The lady in front of me turned around, smiled and said “you handled that very well.” I smiled. I don’t usually talk to people in public and I particularly don’t like to talk to people in airports.

That’s where he stayed in the line all the way to the security screening. By virtue of the nature of the line, which wound its way up and back through numerous temporary lanes formed side-by-side, we passed each other about another five times; each time he engaged in jovial small-talk with somebody around him in his section of the line and made no eye contact with me or the lady in front of me (not that I was trying to make eye contact, it was just an observation I made). The line split into two sections and I had already been ushered through to the left screening area; the last I saw of him was as he was rushing to the right screening area, even though his section of the line was being ushered to the left screening area. He probably made his flight.

How difficult life is when one has to answer to oneself and take sole and undivided responsibility for one’s own actions. Isn’t it lucky we can all leave that to a higher power who will forgive and forget, knowing we are human, all too human? All we need to do is have faith and ask for forgiveness and it shall be granted. I sure hope the man in the line was a man of strong faith; wouldn’t want him to have to answer to himself again.

I guess he just pushed into a line. It’s not so bad – we all do it, don’t we?

And we always will.