In the Womb of the Airport Shuttle

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When a college kid gets stuck on the wrong airport shuttle van, writer Janet Fricke Gilbert’s inner mom surges forth.

He wore his baseball cap backwards, and he kept his earbuds in while he shouted up to the driver. He might have even yelled “Hey, you! Driver!” which sounded rude, but was really a reflection of his panic at discovering he was on the airport shuttle heading deeper into the landscape of “The Wire” instead of Washington, D.C., where he was a student at American University.

All of this had a negative impact on the case he was trying to make to turn around the shuttle. But Moms like me are accustomed to tuning out interference on the kid-line in order to hear the message, which, in his case, was a plain and simple: “Help.”

The airport shuttle was packed that Sunday night at 12:20 a.m. when we departed BWI for our individual drop-offs. The driver did not respond to the young man’s pleas, which became more insistent. After being ignored, the young man called the dispatcher, who asked to speak to the driver. The driver finally spoke and angrily refused, stating that the young man should have given him his ticket—then he wouldn’t have boarded the wrong shuttle! The young man admitted it could be his fault, but reminded the driver he was the customer, and couldn’t the driver at least make an effort to help him?

The driver was silent, almost sullenly so. The young man whined, “Hey, I’m feeling you’re not going to do anything to help me here—I might call the police next!” and the driver shrieked, “Go ahead! Call the police!”

Six other passengers and I collectively held our breaths. The van smelled like stale popcorn and fresh fear. No one said anything to either of the close-quarters disputers.

Except, of course, for Mom.

“Listen, Sir,” I said to the driver, “this may be none of my business, but couldn’t we drop this young man off at one of these close-in hotels and arrange for the D.C. shuttle to come get him there?”

The driver said only the dispatcher could make that kind of arrangement, and that he had a full van of customers followed by a scheduled pick-up. It was clear he was not going to call the dispatcher back.

We had reached a shuttle impasse, and yet there was a definite sense of détente. Still, I was seated next to the van’s double doors, and each passenger who exited mouthed the words “Good luck” to me with palpable relief.

Now it was 1:30 a.m. and we were a cozy three—a hotel worker, a student, and Mom—heading up I-83 toward Hamilton, just a few miles from my neighborhood. We chatted a bit because we could see the end of our ordeal in sight—the young man had resigned himself to riding back to BWI, and the hotel worker and I were almost home. Or so I thought.

The hotel worker was dropped of at 1:45 a.m. It was then that the driver turned to me and said, “Sorry, ma’am, but I have to drive back to the airport so he doesn’t miss the final shuttle to D.C., and then take you home.”

“But wait, I’m only a few miles from my house!” I said. “Can’t you just drop me off first?”

The driver shared his iPad map-facts with me: 20 minutes to BWI, 20 in the opposite direction to my neighborhood. He needed my agreement. Or my blessing. Or some combination of the two.

“Okay, “ I said, “But I do hope you will at least comp my trip tonight.”

Completely seriously, the driver said, “You’ll have to take that up with the dispatcher,” and turned the van around. The student was profusely apologetic.

“Look,” I said, “don’t worry about it. It’s the right thing to do.”

The young man thanked me when he got off the van. I got dropped off at 2:45 a.m. and my alarm went off for work three hours later. But I felt surprisingly good all day.

Here are some of the comments I’ve heard when recounting this story to my family and friends:

That kid was old enough to suffer the consequences of his own carelessness.

Face it, everybody else got home except you—that driver picked you out and took advantage of you because you were the only nice one.

You should have demanded that he take you home and the heck with the kid—after all, you had a job—he could miss a class.

I could see doing that if it was some old lady or a handicapped person or something, but that guy was just selfish and bent on getting his own way.

Of course the kid thanked you—he won!

That shuttle company owes you way more than the one-time fare for all the stress you went through.

You should have called in sick to work the next day, because you deserved it.

You can spin this however you want to make yourself feel better, but the plain fact is—you were used.

Maybe there is some truth to these statements. But I guess I look at life as just one big, long, annoying, slightly scary shuttle trip from BWI. Care to sit next to me?

Janet Fricke Gilbert is a student pursuing her MA in the non-fiction writing program at Johns Hopkins University.



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5 COMMENTS

  1. I might be looking for new family and friends based on those comments. How about a simple “you did the right thing”? Was it the kid’s fault he was on the wrong shuttle? Yep. Did you have any obligation to help him? Nope. Were you totally inconvenienced by doing so? Yep. Did you do the right thing? In my opinion, absolutely. How do YOU feel about it a few days later? My guess is you’d do it again (or be feeling guilty now had you not done so). I hope I would’ve done the same.

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