Thursday, October 22, 2009

Tip your wheelchair attendant, please

As I wandered through Terminal 4 at JFK Airport yesterday after seeing my parents off, I watched a young worker slowly walk toward a gate while pushing an unoccupied wheelchair. The guy looked glum.

Part of me wanted to give him two bucks, followed by a pat on the back. Not out of pity, but because I know whoever he was going to help probably wouldn't give him a thing.

Twelve years ago I spent about three weeks as a wheelchair attendant at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. This came a few months after a short stint as a failed telemarketer. My frustrations rose throughout the summer as my bank account dropped. Three interviews with newspapers led to nothing, not even the one at a weekly paper led by a bored, bearded editor who spent our entire time together hitting putts into a plastic cup on his carpet. To be fair, he yanked each one left and appeared to have the yips, so he needed the work. Johnny Miller would have crucified him for his set-up. We talked about my strengths and weaknesses, and why his putting stroke bedeviled him.

Another job interview, this one at a small daily paper, also led to rejection, owing mostly to my lack of Photoshop experience. That was particularly devastating because the job came with "great benefits," along with an annual salary of $15,000.

In desperation one Sunday, I scanned the classifieds of the Star Tribune, looking under w for writers and e for editors. Nothing exciting, but what's this one? "Do you like adventure?" Who doesn't? "Are you trustworthy?" As much as the next guy.

The ad was for a company that trained airport security workers. This was pre-9/11, meaning no Homeland Security. They also had openings for other gigs, including wheelchair attendants, whatever that wording meant. I lined up an interview. A few days later I sat in a conference room near the Mall of America with a grouchy middle-aged woman. She assumed I was there to interview for the security positions, the folks who man the X-ray machines.

"No, I'm actually here for the wheelchair attendant job."

That might have been the first time those words had been spoken in that room to that woman, as she appeared confused.

"But why?"

Several reasons.

For one, becoming a security guy almost felt like a career, something you go into because you have an aptitude for it and enjoy the challenges. Or maybe your old man was an X-ray guy at LAX for 25 years and you're just trying to live up to his memory. Forty years from now, would I still be at the airport as a security guard, the only difference being I'm now a manager and watch surveillance video in a hidden room instead of an X-ray machine?

I assumed there were hours of training involved. I hoped there were hours of training involved. Would I feel guilty about leaving such a job after a week if I got a newspaper job? As a wheelchair pusher - attendant - I'd feel no loyalty to the job or the airport, free to flee.

More importantly, it was too much damn responsibility. They spend eight hours a day annoying people, get little credit for successes and all the blame for any failure. A failure that could have catastrophic consequences. No security background. No special insight into the minds of terrorists. No desire to be confrontational, which must be a requirement for the times a security worker spots a toy gun or a toothbrush missing its bristles.

Now I'd be expected to be the first and last line of defense for millions of travelers?

I didn't tell her those reasons, as I didn't want her to think of me as unpatriotic or wimpy.

"Personal reasons," I said, vaguely, ridiculously.

A day later I had the job, no need for extensive training. Got arms, two legs and a back? You can push the wheelchairs. Thank god I had my private school degree in my pocket. Who knows where I would have been at that time without it. I might have been the guy cleaning the wheelchairs, instead of pushing them.

The job paid $5.15 an hour, minimum wage, if not a livable one. But, it also came with tips. The theory was that people would be so grateful for helping their elderly parent or stricken child that they'd practically throw dollar bills at the attendants.

Each day I woke up before 5 in the morning. In the darkness, I'd step into the uniform provided by the company, a white-shirt-black-pants ensemble that just screamed "Attention air travelers, pilots and flight attendants. Disrespect me. Be rude to me. Yell at me when your flight's late. Scream at me when you miss your connection. If spitting on me, just try and not hit the uniform."

The only thing missing from the outfit was a Kick Me sign taped to the back of the shirt. My self-esteem received no favors from my roommate cousin, who had me pose for a picture, the better to forever capture the look.

A shuttle bus took me from the airport parking lot to the wheelchair headquarters, where my supervisor Roy waited each day. Roy must have been in his 60s, and had been running wheelchair operations around those parts for several decades. He ruled the day shift, barking out orders over walkie talkies in a raspy voice damaged by cigarettes and incompetent employees. Roy dictated who went where. He took a liking to me, the grizzled vet and the fresh-faced rookie. We were like a cliche, just waiting for a movie to be written about us.

The wheelchair attendants were free to wander when not on a call. I preferred sitting in the international departures area, particularly where many flights to Japan went out of, as there were very few flights a day, meaning very few people at the gate. Settling into my seat, I'd sometimes nap for 15 minutes. I'd dream of a sportswriting job that might pay 7 dollars an hour. Or I'd ponder my financial future. Student loans would start coming due in a few months. How long will I be paying them off at $5.15 an hour? 50 years? 100? If I'd been any good at math I wouldn't have gotten a communications degree and I wouldn't have been sitting in an airport protectively watching "my" wheelchair and waiting for Roy to send me out for duty.

The walkie-talkie crackled every 30 minutes or so. Some people needed lifts onto the plane, others coming off. If the person needed to board, they received priority and we took them on first. Coming off, they came out last. Most of the calls were for elderly people. Gingerly they sat down, grateful for the assistance. We took them to the plane, then they walked to their seat. But many obviously could not walk. For paralyzed travelers, we transferred them from the wheelchair to a skinny aisle chair, then two of us would carry that down the airplane aisle and to their seat. It required strength, teamwork, patience, empathy, understanding. Just the qualities you expect to find in workers making $5.15 an hour. And think of the people in those situations. Everyone hates air travel. The planes, the lack of legroom, the airports, the schedules, the hassles. Now imagine dealing with all that while in a wheelchair.

Most other airport employees expressed gratitude when we showed up, but some treated us like a piece of gum stuck to a wheelchair tire. Gate agents with attitude are such pleasant people. Flight attendant always gave a tight smile when we appeared, ready to take their final passenger away. The longer it took us to remove the traveler, the longer the flight attendants had to wait before leaving the airport.

By the end of each shift the sweat had soaked through my shirt. It smelled like a hockey locker room.

Fatigued, I could take pride in the fact my eight-hour shift had brought in about $40.

Oh, yeah, and tips. The tips. No one enters the wheelchair attendant profession for the money or the glory. We didn't expect a lot in tips. We weren't strippers or waitresses. But a buck here, two dollars there, could have added up over the course of a day. And if people tip the workers who bring them their plates of food, why wouldn't they give a little to the people who physically move them on and off a plane?

The best tip I got was $5. Often it was nothing. The tips seemed to be reserved for the workers in the carts who drove people around the airport. Those guys and gals rolled in the money and the accolades, beeping their horns throughout the day. They owned the walkways with the arrogance of a semi driver on a two-lane road. People in the wheelchairs and their travel companions always shelled out their gratitude, but rarely a gratuity. They understandably had bigger concerns.

I even got nudged out of TV exposure. On one of the flights into Minneapolis, the passenger we helped off the plane was a child who was going to visit the Mall of America through the Make-A-Wish Foundation. A local crew from KARE-11 was on hand to film his arrival, where he'd be greeted by various people associated with the mall and the charity. The heart-warming tale brought out the best in everyone. I pushed his chair through the walkway and emerged at the gate, greeted by cheers and camera lights. For a few seconds I basked in the secondhand glory. That night I turned on the television, waiting for my moment in the spotlight. I'd even told my parents to tune in.

"Tape it!"

But it was not to be. They edited out the arrival. The piece began seconds after I had respectfully slid out of the camera's view.

Now there was no visual record that I was there as a wheelchair attendant. Not sure why that upset me.

After a week, and then two, I started wondering if I actually was starting a career at the airport. What was the career arc for a wheelchair attendant? Should I set my sights on Roy's job?

During my third week in the hated uniform, I spent one of my breaks talking with a shoeshine stand operator. When he heard I had graduated from college three months earlier, he asked, "What in the hell are you doing here? Go find a job you love that you want to do."

I resolved to do just that, but luck took care of my troubles. My old boss at the Worthington paper, where I worked during college, called. A sports reporter had left. They needed someone immediately. After my next shift, I told Roy I was done. The only thing I really succeeded at that summer was quitting jobs with no notice.

My time with the security company wasn't over. When I returned the uniform, the same grouchy woman told me it had to be dry-cleaned, that failure to do so was against the law and they would prosecute.

"And if I flee the state?" I asked.

"We will track you down." Her sense of righteousness overwhelmed any sense of humor.

I believed her. I took the uniform in for a cleaning, the bad memories erased with the lingering sweat stains.

My career in newspapers started a few days later. But whenever I'm in an airport I make a point to spot one wheelchair attendant. They're doing good work, for, I'm assuming, minimum wage or slightly above (I haven't read many stories about wheelchair attendant unions striking for larger wages). I won't say they're the hidden heroes, but they are hidden, overshadowed by the high-profile cart drivers. If you ever need their services, give them a few bucks. They'll enjoy it more than if you just give them thanks.

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