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Perceptions vs. Reality

I woke up this morning with a memory that harks back to the Christmas of 1995 or 1996. I was visiting Missouri with my eldest child for the holidays.

It was the afternoon I was scheduled to depart and we were running late as my mother pulled up to the curb outside of terminal. "Use the curbside check," she said, "It's faster."

I unloaded my two bags, now brimming full of new clothes and presents. My daughter clutched my hand and we waved goodbye to my mother.

"Here, ma'am, I'll be happy to take those for you." The porter was nice, young like me, I remember that he smiled. At least he did at first. As I walked away quickly, fearing missing my flight, I heard him call out, "Yeah, I'll be sure and take REAL GOOD CARE OF THESE." He sounded mad, and I paused, started to turn around, to go back and get the bags. I realized I hadn't paid him. No big surprise there, I had no money.

What He Saw

The porter saw a young woman dressed to the nines in an expensive suit, coat, gloves. Beside her, a young girl also dressed beautifully, in her dark dress, tights, and patent leather shoes. A woman who had the means to tip him and did not.

The Reality

I was living in a tiny one-bedroom apartment in San Jose, without central heat or air conditioning. In the winter, the radiators would turn on at 8pm. The ones that still worked, that is. I paid over half of my meager $10 per hour income for this apartment, took the public transit (one light rail, two busses) to get to work, and I was barely making ends meet. It was one of the first years that Cheap Tickets had rolled out, and I had found a pair of round-trip tickets for a total of $165. Not each, a TOTAL cost. God, I had been so damned proud that I had managed that! It was the first plane tickets I had ever bought for myself. I wanted to shout it from the rooftops, I was that proud. Together with my 2nd grader, we had handmade presents for every member of my family, and I was overjoyed to be able to see both my grandmothers and my mom on the trip.

On Christmas Day, my maternal grandmother's eldest brother died, and they scheduled the funeral for the day I was supposed to fly out. "We can make it," I told my mom, "the funeral is in the morning and I don't leave until mid-afternoon." I knew she needed to be there for my grandmother. We made it to the funeral, even the graveside service, and then it was a race to the airport. And there I was, in a borrowed suit, new coat and gloves my mother had given me for Christmas and I had less than $20 in my pocket. That $20 had to last me until my next payday because I was tapped out.

Every time I remember the incident, EVERY TIME, I wish that I had taken the time to go back, to explain the situation, and to take my bags inside and check them in myself. We probably would have made it to the gate on time. I wish I could find that man and explain to him that I hadn't been some snooty bitch who didn't give a shit about him, I had been poor, wearing borrowed clothes, a few crumpled bills in my pocket, and terrified I would miss my flight.

But I didn't go back. I didn't explain. And instead, that experience added to that man's lexicon. His understanding of "how the world worked and the shitty people who exist in it."

And my point in telling you this is the standard, age-old one. We have no idea what is going on in another person's life. We cannot assume, although we do. That's human nature, after all. We all do it. We all make terrible, final assumptions about people, some who we know well, and others who we have never met before that moment.

I wish I could go back. But I can't. So I'll just hope that young porter guy, who would likely be no longer young, and hopefully no longer a porter (not that there is anything wrong with being one!), will read this and forgive me. I was struggling too. More than he could possibly have imagined.

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