I had hunkered down at S.F. International all night long, since I didn't want to incovenience friends or family to give me a ride at dawn for my flight back to Cincinnati. I also needed to quell a serious cough, lest I be refused a seat on the plane. I felt like an immigrant with TB trying to get into steerage class. So I began at midnight to knock back a capful of Robitussin DM every hour. The first leg of my flight was to Minneapolis, and I sat in a stupor, several hours before the departure time. A nervous fellow with close cropped hair and a little mustache asked me from about thirty feet away where he might be able to smoke. I told him that he'd have to go outside. I remember seeing signs which said the airport was smoke free. To my astonishment, he bolted up about ten minutes later and walked towards me with his sad stained duffle bag. "You'll be around for awhile, right? I'm going out for a smoke." I gave him a raised eyebrow and a piercing glance. He seemed to read me telepathically. "It doesn't matter if they take my bag. There's nothing of value in there." The weight of the world, sad reflections on my former life in the Bay Area, and the serious cough had robbed me of all spunk. Normally, I would have loudly refused his request while laughing in his face.
I gazed intently at the bag for a few minutes after he left, then suddenly realized that a zealous cop could actually consider me to be in violation of law for harboring the property of an unknown person. I reflected on the new standards of trust that had been forged in the crucible of 9/11. It seemed a common courtesy to mind the fellow's bag, yet I was complicit in his behavior, wanton by contemporary standards. I thought of calling my wife, but knew that I'd get a severe tongue-lashing and that my judgement would once again be called into question. I was already in the doghouse for having left a ground level window open--which she discovered a full week after my recent departure. I summoned my mental clarity and stifled the impulse to discuss the matter with another male passenger, who had just sat down a few chairs away. I felt relief and venom when the miscreant returned about 20 minutes later. He casually picked up his bag without speaking to me while eyeing the distant coffee stand. He was about to saunter over there when I gave him the following dressing-down:
OH, NO YOU DON'T! YOU AND I NEED TO HAVE A SERIOUS TALK ABOUT YOUR TOBACCO ADDICTION! MAN-TO-MAN, I WANT YOU TO KNOW THAT I'M ANGRY AT MYSELF FOR AGREEING TO WATCH YOUR BAG. I LOST MY MENTAL CALM, BECAUSE YOU PUT US BOTH IN A DANGEROUS POSITION. YOU COULD HAVE BEEN DETAINED ALL DAY, AND I WOULD HAVE GOTTEN ROPED INTO IT, TOO, AND MISSED MY FLIGHT. THESE PEOPLE DON'T SCREW AROUND--IF YOU MAKE A JOKE ABOUT HAVING A BOMB OR SOMETHING, THEY'LL THROW YOU IN JAIL!
At first he was surprised by my tirade. Under normal circumstances, he could have kicked my ass. But he slowly nodded and looked at me sheepishly as I ranted on.
I'M AN OLDER MAN, AND I KNOW ALL ABOUT ADDICTIONS. YOU RISKED EVERYTHING FOR THAT CIGARETTE. WAS IT REALLY THAT GOOD? WAS IT WORTH IT?
Chastened, he walked away and sat in front of a pillar, which blocked my view. I felt alive again, and my voice has temporarily lost that hoarse rasping quality which had vexed me for over a week.