Life lessons from an airport cleaning woman


FILE — Aug. 27, 2014: An airplane takes off from Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

You would have thought she was polishing a brand new Cadillac. Or a beautiful Chinese Chippendale desk. Or Dolly Madison’s White House silver. But she wasn’t. She was polishing the white box that housed the fire extinguisher, and the white metal grate bench, and the elevator button — yes, the elevator button — and everything else she deemed worthy of her time and skill, in the lobby of terminal bus stop #4, on level 2 of the parking garage at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, this morning at 6:32 a.m.

I said, “Good morning, dear.” She looked up from her handiwork and smiled a toothless smile and said, “Good mornin’ young man. How are you?”

I said, “Young lady, I’m deluxe, absolutely deluxe.” To which she said toothlessly, “Well, come to think of it, I’m deluxe too.”

Every time I engage in people watching, I am reminded anew of how blessed I am, how lucky I am, and how foolish I have been, on far too many occasions, to complain about my lot in life.

I chuckled, but she laughed. I mean a big old-fashioned belly laugh.

I asked about the bus and she offered that it would be around “drekly,” so I sat down on one of her spotless, germless, white metal grate benches to wait for the bus.

I must confess that I have spent thousands — maybe tens of thousands — of hours people watchin’ for the last 60 something years, but today from about ;6:32 am until about 6:40 am, was special. It was “People Watcher Heaven.”

I sat in total wonder and watched an old toothless, simple, uneducated, uncultured, very happy African-American woman do a job that most Americans won’t do. (They will stand in line for food stamps, welfare and unemployment checks, but that is another story for another time) But she was doing it. And she was doing it with great skill, and with care, and yes, with joy — the kind of joy that I wish I had for my “job.”

Don’t get me wrong, I love my “job.” The old saying that “the man who loves his job is always on vacation,” really applies to me. But this morning I got a master’s class, a sermon, a life lesson in joy.

I wasn’t close enough to her to recognize the tune she was humming under her breath, it ws as if she were humming subconsciously — as if the humming were a part of her being as much as her breathing or of her heart beating — as if the humming were not started or stopped as an act of volition, but rather as part of her whatever it’s called, the “system autonomic”? (I can’t remember-anatomy class was way too long ago) anyway, the system that keeps one breathing and keeps one’s ;heart beating without any help from the owner/operator.

But whatever the tune was, it was being hummed out of a heart full of joy. I just watched, as I have watched other people on so many occasions: short order cooks and waitresses at a Waffle House, or garbage men, hopping down off of the back end of a smelly, dirty garbage truck, and grabbing a filthy, stinking plastic garbage bags full of dirty diapers, rotten food scraps, and other assorted foul smelling stuff and throwing them joyfully — yes, JOYFULLY — into the foul smelling, filthy, dirty truck.

And I have loved every minute of the people watching. Every time I engage in PW, I am reminded anew of how blessed I am, how lucky I am, and how foolish I have been, on far too many occasions, to complain about my lot in life. About not getting my songs played on the radio anymore. About those concerts where too many people come to the show dressed as empty seats. About airport delays and baggage SNAFUS, and you name it. The things that go along with being a medium-sized country music star.

It is those moments like the one I had this morning in the BWI airport, the “accidental” moments at Waffle Houses, and garbage trucks, and various other “moments places” all over the world, ;that bring me back to center, back to me, back to my proper place in the universe, back to a Greatly Blessed, Highly Favored, Imperfect, but Forgiven Child of God: Larry Gatlin.

So, this morning, right now, in seat 4A of American Airlines flight somethin’ or other, heading back home to TEXAS for a too short visit of 12 hours, until I’m off to Little Rock to do a little “pickin’ and grinnin’ with my friend GOVHUCK, I have decided to sit right here and be JOYFUL. All thanks to an old toothless, simple, uneducated, uncultured, happy African-American woman, doing a job that most Americans won’t do — and doing it with joy. WOW!!

Larry Gatlin is a country music singer and songwriter.