I believe in airport karma, the luck that comes from both taking and picking up.
I accumulated the most airport karma in Minnesota, with a community of writers displaced through grant money from our home states. We traveled a lot, as guest artists and guest faculty; we were guests pretty much wherever we went. Some of us didn’t have cars, and we came to depend on each other for rides. I don’t think this happens in places like New York, where driving is difficult and public transportation easy, where guests are trained to be self-sufficient. But for us, airport karma was how we built community. We got to know each other through a system of favors.
In 2001 I collapsed on a flight from Dallas to Minneapolis. An excruciating pain in my lower abdomen forced me out of my seat, even before we had reached cruising altitude, and I fainted in the aisle. The flight attendants dragged me to the front of the plane, where I fainted again. There was a doctor on board, who ruled out appendicitis, so we didn’t have to make an emergency landing. But it turned out that he was an ear/nose/throat specialist and anything below the collarbone was pretty much out of his territory. He thought I had really bad gas.
It was three months after September 11, the flight was full, and I had fallen on my face in front of 200 people. If it was “gas,” I wanted someone to push me out the emergency exit. But the pain was so intense that I could barely breathe, and I just tried to stay still.
In Minneapolis, we were met at the gate by an ambulance, lights flashing. The other passengers stayed glued in their seats while paramedics vaulted on board, strapped me to a gurney and wheeled me onto the tarmac. Plugged an IV into my arm. Patched a heart monitor to my skin.
At the ER, an ultrasound revealed a grainy picture of a golf-ball sized cyst on my right ovary. It had ruptured and would eventually need to be surgically removed. In the meantime, there was intravenal ibuprofen, the sweetest thing ever, and two friends who had been my airport karma. They had circled Arrivals for over an hour, until finally hearing their name over the loudspeaker: Please contact a white paging telephone. They picked up my luggage, came to the hospital, contacted my family, and, over the next two weeks, cooked my meals, carried my groceries, and helped me recover in many different ways.
The irony is, these were people for whom I had never had airport duty before. I had made no pickups. I had done no drop offs. We had no outstanding airport debt between us at all. But airport karma is not commerce. Airport karma is not airport fate. Instead, to (loosely) paraphrase Gandhi, it is being the ride you want to have in the world, to and from wherever you eventually land.
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