Posted by: trevormeers | February 15, 2011

Ray: Employee Of the Day

Ray passes his days in the depths of a parking garage at the Minneapolis airport. Sandwiched between layers of concrete that hold the Minnesota chill like a four-story icepack, he punches the clock at either end of a shift spent pointing travelers to their rental cars in the pallid glow of mercury vapor lights. It’s not exactly a Chilean coal mine, but it’s still probably not the gig to which most people aspire. Yet Ray’s worth a mention, because the five minutes he spent with me last week turned out to be a hand up in a day otherwise spent getting shouldered aside by The Man.

If only my friendly airline clerk had provided even half the customer service Edie offered to Steve Martin...

When I trudged into Ray’s world, dragging one giant duffle and lugging another one on my shoulder, my customer-service expectations had dropped lower than when I try to buy a hunting permit from a mullet-wearing salesperson at the local branch of a blue-themed global retailer. I’d spent the day in the self-imposed exile of modern commercial air travel. Riding an airline these days is roughly equivalent to paying $500 or so for a prison fantasy-camp, complete with invasive searches, vindictive authority figures in uniforms and pretty much all loss of control over your own schedule.

This particular trip had started several days ago with two flights canceled before I even left my home airport. The second one was canceled so its plane could go to the first flight—after they’d rebooked me onto the second flight. And now, on the way home, I found myself in a position that defines the concept of bargaining from a weaker position: arguing with an airline gate attendant.

Thanks to a delayed connection, I’d made it to the gate six minutes before my flight’s scheduled departure. Because I’d raced through the terminal like it was the last quarter-mile of a 10K, I’d arrived just in time to see the attendant close the door to the jetway. “I’m sorry,” she said in a drippy voice borrowed from Edie McClurg in Planes, Trains & Automobiles. “We had to close the flight.”

“But it’s sitting right there,” I said, pointing out the window. “The engines aren’t even turning yet.”

“I know, sir, but we can’t hold a flight.”

“You don’t have to hold it,” I said. “They’re still putting the luggage on, and I’m standing right here.”

“I’m sorry, sir, that’s our policy.”

I asked, “What exactly is your policy on keeping the door open when you know a passenger is racing over to make a connection from one of your other flights?”

“I’m sorry, we can’t hold a flight,” she said. Now we’d clearly reached the point where she was going to offer up no more than her name, rank and serial number. Her fingers tapped on her keyboard like an IRS agent punching up your audit records. “The next available seat to Des Moines is at…7:00.”

“That’s six hours from now!” I said.

“I’m sorry, sir. That’s the best we can do.”

I stalked off with my new boarding pass. Then, as I passed the sickly sweet aroma of Aunt Annie’s pretzel stand, a new idea dawned. I could rent a car and be home before my new flight was even boarding. But that would mean retrieving my checked bag from the Oompa Loompas toiling in the bag room of the Minneapolis airplex.

“Well,” the lady at Baggage Services said when I showed up at her desk on the lower level. “I called them to bring your bag up, and it usually takes about 20 minutes. They’ll come out through that door.”

Forty-five minutes passed as I alternately stared at her, listened to angry passengers coming to report lost bags and wondered at the clanging sounds coming from behind the magic door. Finally, I asked, “Can’t we check and see how it’s coming?” She called Bob in the back room again. “Oh, my,” she said. “Your bag hasn’t even cleared the electronic eye yet.”

“What does that mean?” I said.

“It could be awhile.”

“Tell you what,” I said. “How about you find the bag and put it on one of the three afternoon Des Moines flights that didn’t have room for me, and I’ll pick it up when I get there.”

“Well, that’s a great idea,” she said. “Have a safe drive!”

And that’s how I schlepped my way into Ray’s domain out in the garage.

“Right this way, sir,” Ray said. He must have been pushing 70, and he looked like Lou Holtz, but talked without the slur. “You can choose any vehicle in this row. Watch your step. The slush on this concrete gets slick.”

I headed for the first hatchback I saw open and started to throw my bags in.

“Now, how far are you going?” Ray asked.

“Des Moines,” I said.

“Hey, that’s a long way,” Ray said, adjusting his thick glasses. “Why so far?”

“They wouldn’t let me on my flight, and the next one’s not until after 7 tonight.”

“Whoa,” Ray said. “You can be home before then.”

“That’s why I’m here, Ray,” I said.

“Tell you what,” he said, leaning back and gazing down the row of open trunks and hatchbacks as if he were about to make a bid on one. “If you’re going that far, I think we can do better for you. Come this way.”

He led me down the row to a white hatch. “This is a 2011 Chrysler. It’s got a much better ride than that first one you were looking at. If you’re driving that far, I want you to be comfortable.”

I stood staring at Ray through the fog rising from melting slush and the tailpipes of rental cars. I think I was waiting for him to drop the keys to the floor and make me root around for them, or to say, “Just kidding! All we have for you is a Vespa scooter!” The day had left me wholly unprepared for an employee who was actually giving thought to my predicament and taking 30 seconds to shuffle things around and help me out.

I said, “I appreciate that, Ray. I think this one’s going to be perfect for me.”

He smiled and said, “Be sure to have your driver’s license out. They’ll need it when you leave this area. You have a good drive. It’s supposed to get warmer as you go.”

I drove most of the way to Des Moines before I pulled over to get anything to eat. I wasn’t ready to risk the good will Ray left behind on the whims of some surly fast-food clerk.

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Responses

  1. haha trevor, you’re giving dave berry a run for his money with this blog. i don’t have to travel so i don’t.

  2. Customer service has gone the way of the Grea White Whale. When guys (and gals) like Ray are gone, who will teach the unwashed how it can and should be done?

  3. Vespa Scooter…Hilarious! The only thing your story was missing was you hooking up with an overweight shower curtain ring salesman, sharing a room at the Braidwood Inn and spooning with him in a full sized bed.


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