Tragedy in a minor key gets most of us to hum along

By Adam Mansbach
Globe Correspondent / February 21, 2010

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MIAMI - I love canceled flights. And no, I don’t happen to own a hotel located in convenient proximity to a major international airport, though I am sitting in the lobby of one now. My 2-year-old daughter is attempting to eat the plastic foam nuggets out of the palm tree pots lining the walls of the lobby bar, and her mother is asking why now strikes me as a good time to set down my views about the travel industry.

We’ve just spent seven fruitless hours at Miami International, and I feel great. I haven’t been this happy since my car got towed on the Friday before Labor Day and I spent all day waiting in line at the impound lot.

It’s been posited that when horror and deprivation strike, humans plumb our deepest reserves of goodwill and heroism, and turn adversity into triumph. I tend to disagree. Major tragedies generally reduce all but the very best of us to venal savages. This hotel does not offer Wi-Fi - OK, fine, does not offer free Wi-Fi - so I’m not going to be able to offer any concrete examples. But I’m pretty sure history will bear me out.

Minor tragedies, on the other hand, forge community. Any time a group of strangers find themselves mutually and massively inconvenienced by the government, by some soulless multinational corporation, or even by the vicissitudes of the weather, amazing things happen. We’re nicer to one another than we’ve ever been.

Three years ago, my flight to Mexico was diverted to Houston because of a medical emergency. A group of 50 passengers were told that we would not be able to fly out until Tuesday night. It was Friday morning. Over the course of the next 12 hours, a few seats opened up on each of several departing flights. As a collective, we told the airline whom to prioritize: A young woman on the way to defend her dissertation was the first to leave, followed by two brothers on their way to see a sick uncle. This sounds like a recipe for disaster; instead, it was a blueprint for good government. Our decisions were collective, unanimous. There was very little discussion, and no pork-barrel amendments.

Today was less dramatic, but no different. It begins with a few words of rueful commiseration in line. As the line reveals itself to be less a means to an end than a location - one in which we will all spend an amount of time roughly equivalent to third grade - the conversation spreads. Soon, a book-group-sized assortment of would-be travelers has banded together, and is planning alternate routes, tactics of engagement, hunger strikes. We’re lending our cellphones to people whose names we will never bother to learn, making sure the woman who had to go to the bathroom regains her place in the queue, entertaining the strange and faintly malodorous children of our compatriots. Sorties to the Departures board and the Starbucks stand are planned and executed, reports and beverages dispensed.

The group will scatter and reassemble in several locations over the course of the next few hours - gates, customer service desks, the food court - growing stronger and more cohesive every time we regain sight of one another. If one of us does break away to risk rerouting herself through a theoretical realm called Charlotte, she will leave to a chorus of well-wishes far more sincere than the benedictions with which her own family left her earlier this interminable day.

It’s a particular kind of generosity that such circumstances incubate. Mutual inconvenience bonds us, and collectively, buoyed by one another’s attitudes, we decide to persevere by not letting a blizzard, incompetence, or the prospect of eating dinner at the Cinnabon stand get us down. It’s an upward spiral, this being-nice-to-each-other thing, intoxicating because it’s so unexpected, so rare, and so natural.

It may all fade by the time we get on board: the guy swinging my daughter around in circles now just a contestant for our shared armrest, the woman who refused to let me pay her back for my coffee a source of cross-aisle noise pollution that I’ll try to block out with my headphones. My daughter, gone from the princess of Terminal 4 to a mere screaming nuisance. But I won’t remember any of that. The incidental community we were all a part of for a few hours will stay with me long after the flight ends.

Not getting there is half the fun.

Adam Mansbach, author of the novel “The End of the Jews,“ can be reached at