On a recent flight from Burbank back home to Oakland, just before we pulled away from the gate, I heard a young woman in the row behind me, quietly sobbing. An alert steward approached her and they spoke to each other although I couldn't make out what they were saying. Fairly soon a stewardess joined them, listened to the woman and then raced down the center aisle toward the cockpit.
When the stewardess returned she asked the young woman a question and this time I could hear her reply "no, it's okay..." The steward and stewardess walked away, but then the sobbing began again, this time more despondently. After about three back-and-forths like this, the stewardess once again headed toward the cockpit. By this time we had already pulled away from the gate, heading for the runway. And then we suddenly came to an abrupt stop. The pilot turned the plane around and we headed back toward the gate.
I peeked between the seats to see what was going on and that's when I saw the young woman. Her heavily made-up eyes were reddened, makeup smeared across her face. She gathered up her belongings as did her friend who was flying with her and they made their way down the center aisle, her head hanging down pitifully and with great humiliation. She wore a pair of very tight ripped jeans, a tight crop top over her ample bosom and carried only two things off the plane: a plastic bag with her belongings and a long stemmed rose in a cellophane sleeve.
After she exited and the door closed behind her we pulled away from the gate again. The steward explained to one of the passengers what happened, and there was a quiet chuckle that rippled through the first few rows. Once again we pulled away from the gate and headed to the runway. Because of a skillful pilot and the cooperation of the weather, we landed pretty much on time at our destination so nothing of value was lost to the rest of us.
I'm a little embarrassed to admit it, but for many reasons, I was glad that young woman got off the plane. These days sobbing passengers and running stewardesses don't exactly inspire a feeling of safety and security. I was a little spooked about being on a flight with someone with such sorrowful and confused vibes.
I turned to the woman sitting next to me to ask what the hubbub was all about. She said, "I'm shocked!" As it turns out, the young woman had left a pair of shoes in the restroom. Not funky sandals or sneakers but a pair of Christian Louboutins. Now, although I write about fashion, I have never owned a pair of Louboutins. I know you can buy them used for about $500-$600, so that should tell you what they go for retail. My first reaction was a slight moment of outrage and then I chuckled too.
If you think this story is about fashion and our insane addiction to it you'd only be partly right. Within a moment of actually seeing the young woman, the narrative had changed for me. It became an object lesson about my own judgment and level of compassion.
A flood of questions arose. Had a beau given her that lovely rose? Did she subconsciously forget those shoes in the restroom so that she didn't have to leave him behind? Was that plastic bag the extent of her worldly assets on this trip? Did she buy the shoes to participate in a friend's wedding, hoping to meet a great guy? Did a dear relative give them to her because, she, like my friend's adopted granddaughter who came from Romania with not a single pair of shoes, had so little else in her life?
Whatever the reasons here is what I know: she was willing to pay the price of humiliation - and another ticket - to retrieve those shoes. (They likely cost nearly 10 times that of another ticket.) That's how much they meant to her. That's how great the loss would have been. And the fact her friend left the plane with her says that someone loved her enough to share her struggle.
If anyone doubts that what we wear speaks volumes about how we value ourselves, here was a powerful demonstration. We feel we are judged and we judge: two terrible reasons why we should care about how we dress. But the truth is that what we wear often expresses our aspirations and dreams about who we are in the world and this is particularly true when we are young.
My heart went out to that young woman. I hope that when she is my age she will remember the experience as a silly folly and the worst thing that ever happened to her, although, of course, it likely won't be. And I hope she looks back on a rich and full life and recognizes that her greatest treasures and her fundamental worth were reflected in the eyes of the friends who stood beside her.
Ironic postscript: When I got home and unpacked I discovered that somewhere along the way I had lost a little chain necklace with a pendant. I hope the young woman found it when she went to look for her shoes. The pendant was inscribed with the words: "let go."