Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Travel Agent



In the world of travel agenting, every place has a code. AVL. CDG. FCO. All the romantic and troubled places in the world are summed up in three letters: BEY, JRS, NBO. My first travel agent job was at the top of the BB&T Building, Asheville's steel and glass skyscraper. The office of Wilcox World Travel and Tours occupied the entire floor with cubicles for individual travel and group travel. I worked in Groups. In our section of the office, the floor was covered with airline-blue carpet. In winter a walk from a desk to the photocopier would generated static electricity. I'd get shocked everytime I touched the machine. I anticipated it. It was a mild form of torture built into the every-day necessities of work.

Between trips to the copier, I organized people's adventures. I had three-ring binders for each tour I was organizing. One group was The Beverly Hill Baptist Church Choir's European Tour. The address was Rodeo Drive in the 90210 zip code. Its leader was Nick Stimple, who wrote the songs for Air Supply. When I'd call him to go over details, I fought the urge to talk about those songs. I'd hear them playing in my head: I'm all out of love. I'm so lost without you. When you're booking travel for thirty-plus people, you know not all of them will enjoy the journey. People wrote letters complaining once the trip was done. From the Beverly Hills group, I received letters griping that wine had been served on a train in Italy, that there was no air-conditioning in the castle in Poland.

Travel to the Holy Land comprised a large portion of the company's business. "Journeys with Paul" was a favorite. One passenger, one of the countless pastor's wives who gave their names as their husband's with a mere "Mrs."placed in front,  explained to me on the phone that she thought "Paul was the best-looking of all the apostles." I booked lunches at "St. Peter's Fish" and arranged boat-rides on the Sea of Galilee. One client requested an add-on tour of the "hopscotch court Jesus drew under the city of Jerusalem for the children." A woman called the day of one tour's departure asking to join because "Jesus told me in a dream I have to go to His hometown." (I pulled it off.)

For every tour I'd key in the passengers' names and place these people I did not know in hotel rooms together. I'd organize their meals from my desk, their transfers from the hotel. Every little detail: I organized it. But I knew every time a departure date appeared on my calendar, there was so much more that these people would experience that I could only have the smallest hand in. And nothing I could rescue them from, from my desk a few feet from the copying machine that zapped me.

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