Standing behind the information booth in Terminal 4 of JFK Airport, Gene Gole often finds himself folding and unfolding oversize maps of New York City. Most of the time, he says, travelers just want directions to their hotel. Other times, they’ll ask for directions to an ATM, the Port Authority, Penn Station, the Empire State Building, or the Met. Gole rarely travels to Manhattan from his home in Queens, but through three years of volunteering for Travelers Aid-JFK, he can tell a foreign traveler the fastest and cheapest way to get from the airport to the MoMA by marking up a map and circling subway stops. And if a traveler doesn’t believe his directions — his officious red blazer, name tag, and matter-of-fact approach holding apparently no influence — he’ll shrug them off and wait for the next person. Gole enjoys volunteering at Travelers Aid and answering the questions of New York City newbies, even if the queries are a bit odd. For every 20 times Gole gets, “Where can I find a Wachovia bank?”, he gets, “Can you tell me how to get to Silver Spring, Maryland?” When he tells a European or an Asian traveler that no, Maryland is nowhere near New York, and that they’ll have to go to Penn Station to catch a several-hour train to Baltimore and then a bus to Silver Spring, they’re shocked, but ultimately grateful for his help.
My travels are easier. I board the Rockaway-bound A train at 9:30am and the trip to the Howard Beach-JFK AirTrain station takes about an hour. Once onboard the AirTrain, my eyes wander. I see passengers nervously fingering itineraries and checking watches and cell phone clocks. Some look ready to jump through the train’s doors once it arrives at their terminal; others, in clothes grubby from wear, look tired enough to fall asleep right there, and ride the train round and round all day. I count not having to fly today as a blessing; lost passports, stolen luggage, missed flights no risks I have to worry about.
I meet Mrosko in TA’s sliver of an office in the JetBlue arrivals terminal. On one wall hang two outdated maps of the world — Kiev is in the U.S.S.R.; on the opposite, a corkboard displays smiley Polaroid photos of TA volunteers. As we leave the office, she tells me about the time an Israeli man called her and asked her to meet his 18-year-old daughter at the airport. She needs help getting a taxi to her hotel, he said, because her short-term memory is damaged due to a childhood brain injury. “She looked and acted like a completely normal person,” Mrosko tells me. “You didn’t notice anything wrong, until you started talking to her. If you asked her when she graduated high school, she couldn’t tell you, even though it was just last week.” Mrosko performed a “meet and assist” — TA parlance for helping passengers in distress — and got the young woman into a cab and, presumably, to her hotel.
While Mrosko and her assistant, Margaret Siegel, handle those extreme cases, it is the network of volunteers that keeps TA afloat. Like Gole and his wife, Judy, almost all of the volunteers are retired. Their careers varied: Gene Gole worked in a labor union; Judy Gole worked for an insurance company; Fred Patton was an engineer for an energy company; Tom Harvey was a salesman; Wally Katz won two Emmys as a television film editor, and worked on several episodes of Sesame Street. Their energy defies the traditional idea of septua- and octogenarian retirees; the Goles, Patton, Katz, and Harvey had no desire to fritter away their free time watching Wheel of Fortune in easy chairs.
These 60-odd men and women share a common goal: to assist the traveling world community in any way they can. This frequently means helping promote tourism — recommending theater shows, directions to museums, and suggesting a stroll through Central Park. It also means dealing with bizarre requests: a Jewish family asks for a kosher pizza to be delivered to their terminal; a Korean man asks for a karate school in Queens; a Brazilian guy is baffled as to why the flower-bouquet vending machine won’t spit out a MetroCard. But in some cases, Tom Harvey tells me, the volunteers change a person’s life. Harvey remembers the time an elderly Asian woman sat on a chair in Terminal 1 for an alarmingly long time. “She was there for an hour, then another hour, and another hour,” Harvey says. Harvey is a large, loquacious man — “I’m not guilty of being quiet,” he says — and insists that his career as a salesman and CCD teacher taught him how to talk to people, read faces and analyze body language. After observing the woman for three hours, Harvey says, “I decided there had to be something wrong.” When he approached her, she was confused and incoherent. He looked at her plane ticket; her Delta flight was for the day before. She had stayed in that seat overnight, without any help. Harvey led the woman to the Delta desk and helped her get on another flight to her destination. He’s proud of that particular moment, and he insists it takes a special personality to volunteer at TA. “If you’re a hardcore introvert, or you aren’t people-oriented,” he proclaims, “you better volunteer somewhere else.”
But other volunteers make one think otherwise. I meet Fred Patton, a tall, thin German who lived in England during WWII and arrived in the U.S. in 1949. He doesn’t fit Harvey’s description of the perfect TA volunteer: he’s hesitant to speak when not spoken to. But he has volunteered at TA for nine years and, like the others, he enjoys helping travelers. Sometimes, he says, his devilish sense of humor perks up, especially when he receives a blatantly obvious question. Once, a woman waiting for the arrival of her mother’s flight from France asked him if he thought her plane had enough fuel to make it. Patton responded, flatly, “No.”
A day in the life of a TA volunteer is not always laughs, and not always as reassuring as Harvey’s helping the elderly Asian woman. Several weeks ago, a couple stormed into the TA office after their disembarkation of a JetBlue flight. The couple claimed their two kids had been abducted; after several minutes, they threatened to take hostages at the airport, and disrupt departing flights by running out on the tarmac. Mrosko’s assistant, Margaret Siegel, was forced to call the Port Authority police, who came shortly thereafter and whisked the couple away. “They were harmless,” she says. “Just a little bit loony.”
While there is the constant threat of terrorism, mentally ill attackers, and “airport rage,” these volunteers are, simply, New Yorkers helping the community, even in the most mundane ways. I ask Gole to think of one more common question he receives. “Yeah,” he says, shrugging. “Everyone always wants a Starbucks.”