Encounters in an Airport Cafe
Gathering Story Series
Monday, November 29, 2010
Section: Local Page: B1

This time of year makes Michael Merriweather, Sr. feel so grateful that sometimes he has to step away from the restaurant counter and into the back to brush away tears.

It was the weekend before Thanksgiving, and the holiday's travel season was just beginning. The strong emotion hadn't hit him yet, but he knew it would come.

"Good morning," he said to a couple who paused to consider the range of options on the counter he manages at Mattie's, one of the restaurants for travelers who have passed through security at Buffalo Niagara International Airport.

Three soup pots—chili, gumbo and chicken noodle—in a stainless steel warmer. Chip bags clipped on a rack. Bowls of oyster crackers and little boxes of Raisin Bran. Hot dogs rolling on metal rods. Plastic-wrapped muffins. Coffee. Cream, stirrers and packets of sugar, ketchup and mustard arranged to fit, like luggage in an overhead rack, on the limited real estate of the trash bin's top.

When he arrives at 6 a.m., the buoyant promise of other people's adventures rubs off on Merriweather. By then he has been up for hours, has read the poem by his son affixed to his bedroom door—"Much respect to my father/Who cared when it seemed no one else would bother"—and has helped with his girlfriend's paper route.

Crowds flowing by were the usual size—about 7,000 come through airport security daily at this time of year. They seemed happy, standing with suitcases and moving with a smooth zip on the people-mover conveyor belt.

He liked how it was still so early in the season that saying "Happy Thanksgiving" could catch people off guard and make them smile.

A member of the cleaning crew rattled by with a wheeled bin. "Hi, dear," Merriweather said. He thinks porters can be shy if they believe something he doesn't: That they're low on a hierarchy of pilots, travelers, restaurant workers, security staff and baggage handlers.

"Everyone is just as equal. I feel they're no different."

A female traveler he knew stopped to purchase a thin $10 book of poetry his 26-year-old son self-published. He had copies beneath the counter. About 200 sold since summer. As she raced off with "The Maturation of Michael Merriweather, Jr.,” he said, "You have a happy Thanksgiving!"

To an older Asian man who didn't speak much English, he said, "How can I help you?" For a small coffee, the man piled change on the counter. Merriweather slid coins in a patient count: "65, 75, 85, 95. Now we can make one more dollar. OK. There we go, 60, 70. A dollar seventy. Let's count the pennies out: 2, 4, 6, 8, 10."

Compared to his old job at Dunlop, at the airport all kinds really do mix.

"It's taught me that all people are not bad," said Merriweather. "I have more love for people every day."

A customer he knew bought a hot dog and sat to eat; a man in a fedora said he produces syndicated radio shows and was about to go to Detroit, Nashville, Florida and the south of France. "I love my job," he said.

Merriweather hasn't taken a plane lately. "Right now all I can do is make sure Peter pays Paul and nothing gets cut off." One day, he'd like to see San Francisco's Golden Gate and snow on Denver's mountains. For now, it is a thrill when regulars come back to see him. "That's the biggest enjoyment I get," he said.

Merriweather comes to work dapper, with a small gold hoop in one ear, his hair cut close and shoes with a shine. "Welcome back. How was your trip?" he said to the man in a priest's collar wearing a ring with a big, purple stone. "Small coffee again?"

"You got a good memory."

It was Buffalo Bishop Edward U. Kmiec, who likes that Merriweather knows what he likes.

Last week Kmiec was in Baltimore for a bishops' conference. Now he was looking forward to a family Thanksgiving in New Jersey, which would be "a little more pleasant," he said.

Merriweather said goodbye. "Like I said Father, have a great trip and I'll see you when you get back."

In the coming week, Merriweather would mark the 14th anniversary of the end of his career at the factory and the accident that changed his life.

It was 8:35 a.m., Nov. 26, 1996. He had just finished a 13-hour shift and was on his way to get his hair cut for Thanksgiving. A car stopped for him and he began to cross the street.

In one sense, he was lucky he did not see the other one coming at 40 mph. He was so relaxed that the impact hurt him less than if he had seen the car and tensed up.

He left the hospital a humbled man with herniated discs and in constant pain. It was a while before he stopped being afraid to cross streets.

The accident, he said, "made me see life a little more." When he first started the job at the airport four years ago, he marveled at the sounds and closed his eyes to better listen.

Now he does it with his eyes open. He could tell that the man on the other side of the people mover was talking business with the phone in his ear.

The airport’s noise is joyful. Each year he feels more grateful than before for life and warmth of family. He didn't know when his gratitude would bring tears. But he felt sure they would come.