Late in the evening on October 19th I stood in line with hundreds of other passengers hoping to make it to the ticket counter of Continental Airlines at Guarulhos International Airport in São Paulo Brazil. I could have given in to the temptation to fume with anger and frustration but I chose to self-medicate. I took out my iPod and placed the earphones into my ears and put on my playlist of old Motown smoothies. Um… you cannot be irritated when listening to Marvin, The Temptations or the Supremes. It is just not possible.

A few times I caught myself singing out loud, really loud, while the line moved at a snails pace. I wouldn’t even have noticed if it had not been for the odd looks and stares I was getting from others in line. What is up these days? People don’t sing anymore?

So I’m standing in line, moving slowly, standing some more followed by additional slow movement until, hours later I finally reached the ticket counter and put my iPod away. Hooray! Right?  Well as soon as the ticket agent eyeballed my instrument case and registered a countenance of shock I knew I was about to have trouble.

“You’re going to have to pay extra for that!” he quipped.

“Don’t you want to measure it first?” I asked.

He went on to explain that he had worked for Continental many years and didn’t have to weigh or size “that” oversized/overweight case. He knew.

All I had asked was if he was going to measure it first and that seemed to put him in a defensive posture.

Trouble was “officially” present and I was directly in his crosshairs.

“Please do not try and tell me how to do my job sir!”

I hadn’t even spoken another word and trouble had already grown another foot taller.

At this point, now I was starting to get irritated. My consciousness altering iPod with its tons of tunes was tucked safely away in my pocket and I was feeling the need to whip it out and put the earphones back where they belonged, in my ears. But even the sultry voice of Mary Wells wasn’t about to redirect the path of this, inevitable, collision of male egos.

He sent one of his assistants to measure and weigh my case. The assistant came back with a measurement and, for the first time, I saw a smile grace his face. Immediately I felt the virtual vinyl LP drop onto the turntable of my mind and play an old Temptation’s track “Smiling Faces.” The lyrics danced around in my head, “smiling faces show no traces of the evil that lurks within…”

“Can you dig it?”

Believe it or not I was managing to remain pretty calm. My irritation was subsiding during his soliloquy of rules and regulations, which I was not hearing because, by this time in my head Stevie Wonder was belting out his song entitled “Uptight.”

“Baby everything is alright, uptight, way out’a sight…”

I smiled during his tirade and it must have caught him off guard because his entire disposition changed like maybe he thought he was dealing with a madman or something.

“Do you understand why you must pay?” he asked.

I hadn’t heard a single word he had said. I knew he was functionally fixated on his position. I reminded myself of the old adage, “All the proof in the world will not change the mind of a cynic.”

I gave it the old college try anyway and spoke, “Before leaving Los Angeles I had taken my case to the airport and had it weighed and measured by Continental. I have copies of your website’s baggage policies as well as the names of the Continental agents who verified that the case does not require a fee…”

I was about to take out my copies of paperwork and the copies of Continental’s baggage policies when he interrupted me and said, “You’re taking up time of other passengers, you’re going to have to step aside!”

He was angrier.

I could see that this was going nowhere good.

I breathed in for a second, weighed my options and told him, “Go ahead and charge me what you believe I should pay.”

His head cocked to the side like that old RCA victrola dog. Ah… I had the element of surprise on my side. He was expecting a continued argument and I appeared to be acquiescing. I assure you that I was not giving in.

I, my friends, was practicing the ancient Art of War.

1st rule: Know your opponent.

2nd rule: If you can avoid it, never battle in another man’s land.

There’s more to it but you can read Sun Tzu for yourself if you want.

I smiled again and told him to go ahead and charge me.

He wasn’t speaking. He was just looking at me rather curiously.

I then said, “Excuse me, there are so many people in line behind me and I don’t want to hold them up. Could you please go ahead and process the case?”

He then asked the oddest question, “You do understand that your are going to have to pay?”

I smiled once more and said as simply as I could, “Yes.”

He processed me and I went on my merry way subconsciously humming “War” by Edwin Starr… “What is it good for… absolutely nothing, say it again…”

Here’s what I had reasoned to myself, as the agent’s earlier tirade  played as low decibel background to my thinking.

I knew the policy better than he did. I had researched and was much more informed. I also knew that any errors on his part would need to be corrected by someone of a more accommodating disposition. I, after all, am a patient man (sometimes anyway).

I walked away feeling as though I had just won a battle without fighting. Something between good karma and intuition allowed me to quickly put this incident behind me knowing I would deal with it later.

Following 15 hours of travel from Brazil to Los Angeles, I was finally back. I went and spoke with the Continental baggage claim people who, instantly, verified that I should not have been charged for my case. The agents annotated my record and assured me that the issue would be rectified.

I was so tired at this point I just nodded, said thank you and went home to sleep.

The next day, a bit more energized I headed to Los Angeles International Airport. I don’t live that far from the airport and going there is much quicker than pressing all of those buttons on the phone and getting disconnected before you even get another human being to communicate with.

I got to the airport and made it to the ticket counter in no time flat. The ticket agent advised me a refund had already been issued. Now check this out… he apologized for the other agent!

The agent then handed me a receipt and explained that the refund would be back on my card within 3 to 5 days.

I left feeling really good and, when I got to my car I realized that I had not even looked at the receipt to make sure that they had refunded me the correct amount. The payment I made in Brazil was in their currency, Reais.

I sat in my car and pulled out the receipt. My jaw dropped and my eyes opened wide. It was the amount!

A big, mischievous smile slowly spread across the expanse of my face.

“Don’t let the handshake and the smile fool ya, I’m only trying to school ya… Smilin faces, smiling faces…”

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