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Up close and personal on gondola

Alan Braunholtz

My gondola ride to work is normally a fairly mundane affair, though it does provide a chance for up-close people watching and eavesdropping. Occasionally the conversations are inspired enough to draw the whole car into an enjoyable ride of creative jokes and comments. Twelve minutes can be more than enough for groups of strangers to make a connection.A recent ride provided a whole gamut of emotions. I’d parked myself in line behind a man who’d earlier stood out while crossing the yard. I’d noticed him partly because of the tall, dated, straight Volkl skis and his worn Carhartt overalls. But there was more, a physical presence, perhaps – not tall, but solid with stubby arms and hair that stood up like a brush.Up close, I felt he’d grabbed my attention simply because he exuded an obvious pleasure at going skiing with his young son, who overshadowed by his father I’d only just noticed holding his dad’s hand. Sometimes you get a satisfying feeling merely from watching people or animals interact.At the head of the line three young men took their time splitting their skis to get their twin tips in the slots and looked to have scored a gondola ride all to themselves. The man in front of me saw this almost empty car, walked to the front and tried to load. The young men didn’t look happy, loitering in the doorway and trying to block his entrance. I don’t think he even noticed in the hustle of loading skis and getting his son on board.I decided to join this car, too. I’d like to think I did it for honorable reasons of using my official red coat presence to provide a more pleasant ride for this gentleman. If I’m honest, curiosity and the magnetic allure of potential conflict probably drew me in. I may have been running late and that self-righteous streak that dislikes others wasting seats, making people wait, played a part, too.I didn’t have long to wait as before the doors even closed one yelled, “C’mon we said no … gapers!” – directed at the lady in charge of loading the gondola. That set the mood. A few more frustrated comments as their goal of a smoke on the ride evaporated prompted my “Be nice, this guy pays our salaries and there’s a child here.””What the … ! Damn ski school, we never listen to you anyway, telling us to slow down all the time.” Another chimed in, “I’m not in the service industry. I’m in IT. No tourists pay me!”A brisk debate ensued in which I tried to point out that if not directly, the financial food chain up here meant we all depended on guests like this gentleman who they were bad mouthing. A “nice Carhartts,” “trust-fund dirtbag” exchange lowered the tone a bit. A threat to radio to the top of the gondola and end their skiing day before it started brought out, “What just for speaking?” free speech issues.The debate, a generous term for it, was going nowhere till the man stood up, opened his arms, smiled and announced, “Forget this. OK, come on, three on two, let’s go!”My first thought: “Eek, I’m about to get into a fight.” A second thought closely followed: “I’m on his side. Cool!” So much for me protecting him.I’m guessing our antagonists had similar thoughts, except for the cool bit. The first response from the quiet one who hadn’t said much, a “what’s this three on two? I haven’t said anything,” showed the effect a filled out pair of Carhartts can have. People who physically move heavy objects for a living use Carhartts, and who wants to be physically moved about by someone who is obviously used to doing it.While we all sat a little shocked, I noticed his child, who seemed not at all disturbed, instead sitting with a “dad’s going to beat up some people, then we’ll go skiing” sort of look.This threat of violence provided a catalyst that got everyone questioning their assumptions of each other and a real conversation actually followed. I’m not saying we bonded, but on all sides frustrations were explained, stereotypical assumptions admitted to, and we got to know a lot more about each other than if we’d sat quietly fuming with our prejudices. Once you know someone, it’s easier to find common ground and compromise. We even knew where each other worked, what we did in the summer, and at the top, the man cracked a joke at his expense and everyone left smiling.As we walked over to the beginning area, the man regretfully semi-joked, “Sometimes you need a good thumping to get on the right road.” The theory of violence is so much more attractive than the messy real thing, but that might just be my experience. This gentleman might have had a whole more favorable time with it. Or maybe not. I wondered if he’d been set straight when a young punk by a charismatic man in Carhartts.Alan Braunholtz of Vail writes a weekly column for the Daily. Vail, Colorado


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