I met him at least eight years ago—maybe ten—on Concourse A at the Atlanta Hartsfield International Airport. He wore black pants and a white shirt with a black tie and bib apron. "Let me carry that for you, young man," he said, noticing the balancing act I was performing with my luggage and the tray of food from Paschal's Restaurant that included iced tea and peach cobbler. He didn't wait for me to say yes or no. The old fellow just grabbed my tray with a smile and was off, limping heavily on one leg that was obviously shorter than the other.
I followed him around the escalator to an empty group of tables I had never noticed and it was only then when I realized that he had also brought napkins, a straw, and packages of salt and pepper … items I usually forget. With a flourish, he wiped a table, removed my plate from the tray and arranged it carefully with the napkins and the iced tea. Pulling back my chair as I hurriedly retrieved three, one-dollar bills from my pocket, he smiled and said, "God bless you." His nametag read: FOSTER.
After I had eaten, I walked back around to the food court, curious to see if this was a new service the airport had put in place. Certainly, I had never been "helped" before. I saw several other men and women dressed like my new friend, loosely assembled, and talking with each other, waiting without enthusiasm for tables to come empty. At that point, one of them would disengage from the group, clear any trash left on the table, wipe it down and return to their coworkers.
Glancing around the huge area, I quickly spotted Foster. Smiling, laughing, and moving fast, he helped one person after another. Mothers traveling alone with children or elderly people seemed to catch his eye first. He never waited to be summoned. He went where he was needed. Most were like me—shocked at the help—and looked around as if there might be a hidden camera recording this amazing event. I watched for fifteen minutes before heading to my flight and counted six people or groups of people he had helped during that time.
I was back through the Atlanta airport the next day and couldn't wait to visit the food court again. Sure enough, there he was, the old man with the big smile. He didn't have time to talk, but he helped me to a table as he had the day before (with napkins, salt and pepper, and a straw) and said, "God bless you, young man," as he held out my chair.
I had a twenty folded and ready to place in his hand that day. I was impressed and inspired by this old man who struggled to walk, yet moved like a dervish as he cleaned empty tables and looked for people to serve. From that day forward, he was Mister Foster to me.
As the years rolled by, I developed a great admiration for Mr. Foster. I saw him several times each month and introduced him to my wife and boys along with anyone else with whom I might have been traveling. "Watch this guy," I would always instruct as he left our table. "And watch that bunch of other people over there dressed just like him." The contrast was clear.
I enjoyed contributing to his financial well being—especially during the holidays—because he worked hard helping those who needed help. I never once suspected Mr. Foster was making a play for tips. In fact, though I rarely slipped him less than twenty dollars, he often made me wait while he helped someone in obvious need of assistance. And whether they offered money or not, he always smiled, held their chairs and said, "God bless you."
And then he was gone.
About eighteen months ago, unable to find my friend in the crowd, I asked the ladies at Paschal's, "Where is Mr. Foster today?"
"Fired," they told me.
"What?" I asked, not believing what I had heard.
"That's right," the ladies all nodded. "They fired him. Humiliated him. Sent the man home!"
"Who fired him?" I said, stopping the buffet line in its tracks. "And for what?"
The Atlanta Airport Authority, I was told, had determined that Mr. Foster had become "a distraction". They ordered him to stop helping people. "Stand with everyone else," he was told, "and wait for the tables to empty like you are supposed to. You are a busboy…act like one."
But who can act like a busboy when your heart tells you that you're so much more? He couldn't and he didn't and they fired him.
A few months later, he was back (happy as ever) on a trial basis. But I never again let him carry my tray. I did, however, continue with the twenties. And the fifties. And sometimes more. He took the money because I made him take it. I was mad for him and he knew it. His "God bless you's" often came to me with a tear. His spirit was gone.
Today, I went by Paschal's—Concourse A in the Atlanta Hartsfield International Airport. Before I could even ask, one of the ladies on the serving line spotted me. "I been expecting you," she said. "Mr. Foster's gone. He quit. He told 'em he was old and sick and couldn't do the work no more." Then she cocked her head and added with a whisper, "He ain't sick. There ain't nothing broken about that old man."
Nope, I thought as I turned away, there ain't nothing broken about that old man. Nothing but his heart.
Mr. Foster, I miss you. I am one among many who do, I suspect. So wherever you are … God bless you.