Down and Out in Denver

Denver Airport Volunteers

Posted in denver, travel, Uncategorized by Blake on February 23, 2010

I’ve just returned from another trip to the Bay Area to see the Gentleman Friend and, while I could talk about the fun restaurants we visited and the endless tasty food I consumed, this is supposed to be a blog about Denver, not San Francisco.

Photo Courtesy of the Denver Post

So, in that spirit: Upon my return to DIA I took the airport tram to the main terminal, ascended the escalator, and once again was faced with the volunteers in their cowboy hats, bolo ties, and faux shearling vests.  Who are these people?  I’m assuming that they are volunteers, particularly so because most of them appear to be senior citizens and they are there no matter the time of day.  But why volunteer at the airport? What about homeless people? A soup kitchen? The illiterate? Your local women’s shelter? Political campaign?  Public park litter patrol?  Unlike these sorts of activities — some of which I have done myself — what kind of rosy altruistic glow does one achieve through volunteering at DIA?  “Without me, that woman never would have found the Hertz counter.  I made a difference today, I sure did.”  “Sometimes I get up in the morning and I feel a little useless, but then I remember that it’s because of me that weary travelers figure out where the baggage claim is about 15 seconds faster than they would if they just looked at the signs.  And then I know that I have a real purpose in life!”

I’m not making fun of volunteer work here; for that I have a profound respect.  I’m making fun of this volunteer work, which seems so profoundly useless.  Is it just that most volunteer work that I would consider doing — on behalf of women, the gays, the poor, the environment; causes that need my help, in other words — seems political by definition and this is volunteer work utterly stripped of ideology?  To me that’s what makes it so pointless but maybe that is precisely its appeal?  Any thoughts, dear reader?


14 Responses

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  1. squadratomagico said, on February 23, 2010 at 8:11 am

    I suspect the draw for volunteering at the airport has some sort of class basis. This cohort of volunteers wants to “feel useful” but does not want to feel any smidgeon of anxiety or discomfort by having to interact with people too far different from themselves. Airports generally are populated with folks who have disposable income for tourism, or else business people who are gainfully employed. Hence, the volunteers have a fairly strong guarantee that their efforts will be directed towards the middle-class and above, and that makes them feel comfortable. Add to that the factor of “home-town pride,” e.g., genuine enjoyment at being a friendly Denver welcoming committee in a quaint get-up.

    • Blake said, on February 23, 2010 at 8:36 am

      Good points, all. It also seems like the fact that every interaction is going to be super brief might be appealing. No longer term interactions with consequences. Just help and it’s done. And the home town pride — see the outfits! — also makes sense. It just seems such a strange place to express that pride. I do like our airport quite a bit (aside from its location, one of my favorite things about Denver!) but still… I guess maybe if framed as being a “gateway to Denver,” one could get a little proud?

  2. Alastair said, on February 23, 2010 at 8:50 am

    I’m trying to imagine what a volunteer at the Pittsburgh International Airport might wear… a Steelers jersey, a construction hard hat, or perhaps a little number along the lines of what Jennifer Beals wore in Flashdance? I think a call to Luke Ravenstahl is in order.

    • Blake said, on February 23, 2010 at 9:03 am

      I’m also just trying to remember if I’ve seen volunteers in any other airport, aside from behind an actual information booth — and I’ve always assumed that those people are paid. Is Denver unique in its encouragement of volunteer ambassadors?

  3. Historiann said, on February 23, 2010 at 11:53 am

    I think it’s more the costumes than the concept that bugs me.

    Don’t you, Alastair and Blake, find it all a little too Disneyfied, and that it implies you don’t really live in a city?

    • Blake said, on February 23, 2010 at 12:10 pm

      Oh, I hadn’t thought about it that way. But now I find I might be slightly insulted on Denver’s behalf in addition to being mystified. We are not a Western Theme Park! We are (sort of) A Real City!

  4. Alastair said, on February 23, 2010 at 12:21 pm

    Oh, the costumes are ridiculous and is this any different than the Russian ice-skaters Aboriginal costumes? BTW, what’s with all the pins? Are they something along the lines of merit badges for the Boy Scouts? This could be yet another incentive…

  5. GayProf said, on February 24, 2010 at 9:50 am

    Well, I just assumed since the airport is so far away from the city that these folks were there to provide supplies, directions, and a sextant to travelers who foolishly believed that they had actually landed anywhere near Denver.

    Plus, it is really better than the greeters at Detroit, who take your money and cut you.

    • Blake said, on February 24, 2010 at 10:09 am

      Touché, GayProf! That is perhaps the best explanation yet for their presence: to inform travelers that, while they may have landed, the overland trail continues westward from Kansas and that they’ll reach the Mile High City in under a day.

  6. Golden Girl said, on October 31, 2010 at 8:41 am

    Well I was thinking of being a volunteer, not so sure after reading all of this. Wanted to tell you that these people get a free parking space at the airport and only have to volunteer once a month. The outfits are not my thing, kind of humiliating I think. I do think that these people probably are doing other volunteer work with more social value. On a serious note we all get older and this could be a very pleasant social activity for lots of people. I bet you would find that these are interesting people and they probably like the job because they can park for free when they travel!

    • Blake said, on October 31, 2010 at 9:06 am

      Thanks for the info, Golden Girl! I have no doubt that the volunteers are themselves nice people, I guess I was just more confused about why this would be appealing as volunteer work. But the free parking spot definitely would be a plus! And if they only do it once a month, that too makes it seem not so bad.

  7. jesse o'connor said, on April 2, 2012 at 8:19 am

    just so you know; the Howdy Pardners, the Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Chamber of Commerce Ambassadors, have been greeting arrivals at the J.H. Airport since 1979, but only in the winter and only on the weekends. besides hat pins, we give out mimosas or orange juice as a welcoming refreshment. regarding the question above of why would anyone volunteer for such a strange duty; the answer is community spirit. its true that Denver is a real city which can be argued to have outgrown its wild west roots, your world famous stock show and rodeo notwithstanding. that being said, it is also a collection of real communities of which some residents are justifiably proud to be a part of and glad to welcome visitors to your region. real crime, pollution, crowding, and other urban woes are undeniable. but any place you live and work is also a home and can be seen as more than only a place of subsistence but also a place of heart, a place to believe in. my feeling is that your tireless volunteers take nothing away from the genuine needy charities mentioned above but are definitely doing more than only taking advantage of free parking. they believe in Denver, as we believe in Jackson. where you live and play and raise families need not be merely your place of abstract livelihood but a realm of robust and vital Life. Pins are exchanged between other community ambassador groups when they meet or from special events aided by the greeters. Its true that a friendly word and directions given are less committal than working regularly at a soup kitchen. but being a community ambassador is not a fall-back for feeling good, it is authentic western hospitality from those who, in an increasingly pragmatic and dispirited world, believe in Denver and in service to those arriving, grateful for the personal touch. Good job, Denver Int. Airport Greeters! hats off to you!
    Howdy Pardners

    • jesse o'connor said, on April 3, 2012 at 6:08 am

      i forgot to address another question why outrageous cowboy costume? heritage. Denver’s not a cow town anymore? or one of gold, sliver and rail? no problem. the west, constantly evolving, is bigger than stereotypes. but, expectations and celebration of where we come from are very real. Like the Russian outfits mentioned above, where we come from is important and worthy of continuance. its all part of good hospitality, unless, of course, you as representing a collection of communities come together to choose a different, more modern expression…go for it! its your town. but, the authentic West is bigger than cliques, and, again, worthy of recognition.

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