Thursday, Nov. 26, 2009 | 2 a.m.
Rodderick Gray pushes wheelchairs through McCarran International Airport’s terminal D, following a loop that takes him from airplane gates to taxi stands to ticketing and around and around again, pushing for about 10 miles a day. He sweats through his uniform’s baseball caps until they shine, until he can’t wash his sweat out of the caps and he has to throw them out.
“And I don’t mind it. At all,” Gray says.
“I like the airport. You’re never in the same place.”
He’s not really pushing wheelchairs so much as he’s talking to the people in them, a sampling of the millions of tourists who churn through McCarran every year. And they all have stories, a lot of which start with “I shouldn’t be here” and tell of car crashes, cancer and other barely missed flights to the Final Destination.
Once he pushed an older couple, both of them, side-by-side, as they told him how they were Holocaust survivors. They met in a concentration camp, and have been married for more than 60 years, “still head over heels in love,” Gray says. They laughed all the way through the airport, the three of them.
Then you get the other people, maybe not as inspiring but still a lot of fun.
Once, Gray was pushing a woman as her grown daughter walked beside them. As they moved through the airport with posters advertising the Strip’s high-minded entertainments, Gray leaned over to the daughter and whispered a suggestion. The woman laughed, and turned to the wheelchair and asked, Would you like to go see Chippendales?
“And mom says, ‘Oh sure! I know where to put those dollars,’ ” Gray laughs.
Another time, he was pushing two chairs, bent forward, when a woman in the same party walking alongside him started slapping his butt, shouting, “Go! Go! Go!”
“She came to have fun and she was having fun with me,” Gray says, shaking his head.
But then, Gray shouldn’t have been surprised: His motto is, “I’m going to start the party right here, in the chair.”
It usually works, Gray says, because he’s welcoming people to Las Vegas. Gray used to work at LAX, which had more famous travelers, sure, but it also had grumpier travelers — people who had been on overnight flights from the East Coast and were headed for business meetings. But even Las Vegas’ business travelers expect to have some serious fun.
Gray’s official job title is assistant lead passenger service host, and he takes the host part seriously. He tries to treat everyone as if they were his own family, calling his charges “mom” or “pop.” He hands out business cards with his number on them and he gets repeat customers. One woman called him from the airport while he was still on his way to work. He told her he wasn’t in yet and she could take another pusher. She said she would wait for him.
Gray says most people are happier when they arrive than when they leave. “I say, ‘Yeah, but you had a good time, didn’t you? Win or lose.’ ”
Some of them agree, some of them don’t.
“Most people are ready to go home,” Gray says.
And he pushes them to their gates.