Monday, May 2, 2016
I was recently on a flight (MCO - LGA) where I was trying with all my might to ignore the screaming children seated behind me. They were old enough to know better, and even if they didn't know better, their grandmother, seated in the aisle seat (the children were in the middle and window seats, respectively), most certainly should have been proactive in keeping them quiet. She, unfortunately, fell into a deep sleep before we even got off the runway in Orlando and remained in said sleep until we landed two hours and twenty three minutes later in New York.
I know all this about the family behind me because the children started screaming as soon as they sat down. Both I and my next-seat neighbor (me, window seat; he, middle) startled forward at the first of hundreds of kicks to the back of our seats, and I, already tired and annoyed at having to get up well before my usual wake-up time to make a 10am flight, grumbled something under my breath about how these kids will NOT scream through this entire flight if I have anything to say about it.
"I'll hold you to it!" said the man.
"Pshyeah!" I stammered, not realizing that I actually said my inside thoughts aloud.
Then an announcement came over the loudspeakers, the man closed his eyes and laid his head back, and I stuffed my earphones into my ears and tried to let the cool tones of Hoda and Kathie Lee lull me into oblivion (thanks, JetBlue!) as I mindlessly paged through a magazine.
The kids would not stop. At one point I was driven from mere passive-aggressive thinking to actual communication when, after sustaining yet another kick to the back of my seat, I lurched over my chair and said to the boy, "hey buddy, when you kick the back of my seat I feel it, ok?" He nodded blankly and to my surprise, ceased all extraneous movement.
For about 20 minutes, that is. Halfway through the flight, the child in the middle seat let loose a kick so hard I was surprised the captain didn't ask everyone to brace themselves for turbulence. The man next to me flew forward in his seat, glanced sideways at me, and said "I thought you were going to keep them quiet."
I shook my head. "I tried! And I failed miserably!"
He laughed. "Ah well. Looks like I'm not getting my nap in this morning."
"And I guess I'm not reading this magazine today," I sighed as I silenced Kathie Lee.
"I'm Mark," he said as he extended his hand. "What brings you to New York?"
And with that, we began as all pleasant airplane conversations begin. I told him how I was between gigs and had seized an opportunity to spend a few days in Florida at a friend's parent's house (free food! In-ground pool!!), and he told me how he used to travel from his home in Connecticut to New York on business all the time, but that he's retired now and has permanently relocated to Florida. We talked about jobs and politics and the weather and the Queensboro Bridge and how I'm an only child and he has two kids and six grandchildren, all girls. Eventually, I got around to inquiring why he was on his way to New York.
"Well," he said, matter-of-factly, "I'm going to have dinner with an old buddy of mine. One of my closest friends, in fact. We met on the golf course forty years ago, and we were foes when we started out because we were always trying to beat each other's score. But eventually we realized that we liked hanging out more than we liked playing golf, so we gave up the game and started being friends. People used to call us TooTall and TooSmall (he was very tall, you see, and while you can't see it because I'm sitting down, I'm actually very short!), and they'd see us coming and say, 'Oh look, there's TooTall and TooSmall, together again!' We even went into business together for a while, and even though we're both retired now, we talk on the phone two, maybe three times a week. But he just got diagnosed with stage-four cancer and was given only a few months to live, so I'm going to New York for the evening to have one last dinner with him. We're going to Quality Meats for steak and then we're going to find a nice quiet bar and have a couple cocktails and reminisce about the old days. This'll probably be the last time I see him."
I was very quiet for a while. "I am so sorry to hear that. That's the saddest thing I've heard in quite some time. I hope you have a good time tonight...?"
"Oh we will! It'll be good to see him again. And don't be too sad, he's lived a good long life and we've been lucky to have been friends for so long. I'm just grateful that I get to do this. But this is the important thing: live your life so that one day, you too can buy a last-minute plane ticket to say goodbye to your friend. Not everyone has the means or the freedom to do something like this, but I do, and I'm grateful for it."
We began our descent into New York not long after that. The plane came to a full and complete stop, the seatbelt sign went off, and we stood for the never ending process that is disembarking a plane, taking the opportunity to glare at the oblivious children and grandmother behind us (I noticed, with more than a little satisfaction, that I was not the only passenger in the vicinity shooting angry looks at the family). But secretly, I was the tiniest bit thankful for those obnoxious kids and their headphone-less iPads. How often do we actually talk to the stranger seated next to us on an airplane?
I'm not suggesting that every flight is going to be accompanied by moving and thought-provoking dialogue. People are often at their worst during times of travel (I know I am), and the last thing I want to do is be stuck next to some bloviating armchair politician while speeding through the air in a flying tin can 20,000 feet above the earth.
But sometimes you have to throw caution to the wind (and throw out all hopes of rest or magazine-reading) and talk to the person sharing your recycled air, because you just might be granted the gift of a beautiful story.