the miracle of flight: tiny bottles and brief intimacies

The guy sitting next to me on the flight to Des Moines was youngish, mplane in skyid-20s probably. I couldn’t tell if he was friendly or not. I wasn’t feeling especially so. I decided to read for the two hours it would take us to get there.
But there is something about sitting cheek by jowl next to a person on an airplane. You are in a fairly unnatural situation, thrust together in this gigantic hunk of flying metal 30,000 feet in the air. Surely there is an underlying sense of shared peril, no matter that statistics say you are safer than driving on I-96. As Louis C.K. says of griping airline passengers, “Did you soar through the clouds, impossibly? Did you partake of the miracle of human flight? You’re sitting in a chair in the sky!”
So back to the guy next to me going to Des Moines. There is a natural tendency to introduce yourself to a fellow passenger whose elbow is touching yours after you’ve both figured out which seat belt belongs to you. And truth be told I didn’t have much to read anyway. I asked him where he was going.
It was a convention of Wells Fargo interns. He was a business major working at Wells Fargo’s Philadelphia office, learning to do what they do there. Resisting the urge to ask if he got to ride the stagecoach, I plumbed more details about his life. Turns out he was a very friendly guy and told me about growing up in a town north of New York City, and how much he loved the life of the Big Apple.
Me being me, it didn’t take long to ask if he was a Mets fan or a Yankees fan. Yankees all the way. I gritted my teeth and told him I was a Tigers guy, and we smiled at our shared awareness of that ancient rivalry. We spoke of the great Jeter and Cabrera and the Yankees’ injury problems and their phenomenal new pitcher Masahrio Tanaka (who has since gotten injured himself). The young man’s baseball knowledge was comprehensive and historical, creating an instant bond between us I never would have guessed by looking at him.
Had we been traveling farther I would have dug deeper, asking about what his parents did for a living, if he had any siblings and what movies he’d seen lately. As it was we parted pleasantly as the plane landed in Des Moines, not having gotten each other’s names but gotten something deeper about our shared love of baseball.
This kind of intimacy on short notice is one of the little blessings of air travel. As Jerry Seinfeld notes, everything on airplanes is little: the tiny liquor bottles, the wee bathroom, the slight delays. The little acquaintances we make are nice reminders that, when forced into close quarters, our first instinct is to get to know one another.
This means we start out looking for what we have in common. “Philadelphia, huh? I have a cousin who’s from there! It’s a pretty nice city isn’t it?” We are predisposed to find things we like in common and about each other. And we take more interest than normal in who this complete stranger is and what he or she does in life.
I once had a pretty long plane conversation with a guy who worked for a food company in Hudsonville, not far from my home in Grand Rapids. We talked at length about the food industry, the pros and cons of organics and the increasing attractions of downtown GR. By the time we landed I felt I knew this young man fairly well, at least enough to write a brief Wikipedia entry about him.
My most memorable airplane acquaintance was a lovely woman named Doris Dudley. She sat next to me on my first flight to England back in 1976. It was an overnight and my first international flight, so I allowed myself a few tiny bottles of vodka with orange juice. I warmed happily to Doris Dudley’s tales of growing up in London and sleeping in the subway during Hitler’s bombing blitz. She had a merry voice, or at least it sure sounded merry to me as the little bottles emptied. By the time we landed at Gatwick I would have taken her as my grandmother.
It’s really too bad we don’t extend this sort of curiosity and generosity to people normally. More often than not we tend to notice how strangers seem different from us and judge them accordingly. And if we get into an online argument with them, you can just forget about any kind of bonding. It’s more like target practice.
Would that our daily interactions were more like airplane conversations, cheerfully getting to know each other in our chairs in the sky.

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