Monday, February 23, 2009

Business Traveler Chronicles – Making Friends on an Airplanes

First, let's just acknowledge what you are already asking yourself: "Did she take that photo from inside an airplane?" Answer: Yes. This was today in Minneapolis before taking off for Dallas. People who know me accept the fact that I am, well, let's just say I am a neurotic airplane freak. I have this morbid fascination/fear/lust etc. of airplanes that I often manifest in unusual ways like airplane photography, mini five-minute pilot crushes at the airport Burger King, and ridiculous tidbits of commercial airline knowledge like whether we are flying on a Boeing or an Airbus jet (and I know this without looking at the emergency card in the seat pocket in front of you).

So, today was no different in my flight traveler behavior. I boarded the plane (which I could immediately identify as a CRJ900, no bigs) and I found my seat next to the window in the tiny fuselage. Now, I was to be seated in aisle 7, but this was not an easy choice as there had been a seat open in the emergency row window seat in aisle 12. When I saw that on my computer check in, I over-thought it and kept the seat that had originally been assigned to me. Whenever I cannot decide which seat to sit in, I have to go with what the airline gods have intended for me. WTF, you ask? 

Well, see, it's hard for me because I have all these little statistics running through my head about remaining within five rows of the emergency exits, wearing shoes with laces, and counting how many seats it would take for you to escape a burning airplane. Even though I LOVE flying and am in awe of it, I also have a deep respect and tolerable fear of it. AGAIN, the whole movie-trailer-imagination does not bode well as I am prone to conjuring up traumatic scenes with special effects. Like when the plane goes down in Castway. That's a bad scene to have in your head when you are flying over water. But, I digress... I want to talk about making friends on airplanes.

Today I sat next to a young girl with red glasses. She was nice enough to put my laptop bag into the teeny tiny overhead compartment on this CRJ900. Here is what I did when I sat down in my seat:

Stash food under seat, unzip coat, stash under seat next to purse. Take out The Week Magazine, take out two books on social networking, take out a small pamphlet that I keep rereading called Introduction to Buddhism. Place all reading items into back of seat pocket. Take out pen. Take out highlighter. Pick up jacket off floor and put on as blanket. Take it off. Turn on overhead light, turn off overhead light. Text Steve. Call Mom and Dad. Look across aisle and mime something to Sara about how much I am sweating. Take out water bottle. Take out Izzy drink. Place both water and Izzy in back of seat. Lean back. Lean forward. Go in purse, take out camera and unvelcro it from case. Start taking pictures out of window. Put camera away. Take it out again. Take more pictures. Put water bottle and Izzy back into bag after figuring they are not safe in seat pocket...

I completed all of these tasks before take off. Just when I was unvelcroing my camera case for the third time to capture a pretty sunset, I suddenly paused and was paralyzed with the follow thought:

O. M. G. I am the biggest airplane dork ever and the girl next to me is silently thinking the exact same thing and neither of us know what to do about it now.

The air became heavy and thick. I did not want to look at the girl with red glasses and she did not want to look at me. We both knew that we had embarked on what could only be described as the In-Flight Blind Date. This is the only way I can describe it. Think about it – when else are you expectantly hoping for someone good looking and kind and when else do you get that chance to instantly evaluate them as you approach your seat? 

So, here I am, sitting squashed next to the girl with glasses, and I am so sure we are both thinking the same thing (that I am about as weird as Monk would be on this airplane). I have to test out my theory that this girl is on to me. I turn on the overhead light, look up at it, and turn it off. Low and behold, Glasses lets out a little chuckle. A chuckle. She laughed at me? Now I have to say something funny so that it feels like she is laughing with me and not at me.

"Oh, that light sure is bright. They must have modern halogen lights or something being that this is a pretty new plane..."  


(Way too dorky, yo! Try to avoid spewing forth Dungeons & Dragons airplane knowledge next time, OK?)

Glasses just looks at me like she is expecting me to do another monkey trick to make her laugh. Now, we have a problem on our hands. We have not even begun our taxi down the runway for a two hour flight, and my seat mate views my airplane behavior as a spectacle that amuses and delights. It is like she is the one to have finally caught me in this whole commercial airline hobby of mine. I have been found out! Already I am lamenting the fact that I will not be able to take photos of cloud formations as it will obviously no longer go unnoticed.

Now I feel like Glasses is analyzing my every move, including my facial expression as we begin to speed down the runway. I consider acting like I am really scared, thinking I can back out of this one by feigning first time air travel. But then I remember that I have already let a factoid slip out of my mouth and I have blown my cover as a bona-fide commercial airline passenger groupie. 

OK, so we are flying. I decide that I should eat the food I brought as I have only consumed some Reese's Pieces cereal and coffee for the entire day. I am immediately mortified when I discover that my sandwich from French Meadow Bakery is wrapped inside the loudest crinkliest wax paper bag known to the modern world. This thing is so loud that while I unwrap it, I begin to worry that the pilot will say something about audio interference over the loud speaker. Well, yes, if you are wondering, everyone is looking at me. Because not only is this sandwich bag loud, the sandwich itself smells.

This is right about when Glasses decides to ruin my special in-flight meal that I risked missing essential boarding time to wait for the sandwich people to make. Glasses goes:

"So, you just like, brought your own caché of food on the plane?"

What? First of all, did she use the term "caché" properly, because I thought that meant something was cool. No, I think she is passive-aggressively dissing me and my in-flight meal. I want to say something super mature and intimidating like, "Well, you know, I travel for business a lot and I have a system that works" but instead I stammer something out that is super incoherent, like Brick from Anchorman. I would try to quote it, but I don't know exactly what I said. It was something like, "Well, yeah, blabu hai wontganshh..." Honestly, I have no idea what I told her, but at least it made her stop giving me the side glance.

The Side Glance. Known in other parts of the world as Le Côté Glace or Der Seite Glance, the Side Glance is a tricky little behavior that one has to nip in the bud if one wants to achieve any level of privacy while riding on an airplane. The Side Glance is used for a number of reasons. Your seat mate may be giving you an S.G. in order to read your laptop screen or maybe to see what you are eating. The worst is when an S.G. is used by your seat mate to periodically evaluate what page you are on in your book to see how fast of a reader you are.

Let's just say that after today's experience, I shall never bring a warm pesto cheddar chicken sandwich on a plane ever again. Because once I realized how pungent that little baguette was, I knew deep down that I was quickly becoming the least popular person in the cabin. It was like an adult version of the playground, and I knew that everyone was secretly siding with Glasses ("Poor girl, she has to sit next to the girl with 15 books, a camera, and that stinky sandwich!"). Well, everyone was sympathizing with Glasses expect Sara, who was the one who made me go to French Meadow in the first place.

For the rest of my flight, I was in agony. I wanted Glasses to like me. I wanted to start over with her, tell her about my cool research job, maybe braid each other's hair. But, no. I was now an untouchable.

When we landed, I finally had the courage to give the girl with the glasses a closer look. I noticed that she had peace signs all over her cloth bag and she was reading a library copy of Harry Potter. When our plane was on the ground, she immediately dialed her cell phone, and I was half worried to hear her lament to her husband under her breath that she had been sitting next to this moron who could be a contender for the airplane version of Rain Man. She hated me, I knew it. Heck, I hated me... why did I always have to be so intensly weird? Glasses' eyes perked up as she held her phone to her ear:

"Benny? Get mom. Yeah, tell mom and dad I landed. Hi mom. Can you come pick me up?"

What? You mean to tell me Glasses is a kid? Here I just spent the past two hours rehashing how I became the person I am today all because this kid laughed when I turned a light on and off and she asked about my sandwich? I must need to go on some kind of self-esteem retreat in the woods of the Pacific Northwest.

Glasses was nice enough to grab my laptop bag from the overhead and pass it down to me. She smiled at me, and with her red glasses and braces, she looked just like Ugly Betty. OK, I thought. So all this time, it wasn't that Glasses despised me... She aspired to be like me someday. I am sure of it. At least that is what I have convinced myself as I write this in the middle of the night in my Dallas hotel room.

If you start to doubt yourself on an airplane because your seat partner does not affirm who you while you are eating stinky food or doing weird airplane settling-in rituals, I think that the best course of action is to just ride it out. Of course you always have the option of saying you used to be a flight attendant or that your dad is a pilot, but maybe keep that one in your back pocket for emergencies.



  1. i'm crying dear. fucking crying. so happy.

    i mean... "already I am lamenting the fact that I will not be able to take photos of cloud formations as it will obviously no longer go unnoticed...."

    my god.
    don't ever stop writing.

    and please become a columnist. d and i want you to be a columnist. it was d's idea.

    (little sparrow)