Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Drinking with Strangers on Airplanes

I'm usually a pretty outgoing person and enjoy meeting new people but there is something about a college classroom and airplanes that render me totally anti-social and unwilling to socialize with the stranger sitting next to me.

On a trip home to California recently, I found myself in the last row of seats - the ones that don't recline - collecting that false sense of hope that one gets when sitting in an empty row, thinking that, just maybe, you will have the chance to flip up the arm rest and sprawl out across the vacant seats next to you. There were only two people looking for their seats as the flight attendant got ready to shut the cabin door and I looked at them anxiously as they both settled down into their seats - and not in my row!

Just as I thought the coast was clear, a frazzled man in his mid-50s with tan, weathered skin, scruffy beard, and long, scraggly gray pony tail came rushing onto the plane. By the distressed look on his face and heavy breathing, I could tell that he had just rushed from his last destination to catch this plane. With an irritated look plastered on his face, he came lumbering down the isle and stopped at my row, looking down at me expectantly. I knew what he I unbuckled and got out of my seat so he could occupy my once empty row.

He settled down into the window seat and let out a big sigh, saturated with the stench of alcohol, and looked at me sideways. Great. I looked straight ahead, trying not to make eye contact (like I said, completely anti-social). I was rummaging through my purse to find my headphones so that I could plug into the TV when he spoke... He grumbled something about being glad to be on the plane. I half-smiled and quickly glanced over at him to acknowledge his comment....and that opened the flood gates. He began to tell me how he had been in the airport for 9 hours because his flights kept getting delayed - as he talked, and filled the cabin air around us with the smell of booze, I was trying to guess what drink of choice he had been sucking down those 9 hours in the airport bar. I have to admit, at first, I was annoyed. I was looking forward to settling into my quiet, airplane bubble, only interacting with the flight attendant on occasion when he or she came around to offer drinks, snacks or collect my trash. But instead, I had a boozed up Chatty Cathy sitting to my right. After about a minute, I succumbed to the chatter and began to engage in the conversation. I sympathized with the man when he told me about his flight mishaps and even made comments back.

As a side note, I'm not sure what it is, but I've found that, in my many encounters with strangers, I often get more of a story out of people than I imagine they or I were ever bargaining for. For example, I met a woman at a party last month and within about 15 minutes of speaking with her, I had learned about her family situation, details of being laid off and what unemployment was like for her, having a new baby and being on maternity leave, the birth story and age of the first child, the birth story and age of the second child, the landing of a new job and how much she loved it there, her hourly wage and benefits and name of the HR person who I should contact if I wanted to work at her new place of employment. 15 minutes! Somehow I seem to meet people at a moment when they are ready to divulge loads of personal information to a complete stranger....

Back to Joe. I can't remember my plane partner's name, but I think it was along the lines of Joe or Jim. At any rate, I slowly began to relax and settle into my fate - a 2 hour plane ride filled with conversation. Once we reached our cruising altitude, the flight attendant came around and began to offer drinks. Joe ordered two double vodka/7-Ups-mystery solved. I ordered a Diet Coke, but he wouldn't have it. He demanded he have a drinking buddy, and since he insisted on paying, I ordered a glass of chardonnay. It came in one of those mini, screw-top wine bottles that you can buy in a 4-pack at the grocery store. So, Joe poured his double and I poured my wine into the classy plastic cups that were provided, we bellied up to our tray tables and made a toast to the end of a long journey for my new drinking partner.

After the second double vodka/7-Up words began to slur and Joe insisted, once again, that I order an additional drink - another glass of wine....and eventually another (by now I am happily buzzed and actually enjoying the random and progressively strange conversation). He began to talk about his grown, adult children and explained how he raised them as a single father, which I commended him for. He went on to describe how he raised each of his children to be independent, confident and resourceful people, adding that each one, like himself, liked world travel. He proceeded to tell me about the messy divorce, in detail - the reasons the relationship went sour - and about the dreaded ex. He asked if I had a boyfriend - and seeing as how I'm not the best liar, it was good that I had the Bill to rely on, and could say with confidence, that, yes, I have a boyfriend. Awesome. Ponytail Joe is now hitting on me in his drunken state.

What makes me so sure? He began to tell me that we were like soul mates and that him and I would get along and have so much fun....that we were kindred winds. Yes. I said kindred winds. He explained that our souls are like energy that flows out into the world - like wind - and apparently, our wind energy (our souls are so green!) was like two peas in a pod...this is when it started getting amusing. One more glass of wine and we were discussing outer space, planets, stars and all things astronomy. By now Joe making a hard squint that comes along with trying hard to focus after a few too many stiff ones. As we made our final descent into Orange County, Joe suggested that, once back in Seattle, we should hang out - that he liked to go to happy hour with his friends and sing karaoke. Despite the fact that I told him about the Bill, he insisted that we go for a ride on his Harley through the streets of Seattle. I gave him my business card, thinking that it would be harmless if he had my work number (I had forgotten that my cell number was on it).

As the plane landed, we grew quiet. The lights flickered on in the cabin and the soundnof clinking seat belts and the rush of people getting out of their seats filled the air. Since we were in the very back, we had some time before getting off the plane. Joe was sitting there squinting even harder now, trying to gather his things and gently swerving back and forth, trying to act normal. He fervently searched the area for his pack of gum, digging through his Hudson News plastic bag, past his astronomy magazine and finally found it in his pocket.

Finally it was our turn to exit the plane, so we gathered our things and walked off down the isle and off the plane. We walked silently through the terminal and to the baggage claim. I bid him farewell, and told him it was nice talking with him on the plain - and I actually meant it! After our goodbyes, I watched as my supposed "kindred wind" blew away into the night - and that was the last I saw of Joe.


  1. Love it! Airplane conversations are hilarious.

  2. Great post, certain people come into our lives for a reason. Good ole Joe. I have to admit to always enjoying a chat with a stranger... but I'm never the instigator.