Sunday, December 13, 2015

Strangers on a Plane: An Unexpected Connection

I hate to fly. I always have and probably always will. I've begrudgingly come to the realization that flying is a reality of life in the twenty-first century. Despite my fears and trepidations, I've accepted the fact that I'll be flying several times a year, either to visit my family in the Midwest, on business or on a rare getaway with my husband. My anxiousness begins as soon as I book a flight and last through landing-at the end of the return leg of my trip.

 Do I have any valid reasons to hate flying beyond the usual hassles that travelers encounter these days?  Maybe.  I was once on a flight that had to make an emergency landing after a drunk passenger claimed there was a bomb on the plane. This was pre 9/11 and the passenger was not taken seriously, but protocol was followed. My fellow passengers and I applauded the U. S. Airways crew for handling this situation quickly and discreetly, before disclosing all the details to passengers after the incident over. I think we all had a pretty good idea of what was happening when federal authorities surrounded the plane as soon as we landed with guns and dogs at the ready. The inebriated passenger (who would not have cleared the TSA screening process today) was dragged down the center aisle and off the plane. It was reminiscent of a scene from an Airport movie. In this post 9/11 age,  I imagine that several passengers on this interrupted flight would have severely hurt this guy long before we landed-primarily for the flight delay and unplanned detour to Albuquerque.

I know that several passengers are unnerved by the TSA. I for one have no problems with  security screenings, and I do have a valid reason to be unnerved.  I flew on the very first day that the TSA as we know it launched operations in American airports. There was a huge learning curve for the flying public and TSA personnel. I'd filmed a  commercial in the San Francisco Bay area and was returning to Los Angeles. The new protocol stated that passengers who had not purchased their own tickets would undergo a more thorough screening. Since the production company I worked for paid for my ticket, I went through a more intense screening, which I did not see as a problem or inconvenience. My carryon was opened and carefully searched by a petite female TSA officer. She pulled out a  plastic bag that I'd placed at the bottom corner of my small roll away bag, opened it and reached in to examine the contents. She eyed me suspiciously. "What's this?"

  I wasn't fazed. "A bathing suit."

 "Why is it wet?" She was suddenly very serious as the smell of chlorine wafted from the bag.

 I guess the woman was unfamiliar with the concept of wearing a bathing suit while swimming, but I remained courteous as I answered her question. "I wore this earlier today while a swimming pool."

She replaced the bathing suit, completed the search of my bag and picked up a wand that she waved over my body. A machine beeped when the wand crossed over my torso which startled her. She now moved the wand closer to my chest which now sustained the machine's beep. "Why is there metal on this part of your body?"

 I remained calm. "I'm wearing an underwire bra."

This woman was taking no chances. She reached out and grabbed both of my breasts in her ungloved hands, squeezing until she felt the questionable underwire through my clothing. While I was surprised by this intrusive action, I managed to maintain my composure. Thankfully this was the end of the search.

I later spoke to a friend who was a purser for a major airline. He told me that the new TSA guidelines for physical searches of this sort were to be conducted only while the officer is wearing gloves, and only with the back of the hands. Many women, including Diana Ross and Nicole Richie have similar stories during the early days of the TSA. Over the next few years as I dressed for future flights, I took special care not to wear any undergarments that would make a physical search necessary.

And then living in Los Angeles, I am often faced with the monster of an airport known as LAX, an airport that seems to be constantly under construction these days.  But LAX is a subject for another post, or even a series of posts.

So many people are frustrated by the need to separate their liquids or having to remove their shoes and outerwear before the scrutiny of a body scan. Many travelers just can't understand the concept of arriving at the airport two hours early to clear TSA screening and or to deal with unforeseen circumstances that are common to travelers. And there are those who are like me-who just hate leaving the ground. Long gone are the glory glamorous days of flying.

But then it doesn't all have to be bad . I'd like to share a personal experience- a positive experience that took place on a recent flight.

I was returning to Los Angeles from the Midwest. I was booked on a direct flight from CVG (Greater Cincinnati/ Northern Kentucky Airport) to LAX. This morning flight was to last four and a half hours, which for me was four and a half hours too long.

While I had been assigned a coveted aisle seat, I requested and was reassigned to a window seat at the gate with an apology that the only window seat available was 31F at the rear of the plane. I didn't care since the rear of the plane arrives at its destination at the same time as the front of the plane. I need a window. Call me crazy but I need to be able to see the ground when I fly.

This flight is usually full, but to my surprise, the center seat of this row was empty as the plane's doors were being prepared for departure. I smiled at the woman in 31D, the aisle seat. "I don't believe it! I guess we'll both have some extra room on this flight."

She returned my smile. "Oh. Is it unusual to have a vacant seat like this?"

"On this particular flight, yes. I'd compare having an empty center seat to winning $25 in the  lottery. Hardly life changing, but the win still feels good."

This made her laugh.

I'd brought work to do on this flight. I had a proof of my new book that needed to be read and revised as my October deadline loomed closer. After takeoff, I busily got to work with my pencil and highlighter. But then again, I hate to fly. While the weather was perfect and the skies were clear and turbulence free, I was having a difficult time concentrating. After two very long hours, I closed the book, frustrated that I hadn't made more progress-and was going to be in the air for at least two more hours.

That's when the woman on the aisle made a comment. "You must fly often. You're so relaxed, calm... and organized." She'd noticed that I'd arranged my space strategically by placing a few items including my water bottle and travel blanket close by while being cognizant of not using more than  one half of the empty seat between us. Her warm smile was genuine.

 For the first time during the flight, I really took notice of this woman. She was slim, soft spoken and had expressive blue eyes. I guessed she was in her seventies. "This has been a smooth flight. Do you fly often?"

"I seem to be flying more now. But to be honest, it's not something I'm comfortable doing. I wish could relax like you. You seemed to be into your book. Is must be good."

I wanted to laugh at her thinking I was relaxed, but she'd asked me about my book-and wondered if it was good. I felt odd answering. "Well...I think so."

She timidly continued. "I noticed you were taking notes as you read. My father used to take notes while he read. I still have several of his books, simply because they have his handwritten notes in the margins. To me it's a way to keep his memory and thoughts alive-though I have no idea why he took notes."

I found her remark interesting, but a rather personal detail to share with a stranger. I explained the reason for my own note taking. "I'm taking notes because this is my own book. I'm a writer. I'm in the editing process of my new novel and am making revisions on this early copy...or proof." I showed her the book's back cover so she could see my photograph.

"Oh my! May I?" She took the book and read the back cover before turning it over and examining the front cover. "Your cover is mysterious...and beautiful! And the plot sounds interesting. I'd like to read your novel it once it's published. How would I do that?"

I handed her a business card with the proper information that she carefully tucked into an outside pocket of her handbag.

The next thing I knew, I was engaged in a sincere conversation with a total stranger. We discussed a variety of subjects, like the changes in the area where she was living and where I had grown up. We discussed local politics and places that didn't exist anymore, and why this seemed to sadden both of us.

But as we continued to talk, our conversation became more personal. She was not in her seventies but in her eighties. She was travelling to Seattle to visit her brother who was recently diagnosed with cancer. She told me about her almost sixty year marriage to her high school sweetheart, and how difficult it was to lose him.  But she also told me how she had continued on with her life. I found myself telling her about losses in my own life while she assured me that life continues. She urged me to always remain positive no matter what life brings your way.

Our conversation flowed easily and organically. It was never uncomfortable or forced. Before I knew it we were beginning our descent into Los Angeles. Time had somehow passed very quickly.

"Is LAX an easy airport to maneuver? I have almost an hour before my next flight, but I still worry."

I wasn't going to tell her that LAX could be intimidating for even the most seasoned passengers, or that Delta Airlines occupied two terminals. I prayed her connecting flight was in the same terminal where we would soon be deplaning. In any event, I would be making sure she got to her connecting flight to Seattle.

Several minutes later we were entering terminal 5 at LAX.  I asked the waiting Delta agent where this nice lady would be catching her connecting flight. Of course, she would need to get to terminal 6 which would involve an escalator ride to a lower level and a shuttle ride to the next terminal. I walked her to the escalator. "I could wait for the shuttle with you if you like." For some reason I was feeling protective of my fellow passenger as she looked at the terminal sprawling out beyond her.

"Please don't worry about me dear. I'll be fine. Thank you for your kindness."

I was slightly embarrassed as I asked, "What's your name?" I hadn't asked before this moment.

Again, her smile was warm. "I'm Charlotte."

"It was lovely meeting you, Charlotte. Have a safe trip."

She reached out and gave me an unexpected hug. "Thank you, Donna." She stepped back slightly. "And I will be reading your book!"

I know that in this day and age, striking up a conversation with a complete stranger can be awkward and intimidating. To be honest, my conversation with Charlotte was a fluke. I've never been one to strike up conversations with strangers. I've often found myself boarding a plane and praying that the person next to me isn't a talker. I usually plop down in my window seat and hurriedly pop in ear buds and open a magazine or my kindle which I hope sends a clear do not disturb message.

These seemingly awkward encounters don't have to be annoying, though I'm sure most of us have horror stories about the unpleasant  person seated next to us on a plane. On the contrary, these chance meetings might be pleasant. Since my flight with Charlotte, I wonder how many pleasant encounters  I may have missed.

I recently told a friend about meeting Charlotte. My friend is an actor/comedian with several impressive credits. Luckily he's among the ranks of actors who have a long resume but is seldom recognized in public. He told me a story about a flight he'd had two years ago. He boarded the flight in a bad mood and found himself praying that no one would be seated next to him. He just knew he wouldn't be good company. Of course, another person soon took the  seat next to him and began chatting. At first my friend responded to be polite as he found himself looking for a book to use as a means of stopping the conversation. But the conversation never stopped. By the end of the flight my friend and this complete stranger closed a business deal where my friend would be emceeing and performing comedy for  a huge corporate event in Miami. This chance meeting led to additional performing opportunities for my friend, opportunities that may have never happened had he not spoken to his fellow passenger.

Many of us will be travelling this holiday. As temping as it may be, don't shut yourself off completely. Consider keeping yourself open to the possibility of connecting to a stranger. As artists, our raw materials are often the people and stories that we'll infuse into our projects as we reflect the human condition. I firmly believe that the more people we encounter,  the more we'll understand our own corner of the world. With more interpersonal interactions, we have more experiences to pull from as we create art, and as a result have projects that are deeper and richer in their portrayal of humanity.

I have a personal message for Charlotte from Northern Kentucky who was on a Delta flight to Los Angeles before connecting to her flight to the Northwest last September.

It was an honor and pleasure meeting you. Thank you for reminding me that the art of conversation is still alive and well, and that  a chance conversation , even when its shared between two strangers, can be a positive experience. I enjoyed sharing the flight (and the empty seat) with you . I hope life is treating you well.

Donna (the author in 31F)


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