On the plane coming home from Mexico last night, I sat next to a man with whom I shared zero words. We didn’t so much as ask where the other person was going or comment on any salient aspects of our flight, such as the fact that the seats were miniature and very close to each other: if we were sitting that close in any other context, people might say, “Get a motel room.” And yet two people who have never met before and want nothing to do with each other pretend that sitting in each other’s personal space is somehow okay. Such is the modern world of travel, where personal space loses all meaning. I was too tired to even assert my rights to the one armrest I could use, which was between his and my seat next to the emergency exit on a small plane. He obviously had no compunction about using two armrests leaving me none. But I wasn’t in the mood to be petty and it was a short flight.
I understand that many strangers who sit next to each other on airplanes are nervous that something tragic may happen, such as the plane going down and the people sitting next to the emergency exit having lied about being able to handle the responsibility. (I confess that I did not, in fact, review the card in the seat pocket on which emergency exit procedures were given.) Chitchat helps travelers to stop thinking, “I may die soon.” And usually I would be amenable to making small talk with a person with whom I have absolutely nothing in common, such as a beefy man looking at football news on his iPhone who hasn’t a crumb of decency concerning the armrest situation. But when I located my seat – the one with only one armrest – and my emergency exit mate stood up to let me get to it, his vibe was clearly that I was to maintain the illusion of not existing for him, and that was fine by me, because I was sinking into a formidable pit of grumpiness.
If I had talked to that man, I might have said something like, “I never want to travel again. And it’s fuckers like you who are part of the problem.”
I don’t mind having adventures in another place, and I had been in a pretty spectacular place in Mexico, a villa with friends on the top of a hill outside of Manzanillo. During the day I played tennis, went to the beach, watched birds, ate what our personal chef made for us; at night we all played music together. By the end of the week I was exhausted.
Here’s the thing – I’m old. Having fun in a place far away from my cat now takes more energy than I have. And going through all the machinations of flying home sucks whatever energy I have left right out of me. I had no delays, or cancellations, just the usual security rituals and loud, uncomfortable venues, either in the airport waiting area or the plane itself. Children screeching, listless masses shuffling in lines and putting their shoes in plastic bins, being told to stand with my arms raised while someone checks to see if I’m carrying a gun in my bra.
But the absolute final blow, the proof that I am too old and haggard to travel anymore was the photo, now the most demoralizing aspect of international travel for me.
In some airports there are kiosks that you insert your passport into and stand in front of to have a picture taken of you when you come in from a foreign country. The photo is emitted on a piece of paper that you take up to the customs official. Phoenix has such a system. As soon as I saw those kiosks I knew that my morale was about to plummet.
If I look anything like the photo that I had to hand over to the customs official in Phoenix, I should go directly to a nursing home. For one thing, you have to look down at the camera, which anyone over sixty knows is the worst possible angle for maintaining the illusion that you’re not close to death. Seeing my sagging face, unsmiling, bitter, like someone who tells you to get off her lawn, sapped me of whatever reserves I might have had left. If my face in the photo could talk, it would have said, “I’m fucking exhausted. I’m old and exhausted.” It would not have said, “I just spent seven days in paradise.”
As you may be able to tell, I’m often not able to look on the bright side of things. Maybe if the man taking up my armrest had been friendly, had said, “Do you live in Albuquerque?” I would have stopped feeling worthless long enough to say, “Yeah. I’m going to be glad to get home to my cat.” But then I might have chatted about the beautiful beaches I went to, and the Macaw that drank out of the pool at the villa where I was hanging out with friends. Maybe I would have reminisced about the great music we played and found out that he was hoping the Packers would win and had a ten-year-old son who played the piano. It’s not like either one of us was trying to sleep. Then I would have maybe told him about how demoralizing that customs photo was and he might have said, “Yeah, but nobody looks good in those things, especially since you have to look down at the camera.”
So maybe small talk isn’t so bad. Maybe, to paraphrase Blanche Dubois in “Streetcar Named Desire,” we must sometimes rely on the kindness of strangers. Modern air travel messes with our sense of safety; strips us of our basic comforts, not to mention our cats; and is a constant violation of personal space. It’s nice in such circumstances to be in the presence of at least one kind stranger, someone, for example, who’d let you use her only armrest.
But next time I’m going to ask the fucker if he lives in Albuquerque.
Linda SlaterJanuary 19, 2016 at 9:02 am
I am an avowed non-chatterer. I don’t want to talk to the person on the plane, or in line in front of me at the grocery store or post office, or my hairdresser or….. Probably demonstrates a terrible character flaw, but like the lady in the viral video says, “Ain’t nobody got time for that!” I might make an exception for an elderly person; I often think the only reason they go out is to have human contact
Howard FallonJanuary 26, 2016 at 12:00 pm
Glad to hear you had such a memorable flight home!
felisaFebruary 2, 2016 at 9:58 am
I actually looked dead in my passport scanner photo from this trip. Nice point about small talk–I dread it and shy away from it, but when I don’t–I often find that it makes my day.
Marilee OdendahlFebruary 26, 2016 at 9:06 am
I regret to say that I thoroughly identified with every tiny, grumpy, defeated, introspective, demoralizing thing you have wrote. I also regret to say I’ve only experienced one good flight in the era of increased security and decreased civility – and it was due to an undeserved, random upgrade to first class. As we age flying steerage is to be avoided while even the siren song of paradise in Mexico begins to fade. Alas. However, that is not what I intended to comment on. Instead, what I wondered as I read is why it is that women of our age (I’m exactly your age btw) are increasingly & unequivocally stating “I’m old”. I hear and read it everywhere and I say it too often for my own comfort. Of course we (at our great ages) are noticing the literal pull toward decrepitude each day, but I thought we were supposed to be the generation that transcends those time-worn expectations that old begins at 60, closely followed by death at about 67 because, after all, life is not worth living when the face sags downward along with all the unmentionable rest. I complain about age when I’m tired, have just seen a picture of myself or have just visited a doctor who unfailingly resembles my 16 year old nephew. I also use “I’m old” when I need a handy excuse to avoid anything resembling a social occasion, although it is annoying when people seem to agree with me so readily. I had wanted to be different, embracing-of-old-age attitude when I grew up. Instead, I’m just like you repeating the mantra, “I’m old, I’m old, this sucks.” Of course I’m just rambling – but then you’ll have that with the geriatric set. Us.
Marilee OdendahlFebruary 26, 2016 at 9:09 am
Shit. I made many grammar & punctuation mistakes! How embarrassing. Note to self: Reread before commenting.
KateFebruary 26, 2016 at 10:06 am
Typos and all – I really enjoyed your comment – the proverbial food for thought. I am old mainly because my youthful ideals and fantasies are revealed as empty pursuits of the hapless ego. I think real aging goes beyond the disappointment and into a reality filled with wisdom and some laughs.