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.