This morning a storm of thoughts blew in while I lingered in bed in the dark, silent basement of a house in Fairfield, Iowa, where I’ve been since Saturday afternoon, December 1, to break from city life using a couple of weeks where the familiar faces are.
I flew American Airlines from New York. After I clicked to buy the fare, I clicked again, to buy seats on two flights—ordinary seats that might have cost me nothing had I been assigned them at the gate, a friend told me later. But that wasn’t clear during the clicking. Later I fought in vain for my rights and asked for a refund of the twenty dollars I gave the beggars. The customer service guy wrote that he wanted me to have a good feeling about AA. And he explained that they did not give refunds because AA’s product is transportation, and since I had already used the product, I was not going to get a refund. After two different customer “service” people told me this three times, I gave up.
I will never fly AA again. Never. And I don’t think you should fly AA. Let’s take them down. Let’s starve the beast. The air carriers have inflicted quite enough pain on us in the name of profits and stock prices.
Anyhow—I’m writing this out of fear, not anger. I was afraid I’d lost my writing toolbox somewhere in Manhattan. I have not written anything substantial in months. That began to worry me. I got my writing start in Iowa, when I moved there in 1995. Among the storm of thoughts this morning was one that said “there must something about Iowa and its geography, or its climate, or its vibe, that makes some people want to write.” The skies go on forever, the climate is extremely extreme, and at night, the skies are filled with stars. The sun rises and sets in dramatic fashion.
For a moment, I thought about moving back to Iowa. But that was one thought among many.
To jump-start my writing mind, I read something I wrote earlier, the story about the driver in Kerala. I realized anew that, yes, I know how to write, and I know how to make the mundane interesting. I enjoyed reading my own words. They were comforting, friendly, and warm. There’s love in them. That’s how I feel, a lot of the time. Sure, sometimes I get cranky. Sometimes, though I don’t mean to, I rub people the wrong way. But, on the whole, I’ve turned into a decent human being—maybe even a loving one.
One problem I have with writing is that writing isn’t always sufficiently physical. Sometimes while writing, I have to stop writing, rise from my seat to do something, something much more important, like scrubbing the kitchen sink or sifting through a pile of mail to discard the stuff that’s really junk. Every establishment in NYC that depends on donations has me on their mailing list. But that’s another story for another day. Anyhow, if I rise enough times to keep my body happy, then I can settle down to write something that might be good reading—which is what I’ll try to do now.
That AA flight wasn’t all about my gripes and moans. Here’s the deal. I was in coach, which had three seats on each side of the aisle. The plane was packed, filled to the overhead bins. I suggested to one attendant that they just omit the center aisle. “Then you could really cram some people on this plane,” I said. She wasn’t amused, not that I noticed. I made up my mind not to blame the flight attendants for the customer service people who wouldn’t refund my $20 seat charge. I was courteous and appreciative, and I smiled at them just like they smiled at me.
Thanks to the seat gods, I had an aisle seat. After I sat down, I noticed that the guy next to me, who I’ll call Middle Seat Guy, seemed to be leaning toward my seat as he furiously highlighted all the lines on each page of a bunch of papers, alternating between that and fiddling with his mobile phone to get the music right.
”That’s it,” thought I, “there’ll be no chance of communication here. He’s all wrapped up in something—and with those earbuds, he was doing his damnedest to separate himself from it. Multitasking has, I offer, driven the human race into a state where distraction is obligatory.
Well—and that was a big well, the kind of well a writer uses to gather his writing muscles—I began to feel increasingly uncomfortable, more uncomfortable than I had any reason to be in this seat for which I paid so dearly. I squirmed. I shifted my legs. I pointed my knees this way and that. I crossed my feet and uncrossed them. I groused internally about the deplorable and dismal state of air travel as I fiddled with the adjustable headrest flaps, hoping to rest my head against the left side flap. It didn’t work. Middle Seat Guy seemed to be pressing ever closer to me. The aisle was very narrow. I began to realize there was no escape.
I sat there, fussing and fuming silently about everything. Somehow, though I don’t know why, I didn’t want to turn my head to discover who Middle Seat Guy was. I knew he was young and somewhat large, though not huge large. I could not shake the sense that he was leaning toward me. His left leg and my right leg were getting to know each other. That annoyed me. Just for the record, this sort of closeness does not bother me on the subway, where full-bodyside contact is the norm.
Then I had an idea. Being careful not to look at Middle Seat Guy, I quickly turned my head for a glance at Window Seat Guy to see how big he was. Maybe, just maybe, I thought, he was encroaching on Middle Seat Guy, which would mean that he, Window Seat Guy, was the root cause of all my squirming and scrunching. He was small, neatly dressed, and his right side appeared to be tightly pressed against the window wall. Rats. I couldn’t blame him.
I continued to stoke my discomfort, muttering silently about the inhuman state of airplanes these days, the junk they give you to munch on during flights, how canned the flight announcements are, and why they don’t ever say something interesting. All these flights over the land of the free feel exactly the same.
Then Middle Seat Guy began to move. It was bathroom time. I knew I had to get up, and with that, I rolled my eyes up into my head and rose from my seat. It’s one of those things you have to do whether you like it or not. Middle Seat Guy was very polite as he said a rather melodious “Excuse me” and made his way to the head. I felt some relief. “He’s a nice guy,” I thought. Who says “Excuse me” today? Not anyone I know who rides the subway in Manhattan.
Just after Middle Seat Guy returned and sat down, I felt my rigidity fail. I could no longer sustain my discomfort. I decided I should get to know the guy. “Give him a break,” I thought. “How wrong could it go? Maybe I’m the asshole here.”
We began to converse. I can’t recall the opening scene. But I found out that we were both of Polish ancestry. “I was born in New York,” he told me. And he was Jewish, of course, because if you’re from New York, you’re Jewish even if you’re not. He didn’t look it. He was a law student, he said, 6 months from graduation. And he was on his way to Kansas City to see his girlfriend perform in a play, after which he’d turn right around and fly back to NYC. I thought that last detail was odd, though I didn’t tell him so.
I told him what I did in New York. “I teach Transcendental Meditation,” I said, and I explained a bit about TM and saw his eyes light up as I spoke. We went back and forth about this and that. Conversation flowed easily, freely. And then came the kicker: he explained that the reason he reached out to talk to me was to relieve his anxiety. He said it made him feel much more comfortable. Naturally, I felt for him. My business is rescuing people from anxiety.
He was the nicest guy in the world, very gentle, very polite.
Later, I began to wonder…was the discomfort I felt coming from his anxiety? Could his anxiety be that strong? Is that possible? I hadn’t felt that degree of anxiety since Rome fell.
Later still, I read that American Airlines (and others) waived thousands of rebooking charges because of big winter storms down South. My $20 must have meant a lot to them.
PS/Iowa has magic. The theater here is always live.
See you in New York, soon.