I fly a lot. Not, perhaps, as much as a flight attendant or member of congress, but probably more than a lot of people.
Today, I am sitting next to a big man. It's not his belly that's a problem, it's his shoulders which intrude into my space. His belly sticks out in front, which doesn't bother me at all. I just wish he'd lean to the right a little. And wear less cologne. Luckily he is sleeping with his head back and mouth open, so I can talk about him without fear of him reading over my shoulder.
Anyway, they first thing he asks me is what I do for a living. I never like this question. It's a boring conversation starter, and it pegs you into their idea of who you are. Besides, that's not what he's really asking anyway. Really, he wants to know, "How can you afford to being flying to Florida on a Monday if it is not work related?" In my opinion, that's the question broad-shouldered middle aged attorneys always really want to know.
It occurred to me --too late-- that I could tell him anything I wanted. I could tell I was a free-diver, or a writer, or a professional roller derby player. A high priced call girl. A drug mule. Ok, probably not a drug mule. He'd never know I wasn't who I presented to be. It could be fun; I could look at it as character developing for my next book. I could then tell my next seat mate on the ride home that I was an actor, and it would be true.
Truth, though, really can be more compelling than fiction. I'm easy to talk to. I'm pretty enough to have that attractive-bias working for me, but not so gorgeous to be intimidating. People like to tell me their life stories. I don't think I do anything to prompt them, it's just the anonymity and proximity of airline travel. When you are shoulder to shoulder with someone, it breaks down the 3-foot bubble. Combine that with thinking they will never see you again, and people get chatty. I've had people tell me about job interview hopes, failed marriages, wives with psychological disorders, raging affairs. I have perfected the smile and nod. Most people are dying to be listened to, and they don't notice that you aren't over-sharing equally.
There was one guy on a flight to Texas once, who took the cake, though. Please note that no alcohol was consumed through out this lengthy flight.
It started out normally enough. He was married. He said he owned a private jet but was choosing to fly commercial (and economy I might add). I doubted this.
He told me how on his birthday he caught his wife cheating on him with a friend of his. The friend was big and tough, so he wasn't going to beat him up. Plane guy explained that he pretended to be devastated, but secretly he was jumping up and down because now he had a "get out of jail free" card for cheating on her back. He said it was the best birthday present ever.
Plane guy said he was a racist. He defended his racist views by explaining his troubled youth and foster homes or detention centers, or something. The point was that he always cheated on his wife with older black women, so that way his wife would never believe it, even if she was shown a picture. He travelled often for business and cheated every time he was out of town. He knew how to find the bars in every city frequented by older black women who were attracted to out of shape rednecks.
The flight went on. He told me about his job, which had something to do with officially helping people with their tax problems but really not helping them. His company would take their money then quit on them for breach of contract when they were late on their payments. He did say that he did occasionally actually help people with their tax problems, but most of the time after making a few payments people quit the program.
He told me how before he got into the screwing people with tax problems racket, he was "trouble." He stole things and ran black mail schemes. His favorite way to make money was to get a girl to go into a hotel bar, flirt with and eventually get physical with an old married rich guy while he secretly took pictures. He said this was generally good for $5,000. I think he may have been trying to recruit me.
We wound up on the same shuttle bus to the rental car center, and he looked down at my luggage and said my full name aloud, reading off my baggage. He promised to Facebook stalk me to "keep in touch." He actually said stalk, I'm not exaggerating. When I got to my hotel I turned my luggage ID over, so that all that you see through the window is "Turn Over for ID," then I double checked my Facebook privacy settings.
SInce then, I have perfected the polite avoiding of all eye contact. I like to wear my white ipod headphones even when I am not listening to anything, so they feel like they are bothering me if they start to talk. But next time, I think I'm going to be the talker. I'll pick out my persona and spend hours chatting about a completely made up existence, and give someone else a plane-friend story to rival the guy from Texas.