I know a lot of "road warrior" business types that always seem to dread the impending work trips, but I travel so infrequently that it never feels like a burden to me. I still like it; I like the bustle of the airports and the hum and energy of being on the road with a deadline. Of course, it's no secret that air travel is a lot less elegant and pleasurable than it used to be, but I guess I'm just a small-town boy at heart, for driving into airports to take a flight still makes me feel a little wide-eyed. Even when I'm taking the same flight that I take every October, it still feels fun and sophisticated and cosmopolitan, no matter how old I get.
And I know travelers get annoyed at having to get to the airport so early before their flight, but I like having an hour to kill in the airport. Once I'm checked in, I love walking around and watching everyone. Airports are first-class places for people-watching; it's fun to imagine the stories and plans and destinations for all those travelers, some sprinting to their gates, others staring at the Departures/Arrivals signs with an excited look on their faces.
I have to admit, though, that it's a little dispiriting to see so many people at the airport who never seem to look up from their cellphones. I understand the impulse to keep plugged in, and I'll certainly take a few moments to check messages and send texts and keep up with the sports scores, but generally I like to look around at the people in transit. I can't believe that whatever I could find on my phone would be more interesting than the faces I'd see about me.
I've learned, once I get on the plane, that it's sort of an accepted social practice to just ignore the person sitting next to you, like they don't exist, but I just can't do that. I'm afraid I'm that annoying, talkative old guy who doesn't pay attention to this particular social custom. So I'll say hi, and maybe start a little small talk, and if the person isn't receptive of course I'll pull in and let them be. But I've discovered that even the most stony-faced businessman next to you will probably warm up a little bit if you just engage in a little simple human interaction.
On my last flight, I was seated next to a very serious-looking college student, who seemed monosyllabic and uninterested in any conversation. But after the plane got in the air, he pulled out a novel written by one of my favorite American authors of the 20th century. I casually mentioned that I was a big fan of the writer, and that kicked off a very pleasant conversation between us about American writers and fiction in general. The student was a good four decades younger than me, but it turned out that we shared similar tastes about writers and tended to value the same sorts of novels. He was very engaging in his arguments, and I enjoyed the analytical prowess he showed when describing the writers he cherished. The three-hour flight passed effortlessly, and I could tell that he was actively involved in our conversation and wasn't just grudgingly responding to the loudmouth old guy seated next to him.
And it wasn't like we were going to become pen pals or bosom buddies because of this--it was a one-off, a one-time conversation between two strangers. But it was enriching, nonetheless; when the flight ended, I made my way to the bookstore in the airport, to see if they carried some of the titles we had been discussing. They did, and I picked one up.
During the subsequent trip, I forgot all about my new young friend, but as circumstance would have it, we both ended up on the same return flight. We weren't seated together this time, but when he saw me in line during boarding, he called out "Don!" and came over and shook my hand. We talked like we had been life-long friends, me and this 20-year old English major. I showed him the book I had bought, and he smiled and pantomimed a little hand clap. I know I'll probably never run into him again, but it's nice to imagine that he'll probably be on another flight sometime soon, reading another great book and jabbering pleasantly with the stranger in the next seat.
Until next week,