Intimate Strangers

From The Millions:

On a flight from Tijuana to Mexico City, I sat next to a woman who told me in Spanish that she was scared of flying, and grabbed my hand when the plane leapt. When the plane touched down she hugged me.

On a flight from D.C. to San Diego, I sat next to a college student who noticed that I was feverish. When I returned to my seat after throwing up in the lavatory sink, he handed me a fleece blanket monogrammed with his university logo.

On a flight from Boston to Los Angeles, I sat next to a woman who confessed she was flying home to sell the house she’d lived in for decades. Her husband had just died, and she needed to downsize. They were high school sweethearts; he had been her date to the homecoming dance. She tilted her phone screen toward me to show me a photo: it was them at the dance, him in a white jacket and her in a knee-length dress, rounded like a bell. When I glanced up from her phone, I saw her eyes had grown wet.

Why am I telling you about these interactions? Because lately, I’ve been missing airports and airplanes. I don’t just miss them for the adventure they imply; I also miss the casual proximity to strangers these in-between spaces invite. For more than a year we’ve avoided brushing up against others, holding our breath when it becomes necessary to squeeze by someone at the grocery store, turning our head while reaching over them for tortillas. The pandemic has rendered other people’s bodies not just inconvenient but dangerous, suspect.

. . . .

A few months ago, nostalgic for the days of flying nonchalantly with strangers, I looked up some of my favorite airport essays to re-read. I hoped that they would help me articulate what, exactly, I miss about being crammed up next to the passenger in seat 18B.

I started with Pico Iyer’s 1995 travelogue about the Los Angeles airport, “Where Worlds Collide,” a piece I first read in a college creative writing course. At the time, I was a Californian living in New England, and even Iyer’s dreary descriptions of LAX—“a surprisingly shabby and hollowed-out kind of place”—made me homesick. In order to gather the raw materials for this essay, Iyer haunted LAX for a week, noting its inequalities and inconsistencies, ironies and images. But what interested me most when I returned to the essay was the way he put words to something I hadn’t quite articulated: the heightened attention we experience during travel.

Iyer calls this “an odd kind of twilight zone of consciousness, that weightless limbo of a world in which people are between lives and between selves, almost sleepwalking, not really sure of who or where they are.” This altered consciousness, in my experience, usually takes one of two forms. In the first, we become the sleepwalkers Iyer refers to. We move from security to gate to boarding line to seat in a haze, propelled forward by the surge of other passengers and the loudspeaker’s muffled instructions. Alternatively, this sense of displacement can heighten our attention to our surroundings. In the absence of our daily stimuli—emails on a computer screen, a toddler asking for a snack, a red light at the intersection—our attention is loosed to roam freely.

Travel in general (think of the crowd of tourists pressing toward a sculpture in a museum) and public transportation in particular (think of the subway at rush hour) enforce a proximity to strangers that I don’t experience anywhere else in my life. The displacement of air travel, a “strange statelessness,” means we are confronted with each other in a transparent way. These public spaces afford an anonymous intimacy; I can watch people, press close to them, see them without the scaffolding of job or car or routine. But this noticing has to do with more than just proximity, otherwise I’d miss standing crammed up against other people at the DMV. This state of consciousness also sharpens our awareness of our surroundings. Displaced from our daily environments, our attention zeroes in on novelty. Because of this increased capacity for noticing, we tend to see the bodies around us with more than a passing glance. I remember standing on the Athens metro in late winter and watching a woman’s eyes flick along the passing landscape. The morning light turned her irises gold, the pupils stuttering with the scenery that flashed by in frames through the window.

In the no man’s land of public travel, Iyer writes, “people are at the far edge of themselves in airports, ready to break down or through. You see strangers pouring out their life stories to strangers here, or making new life stories with other strangers.” In other words, the conversations and interactions I’ve shared with seatmates aren’t unusual, because the limbo-like space we share invites us to see each other with a rare kind of attention. Pair that with the intensified emotions we experience while flying (something psychologists chalk up to air pressure, altitude, dehydration, and loss of control), and I begin to understand why airports make us porous to each other.

Link to the rest at The Millions

From: Where Worlds Collide by Pico Iyer

They come out, blinking, into the bleached, forgetful sunshine, in Dodgers caps and Rodeo Drive T-shirts, with the maps their cousins have drawn for them and the images they’ve brought over from Cops and Terminator 2; they come out, dazed, disoriented, heads still partly in the clouds, bodies still several time zones—or centuries—away, and they step into the Promised Land.

In front of them is a Van Stop, a Bus Stop, a Courtesy Tram Stop, and a Shuttle Bus Stop (the shuttles themselves tracing circuits A, B, and C). At the Shuttle Bus Stop, they see the All American Shuttle, the Apollo Shuttle, Celebrity Airport Livery, the Great American Stageline, the Movie Shuttle, the Transport, Ride-4-You, and forty-two other magic buses waiting to whisk them everywhere from Bakersfield to Disneyland.

They see Koreans piling into the Taeguk Airport Shuttle and the Seoul Shuttle, which will take them to Koreatown without their ever feeling they’ve left home; they see newcomers from the Middle East disappearing under the Arabic script of the Sahara Shuttle. They see fast-talking, finger-snapping, palm-slapping jive artists straight from their TV screens shouting incomprehensible slogans about deals, destinations, and drugs. Over there is a block-long white limo, a Lincoln Continental, and, over there, a black Chevy Blazer with Mexican stickers all over its windows, being towed. They have arrived in the Land of Opportunity, and the opportunities are swirling dizzily, promiscuously, around them.

They have already braved the ranks of Asian officials, the criminal-looking security men in jackets that say “Elsinore Airport Services,” the men shaking tins that say “Helping America’s Hopeless.” They have already seen the tilting mugs that say “California: a new slant on life” and the portable fruit machines in the gift shop.

They have already, perhaps, visited the restroom where someone has written, “Yes on Proposition 187. Mexicans go home,” the snack bar where a slice of pizza costs $3.19 (18 quetzals, they think in horror), and the sign that urges them to try the Cockatoo Inn Grand Hotel. The latest arrivals at Los Angeles International Airport are ready now to claim their new lives.

Link to the rest at Where Worlds Collide

The OP and Mr. Iyer’s essay reminded PG of how happy he is not to fly for business all the time any more.

For a period of his earlier work life, he flew about 200,000 miles per year, about 90% on domestic US routes. Certainly, he knew people who flew more miles than he did, but he didn’t envy them.

The airline he used for 99% of his flights treated him very well.

Relatively speaking.

Perhaps PG should say the airline treated him as well as it could because he was definitely a frequent flier and, presumably, they didn’t want PG’s employer to spend all that money with another airline.

Not that another airline would have offered an experience that was any different than the first. (Different logos on identical airplanes and different uniforms on pretty-much identical flight crews don’t count as different. Plus the airport security line never changes, except sometimes they ask if you have a bomb in your suitcase in French. Non.)

As many people know, the main reward airlines provide for their customers who fly a lot is — more flying!

Suffice to say, when he moved on from the last job with a lot of travel, PG was terminally burned out on flying.

In a few weeks, PG and Mrs. PG will get on an airliner for a (thankfully) short flight across part of the United States for personal reasons. PG doesn’t mind taking road trips by car, but flying is the best choice for this trip.

When PG made the reservations, he was surprised that he still had a few antique frequent flier miles in his account in addition to digital spider webs, so he used most of them to upgrade the seating for Mrs. PG and himself from Sardine to SardinePlus class.

One of PG’s offspring is knowledgeable about the ins and outs of flying today, getting through airports, etc., etc., so PG will ask for a briefing to update his knowledge of the ever-changing ways airlines and the federal government Do Things in the Very Best Way.

PG hasn’t even started this round-trip and he’s already disliking it.

He anticipates that it will require the funeral of a first degree relative (there are fewer than there used to be) to get him on another airplane.

What an annoying grump PG is on some days!

He blames COVID, the aftereffects of which are still hanging around like cockroaches in a cheap New York City apartment.

8 thoughts on “Intimate Strangers”

  1. In re flying: I’ve been an annoying grump for much longer than you, PG! Pretty much from when my eight year old son (at the time) was going to be denied boarding because his name was on the “no fly” list. (Fortunately, I was already back East supporting the wife through her mother’s death – I would still be tucked away in a Federal prison otherwise…)

    Clinched by spending nearly fourteen hours stuck in McCarran Airport. For many weeks thereafter, I began looking for a hammer whenever I heard a ringing phone. (Anyone who does not know what I mean – that is the airport in Las Vegas. Crammed side-to-side with of slot machines ranging from the simple one-armed bandit to the most sophisticated means of separating a traveler from their money both coming and going. Every one of them ringing, playing music, talking – even though there was, in the depths of night, maybe one potential sucker per acre.)

    (SO much different from when I was a youngster – my very first airplane flight was from Phoenix to Dallas-Fort Worth. I’m certainly showing my age when I reminisce about being invited into the cockpit after landing, and given my very own set of pilot’s wings. Ah, for the days of innocence!)

  2. Ah yes, the nostalgia for the age when flying was glamorous . I remember my first Trans-Atlantic flight from London to Toronto on a Jumbo 747, and getting to see the cockpit. This was back circa 1983.

    Those were the days. Sorry, what I meant to say was, check my privilege. 😉

    Now, flying is unglamorous, just like going on a bus; cramped, uncomfortable, and a pain.

  3. Back in the 50s & 60s, my glamorous exotic (Belgian war-bride) mother would drag me along with her on various cross-country trips from the mid-West, primarily to NYC and Miami. These shopping junkets were an escape from her drab upper-middle-class life (and husband). She always travelled stylishly dressed, with good luggage, and even as a tomboy child & teenager I was impressed at how well-dressed most of the fellow airline passengers were. It was treated as a public appearance in a somewhat formal context, as shopping on 5th Avenue would be. (Though one did still strike up conversations with strangers.)

    These days, you have people flying from San Francisco to Miami via Denver in the dead of winter, wearing the shorts and flip-flops of their anticipated destination (with never a thought of what they would do if the plane were iced in at Denver and they were trapped there for a while).

    In the 90s, when more people my age and older were still doing a lot of traveling and could remember what it used to be like, you could crack people up standing wearily in an unmoving security check line by commenting out loud “remember how glamorous air travel was?”

    • My pet theory (for the moment) is that the practice of people getting dressed up to fly on an airplane may have started eroding after the introduction of student fares in the late 60’s.

      60’s college students were pretty immune to getting dressed up to a greater extent than putting on a clean t-shirt (if they could find one) and definitely lowered the tone on flights.

      This is all US stuff, but PG has flown with more than a handful of French and Italian students in past lives and couldn’t distinguish their general appearance from US students absent the language.

  4. Air travel these days is no better than being crammed on a Greyhound bus going cross country insofar as comfort and treatment, and I avoid those like the plague.
    I’ve also never understood the need to bond with the person who shares a row with me for an hour or two considering I’m never going to see them again – but then again I’m an intense introvert and shy around strangers to boot. (although I can put on a good outgoing extrovert act at conventions for a few hours as needed).

  5. Two little points for context about the discussion of airplanes:

    In the 70s in Albuquerque, the neighbor on the south side of the house was an airline pilot. He worked out of LAX.

    So he would deadhead from Albuquerque to LAX to pilot his plane, then reverse that to come home.

    – It was cheaper to live in Albuquerque than LA, and the commute time was less than living in LA.

    Before 911 it was standard for Southwest to offer the equivalent of a “bus pass”. You were billed monthly, and could hop onto any flight with available seating.

    People would live in Albuquerque, then fly in to LA for their meetings, then fly home that evening. Once again, it was cheaper to live in Albuquerque, and commute to work, than to live in the LA area and commute. The commute was also a business expense so it cost them nothing.

    All that ended of course with 911. It was a different world, and people today look on it with the same fascination and romance as watching The Orient Express. Those will always be the basis for great story.

    Be that as it may, people have missed the point of the original essay. It’s called “Intimate Strangers” for a reason.

    So many great stories have occurred because of “Strangers on a Train/Plane” and I don’t mean the classic Hitchcock film[1] or the silly remake[2].

    Planes, trains, hotels, bars, etc…, are “Liminal” spaces where people briefly meet and are in that moment sharing a Node of Consciousness.

    – Just as your cell phone will connect with the nearest cell tower, people will connect to the nearest consciousness.

    Just as your phone may have one bar, two bars, etc…, of connection, the more “bars” that connect between people, the greater the chance of actually connecting and sharing a narrative.

    People can’t help picking up signals from the people around them. We were built over countless generations to connect with the people near them: family, tribe, neighbors, etc…

    There are some stories that are only told in such liminal spaces.

    – People meeting at conventions once a year, tell stories that they would never share anywhere else. That Node that comes together has its own shared memory that exists only when the people reconnect. When people reconnect to that shared Node of Consciousness, they continue discussion as if no time has passed.

    – In the movie Same Time, Next Year, they meet year after year, only together for that brief time.

    – Forrest Gump works as a movie because he is sitting on the bench waiting for the bus, talking to people.

    – In one of the latest The Black List episodes, Raymond Reddington meets Anne at a park bench, and their connection grows each time they reconnect.

    So what I’m saying is, set aside the current feelings you have of airplanes, and look at what is actually happening when people briefly meet in these Liminal spaces.

    This goes into my Story folders.


    [1] Strangers on a Train (film)

    [2] Throw Momma from the Train

      • Oh, I dunno… Even modern air travel is still amenable to interesting encounters with random strangers.

        Once, a couple of decades ago, sitting way in the back doing some of my endless cross-country business travel, I had an aisle seat of a threesome, and squeezed into the middle was an astonishing fellow. He was absolutely huge — and no surprise, since once I could take in the details he was clearly a football player, and probably in his late teens at best. He was traveling by himself and heading to talk to a pro football team on invitation as a potential recruit. This was one scared, determined, shy, well-mannered black kid.

        I didn’t enquire into his family background (respectable small town southern, I guessed), but we got to chatting. He had never been in a plane before, never travelled to a strange city, never done a job interview, and you could tell that all of this was daunting to him (and not least the inadequate seating someone of his size might discover). I put myself into my “I’ve hired a lot of young people in my job before” persona, and we talked for most of the long flight about what he might expect, what he could encounter, ways he could deal with the people he would meet, how to get around, what the people he met might expect of him — anything to mitigate his fear of the change of environment, both physical and social, that he was headed for.

        It was an absolutely charming encounter. I think (and hope) he was more settled once we landed, and I found him a joy to chat with. I didn’t ask his name and I don’t know if he got the job or for which team, but I have no doubt at all that — having gotten this far — he’s made a great success of his life. He so clearly had it in him already to be a good man that nothing was likely to stop him short of cruel disaster.

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