My silent, un-introduced neighbor in the middle seat snores through our north atlantic tarmac wait.
The flight from Philly to Boston was delayed an hour due to weight re-calculations.
Or delayed communication of those calculations.
Because I — like many others — had tried to pass off the not-really-three-bags carry-on routine and they were very strict about the two bag rule and so we had to consolidate or check a bag right there at the gate before walking down the jetbridge. Upon which I undo half my bag to move three heavy, expensive camera lenses out of the roller. I’m frustrated through this process, as I know I can fit my two bags well enough underneath my seat.
But then find myself intrigued and almost delighted by the process itself. Yes, it slows everything down. But afterward, under that more painful standing wait of an overweight backpack, I find some weird joy experiencing a rule and seeing it play out without exception, en masse. It isn’t really even that much work, and not that much of a problem. There are some economics of time, though, that I think are probably skewed against basic human values. But that’s just a hunch, not a treatise on the moral relativism of the aviation industry. What seems like an opaque challenge on one side of the equation is transparent and obvious on the other. Because all lines and boundaries must be drawn somewhere, no matter how important or beyond the rules you magically think you are.
The delay itself is longer than the flight time, by about eleven minutes.
I feel a strong almost familial sense of belonging to the man in the middle seat, as if why would I ever be frustrated by these innocent noises? So he needs to sleep. So I’d rather he be quiet so I could meditate with less distraction. So I could could stand back up and reach into the overhead compartment and pull out the real earplugs I had in my other bag, but can’t since were sitting inside a tin-can designed to be as light as possible on an active taxiway and despite the raging calm of impatience inside the fuselage, this is the functional equivalent of sitting exposed on a twelve-lane expressway. So I’ll wait. So I’ll just do something else. Like zipping and unzipping my backpack and pat-pat-chasing after my AirPod case that has gone slightly astray, contained by something not lava but not exactly following the rules that I haven’t quite codified well enough with respect to air travel1.
Fourty-nine minutes later after he’s taken photographs of his daughter and wife in the row ahead of us — photos of them looking out the window and playing on their phones — we land hard on the new england tarmac and I stand up to stretch, second row from the back.
I’m going to call him Tom. Tom’s been been managing the storage space on his phone earlier to keep these photos, and is now reading through emails.
I’ve named him Tom because I can see his email address and signature line and his parents named him Tom. It’s not that I’m intentionally nosy, I just generally can’t help but observe, a bit too much, what people do on their phones. I watch him type out the second sentence of an email after having looked at what are clearly some really awesome emails.
Subject: Just Landed
Bill – Catching up on email after trying to take two days off. I can tell that things are out of control. WTF?
… Sent from my mobile
He stares at the screen for a few seconds. I’m de-composing it above him, not exactly judging but very much wanting to interject with compassionate inappropriateness, “Hey, so, uhm, whatever you think you’re going to accomplish by sending that email, maybe just wait an hour and then see how you feel about how out of control you are feeling?”
He starts deleting characters and retyping. I often wonder about this moment of editorialization and redemption, of how much is unwritten, and of how relationships shift in the un-writing.
He pushes his thumb, really rubbing into the send button with the empathetic weight of the wheels gripping the tarmac — as if it were a grand concert piano’s lowest eight-eight, measuring attack and velocity instead of a temporary arrangement of liquid pixels glued between magic panes of glass in a binary state of “do not send this / oh f— you’re sending this” They’re magic, but not that magic.
Does he feel better now?
He opens the email back up and stares at it for a solid minute. I turn ahead to watch the middle of the plane unload and a mother with three children talk about how the waiting on the plane is her least favorite part. With three kids, it probably would be for me, too.
And yet, here, in those minutes of subjective misery and thumb pressure, it’s been the most instructive part of the journey.
Is there something special about my proximity to that email? A culpability from the eavesdropping? How many emails have I gotten like that? I think of one in particular, that someone wrote to me, I’m pretty certain, from a pool, with more or less a similar tone.
I took it really personally.
I didn’t need to.
Because in the long delay, I can’t remember what the email was actually about, of what transgression or f— up I’d commenced unwittingly. Someone was very upset, and then they weren’t, and I don’t even think there was anything that I could do about it, in the long delay of working.
- When I stand up, I find the airpods in the tiny kangaroo pouch pocket of my jeans that I couldn’t feel no matter how many times I patted and checked the regular pockets lipping upwards from my thighs. And no, there wasn’t lava in my jeans).