Ah, flying alone, and on standby; when the time comes for the gate agent to confirm there is space and actually allocate your seat, you don’t mind there are no choices: Aisle or window?, front or back of the plane? – No, you are simply ecstatic to have a seat. You are finally (reasonably confident that you are) going to get where you want to be heading.
On my recent flight for a weekend break in Manchester England, Friday evening at Newark Airport was spent in this apprehensive mode (not helped by the fact that hurricane Sandy was also headed towards our home and I had no idea what I might be returning back to even if I did make the flight). Finally my name was called, I was handed a ticket with a seat assignment, and was chased down the jet-way to board NOW. I’d been given a middle seat, not surprising since the flight was full. On reaching my row I found a slender middle-aged woman sat in the aisle and the window seat empty. So far, so good.
I took my middle seat and made pleasantries with my new neighbor. She was so jolly and chatty that she hardly needed to explain that she’d had plenty of pills and alcohol before the flight ‘to help her sleep’. She busied herself ‘helping’ me; recommending movies I should watch, etc. I liked her, but was glad to know she was unlikely to maintain that particular level of energy and ‘helpfulness’ for long.
Eventually the occupier of the window seat to my left arrived. She declined to speak, glared until we realized she was in our row and we moved to accommodate her entrance. She promptly sat in her seat, turned her back to us and seemed to sleep. Fine by me!
With the plane up in the air and at a steady altitude the beverage cart was pushed through the aisle to offer drinks. My left hand neighbour was suddenly alert and interested. She picks up her handbag and pulls out her plastic bag of liquids. For some reason this bag includes a toothbrush and the bag seal has opened. She is distraught. This toothbrush had a cover on it – where is it gone? My neighbor to my right attempts to help, suggesting it has fallen out and will be in the bottom of the bag? No, she insists, it was very secure; they’ve probably used it to get DNA samples. Luckily we are rescued with the flight attendant offering her a beverage: Yes, she’d want a coffee (neglecting any please or thank you). When the male flight attendant asked if she wanted it black, all of us were amazed at her response.
‘No, I don’t like blacks, they are awful people and I hate them… I have a cousin that’s dating a black guy, but she’s Catholic, so that explains that, but there is no way I want anything black.’ Politely the flight attendant asked again (pretending perhaps he hadn’t heard her) – black or white madam? Defiantly, she repeated her mini-speech word for word and received her coffee with milk. So shocked was my chatty, friendly neighbour to my right that she stopped talking to anyone, put on her headset and kept her eyes planted on the movie screen. My aloof neighbour to my left now decided she wanted to chat to me. I had no choice in this matter it seemed, she would just keep talking whatever my response. When I raised the courage to say I felt her comments were racist and inappropriate, she proceeded to give me anecdotal stories of how blacks on the street just harass her now she’s divorced. “Don’t you find it too?” she asks, by now knowing I also lived in New Jersey,.. er, no!!. She seemed convinced ‘they’ somehow knew she was single and continued to explain how they grope and pester he everywhere she goes now (supermarket, anywhere). I really found this hard to believe, but I’m also travelling on a non-rev ticket. I can hardly say what I really want to say to this woman, so I’m trying to be tactful without consenting.
Eventually her story of harassment get so fanciful I’m convinced she is just making it up to entertain herself and see what reactions she gets…. I laugh and ask if ‘Candid Camera’ is about to pop up. She seems confused. Oh boy, we are hardly 30 minutes into the flight.
Next I had to hear about her divorce. Allegedly her and her husband had a business together and the divorce and the business separation had been very entangled. He’d fought her all the way despite the fact she gave him everything. He kept her mother’s best china, everything. I was sympathetic and decided to nod and ooh, and ahh in the appropriate places as one must do with a divorcee telling their tale of woe. The story again became fanciful, apparently her business had been broken into several times – her office being right opposite the NY Stock exchange and ‘nobody noticed anything’. This, to her, had two logical leaps – firstly they were all in on it (yes, NY Stock market security were buddies with her husband), and then in a completely opposite tangent – they are useless at security “it’s no wonder ‘they’ flew planes into the twin towers with security like that”. Help! How does one even respond to such loony statements? Throughout our conversation I keep changing my tactics to indicate I’m done chatting. I try pretending to sleep. I try headsets and a movie, none work – she continues to pester until I respond. I don’t know how to respond and remain sane. This must be a big joke?
I can’t recall how the next level of craziness began, maybe a movie scene, who knows. But midgets were the next topic. Apparently they are ‘everywhere you look now-a-days’. ‘It’s as if the circus is in town’ she tells me. Really? I hadn’t noticed, I tell her. (pointless, but I tried). She keeps telling me how she doesn’t mind midgets, she even used to employ one, but of course she had to stand on a box. Please help, I’m thinking; so unaccustomed to the topic I’m not sure what the politically correct term even is? Little People? Dwarfs? Midgets? The point is probably moot.
She changes topic and talks about the local pharmaceutical companies and how you can’t trust them. I wasn’t even aware of any locally, but can’t say there aren’t any. Then, in an amazing leap, she links the pharmaceuticals and the apparent influx of midgets. You know they don’t get cancer, don’t you? She pleads… (No, I don’t know that and it certainly doesn’t seem likely I tell her). Oh, yes, that is probably why they are all here, the pharmaceuticals are using them to experiment on; like the Nazis. ‘I think that is so cruel don’t you?’ she pleads.. Seriously? How does one respond? She really now has convinced herself that the pharmaceuticals have captured and are holding against their will 100’s of little people, and yet also allow them out to be seen by her on a daily basis, and experiment on them without their permission, most likely at night while they sleep. Seriously!
Every time the flight attendants pass I plead with my eyes for them to notice me and rescue me. Nothing.
Eventually I begin convinced again that my neighbour is deliberately escalating the craziness for her own entertainment, but I can’t get her to leave the story. She seems insulted I don’t believe her.
Again I attempt to change the subject and ask her why she is going to the UK? Apparently, she is trying to reconnect with old friends that she lost contact with while she was married. She can’t trust Facebook as she suspects her husband is pretending to be her friends to lure her into conversations and sharing information, so she is just going to arrive at their doorstep and knock on the doors of her friends. I’m sure they’ll be so pleased to see her.
Conversations continue to rapidly move into crazy and insulting. There seems no topic or group beyond her scorn. Eventually I decide that despite my status on the plane as a non-revenue passenger, I’m going to have to be rude to stop this woman. I explain that she is very negative, and her prejudices are ugly and unnecessary. Perhaps this explains why she currently struggles to find/keep friends, and if she doesn't mind, I'd like to sleep now. This seems to succeed although I feel terrible for saying it (believe me she drove me to such rudeness). It only worked for 2 minutes though, as she eventually responded by telling me that I too had no friends (apparently I can’t trust the friends I have to be telling the truth, nor to be there if I really need them), and my husband was probably plain and boring and disliked me. I should be planning for the inevitable divorce (she even offered legal advice), and a whole host of retaliatory statements. My plan did not work. She keeps talking and now I’m the subject of her rage. I decide to just not respond to anything. She keeps talking and I have no choice but to listen.
It was a long flight. Eventually we exit the plane; both seeming relieved that we can finally put distance between us, we go our separate ways. I’ve not slept, I’m exhausted, but now excited to meet with my friend Annie. My flight lands in the early morning and customs and immigration are a breeze. I’m ready 30 minutes before I’ve suggested Annie meet with me, so I hang out at the airport and think to buy her morning paper. As I enter the newsagent, I see her, that woman I’ve sat next to all night. She is finishing up her transaction, sees me, and despite my nod, pretends not to and exits quickly. Whew. When I go to pay for the newspaper there is just me and the cashier in the store. I express my relief at not having to chat – ‘I’ve just spent over 7 hours sat next to that woman’ I tell her. The cashier responds that she’d just received a homophobic lecture from the woman herself. Really – is there any group she feels the need to tell the whole world are so awful to her? Wow.
Oh – and it turns out there is indeed a recent report of an Ecuadorian community of Laron dwarfs who seem to have extremely low incidences of cancer! Go figure.