STRANGERS ON A PLANE, ONCE REMOVED...
Etiquette underpins Society. We are all unconsciously aware of this and subscribe to the convention without much thinking about it. I invariably hold a door open for a person, male or female, not so much because I am nice guy or not in a perpetual hurry but because that is or should be what one does. "Thank you" and "your welcome" flow naturally from our lips because, well because it is just right. It displays a modicum of respect for our fellows and just makes the day a bit more pleasant. We recoil at breaches of etiquette, they stay with us, grate on us, make us reflect that the transgressors are boors at best.
There seems to be special circumstantial codes of etiquette as well. I was recently in San Diego and to get there and return I took five flights. There appears to be a special code for the air traveller. Be pleasant, be quiet, pass the drink in, pass the empty cup out, ignore the inevitable close quarter elbow to elbow touches, stand and give your fellow passenger access to the aisle and bathroom, use the earphones or read and do not engage your fellow traveler in conversation beyond the most rudimentary replies, "thank you", etc. Quite simple, and since four hours seems to be the upper limit of duration of these flights this is all very workable.
My last flight followed a substantial layover at Chicago's O'Hare Airport where I had the time to reflect a bit on all this. On the flight into O'Hare I was in the middle seat, that is always a problem. On the aisle, there was a Ipod, ear-budded twenties something woman reading a copy of "The Best Short Stories of 2011". In the window seat was a large brash middle aged fellow headed home to Indianapolis who wanted to engage me in conversation or at least demand responses to his statements. By the time we had taxied, taken off and got to cruising altitude I would learn of his business, the disdain he had for his immediate boss and his fellow workers. Some of the pranks he played at work sounded like out-takes from the TV series, "The Office". His last statement that "these flights would be much better with free beer and strippers" had me plunging the ear-jack into the armrest and concentrating like an aesthete on the worst sit-com reruns one could imagine. We landed, I took my one seat closer to the aisle advantage, grabbed the carry-on and fled the plane. In the terminal I found a bar/restaurant not too far from my next gate and huddled in for a late lunch, cocktails, and Facebooked my way through the lay-over.
Now the etiquette of the air terminal bar is different. Bars are social by nature and we engage each other. Information is shared, there is always a TV tuned to a sporting event or CNN. During that time I shared interesting conversations with several people, I wonder if we had been row-mates on the next flight if we would have spoken, probably not.
What happened next is what made me reflect on all this to begin with. My last flight was called and we dutifully lined up and showed our boarding passes to the gatekeeper and found our way to our assigned places. As we settled in, what was disconcerting was the heat. This plane was very hot, so hot in fact that the flight attendants were cruising the aisles pouring glasses of water. We sat and it seemed to get hotter. Then there was an announcement. The plane was hot because the air conditioning was not turned on because the planes engines were not running and they could only be turned on by the pilot and we didn't have a pilot. We didn't have a flight crew and it looked like we wouldn't have one for some time. It was getting hotter. We deplaned. We clustered at the gate, mumbling like a group of disgruntled peasant extras in a Mel Brooks film. All the seats at our gate were occupied by the travelers who were queuing for the next flight to Hartford. We began to talk to each other. Questions were posed to the besieged gatekeeper. The flight would be delayed by about two hours, United Airlines was terribly sorry and gave us each a $5 voucher to paint the concourse red. I migrated across the hall to another gate with seats and sat next to a woman who from a distance was a doppelganger of a colleagues spouse. As it turned out she was on my flight too. We chatted a bit, she was a Professor at Smith College, I identified myself as bookseller and she mentioned a bookseller friend of hers that was an acquaintance of mine, not only did I know her friend I had dinner with her friend's son the previous night in San Diego. I suggested we move to the wine bar and squander our vouchers and so we did. Our protracted conversation uncovered several other mutual connections as well. When we returned to the gate to check on our progress we encountered another woman, (an artist) who was in residence at Mass MOCA in North Adams Mass. She shared an airline update and the conversation grew. We were now in a circle. She had a close friend in the book biz who as you would expect was a friend of mine too. Next the Mom from Missoula kept a close eye on her little blond two year old who was coloring. The child was wearing a University of Montana shirt. I asked the little girl if she went to the U of Montana and with a broad smile she proudly proclaimed "Yes!" "I went there too", I answered. Her Mom asked when and I sheepishly said, "before you were born". Her husband was a Forest Service Firefighter and she was returning to the Berkshires for a wedding and exploring a move to Vermont for her family. She knew my old advisor at Montana the revered Dr. Harry T. Fritz and we shared some stories of Missoula and I answered questions she had about Vermont. All of this camaraderie at the gate was destroying the conventional etiquette of the air traveler. We were getting to know each other, discovering personality and inter-relating. We were actually becoming fond of one another. Cards were exchanged. E-mails promised and before too long the crew arrived and they called the flight. None of us who formed the gate group were seated adjacent to one another on board so when we flew we reverted to the old norm. We had a brief reunion at the baggage carousal and then we dispersed into the Connecticut night. I joked with the Professor that I would call her to arrange the e-mail chain for the reunion flight in a year. The Mom, the Kid, the Artist, the Professor and the Bookseller became for a short while the Group. Etiquette is important but relating to people trumps that somehow. My next flight is to the Denver Book Fair, I wonder who will be seated next to me.