I was on a plane out of Chicago a while back, row 32A next to the window. A lady slides in next to me, carefully arranges her gray wool skirt over her knees, shakes her bobbed, unashamedly silver hair and reaches for a Georgette Heyer paperback from her carry-on bag.
Finally, a guy, big as a vending machine wheezes into the aisle seat, tugs frayed sleeve cuffs over ham-shank forearms and inhales half the air due the lady now jammed between us. I reach up, open the air vent and aim it at the woman who smiles and nods her gratitude.
Airborne ten minutes later, the pilot, loud as a school PA announcement, laconically drawls, “Ladies and Gentleman, this is your captain. Welcome to United flight 813. We are at our cruising altitude of 20,000 feet and thanks to the new FAA regulations, you are now free to use your cell phones. You will be asked to terminate all electronic devise usage as we begin our descent into Detroit in an hour. Happy cross-chat.”
I look away from the Lake Michigan whitecaps furling freely below to the slave ship confines of our coach-class row hoping none of my co-travelers feels the urge to reach out. But, sure enough, the guy in the aisle seat whips out his phone, punches in some numbers and starts talking in a noisy-bar voice.
“Yo, Marty. Yeah. It’s me. Yeah. Where you at? Uh-huh. You got the full crew? Okay. Good. Look, I’m in the air. I’ll come by after we land. Uh-huh. Uh-huh. That shredder’s as temperamental as my old lady. Choke her good and then give her a swift kick. Works for me. Ha! Hey, look don’t let that stingy-assed customer get you cutting down more than we agreed to. They’re always trying to slide in one more extra, giving us that ‘long as you’re here’, BS. Yeah, catch you later.”
Then, he says to the lady who is trying to read her book, “In-flight cell phones. Isn’t this great? I can keep a thumb on my business even when I’m in the air.”
She answers sweetly, “I’m sure that’s helpful.”
I whisper to her, “Don’t encourage him.”
But the tree trimmer keeps going, “Well, it’s not like I’m the CEO for GM, or nothing. But every little bit helps in my business. You gotta ride those guys every minute or they’ll goof off as soon as you’re not looking.”
The lady replies, “Really? I take it your staff are not what you would call self-starters.”
The guy nods in agreement as his phone rings. “Yeah, hey, Honey, guess where I am. Naw. Naw. We’re over Lake Michigan.”
I tune him out as best I can, and lean over to the lady. “I’m Matthew.”
“Susan, I think our best bet here, is to try to ignore him.”
She says, “Well, the way I see it, if he’s talking to me, he’s not bothering all of us.”
“You’re taking one for the team.”
“I never did get sports analogies. They ought to have a book on the subject.”
“Ha! That’s an interesting idea for a course. Probably in the business administration curriculum or maybe women’s studies…Sports Analogies 101. I wouldn’t mind working it up.”
“I take it you’re a professor.”
“Yes. At Wayne State.”
“What a surprising coincidence. That’s where I got my degree in counseling.”
The multi-tasking tree cutter breaks in, phone at his ear, “You’re a counselor? Like family counseling and like that?”
The lady replies, “Yes. And like that.”
He’s smiling, nodding to himself, “Honey, you wouldn’t believe. Sitting next to me. There’s this lady who does counseling. That’s what you need, Janelle. No. No Don’t go off on me. We talked about that before. Okay. All right. I talked about it before. But still, maybe it would help you. Fine. Us. So, maybe if I explained, you know, how you are, this lady could set you straight. Or you could talk to her on the phone right now. Tell her about your hang up with owls.” Looking at the lady, he adds, “Knick-knacks all over the house.” Then he stops abruptly, stares straight ahead for a moment. “She hung up.”
His phones buzzes immediately. He’s back on the job. “Say what? Clete wants better insurance? Our cut-man? Mister ‘I-coulda-been-a-Navy Seal’ Clete, wants more insurance? We already pay him $5 more an hour to handle the chain saw up top.”
I’m really getting annoyed at this point. But what can I do? Start an in-flight version of road rage? Then I get an idea. I’m going to fight fire with fire. I nudge Susan‒watch this. Pull out my cell phone. Don’t even bother to punch in numbers and start talking just as loud as the lumber jack. “Hello, John. John, it’s me. Matthew. I’m stuck in a plane over Lake Michigan and there’s a loud mouth in my row.” I pause as if listening. “Yeah, but can’t win in a pissing contest with a skunk.”
The guy cuts me a puzzled glance.
Meanwhile, Susan slides me a surreptitious high five and pulls out her phone as well. “Miriam, you wouldn’t believe this scenario. I’m in a plane next to a guy on his cell phone. Turns out he wants me to do a quickie assessment of his wife’s fixation on owl tchatskes. I’m tempted to ask him if he could give me an estimate on trimming my Beech tree while we’re cruising at 30,000 feet. Omigosh. I just realized. I already have a client with an owl fetish. One more and we could do group.”
The guy continues at high volume. “John,” I say, “I’m stuck here. Listening to this guy going on and on is like being kept awake by a barking dog.”
Susan: “This reminds me. Miriam, do you remember on our trip in Rome, how the men would make remarks about us, especially in a crowded bus? They didn’t know I spoke Italian from home. So, I would let them go on and on and just before we got off I would spout a few words in Italian and catch them doing a quick rewind of everything they had just said. That’s what this feels like. This guy blathering away, oblivious to the audience around him.”
By this time, the chainsaw jockey pulls the phone from his ear and tunes in. “Hey! Was that a shot or something?”
So, now that we have his full attention, I can really pour it on. I nonchalantly look out the window and say, “So, John, this guy’s not exactly a Ryan Tatum clone. Uh-huh. Balding, with a beer belly hanging over his 3x sweatpants.”
He snarls, “Hey. I’m talking here and you’re getting in my face.”
“So to speak. More like your ear.”
“You gonna play wise ass with me? You wanna settle this outside?”
The guy twists in his seat. Susan squirms, starts in, a little panicky. “So, Miriam. What do you think? Time was, when a trip meant a chance to meet a perfect stranger and maybe share a secret or a problem that you would never tell anyone else because you knew you’d never see that person again. But now you can do that with three people at once. A trip as group therapy. Who would have thought?”
Muscle man settles back, nods to himself. “Yeah, okay. I get what you’re doing. Hey, I can play this game too. He gets back to his phone, stares at both of us. “Marty, you still there? Yeah, well, I got a bunch of Peeping Tom’s listening in on my private conversation. Making remarks and acting like they’re better than everyone else. Well, they can take a flying leap off a cherry picker, far as I’m concerned.”
So, with an unspoken playground, ‘oh, yeah, take this’ I plunge on. “This is turning into a verbal donnybrook. A veritable Tower of Babel. Everyone dropping their social censors as they unload in an imaginary, sound proof, phone booth.”
Susan, like a sagging tennis net in a hot match, hunches into her seat but keeps talking. “Well, I suppose you could say we don’t know all the boundaries to telephone etiquette just yet…”
Which is when the captain breaks in with “Ladies and gentlemen, we’re in our final descent to Detroit Metropolitan. So please return your seats to the upright position, make sure your seat belts are fastened and turn off all electronic equipment and phones. We’ll be on the ground in approximately ten minutes. We hope you have enjoyed your flight and will fly United again in the near future.”
In the sudden silence, the three of us stare straight ahead like kids in the cafeteria when the principal walks in on a food fight.