Strangers on a plane


On a long plane flight you spend hours in close proximity with people you don’t know. You may exchange a few words with some of them (“excuse me”, “thank you” etc), and sometimes you strike up a real conversation with someone, but most of these strangers remain complete strangers. Except for their faces.

On a long flight people get up from their seats a lot, to go to the bathroom, to exercise atrophying muscles, to look at something other than the back of the seat ahead of them. Some passengers spend most of a flight standing in the aisle, chatting with each other or with the flight attendants. As a result you get familiar with their faces, and a few of these faces stand out as more interesting, or bothersome, than others. Sometimes because of uncommon beauty, or uncommon ugliness. Or something else that intrigues you. A face that suggests nobility. Intensity. A haunted look. A face of complete vacancy. There are faces you compulsively return to for another look, sometimes to the point where they cease being faces altogether and become invested with your own private meanings that their owners could never guess at. You make up stories about the life lived by the owner of that particular face. An attractive face stands in for the allure of the elsewhere that you’re headed for. A face that repels or irritates you comes to represent the tedium and discomfort you’re enduring to reach that elsewhere (and thus there’s a special pang seeing the owner of one of these “tedium” faces getting through customs ahead of you, free, while you’re still stuck in transitland). The obvious remedy, of course, is to glance behind you and see one of those faces even further than you from the portals of liberty. And about the time you start doing that, you also realize how petty and mean-spirited one can get after an entire day of air travel.

Of course you can have the same experience on other forms of transportation. On our honeymoon, Sharon and I went to Ireland. On the west coast we took the ferry to the Aran Islands. It was a windy, choppy day and most of the passengers were pretty subdued, many of them huddled in the misery of seasickness. There was one tall older man, however, who stood gazing out over the waves, seemingly unaffected by the rough sailing, the breeze catching his fine, longish white hair. He had a red scarf around his neck. He struck me as someone very unusual and interesting, someone I’d like to get to know.

When we arrived on the island, the tall man and his son took the same pony cart as Sharon and I, and it turned out they were staying at the same bed and breakfast place we were. That evening at dinner we shared a table in the B & B. The man introduced himself and his son, Noah. He was Robert Bly, the poet and author of Iron John.

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