washingtonpost.com
The Turtle and the Harridan
An encounter with the Buddha of coach class

By Jeanne Marie Laskas
Sunday, October 14, 2007

The guy in the aisle seat has shoulder-length hair, a ruddy complexion and the demeanor of a box turtle. I'm wondering how he has achieved such a state of . . . calm.

It's probably the circumstances. I mean, there is good news. Fantastic news, really. The kind of news that harkens back to the Stone Age of air travel: There is no one in the middle seat! That hardly ever happens anymore. Back in the old days, extra elbow room used to be common, except on the rare super-stuffed flight. Now all flights are overstuffed.

"Can you believe this?" I say to Mr. Turtle, from over here in my window seat, which feels far away but is technically probably 2 1/2 feet.

"What's that?" he says.

I look at the middle seat, then up at him, making big Christmas-morning eyes. He does not seem to immediately understand the reference.

"We have the only vacant middle seat on the whole plane!" I say to him.

He smiles. "Well, I just hope some old lady didn't miss her flight or something," he says.

Holy smokes. Some old lady? He's thinking of other people? This is not a time to think of other people! This is survival, Mister! What is with this guy?

"Yeah, I was visiting my son in L.A.," he says, then. "He's such a little trouper."

Oh, dear. We're going to . . . talk? Oh, dear, oh, dear, oh, dear. I must stop this immediately. Did I give the signal that I was a talker? I am not a talker. That is not my flying style.

I try to be polite, careful not to show too much interest in the son, even though, of course, I am now wondering if the kid has some tragic medical condition.

"Benign," the man says. "Yeah, the whole thing turned into a big nothing."

"Thank God," I say, turning away. I wait a few beats. It is not quite polite to just open up my novel. I have to sit here and, well, thank God.

"You live in Vegas?" the man asks, referring to our flight's connecting city.

"No, no, no," I say emphatically. "I'm East Coast all the way." I smile. I open the novel and stick my nose in it. It's the signal. Everyone knows the signal. He flips through the airline magazine, finishes within minutes. Then he stares forward. A half-hour goes by, and he's still sitting there, staring forward. Hoo-boy. Now I feel guilty. He brought nothing to do for a five-hour flight? He is not, apparently, even prepared to sleep. He did not, that is, bring one of those half-moon neck pillows stuffed with soothing lavender potpourri, as did I.

I have brought other things to assist me through this flying ordeal: iPod, noise-canceling earphones, earplugs, three novels, 12 student papers to grade, BlackBerry with BrickBreaker high score to beat, water bottle, red licorice, gum, lip balm, eyedrops, digital camera with 764 photos I need to go through, to decide which ones to delete. A lot to do. I always bring a lot to do. Plus my lavender neck pillow, which I shall make use of in approximately one hour, or shortly after I buy from the flight attendant one serving of white wine, which I will down so as to assist my sleep effort. I already have $4, in exact change, at the ready for this purchase. Strategy! I am a strategic flier.

I feel sorry for Mr. Turtle here. Nothing whatsoever to do. I feel obligated to talk to him, to entertain him. But -- is it my fault he has nothing to do? This is like one of those sinking-boat ethics problems: You're the only one who brought a life preserver, so do you have to give it to the old dude with the cane?

I turn off my reading light. It is a signal. Everyone knows the signal. I bring out the neck pillow, sealing the no-talking deal. Eventually, I close my eyes, drop off. When I awake, the man is still sitting there, staring forward. I look at him. He looks at me. "This is a really smooth flight," he says. "Very enjoyable."

I want to either shake him or become him. In this moment, I am unclear. How does a person become so . . . at peace with his surroundings? I've got all these gizmos and books and ways of retreating into my shell, and he's here already in his shell, happy to stick his head out now and again to enjoy the view.

When we land he says, with genuine surprise: "Holy smokes, can you believe it's 12:30 a.m.?"

Of course I can believe it's 12:30 a.m.! I've known for weeks that this plane was scheduled to land at 12:30 a.m. I already have a bedtime strategy in place to accommodate this hideous reality, and a being-exhausted strategy laid out for the daylight hours to follow. Strategic! Survival in this postmodern world requires strategy!

"Gosh, I won't get home until probably 2," the man says. "That'll be an adventure. I think the moon might be bright."

I have an incredulous look on my face, I can just tell.

"Everything okay?" he says. "You need help with your bag or something?"

"You," I say, "are a happy man."

He smiles. "Basically," he says, "right now, all I need is a hamburger."

Jeanne Marie Laskas's e-mail address is post@jmlaskas.com.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company