Systems Check

On the flight back from Los Angeles last week, it is all about the men who sit next to me.

On the flight from LA to DC, my seatmate to my left is a man is headed back from Australia. He’s older, a little tan and weathered and grey-haired. He is reading a thick mystery novel, well-thumbed, and I decide it is probably a re-read. He smells faintly of alcohol sweats, and has clearly sustained himself by drinking beer the entire way. He scoffs at the idea that they take only cards, no cash, and mutters to me about how he could sue them. He pulls the money in his wallet flat and shows me the line about how it is legal tender for all transactions. I’m thinking about how just a few months ago, the last time I flew to California, I didn’t know I’d need cash only for the food inflight, and starved the whole way.

It’s not right, he mutters. If you were not well-off, you couldn’t eat or drink anything on this flight. I like him as soon as he says this. I start talking to him, first about his ideal lawsuit for bothering the airline—small claims court, he says, so that an officer of the company would be forced to appear—and then about what I do for a living—sounds wonderful to him—and then how he lives in Australia but is American.

Our conversation is peppered with him saying, “Stop me if you’re bored.” I realize he’s not used to people of my generation, as I flit my eyes between the computer open in front of me and him and the television. I close my screen.

He’s a systems analyst who used to be an acupuncturist. I wonder if his beer drinking is strategic. He does plan ahead, ordering a few beers as the cart passes, so he doesn’t have to wait for them to bring him another. We talk about a lot of things in the flight, and near the end he tells me his theory that the US is becoming more tribal.

No, I say. You’re wrong, I think.

He raises an eyebrow.

Everyone is giving up their hyphens, I say.

Really, he says.

Really, I say. My students are less interested in that kind of politics. I tell him about how my sister lives in a mixed race community, how most of the children her son plays with are mixed like him, and that people still respect their ethnicity but are less likely to identify so intensely with it that they don’t marry someone different from them. It has come out that he lives mostly in Australia, that his wife is Chinese, that his children are mixed, like I am, like the people I speak of, and he even interjects that he feels my parents were not so very distinguished for what they did, because after all my father immigrated at a time when people were urged to assimilate more than they are now. But I push back, suppressing the urge to be angry, as, after all, I am offended by what he says about my father, even if it is right, which I question—anti-miscegenation laws had just been struck down when they married —and so I continue, and at last he sets down his beer can and says, Well, that is good to hear.

I have the feeling of moving deeply into the present, of saying things to him I didn’t even know I knew or thought until I said them. We say goodbye in the airport in DC, and after a dismal salad served to me in what looks like an enormous plastic hatbox, despondent over the state of the environment, I change flights.

On the plane to Hartford I find a pilot sits next to me, a man who flies private jets. He’s friendly, an older white man who lives in Texas when he’s not flying. He’s headed, for some reason, to Hartford. He gossips with the crew, and during the beverage service, when they bewilderingly don’t take credit cards for the inflight bar service, he buys me a beer.

As I drink it, I quietly realize I need to board all flights with cash and cards both. Even if it is on the same airline. I have the sense of new conglomerates, of planes being flown by crews with very different information and protocols from the others.

This seatmate begins talking and by way of a conversation about Canada, he says, You know, the women in the titty bars up there, they’re incredible. Their skin. I know they don’t see much sun up there so maybe that’s it, but …also, their food I think doesn’t have all the additives we have down here.

I nod, as if I have been in those bars. I feel no desire to come out to him right then.

I’ve noticed much the same in Europe, I say. I also think they have better healthcare. He agrees.

The conversation moves on, but I’m struck how someone so different from me has had the same idea simultaneously about our health vs. the health of Canadians or Europeans. That you could see it.

We land. I get into my car and drive home over the broken roads of Northern Connecticut and Massachusetts. Each bump being my constant reminder of the war’s cost, and the money not spent on our country’s infrastructure.


  1. I love the conversations you can have when you talk to complete strangers. At least for me, I’m mostly surrounded by people who are very similar to me, in background, upbringing (lots of Asian kids from Ivy Leagues) or aspirations (lots of artist/writers). It’s interesting to speak to people who are outside the circle of what I know, not just to learn about the ways in which we’re different, but to also see the ways in which, surprisingly, we can be the same. It’s one of my favorite parts about hanging out and writing at random coffee shops, especially in NYC — sometimes the people near me will strike up a convo and I’ll learn about all sorts of interesting things about someone I otherwise never would have talked to.

    That being said, I rarely talk to people on airplanes, because I’m afraid they won’t let me read/sleep/whatever it is I want to do. Plus the last time I did this, I was on a 15 hr flight from China and the man next to me was a researcher who insisted on showing me his 40 minute powerpoint presentation complete with videos of platelets zooming through arteries. I’m a nerd for medicine, but not on a 15 hr flight.

    In your story, I had an initial aversion to the first guy… until he made that comment on how only well-off people could afford to eat/drink. That is a really insightful comment that I suppose I never thought about, and changes my whole view of the guy.

    Nice story.

  2. I loved reading this, Alex. Like Angelle, I don’t talk to people on flights anymore. The last time I did I got to talking about being a writer and the man pulled out his 100 page manuscript for a self-help book he was writing and asked me if I would read it and give him some feedback. This was on a red-eye and I was exhausted. He was handsome in an over-tanned, Swedish-blond way.
    I read the manuscript because I didn’t want to offend him by saying no while Ted snored next to me.

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