January 17th, 2012. I am flying from Hailey, Idaho to New York. Via Los Angeles. Yes, I'm going a little backwards. I board the plane by doll-sized stairs at the back. One can also enter from doll-sized stairs in the front. It's about 7 degrees out. I take the window seat which isn't so great for legroom because the airplane is so curved that your left foot has no place to step, and has to move over into the space of your right foot. The man sitting next to me is about 60 years old–give or take a few. After stowing items above, taking items out, pushing items below, he sits and takes out the in-flight magazine. We're flying Horizon Air, not that it matters. As we take off I read a book, Joan Didion's essay collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem. The pages flip by with a speed that comes from focus and an incredible lack of distractions. (I have no window to look out of–which is usually the reason I even take the window seat–this seat should be called something else.) Windowless and uninterested in talking I read, yet, as I read I manage to take in all the details of my seat mate. He has hair the texture of dried shrubs. It's the color of sun-aged tracks in mud. His glasses are standard issue men-over-fifty, gold-framed bifocals. He wears a Sun Valley sweatshirt.
At the beginning of the flight I noticed a little more: the personal pillow on the back of the seat, The North Face backpack stowed under the seat in front, two protein bars–strangely without any branding, stuffed into the seat back in front of him. He took out a Ziploc baggie holding half a piece of bread, banana probably. The last thing I noticed was his book. Worn at every corner, curled at the edges–it looked thumbed through by generations of thumbs.
We exchanged a few "airplane" sentences–about the weather, the flight, meaningless words not to be bothered with here. Before we took off he ate the banana bread.
As we flew, and as he read the in-flight magazine, his eyes darted everywhere: through the slice of space between the seats in front of us, down the aisle, across the aisle, towards the back but never, or so it seemed, towards me. I thought to myself he definitely has some kind of attention disorder. The darting unsettled me. The flight attendant came by with drinks & snacks. She handed me a tiny package of biscotti. I asked for pretzels, in fact I said, "Do you have anything salty?" The man looked over at me during this exchange. On second thought I think I said,"Do you have anything that's not sweet?" and then I probably said the salty line. The plane lady did have something but she didn't look happy about giving it to me. It: a tiny bag, big enough for three bites. She then turned to the man and remarked how she had seen him a week or so ago, and then she walked off. The man ate the biscotti, then turned to me and said, "Yes, these are sweet." He said this with a bit of surprise. I decided not to point out that they were cookies, which are intrinsically sweet. He then ate his un-branded protein bar. As he ate it he smoothed down the wrapper in order to review the ingredients.
At this point he moved from the in-flight magazine to his book. Opening it up I noticed the headings–the book seemed like a combination bible and self-help book. The bold headings said things like, How To Talk To Your Children, followed by a short paragraph. It was at this point I recalled that the man had been on my flight eight days ago, from LA to Sun Valley. Reading the same book. He had sat across the aisle from me and while I couldn't read the words, I recognized the format. Do you ever notice the same people on a flight, you notice them on your outbound and then recall them on the inbound? I do. I'm both amazed it happens and impressed my memory captures their faces long enough to categorize them and to pull them back up when seen again (man on plane, January 9th). It's as if my brain is one of those microfiche machines, less controlled but always impressive when the data is returned.
When we finally land at LAX he stands up and pulls his things out from the overhead bin: a pair of white sneakers, a cane, and a plastic bag that says the Virgin Islands. "Have a nice trip home," he says. As I thank him, and, as I write this now, I wonder at my minds ability to see (visual) and to read (verbal) simultaneously. I wondered what to do with the useless information I had just catalogued on our two-hour flight. Now that it's down here maybe I'll have room for other things. Boarding my flight to JFK, I find my seat, open my book and look to my right. Well, hello seat 19J...