Sunday morning I wandered bleary-eyed around the St. Louis airport. Melancholy, I wondered how many hours of sleep I'd squeezed in between the last hangout session in wardrobe, the Benise aftershow party, and a number of tequila-based cocktails.
I decided to buy a book in an effort to distract myself from the urge to stare blankly at my shoes while murmuring the drum beat to "Shambala" and "Tribal" (see Benise website).
The book I bought, Notes from the Underground: The Most Outrageous Stories from the Alternative Press, contained a story written by Ben Ehrenreich and originally published in LA Weekly: "The Hobohemians." I read about tramps and punks and war veterans and Santa Cruz crunchies and yuppie writers waiting in the yards for locomotives to take them to uncertain destinations.
I read about the glory days of hoboism, the current crop of rail-riders, and the attending thrills and perils (freezing through mountain passes, scorching through deserts, getting nabbed by cops). I looked around the airport and thought, "God, I'm so CONVENTIONAL. I could be hopping trains back to Cincinnati. Planes are boring and normal, just like me."
I got on the plane and tucked into my aisle seat with book in hand, ready to resume reading. To my rowmate, I flexed the corners of my mouth ever so slightly in the toothless smile that signals, "I see you and I'm polite enough to acknowledge that but I'm not polite enough to start a conversation so you probably shouldn't either."
I put on my seatbelt. My rowmate chuckled, "I guess I could do that too," and began fumbling with his. "Now let's see if I can get my jacket off," he added. He twisted his shoulders around at uncomfortable-looking angles while laughing lightly. I produced another weary social smile. He asked where I was headed and offered the information that he was going to Maine. I nodded.
A minute later I was staring at the seat in front of me, listening to the Shambala drums in my head, when my rowmate blurted out, "This is the first time I've flown in a plane."
The Shambala drums stopped. I lowered my book and I looked at him fully and sincerely in the face for the first time.
"Yeah," he said anxiously. I realized all the har-de-har over his seatbelt and his jacket had nothing to do with humor. He was scared. I asked him why he was flying that Sunday and he told me it was for work. "What kind of work do you do?" I asked.
He told me, "I paint Wal-Marts."
I could now quietly put my book into the seat pocket in front of me because I was assuming the role of flight mentor for the young man who paints Wal-Marts.
He told me that his uncle owns a business in Illinois that hires men to repaint the insides and outsides of Wal-Marts nationwide. Most of the painters refuse to fly and prefer driving to sites. In fact, the rest of the crew bound for Maine was roadtripping from West Virginia as we spoke.
It takes six men one month to paint the inside of a Wal-Mart. Sometimes those six men need replacements when they lose their job for getting drunk, getting in fights, or landing in jail. In these cases the uncle needs to quickly send someone else to the partially-painted Wal-Mart. The uncle enticed my rowmate to fly with a two dollar raise.
"Flying's fun. You'll like it," I said, "especially the takeoff and landing."
"That's what I'm most nervous about!" he said.
I began lecturing: "Don't worry if we bump around. Turbulence is normal, particularly in these small planes. TOTALLY NORMAL. Especially when we're flying through clouds. I think because of lower air pressure or something."
I either completely made this shit up about air pressure or suddenly remembered it from my freshman year meteorology class. He flipped through the safety pamphlet and I suggested he take it as a souvenir.
The flight attendant asked us to please prepare for takeoff and told us the flight would last 47 minutes. My rowmate looked at me with wide eyes and big smile as if to say, "So short! Can you believe this?"
Then I got nervous. For him. As the engines revved, my heartbeat quickened. I clasped my hands in my lap and watched him out of the corner of my eye. When we started rolling and picking up speed, a gigantic smile broke out across my face. I heard a couple of goofy laughs erupt from my mouth as we lifted off and I clamped my hand over my mouth.
My rowmate stared out of the window at the land and the sky and the clouds and said, "Well, this is awkward," and a moment later, "This IS awkward."
For the next 47 minutes, between stretches of cloud-gazing, my rowmate told me about his uncle's business partner who passed away last month from a heart attack. The business partner weighed 618 lbs and used to drive to Wal-Mart, tell his crew to buy a box of doughnuts from the snack bar, and then sit in his truck to eat and watch them work. My rowmate told me about the time they accidentally painted $700 worth of meat and had to buy it. He showed me a photo of his kids and told me how his ex wanted him to buy her a new truck after she drunkenly drove the last one off a cliff.
"What, so she can drive that one off a cliff, too?" I said indignantly.
"That's exactly what I said," he agreed.
As we began our descent and sliced through a cloud, the ride became choppy. We looked at each knowingly and I showed off: "See?"