Saturday, June 7, 2008

Strange Encounter

The drunk on the plane is on his fourth vodka tonic, telling the beleagured flight attendent to go easy on the tonic next time. He is harranguing his across-the-aisle neighbor about mutual funds and cost bases and other such things, and has told him at least three times that he went to Princeton and that he's only dressed as he is (t-shirt, jeans, sandals) because he's coming back from visiting his dying father in the hospital.

When he boarded the plane, stone cold sober, he tried to engage me in conversation, but his opening gambit freaked me out enough that I shut down. His first question to me was, "Are you a religious man?" Later, I found out it was because of the New Yorker article title he saw in front of me, "Faith and Doubt." But as a member of a minority religion, I get wary and defensive around conversational ice-breakers like that one. I've had too many people try to introduce me to Jesus and save my soul. When I feel it coming, I tend to duck.

Anyway, I had a lot of work to do. I had intended to catch up on my gradual school reading during the first and longer leg of my flight, but had instead succombed to watching the free movie, which I never got to finish due to technical difficulties (and even though it was kind of crappy, I'm now enraged that I missed the end of it).

Fortunately, he discovered that his across-the-aisle neighbor was in the financial business, and latched onto him for at least an hour. Eventually, though, the neighbor must have tired of him and cut him off, because I felt a sharp finger jabbing at my arm.

"Can I ask you a personal question?" he said, his voice a bit slurred from the multiple vodkas. "Maybe it's a cultural thing, I don't know. I'm just a dumb redneck from Alabama, so I don't know. And you can tell me to shut up if you want to--I won't take it personally. But I would think, you know, you're on the plane, you're next to a guy...maybe he has something to share, maybe he has stories to tell and things you could learn from. But you don't want to talk."

I apologized--told him I was heading to a very brief vacation and needed to get this work done before I met up with the rest of my family. In his solopsistic drunkenness, he didn't hear or didn't care, or both. And so, regardless of what I wanted or needed, I ended up in conversation with him.

He turned out to be a decent guy, and even an interesting guy. His wife had died years ago, leaving him with two small children to raise alone. He had left his high-paying job to be around the kids more, coaching teams and so on. He had a teenaged son with learning difficulties, who had only been diagnosed in 10th grade. Of course, it's hard to have an actual conversation with a drunk. What we had was him talking, occasionally jabbing me in the arm for emphasis, and me nodding, smiling, and throwing in the occasional comment to let him know I was listening.

But I'm glad I listened. Because he was a good man, working hard to be a good father in difficult circumstances and trying to help a teenaged son in need--a son who didn't fit into the neat little boxes arrayed before him by the public schools. "Categories!" he yelled at one point. "Why is it so important for them to figure out what category he's in? Why can't they just deal with who he is and teach him the way he needs to learn? I mean, I'm just a dumb redneck from Alabama, but I don't understand why it took so long to figure out what was getting in his way, and why it's still taking so long to help him."

Which was, coincidentally (or not), exactly what I was trying to read about for gradual school.

I've been here before. I'm basically a shy and introverted person--someone who keeps to himself and would rather watch and listen than talk, when among strangers...the boy with the beard in the corner, as my wife likes to misquote The Roches (I think it's really "the boy with the beer in the corner," and anyway, for me, it was usually a bourbon, not beer). And this makes me an easy target for blowhards, sad-sacks, and alcoholics looking for a sympathetic ear. I always find myself torn between the part of me that feels caught in a web and wants nothing more than to escape and be left alone and the part of me that knows I should be Open To New Experience and Open To New People. When I've pulled away from people, I've always regretted it later, and when I've engaged with strangers with stories to tell, I have never regretted it. So it's clear which side of me I should be listening to.

And yet, I really did have work to do, and I really didn't want to have to do it once I join up with the Wife and Things 1 and 2. And don't I have the right to make that choice? Or am I obligated to listen to every loon who want to bend my ear?

Answer--obviously: Of course you have the right to make that choice. Just be sure you're making the right choice. Because a stranger, even a loony one (maybe especially a loony one) can be an angel in disguise, with a message you were meant to hear--a message you need--a message which, if you miss it, if you walk away from it without hearing it, you will be diminished.

"Are you a religious man?" he asked.

Trick question.

No comments: