For some reason, flights heading toward a place always seem to be filled with people from that place. Why is this? Should the seats not be filled with a 50/50 ratio of natives to tourists? We all leave home and then we all return, with the possible exception of escaped convicts. Or people from Bali who have no reason to experience a reality beyond palm fronds and lychee coladas. Yet all the passengers I encounter—on everything from red-eyes to leisurely afternoon flights—are overwhelmingly homeward-bound.
I end up feeling like the new guy at a 250-person A.A. meeting. “First trip to Mexico City?” a stranger says. I nod. “Oh boy,” he says, as if I have so far to go and so much to learn before I get there.
This happened to a somewhat extreme degree on a recent weekend trip from New York to L.A. The plane, or “tin enema of the sky,” becomes a biopsy of bicoastal culture—a tour of the consequences of manifest destiny carried out in a paced timeframe, like the monorail at the zoo. Except the wildlife is on the inside.
This is nothing new: L.A. passengers are superficial and networky; New York passengers are grumpy and odd. The phrase “Some things are cliché for a reason” is itself a cliché. But for a reason.
New York to L.A.:
I arrive early to buy airport-sanctioned water at the gate and sit in a chair that affords me a nice view of Anderson Cooper on the TV. A plane has crashed somewhere in China. Footage is shown. I look around to see if anyone else is noticing this and discover my first sign of L.A.-ness: No one’s watching CNN. I start unwrapping a granola bar and hear a male voice over my shoulder: “I can’t believe you’re eating candy in the morning.”
“So judgmental,” I scoff, and hold the granola bar over my head. If this was a New Yorker they might leave it at that, but this was someone from the Sunshine Species.
“You’re lucky you’re still young and can do that.”
I turn around to see a man in his early something—40’s? 50’s? He has a face that some people might call leathery, though I personally would not buy a handbag upholstered with his cheeks. He wore a button-down shirt in need of some buttoning, and I could sooner finish counting the stars than count all the teeth in his mouth. I turn away again.
“When you’re my age, it goes straight to your thighs.”
What straight New York man refers to his thighs? One of us was definitely born and bred west of Nevada.
“Well, it’s not like flexibility,” I crane my neck. “I’m pretty sure you can eat candy bars when you’re old. Er, older. Besides, it’s not candy.” I piece the wrapping together from where I’ve ripped it to demonstrate. Only in California are solids considered junk food.
“First trip to L.A.?”
Oh Christ. This is the same insulting feeling I get walking past Columbus Circle when men with maps ask me if I’d like a bike tour of Central Park. No, I most certainly would not.
“Nope.” I turn around again, but spy something in my peripheral vision and nearly give myself a paper cut in the cornea turning my head. It’s his business card.
“Take it,” he says. “I do voiceovers.” Then what’s with the headshot? I think.
A flight attendant announces that we will have to throw away all liquids now. Always the problem child, I approach the gate to affirm that this is the water they sold to me—not some explosive terrorist shit from a bubbling stream in Maine. Normally I wouldn’t bother, but I have special swallowing needs during takeoff on account of an unfortunate past incident involving some (literally) deafening pain, a Glaswegian emergency room and a squirrel syringe. I cannot live on gum alone.
Apparently, I will have to throw away this water as well. An elfin teenager behind me steps forward, presumably in my defense. She takes the same pleading tone but uses it to describe something called a “power cleanse.” It’s a three-day minimum diet in which you only “eat” lemon-flavored water with organic maple syrup. She holds up a plastic bottle that looks like it’s filled with piss.
“If I don’t have my power cleanse, I’ll pass out. This is, like, my sole source of nutrition for this flight.”
To her credit, she’s on Day 2 of this. The attendant ignores both of us and disappears behind a metal door. The girl sits down in a huff and looks for sympathizers, which she quickly finds.
L.A. to New York:
“Oh, thank God you’re not fat.” This from the woman who has already settled next to me—in our emergency-exit row! Score! Let’s laugh! We’ve got awesome legroom!
“Thank God!” I laugh back. She is about my age, maybe a little older, beautiful and dressed head to toe in gray. Gray glasses, gray dress, gray ankle boots, gray skin. We chuckle together until I realize that her seat is being pushed forward ever so slightly by an enormously obese man. The man and I lock eyes, a look broken only by me slinking down into my seat.
Does the woman proceed to ask me if this is my first time visiting New York? Does she want to know why I was in L.A.? No. “So what do you do?” she asks, digging through the marsupial pouch of magazines in front of her.
“Fuck!” She presses and holds the “assistance” button long after it’s lit. She must be the life of the elevator bank. The stewardess comes over. “I don’t have a sleeping mask.”
“We don’t have them anymore, Miss.”
“Well, can you see if you can find one? Or a rubber band and some napkins, for all I care?”
“Let me check,” the flight attendant smiles and looks over at me, “and I’ll be back before takeoff with your water.”
My companion grips our shared armrest and lurches her head back in a jealous spasm. “I have inner ear—” I say.
“Sure, sure. And sorry! I interrupted you. Where do you live again?”
“I have to use the bathroom.” I unbuckle my seatbelt.
I am waiting behind a man who looks and acts like Woody Allen if Woody Allen were, upon closer examination, a woman of 82. She is that rare combination of an instant, low and constant talker. She is also phobic.
“At my age, you’re too old to hover. It’s the knees. And the flushing—forget about it. That noisy blue water makes me feel like I’m gonna get sucked into Hell. It makes me hold onto my jewelry. If I dropped my rings, God forbid. And there’s no room to pick anything up in there without smashing your skull! Not that anyone should have to use the bathroom anyhow. It’s not like they hydrate or feed you anymore. They’d sooner see you starve then spend a lousy—what could it be, 30 cents?—on a pack of peanuts. Or crackers, if people have those allergies.”
“You’ll be home soon enough,” I say. “In the meantime, can I offer you a granola bar?”