It's this past Monday. I'm making a quick getaway from the San Francisco Bay Area to Marfa, Texas for a friend's birthday and to see the art that this middle-of-nowhere West Texas town is known for. I'm flying Southwest out of San Jose. This trip will take two planes followed by a two-and-three-quarters-hour drive. I am hanging about the gate area with my stack of belongings: a metallic blue roller board bag; a grey CPAP bag looped over the long extended handle of the roller board; and my dark brown leather purse hanging from the handle grip.
There's a commotion at the counter. I hear a breathless voice ask, "Is this the flight to Phoenix?" I turn. I notice a man. His thin frame. His work shirt rolled at the elbows to reveal pale skin and multiple tattoos. His dark hair partially cascading onto the top of his backpack and partially stuffed into the neck of his jacket. "Is this the flight to Phoenix?" This time he shouts. "Yes," he is told, to which he replies, "I'm sorry. I can't hear the overhead."
I board early. Thanks to Southwest's "sit anywhere" policy, I get my favorite seat: an exit row aisle. I need the extra "leg room" not for my legs (which are short) but to accommodate both my girth and my laptop on the tray table. This particular exit row has only an aisle and middle seat; the window seat would obstruct the emergency exit door and so it has been removed.
As person after person boards and it looks like almost everyone is on, I'm counting myself fortunate that the middle seat next to me is free which means that I'll be able to spread out a bit. That's when the long-haired man bounds back up the aisle from the rear of the plane. He must have journeyed down there only to discover that there were no more empty seats available, or no empty seats that he wanted.
His icy-green eyes are wild and searching above his mask as he points at the seat next to me. "Absolutely," I say. I unbuckle my seatbelt and begin to stand. He twists and turns in the aisle to search the overhead compartments for a place to store his backpack. "I don't want to hit anyone with my bag," he says loudly. Then, he announces to no one in particular, "I'm sorry, I haven't flown in ten years." I think to myself: He's kind. A little neurotic, but kind. I step into the aisle. He finds room for his bag. He climbs into the middle seat.
My seat-mate with the long-hair-now-pulled-back-in-a-pony-tail grows fascinated with the exit door to his left across the empty space created by the absent window seat. He announces: "Emergency door. Don't open it." He leans way over toward it and begins examining the details of the handle. Riding in an airplane is an act of faith in physics and our fellow humans. There's an unwritten compact that we all hope to survive. Why is he saying and doing this I think to myself. I find his curiosity and words a tad off-putting.
He sits forward again and says, seemingly to me, "I haven't been on a plane in ten years." He puts both hands up as if doing a high ten with an imaginary person in front of him. "This is the emergency door but I'm not going to open it," he states, as if reassuring himself. Then he looks at me. "Good," I tell him. I smile at him. He turns away and mutters about a recent breakup. About heading to Las Cruces for a few days. A tattoo on his right arm inches from my left arm says "No War."
The flight attendant comes by to get our verbal agreement that we understand the obligations associated with sitting in the exit row. My seat mate and I both say "Yes." When the flight attendant is gone he twists around to the guy in the window seat in the row behind us, whose legs extend into the empty space yielded by the window seat missing from our row. "Emergency door," he tells the guy in a voice loud enough for the five or six people around us to hear. "Don't worry, I'm not going to open it," he declares. I snap my head around to catch the eyes of the guy on the aisle to my right and widen my eyes above my mask. He and I have both heard my seat-mate mention the emergency door three times. I listen for the response of the passenger in the row behind us, to whom my seat-mate's latest comment was directed. The voice comes back kind and calm. "Good cuz that would not be good."
I start to feel nervous. The phrase 'If you see something, say something' comes to mind. My mind reels with analysis. Am I seeing something? Why mention the door? Why obsess over it? Why pull it into your consciousness, why speak of it unless you're trying to tell yourself not to do something you might actually really want to do, or unless it's something you do not want to do but might not be able to keep yourself from doing? I picture myself being sucked out of the plane moments behind the man with the long hair, where I will face a certain but likely not immediate death.
What also comes to mind is that 'If you see something, say something' can lead to bias-based assumptions and decisions, innocent people being profiled, and problematic outcomes. I don't want to yet say: This guy seems a little weird. I don't want to yet say: I'm afraid this guy might open the plane door. I don't want to make him out to be problematic until I have enough evidence. But what would that evidence be? Where is the line?
My seat-mate turns to me and says, "My engagement fell through for the second time." I say, "I'm so sorry that happened to you." He replies, "Better than being with the wrong person." He pulls the emergency instruction card from the seat back pocket and reads it closely. The plane pulls back from the gate.
The man is wiry. His eyes bear the deep wrinkles of a sixty-year-old, or of a forty-year old who has had a rough life or has spent a lot of time smiling in the sun. For the second time in his life, he's just had a marriage proposal lead to a breakup. His mind rubs the fact of the emergency door like he's trying to unstick a Jolly Rancher from the teeth in the back of his mouth.
I've decided that my point of no return will come if he unbuckles his seatbelt and heads for the emergency door. I've decided I will throw my arms around him to restrain him, shout at the guy in the window seat behind us to protect the door, and then gently talk my seat-mate down from whatever is going on in his mind.
"What's your name?" I ask him. He confidently announces his first, middle, and last name as if correctly answering a tough question at a spelling bee. I tell him mine. I've decided that if I'm going to be able to talk him down, I'm going to need to know his name.
What would have been going through your mind in this situation? For how this all ended, check the 🤎 comment below...
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🤎 My seat-mate and I chatted for a good fifteen minutes, both of us interrupting our chat to do our Dear God Don't Let Me Die ritual as the plane ascended into the air. He lives in Humboldt County, California, a region whose economy has been wrecked by the legalization of marijuana. He hates what we've done to the planet. He wants everyone to behave peacefully toward everyone else. As I turned toward work demands on my laptop he pulled out his phone and photographed shot after shot of the clouds and sky and finally the rooftops of Phoenix. He was also on my connecting flight to El Paso. I had the same seat but this time my seat-mate was my partner Dan who had flown to Phoenix ahead of me in order to spend time with his mother who lives there. He recognized me and his eyes flew open wide. I introduced him by name to Dan.
📣The world is a hot mess right now. The only thing you are in charge of is your own actions and reactions. That's it. All of us acting and reacting with love and compassion could make a heap of difference. Don't let your fear drag you to a place of hate or indifference.
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📸 Cover Photo Credit: Getty Images/Jaromir Chalabala/EyeEm