Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Plane Spotting

When I was roaming around Europe two decades ago, my traveling companion--a fellow tree-planter named Margo who looked a bit like Cindy Crawford and drew men in droves--and I would sit in whichever train station our Eurorail passes had stopped us and pass some of the time watching people and speculating about who they were and what they were doing. As we were twenty two years old at the time, much of what we made up was about people's love lives. Margo had significantly more material to offer than I did, but I pretended sophistication. Our main focus was on the young, since in the arrogance of our own youth we assumed anyone over maybe thirty-two didn't have much going on.  But really when we looked at their lined faces and heard their impatient sighs we realized that life had knocked the corners off of each of them and we didn't much want to know what lay ahead. 

I still love watching people, although I find airports in the US provide much less to work with than did Continental train stations.  There are the road warriors wearing, unselfconsciously, their headsets, all the time. These people know where the free power outlets are at each of their habitual gates at O'Hare and DFW.  They bark aloud about metrics and strategic plans and fiscal year goals and laugh conspiratorially.  There are the older ladies who have been on planes a handful of times in their lives and are worried about making their connection to Oklahoma City or El Paso so they can see their grandkids. They are the ones I dread sitting beside as I try, usually without success, to doze off for an hour or two.  But then the interesting characters: a sixty-something nuclear engineer who hopscotches around the globe because his profession is in demand as many countries have determined the relative virtues of heavy water; and the charming gentlemen, approaching eighty, who lives in Palm Springs with his wife of fifty years and still, after a successful career as an in-house counsel, still sits on corporate boards and flies around the country and world managing his affairs.  I love these stories, and am flattered the tellers think me wise enough to comprehend the complexity of their journeys.

One of my markers of who might be interesting is what people are reading.  Those Kindles and iPads make it much harder for me to engage in book snob profiling, but it's still fun on occasion. A fellow beside me last week was holding a hardcover entitled: "People Are Stupid, and I Can Prove It." True, perhaps, because he's been published and at least one guy bought his book.  The reader wrote, in the handy note area, his goals: "Lose weight. Save money."  Radical stuff.  Behind us, two other travelers were waxing poetic about Dan Brown's latest and something that gave rise to The Secret book. 

At some point, I hope to travel enough to meet a war journalist or a cast member from Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me or maybe just someone who reads the reviews in the New Yorker.  It's possible there were some of them among the rumpled people from the gastrointestinal pub in Washington, but they didn't talk to me because of my faux fur vest.  Fair enough.

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