I fly a lot. Not, perhaps, as much as a flight attendant or member of congress, but probably more than a lot of people. I will take any opportunity to jump on a plane, and I don't even particularly care where I am going. It's not that I have any deep-seeded wanderlust; I really don't care all that much about seeing foreign countries or having multi-cultural experiences. I just love to fly. I love the energy of the airport, the pristine silence of the airplane flying at cruising altitude, where no one can text me and I am unable to feel guilty about not cleaning the house. Flying is a gift of empty hours in a tube of rushing air; of sitting with your thoughts, of reading books and of talking to strangers.
I have friends who “people watch” at the mall, which never really interested me. I much more “people listen” than people watch. I like talking to strangers. I like listening to strangers, and the older I get the more I learn that most people are dying for someone to listen to them.
People like to tell me things; even as a child my friend's parents liked to confide in me. There's something about the way I hold my head that leads strangers to want to confess, or maybe it's my glasses, or maybe the person in the seat next to me doesn't even notice whom they are talking to at all. Maybe the difference is that I pay attention and remember their stories, and I don’t reprimand them for the interruption.
I've met some really interesting people on planes. I think the idea that you can be as honest as you want and then never see your confessor again frees people. It's the anonymity combined with the proximity of a captive audience that turns people chatty. Sitting shoulder to shoulder in coach invades your personal space and it is easier to embrace the psychological intimacy than to spend several hours fighting over the armrest. The constant hum of engines and rush of air in the cabin requires you to keep your heads close to talk without shouting. It's hard to resist the intimacy of sharing your breathing room. It's hard not to tell your deepest, darkest secrets, I guess.
One man had been unemployed for years. He lost his job, then his marriage. He had to move back in with his mother. He lost his confidence and drank too much. Now, he was returning home after his first significant job interview since he was last employed. The company had flown in the top four candidates, and he was one of them. He knew one other of the finalists, and figured his friend would get the job over him. Still, someone had liked him enough to fly him in for an interview. Perhaps he would be okay.
Another man was flying home to breakup with his long-distance girl friend. We talked about when and how he should do this, how to be gentle and how to not back down at the last minute. Leaving is always tied up as much with hopes and dreams, as with regret and disappointment, and a two-hour flight wasn't enough to talk about them all. We stayed in touch, but without the forced intimacy of sharing seat space, we never spoke on such an intimate level again.
I have heard about extra marital affairs, about juvenile detention centers, about raising children and regrets. I've heard about things people are proud of and things that broke their hearts. All the conversations end the same; we land, wish each other luck, and enter the line of people waiting to exit the plane. We stand facing front, pretending we don't know each other. We turn on our cell phones and reenter our lives, not looking back at the flying confessional we had occupied. By the time we reach the front of the plane, we can't remember the faces of our seatmates, or their names. If we run into them again, the best we can hope for is that they are vaguely familiar, a face we can't quite place. Their stories, though, we never forget.