Friday, July 18, 2008

Hello? Anybody out there?

I am sitting in seat 4F on an American Airlines plane bound for Chicago from Boston. The small number means I’m in first class, which means it’s unlikely there will be conversation for the next two hours.

It’s not that I have never spoken to anyone in first class; quite the contrary. On a flight last month I had a very pleasant conversation with an elderly woman on her way to Moscow for an opera function. She was from Miami and in the short time we conversed, I determined that she was a hot shot in opera circles. I know of exactly two opera singers – Beverly Sills and Luciano Pavarotti – and they are both dead. So I didn’t have a lot to contribute to the conversation. However, the woman seemed so pleasant that I just nodded in agreement when she said things like, “and no doubt, you’ve seen La Boehme?”

My frequent flier status with American allows me to fly first-class more often than not. Yes, I get a bigger seat, a little more legroom, free drinks and occasionally a meal that looks as if it were about to be served to a Barbie doll. But I don’t usually get the one thing that I feel makes flights feel faster: conversation.

It’s certainly not going to happen on this flight. My seatmate is a 30-something Asian woman who has been poring over a document since the seatbelt sign went on. I stole a glance at the title: “ACUTE DERMAL IRRITATION.” It was written in bold capital letters suggesting that it was quite serious.

I know more about opera than I know about anything containing the word “dermal.” It has something to do with skin, right? So I ascertained that this woman was reading page after page about skin that would not stop itching. Not exactly what I wanted to discuss as we waited for the in-flight meal somewhere over Kentucky.

To make matters worse, the woman caught me glancing at the document and turned her body slightly outward toward the aisle, so any attempt by me to learn more about acute dermal irritation would become more difficult. Did this woman think I was a spy? Perhaps sent to Boston by some foreign government, charged with learning about how Americans deal with itchy skin?

It’s not the first time I have been subliminally accused of “copying.” Several months ago some guy sitting next to me whipped out his laptop, glanced at me and then put one of those privacy shields over his screen. I’ve seen employees at large companies like Cisco and Motorola use them while sending emails. If it makes them feel better or more important, so be it. But I’ve always thought attaching a privacy screen in front of a stranger implies you don’t trust this person. I had been branded a criminal when my only crime had been getting stuck next to this guy, who seemed to think he was Jason Bourne.

Sitting in first-class always comes with it the opportunity that there will be a celebrity in your midst. It’s happened to me on several occasions. I’ve shared the big comfy seats with the likes of Mike Ditka, Beyonce, Duke basketball coach Mike Kzyshiewski and members of the rock band Styx. Once I was seated in first class while the actor William Devane sat behind me in coach. That was kind of cool in a strange way. But forget trying to talk with a celebrity during a flight. All the ones seated in first class with me spent the entire flight sleeping. Apparently being famous makes you tired.

First class may be more comfortable but, for me, coach class is more fun. Don’t believe me? Look at what’s on the passenger’s laptops. Movies, video games and slide shows of a family trip. A first class passenger, on the other hand, opens his laptop and immediately immerses himself in an Excel spreadsheet containing updated figures of everyone suffering from acute dermal irritation.

Coach class passengers appreciate things while first-class people demand them. True, there is not much to appreciate about air travel, given the state of the airlines today. When I fly coach, I appreciate a seat that doesn’t have a broken air blower directly above it. But first-class passengers stomp on board first, throw their sport jackets at the flight attendant as if she had a coat hook sprouting from her nose and wonder why they can’t get a drink IMMEDIATELY! BEFORE THEY OPEN THEIR LAPTOPS!

It was just seven years ago that Americans waited in line for hours to donate blood for the victims of 9/11. I saw such a line outside City Hall in Chicago, where a blood bank had been set up. Nobody was yakking on cell phones, listening to headphones or appearing disinterested with their surroundings. Instead people talked…to each other.

What happened? When did we lose the art of conversation? I’m certainly not advocating another terrorist attack but is that what it takes to get people talking with each other again?

Okay, my meal is here. Time to put away my laptop and attempt conversation with my seatmate. I’m going to do my best even if it makes my skin itch.