How to survive a 4-hour flight next to a super-size former college basketball player in the middle seat
For all but the obscenely rich, public transportation is a necessary evil. Maybe it really doesn’t have to be an evil. But we’ve been provided methods to withdraw from interaction and that’s what we’re doing. So, it seems that way.
When we climb into a pod with others out of necessity, walling ourselves off is the norm. We transport without meeting.
Conversing with strangers in a public setting has become less likely. As the personal electronic devices to which we’ve become addicted provide us excuses to withdraw from society, we do it willingly.
On long plane flights, I’m like anyone else that way. I don’t like the guy who forces interaction. I don’t want to hear anyone else. I don’t particularly want to talk to anyone I don’t know. Give me half a day of silence and I’m fine.
In fact, when given an opportunity to game the system, I take it.
Southwest Airlines offers that chance. Because its flights are based on open seating not assigned positions, you can strategize with whom and where on the plane you sit.
Of course, like everything else in public transport, it’s become more complicated. It used to be if you checked in exactly 24 hours before your flight, you would be guaranteed an A boarding group and be one of the first five or 10 people to enter the plane. I always took the front row because that’s where the leg room is – no seat in front of you, just the bulkhead.
That’s all in the past. Though I love Southwest, they, like every other airline, has figured out how to monetize that seating priority. They sell early A boarding positions now for $40 extra.
I refuse. Not just because I’m cheap, but because I want to successfully game the system without simply paying for it. It’s sort of a challenge. I still check in exactly 24 hours from takeoff. But that’ll only get you an early C boarding position these days – about the 102nd or so person to board a 175-seat Boeing 737-800.
So, on our recent vacation to Arizona, I taught my much less frequent flyer wife the ins and outs of flying Southwest. Specifically, how to get a decent seat with merely an early C boarding group.
Just listen to me and do what I do, I told Anna. We probably won’t be able to sit together. But you’ll be able to spread out, put your neck pillow against the window shade and sleep the entire four hours and 20 minutes. No one will bother you. You’ll need make contact – physical, verbal or otherwise – with no one. Before you know it, Phoenix will be Baltimore.
My system worked perfectly on the way out. I followed my established guidelines with precision, located a slim older couple taking the middle and aisle seats of a forward row and pounced. Anyone on the window? No? Excuse me.
We chatted a couple of minutes as a nicety, then I attached my headphones and either read or listened to music on my phone for five hours. Perfect trip.
On the way back, I got cocky. I violated one of my own cardinal rules and passed up a chance to take a middle seat with my wife on the window and a small woman on the aisle. It would’ve been painless. Being in the middle seat isn’t so bad when you can lean up against your wife without fear of personal space issues. Maybe we could’ve swapped over Arkansas — she to the middle, me to the window. No sweat.
But no, I had to get greedy. I wanted the window seat. So, I took the risk you never take. I grabbed an open window next to an open middle with only a single middle-aged guy on the aisle.
This is prime territory for a straggler. You can get anyone here. Specifically, you can be forced to sit next to the Last Guy On The Plane. Someone morbidly obese. Someone with poor hygiene. Someone who babbles on about nothing. It can be any or all of these.
The worst is when you get someone not built for current airliners. Someone who simply does not fit into his seat. So, he spills over into yours. Then you have unwanted physical contact with a stranger for four-plus hours. Contorted positions. Muscle strains. Maybe the inability to even escape to the lavatory.
For the reward of my window seat, I was taking this risk. I would pay.
Together, the aisle guy and I laughed about actively recruiting a small person to sit between us. I had my eye on a diminutive Asian-looking man for a moment but he drifted back up the aisle in search of luggage space. Then there was an older woman but she took a seat on the other side across from us.
For a moment, we both thought maybe we would be blessed with that rarest of indulgences, the open middle seat. The height of cabin-class luxury, all but extinct in the age of oversold flights.
As the unseated passengers dwindled to two or three, out called a small attractive woman from the aisle: “Is that seat open?”
“Yes!” I cheerily responded. In that split second, I realized I was speaking not to a passenger but to a flight attendant. And in the next moment, she motioned behind her to one of the larger human beings I have ever seen. And I am around such specimens all the time as part of my work.
I looked across the row at my aisle shipmate and mimed a curse word.
This young man was not obese by any means. He was clean-cut and actually good-looking.
But he was all of 6-6 and maybe 280 pounds. And then he was sitting in the middle seat, trying mightily to make himself compact but unable to keep from elbowing me in the ribs and hip-checking me into a contorted position simply by his mass.
This would be my fate for four hours and change – if the plane took off on time.
And so, for the next 45 minutes or so, I silently and childishly seethed at my own foolishness. How could I have taken such a known risk? How was I going to survive an entire transcontinental flight of this?
After a while, I looked over at the young man. He was trying so hard to be as unobtrusive as possible. He had both forearms extended so as not to infringe upon the armrests. He sat up and tried to rest his head against the seat in front of him. It wasn’t his fault he was born to be huge. He was just a big, big man trying to contain himself in a compact world.
With finally a speck of empathy, I offered up the first conversation: “I don’t know how you manage to fly, man.”
“You just gotta deal with it the best you can,” he replied.
I suggested the tray table might be something he could rest his upper torso on. He tried it, but it only worked for a few minutes before he grew uncomfortable again.
So, I decided to talk with this stranger and try to make the time go by. I asked if he played college football. He said no, college basketball at the University of Montana.
And so began perhaps the most enjoyable cross-country flight of my life.
The young man’s name was Chris. He was 24 years old. He was, in fact, 6-7 and 300 pounds. He was training to become a professional heavyweight boxer in Tucson. And he was flying home to attend his cousin’s wedding. Not only attend it, but also sing a song at it – Jamie Foxx’s Wedding Vows.
Being the old codger I’ve become and not immediately recalling his turn as the cinematic Ray Charles, I didn’t even realize Jamie Foxx sang. For this, I openly was mocked not only by Chris but Jeremy, the thirty-something guy on the aisle.
And that was the tone of the entire flight. Open debate, jokes, stories, sports opinions, a little education about the history of boxing by the oldhead to the young pup who thought Tyson to be the greatest ever – silly kid – and generally a four hours that flew by like two.
Chris was bright and funny and inquisitive and fun to talk to. He loved music, said he played the piano and guitar. He really could sing, too. He played a sample on his phone and and he sounded like Luther Vandross, the tonal subtlety and nuance of a pro.
He marveled about the cultural differences between Maryland and Montana and espoused the value of leaving one’s nest to see the world.
We argued about Beyonce versus Aretha. About Ali and Frazier and Foreman versus the Klitschkos and Anthony Joshua. About Foreman’s punching power versus Tyson’s.
I purposely looked up his college stats just to razz him, soberly analyzing his good shooting efficiency from the field but then chiding his .520 free throw percentage. He complained. I responded that this was my get-back at being smashed into the fuselage wall.
For that time, I completely forgot that I was making forced physical contact with a stranger. I made social and maybe just a smidge of spiritual contact with a young man barely a third my age with an entire life before him. I never shut up. It was so much fun.
At one point as we neared BWI, my wife caught my glance across the aisle and a row up, her eye-blinders and headphones removed. She mouthed: “Everyone can hear you.”
In other words, I had become that guy, the garrulous passenger who prevents everyone from sleeping or reading or doing whatever else they do to wall themselves off from the public in transport.
I had become my own purported worst nemesis.
Y’know what? I’m sorry. But this time, in this pod, with these people stuffed together, I engaged the public in my transport.
And I was fine.
DAVID JONES: email@example.com