I sat next to a celebrity on the plane
Up in the air ... 30 Rock's Liz Lemon and her Oprah encounter.
I was 6-years-old when I reclined on my first economy seat. It was a Qantas flight to Heathrow, via Bombay. The colour scheme was orange and red, I remember my mum complained about the steak (too tough) and an air hostess made me laugh when she placed a serviette under my sleeping dad’s dribble-laden chin. I also remember feeling in a state I had never felt before, I was neither here nor there, in what’s known as a liminal place and it was pure bliss. They say half the fun is getting there, I’d push it to two-thirds, after all, it’s the journey not the destination and what a journey it can be.
30 years and many flight miles later and I’m settling down leafing though my SkyMall catalogue – the magazine equivalent of late-night infomercials – on a flight from Los Angeles. In my excited limbo state everything looks appealing. They know that no-one on the ground could possibly want or need a ‘poop freeze’ described as a spray refrigerant that “chills animal waste to -62°F, creating an outer ‘crust’ that enables you to quickly place in a bag and dispose.” yet in the air, it’s a great idea, why I’ll order one for my friend Melanie too.
I’m listening to a mix on my iPod when I get a tap on the shoulder from the man in the next seat, ‘Am I on there?’ he asks pointing to the music device. He looks familiar but I can’t quite place him. I laugh and say, ‘maybe you are, there’s a lot of music on here’. He tries to help me identify him by singing a chorus in my ear and immediately I recognise it, a huge hit in the early 90s, but I still can’t remember his name and feel embarrassed to ask. We clink glasses and small talk about my music taste (old soul, mostly), his taste (Jamaican dub) and his upcoming shows in Australia. His name still eludes me and it’s driving me mad, I can’t ask him, he thinks I know.
Finally, a chance! He excuses himself to visit the bathroom and I lean over and look for a bagtag, a laminate, anything that might give me a clue. Nothing. He comes back and we continue our conversation, a couple of music lovers hovering above the Pacific. Soon we’re singing harmonies to Sam Cooke gospel songs before he went secular.
Plane travel has been described as solitude without isolation, we all have a common goal, to get there, and a certain cameraderie can build between seatmates that might not happen on the ground, for a few hours it felt like me and whatshisname were best friends. He showed me pictures of his wife and kids, I played him songs by my husband’s band. We toasted.
Another toilet break and I am not sure if it was the thin air, but I threw caution to the wind and went into his bag, actually rifled. This daring feat wouldn’t and couldn’t be done on the ground, here I was invincible – there are no rules, after all we are in a what ethnologist Marc Auge calls a ‘non-place’. And just as I opened his wallet and clumsily pulled out an ID card which revealed the name, I noticed a determined air steward approaching me. Sprung! Would I be handcuffed, the plane forced to land at the nearest terminal? How could I explain to my new friend that I wasn’t trying to steal his cash, I just wanted to verify his name?
The flight crew member sidled up to me and said in a hushed tone, ‘ excuse me ma’am but is this man bothering you, if he is, I can have him moved.’
Him bothering me? I was the one going through his personal belongings, I’m the nuisance here! I assured her that I was quite fine thank you very much. Didn’t she know who he was?
My new bestie came back to his seat and I smiled and hummed his hit, we embraced as we disembarked and said our goodbyes. Amazingly, I saw him at another airport a few years later, he didn’t recognise me but this time I knew exactly who he was, but I wasn’t going to say hello, real life is different from when you’re up in the air.