Citizen of the Month

the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

Trucker Bob from Nashville

I had pre-booked my American Airlines seat for the aisle seat, row 17, seat D.  When I arrived at it, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that I was seated next to an attractive woman in her thirties in middle seat E. She was reading a fashion magazine, and dressed in a funky blue and white striped cotton dress. I imagined her to be a model travelling to Nashville to star in a country music video.

“I should strike up a conversation with her,” I thought.

This was surely a bright spot in what was the worst scheduled flight of my life – leaving LAX at 11PM, a stopover in Nashville at 4AM, and arriving at LGA at 9AM. American AAdvantage Frequent Flier Program, what has become of you? Was this the only available flight that I can take on the most travelled route in your system, Los Angeles to New York? Did you give away too many free miles, and now, after years of excess, are you punishing your own customers?

I glanced over to see if the woman in seat E was wearing a ring. She was not.

The window seat to her left, seat F, was for now, empty.   Across the center aisle, there were another three seats in the row.  In window seat A was a young college male college student.  In middle seat B, was his girlfriend.   In aisle seat C, directly across from mine, sat a gentleman with a grey beard.

The center aisle was busy with boarding passengers.  An older woman with dyed-red hair appeared from nowhere.

“Are you here alone?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said.

“My husband and I were split up into different rows,” she sputtered, pointing to the bearded gentleman across the center aisle. “There were no seats together,”

The bearded man smiled at me, shyly.

“I have an aisle seat a few rows backs,” continued the wife. “Would you mind if we switched so I can be closer to my husband?  It’s another aisle seat.  It shouldn’t make any difference to you.”

I glanced over at the beautiful woman to my left.  She was reading some article in her fashion magazine about “Pleasing Your Man in Bed.” I did NOT want to move my seat. No, not at all.

The wife hovered over me and I started to cave.

“Let’s be honest,” I thought. “You’re never going to talk to this beautiful woman sitting next to you. What does it really matter where you sit?”

“Fine,” I told the wife. “I’ll switch with you.”

“Thank you so much! You’re so nice!” she said.

I grabbed my black Everlast carry-on bag from overhead, took one more quick glance at the beautiful woman, and retreated to the back of the plane, passing the restless, angry, bitter, sleepy coach travelers, all vainly struggling to shove their too-large carry-ons into the too-small overhead compartments.

It wasn’t until I reached my new seat that I understand my horrible, terrible mistake. I had just traded in my perfect aisle seat next to the hottest woman on the flight for an aisle seat in the back, one row in front of the bathroom. My seatmate was a sweaty, overweight man, barely able to contain his hefty body in his narrow seat.

“How ya doin’?” he asked in a Southern accent. His arm completely extended over the common arm rest and his elbow practically poked me in the ribs.

“I’m Bob!” he said.

Let me be perfectly clear. I don’t believe that larger-sized people should be penalized for their weight, or be forced to pay for two seats on an airplane. No, the villain is the airline industry. Airline seats are designed to fit twelve year old Japanese girls, forcing Americans to buy business class. I’m thin, and I can hardly fit comfortably in my coach seat. And God help me if the person in front of me slides his seat back. Flying coach today is reminiscent of how my poor European immigrant family came to this country by ship in 1917.

Bob was not only a big man. He was a garrulous Southerner, way too friendly for my East Coast self.

“You flying home?” he asked, eating some peanuts he had hidden in his pocket. Bob was about fifty, with thinning black hair and a tiny nose like a rabbit.

“Yeah,” I said, limiting myself to one syllable.

“Me too,” he said. “Just came to LA to attend my Grandma’s birthday party at the nursing home by my sister’s house in Reseda. Of course, my sister said it wasn’t necessary for me to come. But I told her, this is my beloved grandma too! I’m coming faster than a Navy private in a hooker’s hooch!”

I reached into my lime green khakis and took out my iPhone. I made believe that I was sending important messages back to my office. In truth, I was on Twitter, asking for advice on how to survive this flight.

I stood up to stretch, and looked over at my old God-given seat, the one that I had reserved weeks earlier, and was now occupied by the red-haired woman.

There was now a passenger in row 17, seat A, the window seat next to the beautiful woman with the fashion magazine. He was a strong-jawed man with a cowboy hat. He was confidently chatting it up with her. I could hear her laughing.

“I see you’re using one of those new phones,” said Bob, jolting me out of my thoughts. “You should save the battery until the flight.”

“I’ll be OK,” I said.

“Are you sure?” he replied. “I work as a trucker. So recently, I’m driving with my buddy, Duke, who is always playing these games on his phone. One day, he’s playing so much that his battery runs out. And it just happens that on that day, his wife calls him and can’t reach him, so she gets all freaked out, thinking the truck crashed and he got killed. So when we get back home, his wife is waiting for him, and whoa, did she kick his ass that night!”

“Uh, yeah, those mobile games are pretty popular,” I said, not knowing what else to say.

“You play these games on the phone?” he asked.

“Not really. I mostly read stuff on the phone.”

“Yeah. I like reading. You ever read “In Cold Blood?”

“No, but I know what it is. I saw the movie.”

“Read the book.”

“I’ll check it out,” I said, hoping that this conversation was reaching the end.

I closed my eyes, and faked that I was asleep. The plane departed LAX.  Bob really fell asleep, his head resting on my shoulder.

“Why am I such a sucker?” I asked myself as we flew over Nevada. “Why did I switch my perfectly good seat for this awful one? Sure, I was being nice. But “nice” is now the biggest insult in the word, according to some article I recently read, worse being called an asshole. At least an asshole “knows what he wants.  Soon, the beautiful woman and the cowboy will be sneaking off back here, into the bathroom together, having mile high sex, and I’ll be hearing it all from my seat!  And if I wasn’t such a fool, that could have been ME!  Instead, I am stuck with… Bob.”

Bob woke up from his nap, drooling on my shirt. He saw that I was awake, and was in a talkative mood.

“Hey, where in Nashville do you live?”

“I live in New York. I’m just stopping over in Nashville.”

“Oh. New York. New York. If you can’t make it there, you can’t make it anywhere. Except it is a bad place to drive a truck.”

I closed my eyes and faked sleeping for a second time.

We landed in Nashville. The moment the light flashed green, I was up, the seatbelt flying open. I grabbed my black Everlast carry-on bag from the overhead compartment.

“See ya, “ I told Bob, and ran like hell, pushing aside old and pregnant women to exit first.

I had ninety minutes to kill in the Nashville airport, so I did a little exploring. It was a nice airport, making LGA look like a Greyhound terminal. It was clean, bright, and country music stars like Randy Travis greeted you on the loudspeaker, suggesting you visit the local tourist spots, like the zoo.

I thought about my experience with Bob on the plane, and how I frequently sabotage my own potential. I was about to attend a blogging conference in a few days. I promised myself not to make the same mistake that I just did on the plane when I attended this conference. I needed to focus on networking with the right people, those who can get me work, success, or advancement, the beautiful and talented artists and entrepreneurs of the world — not the Trucker Bobs of the world, those who offer me nothing but useless conversation, wasting my precious time.   If the beautiful woman on the plane symbolized success and power, Trucker Bob represented despair.

There was an announcement on the speaker system, interrupting Shania Twain talking about Nashville’s famous music clubs. It was a voice from American Airlines.

“Would the passenger who just flew in from Los Angeles, flight 17, and who has the black Everlast carry-on bag, please come to Gate 2. You have the wrong bag.”

I looked down at my bag. This WAS my bag. Or at least I thought so, until I opened it. Inside, I found an assortment of XL tank-tops, dirty crew socks, a razor, and a copy of “In Cold Blood.”

When I arrived at Gate 2, I saw Bob standing with an American Airlines attendant. I handed him his bag.

“I’m so sorry,” I said, blushing, worried that Bob would think I stole his bag. “Who would guess that we would have identical carry-on bags?”

“No problem,” he laughed, smiling goofily. “Honest mistake.”

The attendant said my bag was already in the lost and found. I should wait there while she retrieved my bag. Bob remained behind, standing at my side.

“You don’t have to wait for me,” I told Bob.

“No problem,” he said. “I just want to make sure you get your bag, like I got mine.”

“Thank you,” I replied.

“It’s such a weird mistake,” I said, trying to be friendly.

“Yeah, like one of those Alfred Hitchcock films where there are switched suitcases, and one of them is from a spy.”

“Exactly!” I laughed, surprised that Bob knew that reference. “Do you like Hitchcock films?”

“Of course,” he said, and told me his favorites. “Rear Window. Strangers on a Train. Psycho.”

“Which is the movie with the mixed up suitcases?” I asked, not remembering.

“North by Northwest?” he asked.

“No, definitely not,” I said. “I’m not even sure it happened in a Hitchcock film. Maybe we are thinking of Charade, which wasn’t by Hitchcock.”

“Maybe.”

I glanced at the overhead clock to make sure I was doing OK with time. I still had 45 minutes.

“Hey, you want to grab a cup of coffee and apple fritter before you take off for New York?” asked Bob. “I know a good place in the terminal.”

“Sure.”

Bob and I went to have a cup of coffee and apple fritter.

“Why’d you take such a bad flight to New York? Nashville at 4AM?” he asked, munching on his treat.

“Stupid American Airlines frequent flier program. This was the only flight I can get.”

He understood. It was the same reason he was taking the flight.

“I can’t believe how bad American Airlines has become,” said Bob. “They used to be the best!”

“The reason I still fly American is that my father would ONLY take American Airlines when he flew. He thought they were a class act.”

“Mine too!”

“We’re American Airlines…. Doing what we do best.”

We both sang the long-running commercial jingle from American Airlines. We laughed. We bonded by mocking American Airlines, and how far they’ve fallen, suggesting that their only hope was to be bought by some Chinese airline. We talked about our fathers. I learned that Bob was divorced in 2000. I promised him that I would read “In Cold Blood.” I showed him how to use Twitter.

It was the best forty-five minutes I’ve ever had in the Nashville airport.

26 Comments

  1. I’m glad your story changed at the end! I was worried because I think I’m friendly and probably unimportant (to you) so I thought that meant you weren’t going to talk to me at BlogHer this year! I loved reading this post, Neil… been a while since I’ve visited your blog, it’s always worth a read. And I do believe it is important to just give things a chance – conversations with people you normally would not talk to can lead to great things and great friendship.

  2. Aw I love this! Good ol’ Bob.

    I agree about the Nashville airport. I remember it being very nice and homey, and that there were rocking chairs. And everyone I met in Nashville was very nice, although the only non-white people in the whole city were like me and one Filipino guy.

    In Cold Blood is very good. I’m with Bob: you should read it.

  3. I really enjoy those in transit conversations & ppl you meet randomly. On my flight to nyc, the young guy next to me was afraid of flying & told me he worked for the anglican church. I was able to share some faith & help him feel more relaxed. On the way home, half the plane was empty. Equally sublime! I’m bummed ill be missing the conference by only a few days. But I kno I can count on you neil to bring me every little nuance, happenings & details!

  4. Loved this story.

    My worst flight was six hours in the middle of front row of economy sandwiched between two remarkably large and unfriendly men while trying desperately to keep my 7 month old entertained and contained. No under seat storage. No pocket to put things in. No leg room. Not even one armrest.

    Meanwhile, one row behind to my left was a mother with a toddler who had two seats (only one of which she booked, as I learned from a discussion she had with the airline attendant), and a large floor space because there wasn’t quite enough room to squeeze in the seats of the first row due to the shape of the bulkhead.

    Each time I went through the logistical nightmare of exiting our seat I would look at her hopefully, thinking surely she would offer us a break from the constraints of the torturous situation we were in. Nope. She looked away. Every. Time.

    The happy ending was seeing my family.

  5. This is the kind of story you need to collect into a book.

  6. David Sedaris wrote a short story about a woman asking him to change seats on a flight so she could be near her husband, but he said no. I have such ridiculous and irrational flying fear that I’d never change my seat because I’d feel like the one that I chose when I booked the flight was the one I was meant to be in. I like the way this ended. I felt bad for Bob, but completely understand. I absolutely never have any interest in talking to the person sitting next to me and hate it when they try. I think I missed something though because I don’t see the connection to BlogHer. Is this an inside connection that you’d only understand if you’ve attended it before?

  7. I had a woman try to get me to give up my prime bulkhead seat so her husband could sit next to her. I said no. So she asked again. And I said no again. (It was an international flight and this seat had been handpicked!). Get this, she then had her husband come up from his crappy seat in the back by the loo and ask me AGAIN if I wanted to switch seats, as if I would cave in to the Power of a Man. I didn’t. I noticed she wasn’t offering to switch HER seat with someone in her husband’s row back by the loo. Anyway, I’m glad Bob redeemed the horrible flight. I tend not to talk to people on planes anymore, but lest I seem like a real b*tch, I did switch seats on my last flight so a woman with anxiety/claustrophobia could avoid being pinned in a tight corner of the plane. I also once held hands with a stranger (another woman) who was terrified by the turbulence we hit. She said, “Aren’t you afraid?” I said, “The way I see it, going down in a plane now is better than dying in a nursing home later. It will be quick and I won’t leave my family bankrupt.” She probably wrote a blog post about ME and my freaky ideas, ha ha ha.

    • Cathy in Missouri

      August 2, 2012 at 8:07 am

      I was hyperventilating, hoping against hope that you wouldn’t wind up giving your bulkhead seat to those shameless, pushy goons, V-Grrrl. Triumph! THANK YOU.

      (How are *you* the jerk, just because you don’t want to move? What Entitlement Planet do these people come from?!)

      And you are not kidding about the nursing home vs. plane crash death. With you, 100%, any old day.

      I’m still glad, Neil, that you ended up sitting by Trucker Bob. He is more interesting; I’m sure of it.

      CiM

  8. Here I was just going to lecture you on how to be kind to ANYONE that is breathing and here you just surprised me by being human 🙂

    The beautiful girl — a dime a dozen eh? Good ole Bob … priceless. My kind of people.

  9. It’s hard these days to give people a chance, but you never know what you may end up with.

    I recently flew with a friend’s daughter and on both flights we had seats that were apart and both times a kind stranger (in one case two!) offered to switch seats so we could sit together. Kindness matters.

  10. Great post Neil, I really enjoyed it. I also had a similar experience where I was sat beside a talkative stranger on a last-minute flight. Like you I resisted at first but she wouldn’t take no for an answer. Long story short I never thought I’d have so much in common with a religious republican from the deep south. Lesson learned – never generalise! Keep up the good work x

  11. I hate it when couples do the begging to sit together because they were split up, your not flying to Australia for heavens sake I want to yell at them, but like you I am always pressured into offering up the seat, only to watch the husband fall asleep and the wife do crossword puzzles?

    Glad you and Trucker Bob had a happy ending though. Enjoy Blogher

  12. You know if you refused to switch places the attractive woman would have thought you were an asshole and you would have blown your chance anyway.

  13. That was one of the best flying stories I’ve ever heard.
    If I don’t bump into you at Blog Her this weekend, good luck!

  14. It’s very diffulcult. People that are different than us just want to chat and chat and chat about crap, while the beautiful women of the world remain just out of our reach, studying beautiful women magazines.

  15. What percent true was this story? Because it’s 100% awesome. Us garrulous Southerners aren’t ALL bad, you know. (P.S. Hope I get to meet you this weekend.)

  16. Beautiful girl would have probably turned out to be boring. and no fun at all.
    Right? Right?
    Great post Neil.
    🙂

  17. Ok, hold up– lime green khakis?!

    Great story, you never know who will end up being an important or influential person in your life… Or just a cool person to chat with for 45 minutes. My husband loves talking to strangers on plane flights and has met many fascinating people that way…. Honestly, I prefer to just be a hermit and read my book.

  18. I grew up in Nashville. Trucker Bob might be one of my friends from high school. If so, I’m glad you got to meet him.

  19. Great post and great meeting you todayl! Airports and airplanes are always excellent studies of the human condition. Ours and theirs.

  20. Man, I’ve missed your stories.

  21. once again restoring my hope in humanity…
    I wish I could have seen you speak in NY, I am sure I would have been the loudest one laughing as I am told my laugh often scares people.
    Loved this Neil!

  22. This was a great read! Thank you! Good Ol’ Bob. (p.s. Yes, read In Cold Blood. It’s good.)

  23. A really great story.
    I’m doing a Web usability function, and thought I’d read the whole post this time.
    At first, I was simply going to comment on how silly it is that couples “need” to sit near each other. If you’ve been together most hours of 20-some years, why do the 4 hours on a flight mean anything unless you’re doing some kind of important planning for your arrival at the airport?

  24. I really liked this story. Love the unexpected joy of being nice.

    I was born in Nashville and, until two years ago when my grandfather died, I visited often. It’s just considered good manners to engage a stranger in conversation. I do stop if I get the monosyllabic reply. That’s the other part of good manners.

    I enjoy your writing very much. Looking forward to reading more. You are an effortless storyteller.

    Southern slang primer: it’s cooch, not hooch. Hooch is southern for booze. Cooter is also an amusing synonym.

    And the Navy doesn’t have privates; it has seamen. Bob must have been drunk.

    My Papa always said “faster than a jackrabbit on a date”, which now that I think about it, was slightly inappropriate for me to have repeated in second grade.

  25. Neil, I have frequently considered Airplanes to be like a sort of purgatory, we get seated next to people that often would try the patience of a saint 🙂 Sounds to me like life served you up what you needed at that moment, rather than what you thought you did.

    Great post, with a big dish of humanity ice cream at the end 🙂

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