Sky of Surprise

On-line check-in for a flight. Look at my UAL stats and see I’ve flown three quarters of a million miles. With United. Not countin’ American, Delta and Northwest, all of which have had my rear strapped to a seat peering through clouds, lookin’ for fields, mountains, cities and oceans miles below, more times than I remember. Probably another 250,000.

I’ve traveled for business, and traveled for pleasure since I could figure out a way to make a buck. In all these years, leaving home has never been easy. Breaking the gravitational pull of the Bay Area is painful. The catapult into the sky that launches me to another place and time. The saying good-bye to everything and everyone that makes my life – my life.

I’m cranky on a flight and so it was on an early trip to New York a few years back. On the plane before sun up. Made my way to my row to find a seatmate years older than me, with a ponytail, sunglasses and a hat. With a feather. You know, some kind of throwback to the 60s. I was already in a mood and I wanted to say, hey, the psychedelic thing, it's so -- four decades ago.

I figured I had 6ish hours next to my man lost in time, but I could read. Or sleep. And given the hour the latter sounded pretty good. Ear buds in, eyes closed. Until the captain popped on the PA to tell us we had a mechanical issue and would be delayed at least two hours. The plan? Stay on board for the fixin’. Recalculation. 8 or more hours next to the refugee from the summer of love. How could a day go so wrong and it still be dark out?

For sure I’d taken up residence at Hotel Peevish, pretty much irretrievably. Musta been then sleep rescued me from myself, and my feathered friend. Until I stirred with the peeking sun rising above the East Bay hills, rays focused through an aircraft porthole, onto my face, and into my eyes.

That’s when I heard him. Raspy, silky, smoky, sexy, soft and southern. “Is the sun bothering you? I can close the shade.”

My lord, what a sound. If I gave God a voice it would sound like that one. Warm butter and syrup oozin’ down the side of hotcakes. Slippery slide into a warm bath after a long day. Tongue runnin’ over soft serve chocolate ice cream at the Dairy Queen, heat at its peak. Carlos Santana, even you ain't that smooth.

Oh my.

For the first time I turned my head and peered straight at Mr. 1969. And he was a bona fide rock 'n roll hall of famer. Put out his hand and introduced himself (after he pulled the shade), and so did I. I hadn’t actually looked at him before, having spent most of my time avoiding him to revel in my mood.

Hours of non-stop talking on a non-stop flight to the right coast, and it wasn’t me who was doin’ it. When we were finally in the air one of his handlers came by to see if he was okay. To be sure I wasn’t bothering him, I was thinkin'. Wanted to know if he’d like to switch seats. He said no and continued his story. It consisted of women, and drugs, more women, and in his spare time – women and drugs. And music. We spoke of Grammy awards and other musicians. His favorites and mine and since he was (and is) a blues guy, our lists were mostly the same. 

We had our individual observations, fan and colleague, and we shared them. He talked of recordings he was proud of. And other things he wasn’t. Regrets and humiliations tucked among tales of childhood, Catholic school, and growin’ up in the south.

I could say it was fun, and it sure was, but it was curious too. All that talkin’ to me, most of it private. Stuff you say to someone you know very well, or will never see again. As the plane touched down he said, “You aren’t with the press are you? I didn’t think to ask you that?” I told him I wasn’t.

It was awkward when he offered me a ride into midtown. His car and driver were waitin’ and he’d be happy to drop me wherever I wanted he said. I knew he was famous and so on but something didn’t feel right. Like it all needed to stay on the plane. At 35,000 feet. I wasn’t sure how to say no thank you without sounding -- I don’t know, ungrateful in the face of his offer, and his offerings.

“Speaking as one Catholic school child to another, you know a girl can’t go ridin’ with a stranger, right?” 

He nodded in agreement and we were square. “I guess," he said. "It wouldn’t be right.”

He handed me a card. Wrote his name and a number on the back. Told me if I ever needed anything to call. The card belonged to his manager whom, he said, could find him anywhere, any time. The number he wrote was for his home. Told me his wife always answers the phone, and I should tell her I was the lady from the plane, and I needed help. If I ever did. And I never have.

As we prepared to leave our seats I looked at him and thanked him for an unforgettable ride. Said I thought I’d be miserable and, “…that you were a guy in need of a barber, a better hat, and maybe a calendar, too. Thought you got lost in the Haight.”

That’s okay, he answered, “I was thinking maybe you were a bitch.”

And that’s what can happen on an airplane. Maybe a million to one chance in a million miles spent above the clouds.

So while I’m stewing and fretting about flying outta here for my next trip, there’s a little part of me wondering. When my spirit splits between where I been and where I’m goin’, will there be a surprise, while I’m busy being crotchety, craning for one last look at my home by the bay? Or will it be ten predictable hours interrupted only by sleep, and some stretches on a walk to the restroom?

“What would you like to drink?”

I’m not sure. No way to know. Only time, and the sky, will tell.

Mount Diablo & the San Mateo Bridge
One last look at home


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