It is really easy to get to know a whoooooole lot about people on airplanes. You only need to ask them two questions:
- Where are you coming from?
- What did you do there?
If the flight is mostly filled with outbound fliers, you can modify it to:
- Where are you going?
- What will you do there?
You can enhance your conversational potential by hanging out at the aft toilets. On long flights bored people or fliers wanting to stretch their legs will hang out there too, and they are usually eager to chat. The downside is that if it’s an especially active lavatory you get that constant smell of chemical disinfectant mixed in with the organic infectant.
A few misses
The first guy I spoke with was very sour. “Where are you coming from?”
“What did you do there?”
“Saw some old friends.”
“Russians?” The dude was from San Diego it turned out.
“Brits. Some guys I worked with in finance a long time ago.”
“What’s Moscow like? I’ve never been.”
“New York. It’s exactly like New York.”
“Wow. In what way?”
He looked at me contemptibly. “Every way. Tall buildings, lots of people, good restaurants.”
“I guess everyone there speaks English, too?”
“Of course. English is the world’s language. Didn’t you know that?”
“I’m starting to get that impression.”
“I mean, where are you coming from?”
“You got around fine there, didn’t you?”
He shook his head in disgust.”That’s because everyone speaks English.”
“Oh,” I said.
I went back to my seat. The guy against the window was asleep. After a long time he woke up.
“Where are you coming from?” I asked.
“What were you doing there?”
“Shooting a movie.”
“Wow. What kind of movie?”
I looked at him. He was a big dude and in good shape, but really old. “That’s pretty cool.”
“Pays the bills.”
“How’d you get into that line of work?”
He sighed and I got ready for the story he’d told a million times. “I used to play pro football, with the Raiders and the Chiefs. My nickname’s ‘the Hammer.'” He held up his giant hand with its twisted fingers. “You know what that is?”
“A diamond ring?”
“Yeah, from Super Bowl I.”
“And now you’re an actor?”
“Have been for fifty years.”
“That must have been hard transitioning from the NFL to Hollywood.”
“Only three people have ever done it. Me, OJ, and Jim Brown. And I’m still at it.”
“Do you have a particular kind of role you play?”
“Yes. Talk a little, shoot a lot, drag the bad guys off to jail.”
“Sounds pretty straightforward.”
“You look like you’re in pretty good shape.”
“I’m a martial arts guy. I studied with Bruce Lee in Hong Kong. That’s what I’m known for in the action movies I do. Martial arts.”
“Do people ever come up to you and ask you about your sports career? Or your acting career?”
“Every twenty minutes.”
“Have you ever had to use your martial arts on a fan?”
“No. Martial arts aren’t for fighting. They’re for avoiding fights. De-escalation.”
“Yeah, really. I look at some dude who wants to take me on and I say ‘You’re gonna hurt me, and I’m gonna hurt you, so why don’t we knock off with the hurting and have a beer? They see you mean it, and it’s over.”
We talked for a long time. It was fascinating hearing about his career. I hesitated for a minute, wondering if I should ask to take his photo. “Nah,” I concluded. “Too predictable.”
Before we got off the plane I asked him his name.
“It was great talking to you.”
“I enjoyed it,” he said, and sounded sincere.