One of the many arcane rules of American Airlines is that when you change your ticket in Haiti, they will not assign you a seat on your new flight. Since I extended my recent stay by a week, I was rebooked but had no idea where I would sit.
I am pretty charming when I approach the ticket counter with no seat assignment. I mention casually that if they have an exit row window available, I’ll take it. About half the time it works. But not today. The agent nodded at me without a word and gave me a boarding pass from Miami to Boston with seat 34 B – the middle seat at the back of the plane.
So in Miami I attempt my customary Plan B for improving my seat – being the last man on. Since I do not carry a rollie, there is no need for me to rush onto planes for the overhead space. I loiter at the gate to be the last person down the jet way. A good portion of the time an exit row is available and I snag it, or I just plop into any empty seat more desirable than my assignment. I have never been caught out yet. But today, no luck. This plane is standing room only.
I have no choice but to hunker down to row 34 and squeeze myself between whatever awaits me there. I have a middle aged woman at the window, and – oh no – a man with an infant in the aisle seat. I slither into my slot and resign myself to three dreadful hours.
The plane pulls away from the gate and twenty feet later, everything goes black. The captain comes on the overhead with a story so lame I can tell he has already filtered through Plans A, B, and C and his playbook is running dry. He tells us that the ‘start-up’ engine failed to trigger, but that is normal. This I doubt. He tells us we will get towed back to the gate and kick started again. This, I not only doubt; I wonder whether I really want to fly to Boston in a ‘kick-started’ plane.
The story is so ludicrous a buzz ripples over the assembled. ‘Well, this plane’s going out of service.’ ‘I never heard of that before.’ ‘Is there a guy with a crank at the nose of the plane, like on a Tin Lizzy?’ The captain’s voice returns and suggests that if we close our shades the plane will stay cooler. Shades flap down faster than a hummingbird’s wings. As for being cool, our silver metal tube sitting on the tarmac in Miami packed with sweaty people stopped being cool less than a minute after the lights went black.
At this point the baby next to me starts to fuss, the dad leans forward and presses his forehead against his son’s noggin and whispers the infant into complacency. Even in my disgruntled state I have to admit, it is one of the most effective parenting moves I’ve ever seen. I look over and realize that, in the opposite aisle seat is a woman with an identical baby, and next to her a toddler girl. There comes a point when things slip so bad that you have to stop being upset and just laugh it off. In the dark, stalled at our gate, with all kinds of babies around me, I feel the weight of displeasure lift. At that moment the nook falls out the closest baby’s mouth. I just cannot pretend these people away any longer. “Excuse me, let me help.” I reach into the father’s elbow nook and retrieve the pacifier.
From there everything trends positive. The plane actually jump starts and we only get to Boston 30 minutes late. Better than that, the family next to me turns out to be fascinating. The dad is an environmental consultant in St. Croix, he spent his Peace Corps years in Costa Rica, he is interested in our work in Haiti, and both parents have a firm but caring style that help the children navigate the flight with little fuss. As a guy who rarely offers more than a cursory hello to my seatmates when the attendants pass out the drinks, spending time with this family is both uncharacteristic and rewarding.