Last night, on the last leg of my delayed, rebooked, rerouted plane trip home, the woman in the seat directly behind me talked for 2 hours straight in a loud, shrill, strident, sloshy-drunk voice – at the gate, during announcements, during takeoff, during the 1 hour and 45 minute flight to Boston, during landing, all the way up the aisle to deplane, and, as far as I knew, beyond. I learned more about her than I know about some people I consider acquaintances: she makes 4 million dollars a year and the government takes 40 percent of it and gives it to people who don’t work hard, spreading it around to undeserving freeloaders. It pisses her off that she can’t keep all of it. She’s bored with her husband, with whom she runs a large Social Security disability law firm, and she works out constantly. “I’m 43,” she said. “I’m a fit slender tiny little person, but I don’t look 30 anymore. Should I get Botox? I wish so much I could look 30 again.”
She was sitting between two men, “the nicest guys in the world,” as she kept calling them. “How did I get so lucky to sit between you two? Most people won’t talk on planes.” One was a 30-year-old law student at B.U., her law-school alma mater, who earnestly asked her for advice he was surely planning to ignore, and the other a bluff, low-key grandfather of three who kept slyly putting her in her place, calling her “the 1%” and telling her he would have been interested to hear her husband’s side of things. Oblivious, she yammered on, always circling back to the question of her looks, her age; neither man offered a word of encouragement or reassurance, no matter how persistently she fished.
I listened to her, spellbound, along with my two row-mates, a serious-looking, handsomely scruffy man about my age and a young pretty black girl with complex, ropy dreads. Occasionally we would all exchange looks, or, in bursts of incredulousness, discuss what was going on behind us, like sports commentators. “She’s drunk off her ass,” I told them. “She said so as soon as she sat down. She’s been drinking wine all day on a layover.”
“Mmmm, mmm,” hummed the black girl in quiet dismay. “I’d hate to be her husband or her kids.”
“Jesus,” said the guy. “Is she going to talk the entire time?”
She was, and did. We all learned so much. She’s from Boston and is one of ten kids; her father, a French immigrant, was a plumber. He’s dead now, and her mother lives on his $1200 a month disability, and that is the only money anyone in her family has ever taken that they didn’t earn. They work! Hard! Never mind that her sister Patrice – who is “so much fun, the bubbly charismatic kind of person people wanted to bring things to at the resort where we stayed, more towels, more champagne” – lives off her rich husband while she makes plans to open a restaurant…
Just before we began our descent, she got up to use the ladies’ room. I heard the two men behind me leaning across her seat and discussing her in low, astonished, commiserating voices.
Just before midnight, four hours late, I came out of the airport to find Brendan and Dingo waiting for me. I don’t know who among us was happier to see whom. During that long, strange day I hadn’t eaten much of anything. Brendan had brought along gluten-free jerk chicken sausage pizza with roasted hot and sweet peppers and scallions, and half a bottle of rioja.
On the drive north, as I ate and drank, I talked about my trip, how much I had liked my time at the Waldorf School. I was happy to be there, glad I’d come — I hadn’t anticipated how at home I would feel. It was instantly familiar to me, the west-coast twin of the one I went to. It has a working biodynamic farm with livestock on the banks of the American River and is about four times bigger than mine was. But the buildings are that same beige-gold stucco, doors those hobbit-like portals, the same hanging globe lights, same bulletin corkboard in the administration building… and the kids look like we did, even 30 years later.
On Tuesday at noon, after I’d finished my talk, reading, and workshop at the school, I took the light rail to downtown Sacramento to meet my friend and former neighbor, Molly. A botanist, she works at the Office of Mine Reclamation in a huge, Death Star-like corporate monolith, re-vegetating abandoned mines. We ate Thai curry for lunch, talking nonstop, then took the light rail to her house, a cheery, cozy yellow bungalow she shares with three cats. Her garden, like the one in Brooklyn we spent so much time in, is wild, beautiful, and full of surprising things – raisins drying on a vine, an old, fecund peach tree, kale and onions growing in a circular raised bed, a small empty self-contained pond she’d built for the indigenous tadpoles she’d rescued from a local development, who were immediately eaten by a raccoon.
We took a long hike in the mild sunlight along the American River, inhaling the rank, fresh compost smell of rotting cottonwood leaves and black mustard greens. After a drink at a “pre-Prohibition” bar called the Shady Lady, almost too meticulously restored, we met Molly’s friend Giles, who’s getting her Ph.D in whale biology, at a tapas place called Aioli. I’m gluten-free, Molly is vegetarian, and Giles is vegan, but we feasted nonetheless on generous salads, grilled vegetables, olives, a bruschetta salsa with endive and olives, and plenty of red wine. On the way back to Molly’s, we drove by the house Joan Didion grew up in, a white, gracious-Southern-style mini-mansion with a groomed lawn, all lit up. I tried to guess which window she’d sneaked out of as a teenager.
It was a memorable trip. Still, I can’t stop thinking about that strange, arrogant, drunk woman on the plane, whatever her name is. She kept insisting on her own happiness: “I love running a company! I love Boston! It’s great having three kids. My husband is a good guy. My life pretty much rocks.” But the real story seeped out as she talked and talked, as real stories will, if you give someone enough time. “I’m reading a lot of self-help books about how to make your marriage better,” she said at one point. “Having three kids is a nightmare,” she said later, and then, “All I do is travel and work my ass off.” Her desperate need to be reassured that she didn’t look old might have escaped the men she was sitting with, but it did not escape me.
At the end of the flight, after we got off the plane, I finally got a good look at her. She was tall, skinny, with a blonde-red shag-pageboy, a sharp face, pointed nose and chin, wearing a hot-pink sweater and black leggings. She did, in fact, look younger than her age. And she was still talking. The 30-year-old law student bent his head to listen as they headed off toward baggage claim.
It’s a nice thing on a late winter afternoon to knock off work and open a bag of potato chips and a bottle of rioja, and we would have done so today, but we have no potato chips. So Brendan sliced 3 large peeled organic yellow potatoes as thin as he could, heated up some peanut oil in a wide skillet till it was good and hot, then cooked the chips layer by layer, draining them on paper towels and salting each layer as it came off. We’re eating them now, and we might never buy potato chips again.