I'm terrified of flying.
I don't mean that I dislike the experience of flying. I don't mean that I'm annoyed by the hassle of driving to an airport, handing strangers your belongings, getting crammed into tiny seats, being forced to accept delays, maintenance failures, turbulence, layovers, and lost baggage.
I mean that I am petrified by the process of flight. I don't like being off the ground, zooming hundreds of miles per hour, thousands of miles above civilization, with my life entrusted to a man who may or may not be playing Candy Crush in the locked room at the front of the dilapidated chunk of steel propelled by engines that are older than I am.
I sweat. I pray. I shake. I hate it.
But that’s not what made today’s flight so interesting.
I boarded the Delta flight in Dallas, Texas, headed for LaGuardia in New York. I knew I was in for a rough flight when I saw how far back my seat was located. I would have one of the bumpiest places on the flight. I accepted my fate.
Then I heard the ominous music accompanying the man as he walked down the aisle. The music might have been something my subconscious later added to the story, but that's unimportant. His upper lip was accentuated by a thick, wiry mustache that resembled a geriatric nutria rat. He wore a long, baggy windbreaker and a navy blue baseball cap with the letters "NYC" stitched across it, his eyes peering wildly from underneath the bill, shadowed by his unkempt eyebrows. As he walked further down the aisle, I knew he was sitting by me — it was fate.
He plopped down across the row from me (we both had aisle seats), and I realized he had likely not bathed in several days.
Then the staring began.
He peered at me for several minutes, then asked (demanded), "Take a picture!" He shoved his iPhone in my face and repeated himself. "Take a picture! Here!"
I reluctantly grabbed his phone and raised it to take a picture.
"No! Here!" he yelled, pointing at the aisle a few feet in front of our seats. "You stand here!"
I heard the passenger in front of me snickering as I stood up, took my place in the next aisle, and took the picture. I counted down, "One, two, three," before clicking the button (and noticing that he keeps the HDR option activated). I expected him to smile, or at least make a semi-pleasant face, but he opted to go with the I-kill-you look. I handed the phone back to him and shuffled into my seat, inserting my headphones and hoping for no further interaction.
The pilot's voice sounded over the intercom, "We'll be ready to go in just a few minutes, folks. We're waiting on a crew to deliver a part we'll be carrying."
The plane was already running 30 minutes late, which left me with half an hour to make my connecting flight to Buffalo. I began to get nervous, but we finally taxied onto the runway. The engines roared as we made our way through the expected pre-flight tests, but the pilot's voice rang out, "We're going to have to make our way back to the gate. There is a maintenance issue with one of the first aid kits that we're going to have to get checked out."
A first aid kit maintenance problem? This was a first for me, but everyone on board remained quiet except for one, mustachioed figure. "We are not flying?" he asked. I turned and looked at my neighbor with a puzzled look on my face. In barely-discernible English, he asked again, "We are not flying?"
I shook my head and checked the time. I started doing the math, and realized that there was little chance of making my connecting flight. I started getting nervous, but my anxiety turned into horror as someone started screaming in Arabic. Was he screaming at me? The flight attendants? The circumstance?
My neighbor, to be referred to as “Mustache,” had turned his phone on, called a relative or friend (I’m guessing), and was carrying on a conversation at a decibel level normally reserved for redneck bar fight obscenities. He hung up, called another friend, and began another conversation. I sent my family the just-in-case “I love you” texts, and tried to relax.
“Well, folks, uh, the part that we thought we were picking up and taking to LaGuardia is actually suppose to, uh, go on the plane.” The pilot had taken back the intercom and dropped a bombshell on us. “We’ll wait for an engineer to make his way out here and install it, and then we’ll be good to go.”
Something didn’t add up. At first, we were picking up a part. Then we had a first aid kit maintenance issue. Lastly, the part we were picking up was supposed to be attached to the plane. My question: were we about to attempt to fly with parts of the plane missing? Or is it common practice to strap first aid kits to the exterior of the plane?
We finally achieved take-off, and I realized that my fears about sitting in the bouncy seat section of the plain were correct. I thought that I was nervous, but Mustache was apparently even more nervous. He would wave one hand in the air in a circular motion, close his eyes and pray loudly in Arabic, stare out the window, and repeat the process again. For thirty minutes.
I shifted nervously, prayed, read, and imagined how many people would attend my funeral. A podcast finally distracted me until the flight attendant wheeled by and asked if I would like a drink. I said, “No, thanks,” but then directed my attention to Mustache. He asked for “Water!” The flight attendant dutifully handed him a bottle of water, which he planted firmly in the seat next to him.
After the flight attendant passed, he pulled his iPhone out of his pocket and began to try to phone his friends. Frustrated with the lack of signal, he slammed his phone against the arm rest, and glared straight ahead.
Then he entered the second phase of his bizarre behavior.
Mustache stood up and threw his hat onto the seat beside him. His hands grabbed the bottom of his windbreaker, which he unzipped with the force of a thousand horses. He then dug in his pockets for something, and pulled out a hand-full of napkins. He threw them beside his cap with a look of near-panic on his face. Finally, he found whatever it was that was in his pockets and sat down, closing his eyes and planting his face in the palms of his hands.
He remained quiet for a few minutes, but then I felt a hand shaking my shoulders. I turned to find Mustache leaning far across the aisle, the whites of his eyes directed at me. “It sundown?”
I didn’t know how to respond, so I pointed to the darkness outside the window. “Is it sundown? Yes, it’s been sundown for a few minutes.”
He looked outside, then turned to me again, asking, “East?”
I looked outside and pointed to our 2:00. “That way is east,” I responded.
Without acknowledging me, Mustache faced forward, raised his hands, palms inward, and began to pray in Arabic at the same volume that he chatted on the phone. The young man sitting in front of him nearly jumped out of his seat, turned around with a look of sheer terror, then turned forward without saying a word. Everyone began to stare, but Mustache was undeterred.
After praying for what seemed to be 45 minutes, he reached into his pockets and pulled out…three packages of wheat wafers. He ripped one package open, prayed over the wafer (again, loudly), and devoured it. After finishing the first, he opened another wafer and sent shards of wheat flying in the air around him. He then opened the bottle of water and chugged it in a matter of seconds. After he was finished, he lifted it high into the air and stuck his tongue out, letting the last few drops fall into his mouth.
(I have to take a moment to assure you: I’m not making any of this up)
Mustache then reached upward and pressed the call button for the flight attendant. She dashed down the aisle, assuming something was wrong. When she arrived, he handed her the bottle of water and two empty wafer packages, and demanded, “I need a drink!”
“Sir,” she responded. “I have to finish serving everyone.”
“Fasting!” he half-growled. “Have to drink!” She ignored his request and made her way back to her cart. Mustache leapt to his feet and followed her, stopping and saying something else I couldn’t hear. Aggravated (and perhaps frightened), she handed him a ginger ale. He cracked it open, returned to his seat, and began slurping as loud as humanly possible. He opened another wafer and repeated the same process as earlier, culminating in the bizarre drops-on-the-tongue ritual.
Once he finished a batch of wafers, Mustache would reach up and press the call button again, summoning the attendant to his seat time after time. She would ask, "Yes?" he would say, "Trash," and he would deposit his wafer wrappers into her hand. This was repeated no fewer than five times.
Suddenly, Mustache jumped back up and walked to the back, entering the bathroom. When he emerged, the windbreaker had been removed and replaced by a button-up flannel shirt. It’s worth noting that I have no idea where he was hiding this shirt in the first place, as a t-shirt was all I saw when he unzipped the windbreaker.
Without warning, his iPhone was once again in my face. “Another picture,” he muttered to no one in particular.
“Take another one?” I asked.
He walked two aisle ahead, then turned around with the same I-kill-you expression. I took another picture and handed him the phone, but when he saw it, he shook his head angrily.
“No,” he said. “My shoes!”
“You want your shoes to be in the picture?”
He walked three aisle ahead, turned around, and we took another picture. He sat back down, and all was quiet for approximately 15 minutes. Until...
I turned and looked at Mustache. He stood, picked up his windbreaker, and began to examine the pockets. “My hat,” he repeated. He felt between the seats, then hit his hands and knees in the aisle, scanning the shadows below for his cap.
In an attempt to end the new awkwardness, I turned on the LED light on my phone and shined the beam underneath the seats. His hat was nowhere to be found. Mustache scooted across the floor and grabbed the purse of the woman in her 50s who sat behind him. “Oh, that’s my purse,” she warned. He shook it, then placed it back under her feet.
Mustache looked at me and pointed, “Here! Light here!” He pointed underneath the back of his seat. We looked everywhere, but his hat was nowhere to be found.
The flight attendant noticed the continuing commotion and asked me, “What is he doing now?”
“He can’t find his hat. He might have taken it with him to the bathroom.”
“No, no,” he mumbled as he shook his head. “When you take picture, I put hat here!” He pointed at his seat and glared at me.”
“Well, it’s not there,” I said. “Are you sure you didn’t take it to the bathroom.”
“No, no, no. I put hat here! Did you take hat? You take hat!”
“Did I take your hat?” My eyes grew wide as I realized that I had gone from being Mustache’s photographer to the guy who had stolen what was apparently his most prized possession. “Man, I haven’t seen your hat.”
Mustache continued to look for his hat as I mentioned to the flight attendant, “I’m going to have to sprint to make my connecting flight. There’s no way y’all will let me out early, is there?”
She frowned and said, “No, I’m sorry. But look, follow me. I’ll at least get you closer to the front.” I think she might have been saving me from the wrath of Mustache.
The flight attendant guided me to an empty seat on the seventh row and said, “Here, let’s get your phone online so you can see what gate your next flight is on.” The other flight attendent stepped over and asked what was happening. The two of them pulled up a map of LaGuardia, and showed me which way I should sprint after exiting the plane.
I turned and looked back to see Mustache glaring my way with his photography pose, envisioning the day the hat thief is brought to justice.
Once the doors were opened, I darted past the terminals, arriving at Gate D3 completely out of breath, sweating, exhausted, and two minutes too late. A friendly Russian employee scheduled me for another flight an hour and a half later, and sent me on my way…to the exact gate that I had just left.
I took my time, but I saw Mustache one last time. He was walking slowly towards baggage claim with his windbreaker folded across his arm and, yes…his cap upon his head.
I'll never forget you, Mustache.
Because you scared me.