Conversation in the cheap seats

When I first tried to book my trip to New York, through conventional means - that is, through Air Canada or Westjet - the price was getting perilously close to $2,000.  Instead, I took the advice of my Facebook friends (and my wife) and used one of those online discount purchase options, which brought the price down to a much more reasonable $800.  Subsequently, I didn't get the best seats on the plane.  And on the Denver to LaGuardia leg, I got one of the two worst seats on the 737, right next to the bathrooms at the back, which became Grand Central Station about 60 minutes after the inflight service.

Sitting across from me was Tom.  Before we started moving, I asked him for some advice on how to best get to the train station from the airport.  That began an uninterrupted three hour conversation as we flew across much of the continental United States.

Unusual and unexpected conversations are the best.  And it was clear by the time we exchanged names, that this was going to be a good one.

"What do you do for a living Tom?" I asked.

He leaned across the aisle and whispered, "I'm in law enforcement," like it was not advantageous for too many people to know.

At first I thought he was one of those air marshalls or an agent of some kind.  As it turned out, he's a state policeman who goes and picks up criminals who have violated their paroles and have subsequently been re-arrested.  He and a partner escort the prisoners from wherever they ended up, back to their assigned prison in New York state.  We were about two hours into the flight before I figured out that he was actually on the job, transporting a prisoner who had made it all the way to California.  That quiet fellow was carefully tucked away in the window seat, not going anywhere.

Tom is a self-declared smart ass of Puerto Rican ancestry, raised in Manhattan and now living in a bedroom community to the north.  He's married to a beautiful veterinary assistant turned stay-at-home-mom who devotes her time to their two-and-a-half year old daughter.  He takes as many overtime hours as he can, but generally works Monday to Friday, traveling all over the place to pick up prisoners.

"I'm going to treat you as a man," he begins his well-crafted speech at the start of each new trip.  "If you respect me, I'm going to respect you, and we're going to have a lovely time together.  If you choose to do otherwise, I can promise you it's not going to be pleasant."

He told the story of one belligerent prisoner that he picked up in Seattle, Washington.  This individual, a loud and abrasive African American, was in no mental state to risk taking on a place, so the decision was to drive him across the country.  As he was deemed to be a threat, he was told to put on a pair of prison-issue orange jumpers.  He refused.  He was asked again, this time more forcefully.  And one more time he refused.

"All right," said Tom.  "If you want to play it that way, it's fine with me."

He slapped a pair of handcuffs on him, and took him out to the car, and a six-day drive across the country, in nothing but his underwear.

We talked about a lot of things during our three hour chat, while people streamed by to use the lavatories, often splitting the space between us, forcing us to lean forward to continue whatever story we were telling.  We shared snow tales, stories of family and of growing up.

"I hated leaving the city in the summer," he said, talking about yearly trips to camp in upstate New York.

"I can't imagine that," I said.  "When I think of New York in the summer, I think of how hot and sweaty it must be."

"Exactly," he said.  "The girls wore short shorts and bikinis.  There was nothing better.  I knew very young that I was most definitely a heterosexual."

As he flipped through his iPhone to search for an earlier picture from when he worked for the ASPCA (American Society for the Preservation of Cruelty to Animals), I made some kind of comment about how much the technology has changed.  He shared with me how adept his young daughter is at finding the exact songs she likes on the iPad, despite the fact she hasn't learned to read yet.

To illustrate how much has changed in last few decades, he recalled the time he had to transport a prisoner who had been in jail for 20 years, a convicted murderer.

"I'll never forget when we had to stop at a restaurant," he said.  "Eventually he had to use the washroom.  You should have seen his face when he was doing his business in the urinal and all of a sudden the thing flushed on its own."

"'Where's the faucets' he asked me, standing over the sinks.  Stuff we take completely for granted, he was seeing for the first time."

Talking with Tom was time well spent on a day that also included visits with a NYC cabbie originally from Bangladesh - I was his first fare in a brand new cab, having just received his coveted medallion, a pair of brothers from Ukraine - who made sure I got on the right train, and an informative Nepalese cabbie when I arrived in New Haven.

With the exception of the monotoned and dour flight attendant on one of the United Airlines flight - the way she said "Welcome to New York" she might as well have been saying "Welcome to the depressing depths of hell" - the people I ran into were warm, caring, engaging and incredibly friendly.  They collectively made a long day of travel an absolute breeze.


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