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Emotional Turbulence On Board The Delta Flight To New York

Rajen Bali

Once upon a time, it happened on board a Delta flight from Madrid to New York.

It all started with my getting my pocket picked in Madrid. I had spent almost a year in England, Belgium and Holland. This trip was quite different from my previous trips. This time, I was trying to establish myself as an artist.

I had some successful showings in England and in Belgium and had sold many of my works. For some reason, all that I had earned was in hard cash. So, before catching my flight to New York later in the day, I decided to turn my cash into traveler’s checks. So, I asked the man at my hotel’s reception about the nearest bank where I could buy traveler’s checks. He gave me directions, wearing – as it struck me much, much later – a rather sly smile.

I made my way to the bank to which I had been directed and went to the counter to carry out my transaction. I put my hand in my pocket to take out the cash, but my pocket was empty. No money!

Stunned, I walked away from the counter. Feeling quite confused, unsettled and rather dizzy, I walked to the cooler and drank a glass of cold water. Sitting in a chair in the bank’s lobby, it took quite some time for the happening to really sink in. I had lost almost all my money and I was scheduled to catch a flight in a few hours’ time. What to do?

Among the reasons for my going to New York was the fact that my one-year-validity round-the-world-ticket was about to expire in about ten days’ time. I wanted to try and get my ticket extended in New York.

By then, I was a seasoned traveler and had learned to keep aside an Emergency Fund. So, I still had about 500 dollars. I decided: “What the hell, it is only money. I can always earn more. Let us proceed to New York.”

I returned to my hotel, picked up my bags, checked out and took a cab to the Madrid-Brajas Airport. On the way to the airport it struck me that the man at hotel reception – he who had given me directions to the bank – had appeared to ask me some questions and by then his sly smile appeared to have turned into a satisfied smile. Had he tipped some pickpocket? I suspected so, but it hardly mattered now.

I checked in and found in the departure area that there was a sales promotion on for Black & White Scotch whisky. I bought a bottle for a very good price and was given a small glass tumbler with a Black & White logo, as a free gift. I still have it.

Those were days when one could smoke aboard the aircraft. So, I was smoking quietly, in a ‘vacant and pensive mood’, mulling over the catastrophe and trying out various future options in my mind. Then, trouble started with my neighbor having some breathing problems. A doctor was summoned and it was decided that my neighbor needed oxygen. I was told to either stop smoking or go and sit somewhere else. Wishing my neighbor the best of luck, I got up and walked up the aisle, looking for a vacant seat.

A few rows ahead, I saw a middle-aged lady – she too appeared to be in a vacant and a pensive mood – puffing away at her cigarette. I asked her for permission to sit next to her. She looked me up and down and then nodded in assent. I sat down and, took out a cigarette, lit it and sat smoking, in deep thought.

For almost fifteen minutes, both of us sat cocooned in our thoughts, when she suddenly stuck out her hand and said, “I am Eleanor from Boulder, Colorado.” I shook her hand and told her that I was Rajen from Kolkata, India.

We started chatting after some time she narrated her story. She was a teacher and a poet – now retired – and had been very happily married to a building contractor named Ben. They were having a wonderful life, what with her having a good job, Ben doing good business and their being blessed with a son. Then things started going wrong. Their son, Doug, started going astray, keeping bad company, taking to drugs and being caught by the police a number of times for minor offences. Stress and worry for Doug started effecting father Ben’s health. Then he had a fall, suffered partial paralysis and was bed-ridden for quite a few years.  Ben had died some months back. Eleanor was suffering a great sense of guilt as she thought that she had not looked after Ben as well as she could have. To make matters worse, Doug had taken a large slice of her money and run away to Europe – to live the life of a vagabond.

She had come to Europe to find her son. After tracking him through France, Italy and Portugal, she had finally found him in Segovia, a town not far from Madrid.

The mother-and-son meeting had been an unmitigated disaster. Doug’s ‘welcome’ had been “Why are you chasing me, bitch? Why can you not let me be? I wish to have nothing to do with you. Just plain f--- off.” And much more in that vein.

She had come away, broken-hearted and in deep despair, trying to pick up the strands of her life again.

I expressed my deep sympathy and told her my tale of woe. All this swapping of sad tales appeared to have generated an urgent need for some spirituous strength. So, I bought two Scotches from a passing steward.  As we were sipping the bought drinks, I remembered the Black & White bottle I had bought at Madrid. I went back to my old seat and got the Black & White from my bag in the overhead locker.

Slowly, but steadily, we started drinking the Black & White, exchanging more information about each other and discussing our future plans.

Suddenly I got a brainwave. I told the stewardess that I too was a pilot and that I wanted to meet the Captain on the flight deck. After some time, she came back and told that Captain Johnson was very happy to have me on board, that he was unable at that time to come and meet me as some bad weather was expected, and that as a matter of pilot-brotherhood he hoped that I would accept the four miniatures of Amaretto Disiranno that he had sent.

By then, the number of Scotches consumed had made me a bit belligerent. ‘”Kindly give Captain Johnson my compliments, thank him for his gift which I hereby decline, because I was not looking for free booze, I can buy all the liquor I want, I just wanted to meet the Captain.”

After some time, Captain Johnson – an archetypal senior, grizzled, grey-haired airline captain – came and shook hands with me. He regretted his not having been able to come earlier. He also informed me that regulations did not permit any passenger to be allowed in the cockpit during flight, and that if I still wished to see the flight deck, he would be very happy to show me around after we had landed at JFK. He also hoped that I would accept his small gift. I thanked him profusely and was happy to accept the Amaretto miniatures.

Eleanor and I kept on going through the contents of the Black & White bottle. When it was announced that JFK airfield was about a half-hour away, we decided to have a last drink. I found that we had jointly gone through over three quarters of the bottle. I also thought that Eleanor was slurring her words. I wish I could have heard my own speech!

Before the landing, I went back to my old seat to get my hand baggage. I found that I was moving rather slowly.

We landed at the JFK in the early afternoon. Perhaps the most torrid good-bye scene since ‘Sayonara’ was conducted on board this Delta flight.  Eleanor and I were clutching each other very tightly in a clinch, tears streaming down from our eyes, we were sprouting forth vows of forever-friendship and keeping in constant touch and so on. The other passengers, burst into loud clapping, and those behind us nudged us to give them passage. I motioned Eleanor to move ahead, she did so with many a backward glance. I again sat down in my seat to catch my breath and recoup.

 As all the passengers filed away, I too decided to follow. But, I found that I had serious problems of locomotion. A kind stewardess saw my plight, offered kind, soothing words and lent me her shoulder as she pulled/guided me all the way to the immigration counter.

The immigration officer was a smart, black lady with a ready smile and a pleasant manner. “We are rather happy, Your Highness? How long do you wish to stay in the United States?” “Ten days,” was my reply. “What do you do?” “I am an artist.” “We in United States need people like you, please stay for six months,” she said as she stamped and returned my passport. I replied, “You are a very nice lady. If you give me your address, I will send you one of my paintings.” Her supervisor was getting a bit uptight and said to me rather brusquely, “Move on buster. There are others waiting.” But the kind immigration lady insisted on assisting/escorting me to the Customs.

The customs officer was a beefy, heavily-built Irish-American wearing the name tab “Wilson.”  He elevated me by saying “We are rather happy today, Your Majesty.” He sent a porter with me to get my bags. When we returned he asked: “May I have your permission to put a chalk mark on your bags, Sire? “Certainly my man.” He did so and asked me as to where did I wish to go. I said that I wanted to go to some hotel in Manhattan. He asked me to sit in a chair.

Then he called the porter and asked him to go outside and the taxi driver who was at the head of the line.

The porter returned with a Bangladeshi cabbie. Mr Wilson instructed the cab driver, “You very carefully take this gentleman to whichever hotel he wishes to go in Manhattan. Then you come back and inform me as to where have you left him. If you do not this, you will never be allowed to bring your cab to this terminal. Understood?”  The taxi driver understood it all too well.

I was safely taken to the hotel of my choice in Manhattan. I checked in, hit the bed and flaked out.

I woke up the next day, not only with a massive hangover but also rather vague memories of the happenings on the flight and on ground after reaching the JFK. Had all that really happened or was it just my imagination. Four little bottles of Amaretto, lined up on the bedside table were irrefutable evidence that ‘all that’ had really happened.

In the many years since these happenings, I received just one letter from Eleanor.