Now coach class is filling up with the bracing aroma of an Italian market, and it seems to me that manna has come tumbling out of an overhead bin—alas, to a place just out of my reach.
I have never in my life remotely considered asking a stranger for food. But being in the air makes me believe the laws of etiquette could flex a bit, as if the Mile High Club might have a strictly culinary chapter I could join. This has never happened to me; emotionally, I find myself helplessly, hopelessly riveted to another person's sandwich. Finally, after a doomed battle with myself, I jettison a lifetime's lessons in propriety and turn to him.
"Did you hear that?" I ask.
"Hear what?" he says.
"It was my stomach growling. Forgive me. It's just that your sandwich smells divine."
Without missing a beat, the man breaks into a smile and hands over a quarter of his sandwich, the whole of which is designed to feed two very hungry people or four less-hungry ones. I take it and eat. Never has a muffuletta tasted so delicious. In no time, we are discussing several of New Orleans's best restaurants, for which he has a neophyte's unbridled enthusiasm. We summon a flight attendant and order minibottles of Merlot. This leads to off-the-cuff philosophizing about the mysteries of why we live where we do—in his case, Manhattan.
When I graduate to asking more personal questions, he tells me he is a concert producer and that for seven years he was married to a woman he loved. Then, a year ago, she died of breast cancer. He is still grieving. The trip to New Orleans was designed as a distraction and a way for him to reconnect with some of the basic things that make him happy, great food ranking high on that list. I tell him about the ins and outs of the relationship I am in, and in doing so, I realize that, as all friends do, we have found our essential subjects: food and love, two inexhaustible larders. He offers me a second quarter of his sandwich, and I take it. He's eating a second piece too.
Soon he and I will disembark. Sadly, I will lose his business card and never be able to send him a thank-you note for reminding me that the most banal, cramped milieus can turn out to be quite comfortable—as long as someone is willing to show a little imagination, a little style, a little heart.
Next time, I'll pack the lunch and hope for a congenial, hungry seatmate. I'll have my magazines, too, just in case. And I'll try to remember that the limitations of a stingy environment can push us to connect when we don't really want to: to reach out, to ask, to give, to take. What a relief it is when walls come down and we find that we can talk to strangers in the down-to-earth language of food. That, in fact, they aren't strangers at all.