The guy is taking his first bite. I look at him and feel—besides acute envy—a good deal of admiration. What masterful planning! I happen to know that his muffuletta is an original version from Central Grocery. Parking is nearly impossible around that place, and he probably had to go there in a cab on his way to the airport and wait in line at the counter while the car carrying his bags circled the block.
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.
We Hear You!