Friday, April 4, 2008


The passengers on the Boeing 747 issued a collective groan when the big jet banked and made a sweeping turn over the desert on its way back to Los Angeles International Airport, where it had taken off less than an hour earlier. Crackling over the intercom, the pilot announced that an oil leak in one of the four giant Pratt and Whitney turbine engines required him to shut it down and return for repairs. Since there was no airport nearby with a runway long enough to accommodate a 747, we were headed back to Los Angeles. A few people talked in excited whispers and others cinched their seatbelts tighter as the jet lost altitude and slipped close over tips of the 10,000-foot San Gabriel Mountains. Though still fifteen minutes out of Los Angeles, the flight attendants had already taken their seats. Across the aisle a woman with dark red hair nodded her head in prayer. When the plane finally touched down, the cabin erupted in cheers and applause. Back in the terminal, representatives from the airline told us that the cause of the oil leak had been the failure of a fifty-cent 0-ring. When they instructed us to board the same plane an hour later, half the seats remained empty.

Ever since that time I’ve found excuses not to journey long distances. I’ve even convinced myself that I enjoy a good, long drive. Nevertheless, air travel is as much a part of life in the twenty-first century as horses were in the nineteenth, and there are times when even the most squeamish traveler must stow his fear in the overhead compartment and temporarily suspend his belief in gravity. Though for me flying comes at a psychological cost, there are hidden benefits as well. As a strange kind of compensation for overcoming my reluctance, whenever I fly I seem to draw seats next to interesting people.

Once, on a nonstop from Paris to San Francisco, I sat next to a dreadlocked twenty-one year old Portuguese girl named Anna. She was reading a novel by a Brazilian writer, so I asked her advice about contemporary authors writing in Portuguese. She borrowed my notebook and filled a page with a list of names and titles. “These are just some of the better known ones,” she said. Pulling a silver ipod out of her striped wool bag, she asked, “Do you like music?” She handed me the headphones so I could sample a band with a strong techno beat while she wrote the names of her favorite musicians on another page of the notebook. As we talked, she took a tiny bottle of clear liquid from her purse and applied it to the metal ring that protruded from her lower lip. It’s important to keep piercings in that area wet, she told me, and saliva’s not the best lubricant. Then she delivered a dissertation on the art, psychology, history, and sexuality of body piercing.

In addition to the metal on her lip, she showed me the rings, studs, and i-bars on her tongue, ears, and brow, but left to my imagination the ones in less publicly accessed spaces. She loved piercings, she told me. She’d been doing them professionally for two years, working at a body mod shop on the outskirts of Brighton and then doing them on demand in Paris. Piercings are addictive. “There’s something about the process, you know, the pain, that’s hard to describe. It’s very intense,” she said. “I like to do them for other people, and I like to have them done for me. But it’s really important to get it right. You must make people comfortable, talk to them the whole time. It’s so personal. And you better really explain how to care for it afterwards so it heals okay. You know, so many people don’t know what they’re doing or even why they’re doing it.”

She was going to California with plans to spend a year working at a tattoo parlor in Isla Vista, near the campus of the University of California at Santa Barbara. A friend of a friend she met in Paris knew the owner. “I spoke to him on the phone,” she said. “He seemed very nice and told me I could sleep on the couch.” She hoped that custom agents at the San Francisco airport wouldn’t find or object to the large quantity of surgical needles in her luggage. “I don’t know where I’d get needles,” she said. “Besides, we like to use our own kind.” The more she thought about those needles in her luggage, the more apprehensive she became. “What are they going to think? I hope they don’t tell me to leave immediately.”

Though young enough to be my daughter, she was curious about the details of my marriage. “You know something about women, about life,” she said when I told her I’ve been married for close to twenty-five years. She had lived with different men in England and in Paris, but she wasn’t sure she’d ever really been in love. “How is the sex now after all this time?” she wanted to know. I told her it was just fine. At some point the flight attendants brought food and drinks and the lights had dimmed for a movie. It was a short ten hours, and before deplaning we exchanged email addresses. Months later I heard from her. Denied an extension on her tourist visa, she had gone to India and completed a Transcendental Meditation program at an ashram. Now she was traveling alone on a bus into the mountains. “The people here are amazing,” she wrote. I have no idea what happened next.

On another flight, this one from Sacramento to Washington, I sat next to a thin, energetic woman who told me that aliens had repeatedly abducted her as a child. We’d been making small talk about our travel plans—she and her mother, who was sitting in the row ahead of us because they’d been late boarding the overbooked flight, were on their way home from a funeral—when she suddenly put her hand over her mouth. “Oh my goodness. I’m sorry for asking so many questions,” she said. “I don’t mean to be rude. Maybe you’d rather read your book or take a nap? It’s just that I’ve got a habit of talking people up to pass the time.”

I smiled and admitted I had the same habit.

Chuckling to herself, she said we’d ended up in the right seats after all then. “I listen to people all day long and never yet got tired of it.” The key to good conversation is to be a good listener. If you’re patient and let people have their say, they’ll tell you some pretty interesting things, that’s for sure.

I agreed with her. “Everybody has a story.” That’s when she told me hers.

“Most people don’t believe me,” she said, after she’d asked me if I was interested in hearing about her experience with aliens, “but that doesn’t bother me much now. I’m used to it.” She fidgeted with her necklace and studied my face for a moment before she continued. Then she took a breath and began.

“Up until the age of sixteen they’d come for me,” she said. “I’d be asleep in my bed and a warm green light would fill the room. Then off I’d go, up to their ship. It happened fast, almost before I could catch my breath. They came for me about every six months.” I listened intently to what she told me. She spoke deliberately and when she paused, I waited for her to continue. “I’d have liked to think it was just a dream, but after a while I knew better because of the experiments they did on me. Didn’t they, mama?”

An elderly woman with oversized glasses peeked her head above the back of the seat in front of me. “They surely did.”

“I don’t want to say all they done, but most of it wasn’t nice. It made me so I’m not afraid of nothing now.”

“Are you worried they’ll come back for you again some time?” I asked.

“No, I’m not. Because I know for sure they won’t. I know a lot of things I probably shouldn’t.” Then she told me a story about how she’d tried to warn the son of a family friend that if he didn’t stop using drugs and committing petty crimes something bad would happen. “He laughed at me and walked away. I told him I would pray for him. Later on that same day he died an unnatural death.”

Just before the plane landed, the woman pulled her purse out from under the seat and gave me her business card. She owned a barbershop in Saint Louis where she cut men’s hair. “I won’t touch women’s hair,” she explained. When I told her she should write down her stories, she looked at me and said, “I’m telling them to you for a reason.”

For years I carried the card she’d given me in my wallet. When I looked for it just now, it was gone.

[This is a draft from a collection of essays, feature stories, and memoirs about some of the strange experiences I've had. Others in the proposed collection concern occult parlor games, doubles, cults and culture in martial arts, finding a lost or abandoned toddler, the southern California beach culture of the 70s, avant-garde writing as a profession, and "Alice in Azorath", an insider's look at the computer game, World of Warcraft.]