On Thursday evening at Marchand's at the Vinoy, three men took up soup spoons and began eating gazpacho. They have dined together nearly every month for the past six years. Ever since air traffic control brought them together.
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On May 4, 2008, Southwest Flight 1160 was scheduled for a 5 p.m. departure. Three strangers sat in adjacent molded plastic chairs in the waiting area as a storm gathered force outside Philadelphia International Airport.
Lee Mentis, now 41, an anesthesiologist from Belleair Beach, had spent the weekend in Philly with his wife, who was there for medical training. David Levene, 61, a Sarasota businessman who buys and sells gold and valuables, had visited a son in podiatry school. Retired Strayer University professor Mel Kerman, 77, attended his 50th reunion at the University of Pennsylvania and was eager to get home to Clearwater.
The flight would be delayed, and delayed again. The strangers watched each other's bags as they got a drink, went to the men's room. Kerman held down the fort as the other two picked up pizzas and the three of them balanced slices on their knees and talked.
And talked. They had a mutual interest in the Middle East (Levene and Kerman are Jewish; Kerman had lived in Israel; Mentis is Greek). Mentis and Kerman were lovers of languages (Kerman spoke five). Kerman and Levene shared a storyteller's gift of gab.
The flight departed at 11 p.m. But something had happened during those six hours. At 2 a.m. in the eerily still hallway of Tampa International Airport, the three paused. We'll be in touch.
"No, we won't, unless we do something definite," Kerman said. "Let's set a time and meet for dinner and see what happens."
A month later they met at the Acropolis at the ICOT Center, a restaurant now defunct. Another time it was Macaroni Grill, but that was too loud. Marchand's felt about right — you could hear yourself talk and the 1925 prix-fixe menu usually suited them.
They begin the evenings with a mock-serious: The Southwest Flight 1160 meeting will now come to order. Kerman is the honorary treasurer but the coffers are bare. What was it about those six hours that led to this?
Kerman says simply: "We just enjoyed each other, I guess."
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The Flight 1160 trio invites their significant others to the dinners each Valentine's Day. Kerman helped choose the name of Mentis' first child (Andreas, something suitably Greek and not the "beige" name Mentis had been considering). In the past couple of years Kerman has developed health problems and Mentis has become his health care surrogate, consulting with his doctors and evaluating treatment.
They run errands for each other and give advice, send each other birthday notes and holiday cards. Next month they plan a trip to Tarpon Springs. Levene says the relationships have evolved but that Kerman is the glue ("although he sometimes baffles us"). They talk politics and education, lament about health care, but in all this time, Kerman says there's never been a cross word.
By their own reckoning, Levene is the group's goofball who has a knack with the ladies; Kerman is the erudite one; and Mentis is a bright guy of whom the other two say "you can't find a more caring friend."
In the lobby of the Vinoy, Levene leans in and says, "You know, it makes you realize you've got to be careful who you sit next to in an airport."
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter.