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Sitting next to strangers on a plane is like standing next to strangers on an elevator. Uncomfortable. Awkward. Body bubble breach.

On my recent flight to Portland, Ore., the thin man was already settled in my row when I approached. He was well-mannered and stood up to give me easy access. Several minutes passed and he still hadn't spoken to me.

Then. Suddenly. The thin man spoke.

"You on college break?"

"Why are you going to Portland?"

"What do you do?"

"What's that like?"

"How long have you been doing that?"

"Did your mother nurse you," was probably next, so I only gave him brief responses in an attempt to limit the conversation.


For fun.

I work at a newspaper.



Probably thinking I was dull or shy or rude, he didn't speak to me much after that.

- - -

The drunk woman on my flight from Seattle wasn't as tactful as the thin man.

Within seconds of taking her seat, she told the guy in the aisle across from her that his seatbelt wasn't properly fastened. "You have to loosen it," she barked. "Guess I need to lose weight," he said, embarrassed. "It's still not long enough," she said in a frustrated tone similar to Elaine from Seinfeld.

I could feel her in my periphery. She was looking at me.

She began asking me questions:

"Is this screen for movies?"

"Do you think I'll miss my connection in Atlanta?"

"Why doesn't Lindsay Lohan just hire a damn driver?"

"My sister has cancer" was probably not the best segue, but she used it.

She then thanked Jesus for cocktails, which was followed by a tasteful rendition of Cruel Summer. After singing and bobbing her head to Banarama songs, the drunk woman napped for the rest of the flight. For that, she could thank vodka.

- - -

On my flight to Columbia, S.C. last year, a burly man resembling Santa Claus and wearing a large brown hat neared my row. He was also toting a box of Whoppers so big that it probably counted as carry-on luggage.

No, No. Don't stop here. Don't. No.

"This is where I'm parkin' it," he said plopping down next to me.

Before take off, the pilot came on the intercom: "Attention passengers, the aircraft is not at capacity. You are free to change seats." It could have very well been the voice of God.

I was elated.

Passengers began shuffling around to rows by themselves where they could spread out and not worry about sharing intimate space with burly men in brown hats.

But there I was. At the window. Trapped. Like a rodent. The man wasn't budging either. Paralyzed with indecision, I would be stuck there for the duration of the flight.

While chomping on malted milk balls and staring at pictures of cartoon people wearing oxygen masks, the man in the brown hat told me that he had flown on a small plane like this before.

"And you know what the captain said when we pulled up to the hangar," he said in a voice competitive to those promoting salad shooters on QVC.

"Come on, Mabel. The bus is here!"

He erupted into laughter. I knew that was my cue to laugh. I tried. I really did. But I didn't understand. Who was Mabel?

(He would repeat that anecdote three more times. Once to the flight attendant. Once to a woman in the row ahead of us. And later to the captain as we exited the plane.)

The man in the brown hat seemed to be amusing himself with an airline magazine.

He would chuckle every now and then at a series of product listings. He got my attention by gently nudging me and pointing to a poodle wearing a pink bow and tennis shoes. "Can ya believe it? Dogs are wearing shoes now. What next?"

I grinned and laughed lightly hoping he'd never speak to me again.

He continued pointing to the products in the magazine. He said his wife would probably like the foot massager for her calloused feet.

After only an hour, the captain came on the intercom, "Please -ut electron de-ces away. We-- --scending."

The man in the brown hat shouted, "What did he say?"

I didn't really know either, but chose to keep that muted.

Though I gathered that the pilot's announcement meant we were about to land. And, from that, I felt free.

Because, Mabel. The bus was finally here.

Tampa Bay native Shannon Breen will muse about life in this space from time to time. She can be reached at