Autumn Phillips: Anonymity in flight

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Autumn Phillips is on vacation. This column originally ran on Sept. 2, 2005.

Upgrade me. Upgrade me. Upgrade me.

I was sending psychic vibrations to the oblivious guy behind the Continental Airlines counter when my concentration was interrupted.

"You can sit by me." In the next row of black pleather seats, a man somehow had intercepted my mental waves. He was turned completely around and smiling at me. He moved his carry-on and patted a chair beside him.

He looked normal enough. He was clean cut. He wore a Swiss Army watch and an orange North Face jacket. But we were in New England -- the land of reserve -- and this guy had just broken every social rule of airport etiquette.

Waiting in an airport is a little like being on the subway. You can stare at the woman across the aisle with the little dog as long as you look away when she turns her head your way. You can listen in on the guy's cell phone call with his secretary/girlfriend as long as you don't nod in agreement with anything he says or laugh at his jokes.

It's the subtle art of being completely alone in the middle of a crowd.

I gave Yellow Jacket an uncomfortable smile and said something stupid like, "Oh, really." Somehow it encouraged him, and he kept talking.

"Do you know how much longer we have to wait?" he said. "They should really play a movie for us or something. I'm so bored."

We were sitting at Logan Airport waiting for a flight to Houston. I took a second look at this guy and saw the frazzled caffeine nerves of someone who had been flying for a very long time. Maybe he got on a flight 12 hours earlier in the Ukraine and was heading home to Texas. Maybe he had a fascinating story to tell.

In an earlier incarnation of myself, I might have asked. But the current me is afraid of conversations with strangers inside the inescapable can of an airplane cabin. And the current me is especially afraid of starting those conversations before we even have boarded.

Also, I've seen the previews for that new movie starring the villain from "Batman Returns."

I did the most logical thing. I grabbed my bag and walked away, straight across the terminal to a brightly lit magazine stand. I had to build a wall between myself and any ambush by the bored and lonelies that it seemed might be on my flight.

Shopping for reading material in an airport is a freeing experience. No one is going to judge you if you decide to buy People magazine for the latest dirt on Brad and Jen's breakup.

The airport is not real life. In the air, you can indulge yourself in whatever literary trash you like. You are in intellectual limbo.

So I reached for a copy of Cosmopolitan -- 300 pages of trite sex advice, made-up dating horror stories mailed in by "readers" and, most important, the Cosmo quiz. I gave the man at the counter $4, took my penny change and walked back to the waiting area to find out whether I am an interesting/demanding date by answering 10 simple multiple-choice questions.

I sat far from my earlier seat and opened the magazine to a blast of smells from the six or seven perfume samples inside. Before I knew it, they were boarding my flight.

I took my seat in economy class. After the interruption from the chatty Ukrainian traveler I had never returned to my Jedi upgrade mission. I noticed he was sitting a few rows ahead of me, but when he looked my way, I went glassy eyed in the classic tradition of pretending not to see someone who is standing only two feet away.

My seat, 26B, was next to a guy who radiated anxiety with every loud deep breath he took. He clenched down on his armrests as the plane took off, and I thought to myself, "I don't want to die with this person."

On my flight to Boston, I had been reading the book "Stiff," which included a chapter on what happens to your body in different airplane crash scenarios -- having the cabin rip open five miles above the ground, versus hitting the water with the plane intact.

Usually, I like to look out the window during the flight and enjoy the solo traveler idea that no one knows where I am and no one can reach me. I was peacefully watching the patchwork of farmland below when the man next to me started to rub his temples and make quick, breathy snorting sounds.

I reached for my copy of Cosmo and made myself disappear as I focused on the latest trends in pedicures and handbags and a numbered list of 50 foolproof ways to pick up strangers.

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