I could smell the alcohol on his breath as he leaned towards me from his window seat. I had hoped to write on my red-eye flight. But something in this soft-featured redhead’s manner suggested that it would be hard for me to stay focused on my essay. Even though it was past midnight, he was eager to talk and a little too intoxicated to feel self-conscious about sharing his thoughts with a stranger.
“I’m Lars. From Mesa.” He extended a doughy hand, which, after a moment’s hesitation, I clasped in my own. “Charlie,” I replied, “from Tucson.” He moved a little closer.
“I’m not really from Mesa. I mean, I’ve lived there for the last four years. I’m really from Wisconsin, though. Madison. That’s where I’m headed, to visit my parents.”
I searched for a reason to shut down the conversation. Lars seemed friendly enough, despite demonstrating the edgy geniality of someone who spends a lot of time sitting on barstools. After a day filled with one mishap after another, though, I was desperate to make progress on my paper. At some point, I’d grow too tired to be productive. Unless I wanted to improvise my presentation later in the day, I needed to make headway while the rush of travel was still flooding me with adrenaline.
But then Lars popped in his earbuds and began to nod to the music blasting out of his iPod. I was able to work for a half hour, though I was sometimes distracted by trying to figure out what he was listening to. When 75% of what you hear is the rhythm section, that can be a frustrating exercise. Still, I was grateful. Maybe this wouldn’t turn out to be the sort of flight I dread after all.
I was deeply immersed in the editing of a paragraph when I felt a tap on my left shoulder. Although Lars’s headphones were still emitting the tinny ruins of tunes, he wanted my attention. “You know why I’m taking this trip for free? Because I always complain. Every time I fly I call the airline afterwards to bitch about something. And they always give me something. Last time I was in Madison I was supposed to fly out on US Airways. When I got to the airport, though, there was no sign for the airline. At first I thought I’d accidentally booked for Milwaukee. But then someone explained that I was actually flying back to Denver on United.”
“A code share,” I replied, trying to be polite. “They can be tricky.” Lars’s eyes rolled awkwardly in their sockets, like ball bearings slowed down by grit in their lubricant. “Fuck that! I called to tell them what for. They ended up giving me a voucher for $300. That’s how I roll.” My initially positive impression of my neighbor was starting to sour. Now he just sounded like a user, someone who takes advantage of the system.
I smiled wanly, then twisted my body towards the aisle, trying to make it clear that I was done listening. Either Lars didn’t notice or he didn’t care. “You have to remember, they’re always trying to screw us over. It’s our responsibility to get revenge whenever we can. You think they give a shit about all the unjustifiable fees they tack onto airfares, hiding them in the final total?”
Now Lars was making sense. I looked back at him, deciding that if I was going to have to listen to him anyway, I might as well make the most of the experience. For years I’d been telling friends who complain about annoying people on flights that they should take advantage of the rare opportunity to learn from someone they probably wouldn’t talk with in any other context. “Think of its as a kind of education,” I would pontificate. Now I was getting the proverbial taste of my own medicine.
Once I’d reconciled myself to the idea of deriving maximum benefit from my conversation with Lars, it became a lot more interesting. It didn’t hurt that he shifted the topic from airlines to politics. At first he kept things very vague. But the longer I went without contradicting him, the bolder he became. He didn’t like Jan Brewer, the governor of Arizona, he confided. The one he really loathed, though, was Scott Walker, the governor of his native Wisconsin.
Both are staunch Republicans. Walker rose to national prominence after his November, 2010 election by spearheading an effort to strip state employees of many rights won through collective bargaining. Brewer, who assumed office after Democrat Janet Napolitano was appointed Director of Homeland Security for the United States, has made a name for herself as a staunch opponent of illegal immigration; a tireless campaigner against just about everything President Obama has tried to do in the White House; and, more recently, the driving force behind a move that would up the ante in the war against state employees, calling for them to relinquish even the chance to have their grievances heard in the case of punishment or dismissal.
Lars’s opinions were starting to intrigue me. Mesa, where Lars is from, is one of the most conservative cities — the population is now larger than that of St. Louis, Missouri — in the United States. Many of its residents are Mormons, who are notoriously suspicious of the Federal government. This is understandable, since it persecuted their ancestors throughout the nineteenth century. But even non-Mormons act Mormon there. Were it not for its Mexican-American population, Democrats would probably be outvoted 7 to 1. Clearly, Lars wasn’t your typical white male from Mesa.
Suddenly, Lars’ face went white. A flash of sobriety was undermining his confidence. He looked me over more carefully, then peered over the surrounding seats to see if anyone was listening to him. Then he lowered his eyes to study the books I had scattered over the seat between us. That put him at ease. He leaned back in my direction and half-whispered a question.
“You’re a liberal, right?” I gave my standard answer to this question. “You could say that, though I don’t think of myself that way.” I wasn’t about to tell him that I identified with the real Left, not the Fox News fantasy of same imputed to the President. This admission was good enough for Lars. “I could tell. The way you were listening to me, I knew you were smart. You get it. Most of these fools — ” he gestured with his hand, “Most of these fools don’t have a fucking clue.”
Drawn in by this flattery, I decided to do a better job of reciprocating. Without revealing my hand completely, I expressed support for Lars’ political convictions. This led him to relax even further. Now I was his new friend. Every few minutes he would reach over to give me a low five, saying “I could tell you were the right kind of guy.” Even as this grew tedious — he had stopped saying anything new for a while — I went out of my way not to dispel the aura of solidarity.
The drink cart came, so Lars ordered another Jack and Coke. I was hoping it would make him fall asleep for a while, so I could get back to my paper. But Lars still seemed wide awake. Thankfully, the renewal of his high drove him back to his music. This time he turned the volume up even louder. I could hear every song distinctly, though I didn’t know them all.
At one point, when I heard Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” coursing from his ears, I leaned over to tap him on the shoulder. He pulled out his earbuds. “Good song,” I told him. Smiling, he went back to his music. I never would have pegged him as a Joy Division fan. Could I have misjudged him in the beginning? It was starting to seem that way.
As my heart warmed at the prospect, thinking that Lars might even turn out to be the sort of person I’d like to stay in touch with, my reverie was brought to an abrupt halt. He had gone straight from “Love Will Tear Us Apart” to the pop group Berlin’s Greatest Hits. And he was going to listen to every single one.
Upbraiding myself for being such an elitist, I reminded myself of a slogan I’d come up with nearly two decades before: “Political preferences, not taste preferences.” What did it matter if some of the tunes blaring from his iPod were not to my liking? We had something more important in common.
I could tell from the smell rising from his seat that Lars was now fully intoxicated. Could he be one of those people who is afraid of flying and self-medicates in order to make it bearable? At least he was a jovial drunk. After he’d finished the Berlin album he had carefully scrolled through his library to select something new. This album I couldn’t quite place. Finally, the suspense ended up getting the better of me. I tapped him on the shoulder again.
“What are you listening to now?” Without removing his earbuds, he extended the iPod in my direction so I could see. It was a concert recording by a band I hadn’t thought of in a long, long time. “The Bo Deans,” he nearly shouted. “I love the fucking Bo Deans.” I remembered having my parents record their first album and send it to me when I was living in Germany as an exchange student back in the 1980s. “They’re from Wisconsin,” I told Lars.
“Of course they’re from fucking Wisconsin,” he replied, looking peeved. “Do I look stupid to you?” I brushed off this sudden show of hostility. Within seconds, he seemed to forget that I’d impugned his intelligence. “Hey, did you know I’m from Wisconsin?” I told him I did.
“I’m from Wisconsin. Both my parents worked for the state government. My dad was a fifth grade teacher until he became the Director of Technology for the district when computers first became a big deal. And my mom is an administrator. They love their jobs. Together they take in 15,000 dollars a month. Good jobs. Scott Walker is such an idiot.”
I agreed with him, trying to smooth over any remaining ruffled feathers. His eyeballs started rolling awkwardly in their sockets again. “Did I tell you I’m flying to Wisconsin?” I told him he had. “I’m from Wisconsin, you know.” Lars was literally starting to sound like a broken record. “My parents have good jobs there. But that asshole Scott Walker doesn’t care about people like them.”
After several more go-rounds, I was beginning to despair of ever escaping this conversational purgatory. Then, without warning, Lars inched forward. “I would bet you a million dollars that Obama is going to be reelected. If there were a million dollars on the seat between us, wouldn’t you bet it that Obama is going to be reelected?
I agreed that the condition of the Republican challengers made this seem a lot more likely than it did a year ago. “But the price of gas is going to be a problem for the White House.” Lars stared me in the face, a wounded animal cornered by his own pride. “Fuck the price of gas. I tell you, if there were a million dollars on this seat, I would bet it that Obama is going to be reelected!” His eyes were starting to go bloodshot.
“You know what, though? If we can’t have Obama, I wouldn’t mind giving Ron Paul a go.” Lars wasn’t the first person I’d talked with to make this improbable leap. Otherwise rational friends of mine have made the same declaration, as if the difference between the Texas libertarian and the President were a slight twist of the ideological dial.
Recalling how little luck I’ve had disabusing anyone of this notion and worried about provoking Lars again, I opted for my standard détente with Paulistas. “There’s something to be said for consistency,” I began. “At least you know where you stand with Ron Paul. He’s not about to rewrite his political history on a moment’s notice the way a poll watcher like Mitt Romney will.”
Lars leered his approval of this line of argument. “But you know,” I continued, “I have friends who know a lot about the economy who insist that Paul’s idea to return to the gold standard can’t be implemented without causing tremendous pain to the majority of Americans.” Now I was inching out onto thin ice.
“Maybe that’s what this country fucking needs,” Lars responded. “The regular politicians won’t do shit. All they worry about is getting reelected. Maybe the only way we can fix this mess is to have someone who doesn’t care about hurting people take over. Maybe it’s time for us to suffer.”
I tried to point out that, despite his ideological consistency, Paul had been a successful politician for decades. Surely he, too, had made compromises in order to stay in office. And isn’t there something to be said for adapting to changing times? Staying true to one’s principles doesn’t seem like such a good plan if they are out of step with present-day realities.
Lars was starting to slur his words pretty badly now. But he managed to pump a few more gallons from the rhetorical well. The handmade signs that I’ve seen popping up at intersections around town have apparently made an appearance in the Greater Phoenix metropolitan area as well.
“Ron Paul is the candidate for peace,” Lars repeated several times. When I tried to make the argument, against the grain of my own inclinations, that the United States has a responsibility to live up to its global commitments, he managed one last devastating counterpunch. “Tell that to anyone who has lost their family in a bombing raid, to all the orphans in Afghanistan and Iraq, to the people who have lost their limbs or their minds.”
That shut me up. I knew I wasn’t going to get anywhere explaining why I thought that Paul’s isolationist notions were unlikely to translate into a peaceful world. Against all odds, Lars had staved off the effects of his intoxication long enough to convince me that we might be kindred spirits after all, despite our obvious differences.
“You know where I’m going?” Lars was back in broken-record mode. I answered too quickly. “Madison. Your parents live there. They both work in public schools. You’re father used to teach fifth grade before becoming Director of Technology.” Lars glared at me. “How the hell do you know all that?” I explained that he had already told me.
“Fuck if I did.” Convinced I was making fun of him now, he put his earbuds back on and leaned away from me. That’s where he stayed for the rest of the flight. But he still wasn’t sleeping. Sometimes he would sing along, horribly out of tune, to the music on his iPod. And sometimes he would begin a halting soliloquy, addressed to the reflection in the window.
“See those lights down there? The people who live there are hurting. They’re Americans and they’re hurting. The politicians don’t give a fuck. No one’s interested in helping them. Their lives are just going to get worse and worse.” I let him talk without indicating that I was still paying attention.
“They’re Americans and no one care about them. Fuck Scott Walker. Fuck George Bush. Fuck every single one of those assholes. All they care about is getting the money to get reelected. No one thinks about those lights down there. They just pretend.”
Lars went on to repeat this speech, with slight variation, half a dozen times. And then he finally grew silent for the remainder of our time at cruising altitude. I got out my essay and tried to salvage what was left of the flight. Once I looked over to see tears rolling down his face. He was listening to Quiet Riot.
As the flight attendants made their way through the cabin making sure everyone’s tray table was stowed away and their seat belts fastened, Lars winked at me. “I’m the one who never buckles up. I make it look like I’m strapped in when they come around to check, but I stay free. They aren’t going to make me into one of their slaves!” I smiled.
After the plane had landed, Lars grew belligerent again. He was very loudly complaining about the “morons” in front of us who were taking so long to exit the plane. People who had been annoyed by his volume while trying to sleep cast him nasty glances. A few of them called out to him, which only incited his ire further.
Once I’d reached the end of the jet way I paused to let Lars catch up with me. The least I could do was say goodbye, wish him well. But he was no longer right behind me. I moved out into the terminal and stepped aside to let the rest of the passengers by. Five minutes went by, then ten. No one else was exiting the plane.
Maybe Lars wasn’t going to make it to Madison after all. I waited until the flight crew emerged. I waited as long as I could. Did he pass out? Did he pay the consequences for speaking so freely and so loud? I’ll never know. But I haven’t been able to stop thinking about him. It’s a free country.
Photograph courtesy of the author