Are we real?

Pub date June 19, 2012
WriterL.E. Leone
SectionCheap Eats

CHEAP EATS I took a cab from the airport to the football game and changed in the back seat without (I don’t think) leaving anything behind, not even the big bag of smaller bags of airline pretzels. Which came in handy because it was a 6:30 kickoff — an awkward time, whether you’re coming from work, like my teammates, or across the country.

How I came to come by said bag of bags of airline pretzels for entirely free is a restaurant review unto itself, starring a five-year-old girl named Shaya. She got on the plane in Los Angeles with a big bald doll named Jacob, a small Dora the Explorer backpack, and a clipped-on ticket.

“Are you my babysitter?” she said to the stewardessperson, who, as it happens, was standing right next to me while I waited to use the bathroom.

Seatwise, I’d just leapfrogged to an aisle seat in the front of the plane, which you can do on Southwest when it stops to re-passenger.

While I was in the bathroom, the stewardessperson ushered little Shaya to the window seat of my row. When I came out, she apologized. As if!!! “I hope you weren’t planning on having a quiet flight,” she said.

What she couldn’t have known: that I had just said goodbye to two of the many little loves of my life, age 4 and 5, and wasn’t going to see them for one more month, if ever, because — as you know — I have a horrible fear of flying. Every time I step in an airplane I have to assume I am climbing into my tomb.

What neurotic nutcases like me need most in life is a sense of purpose, and here was mine, the moment I’d been waiting for, my “is there a babysitter on board” moment.

“No worries,” I said to the stewardessperson. “I’m a pro.” And I moved my stuff from the aisle seat to the middle one, right next to the girl and her doll so that no one could possibly come between us.

“Is this his first time flying?” I asked, indicating the doll.

“This is my little brother. His name is Jacob. I didn’t have him last time, but mama got him for me. His eyes close when he lays down,” she said. “See?”

I did, and said so.

She leaned toward me conspiratorially and whispered over his head: “He’s not real.”

I whispered back: “Are we?”

She laughed and we introduced ourselves. She was on her way to her dad’s for the summer. Her dad had a new house. She was going to go swimming. I showed her pictures of the Chunks de la Cooter and told her how old they were, and she told me how old she was: Five, like I said. Almost six.

We were hitting it off. Then she got very thoughtful. “I feel awkward,” she said.


“I like you, but my mom told me not to talk to strangers.”

I got a little thoughtful myself. I thought: uh-oh. Was I encouraging unhealthy behavior in a five-going-on-six-year-old?

“Your mom is right,” I said. “You shouldn’t talk to strangers. But the person sitting next to you on an airplane, for as long as you are on that plane, is not a stranger. She is your airplane-only friend.”

This seemed to set Shaya’s mind at ease. In any case, she offered me a Chicken McNugget.

“No thanks,” I said. “I’m still full from last night.” (Comal, the trendy new downtown Berkeley joint with the fancy noise-reduction sound system and way overpriced, way underimpressive food, immediately after which I needed a snack at Phil’s next door: a completely awesome bacon cheeseburger slider with homemade tater tots and my favorite cookie ever, which was essentially a homemade Oreo. Ohmigod, new favorite restaurant ever!)

“What did you eat?” my airplane-only friend Shaya asked.

“Long story,” I said.

After we landed she looked up at me and said, out of the blue: “I was brave.”

“Me too,” I said. “Thank you.”

And the stewardessperson gave me pretzels.


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