I absolutely resonate with the phrase “fly by the seat of your pants.” Not necessarily because I have ever piloted a plane in which I had to literally feel the g-forces of the aircraft resonating through my butt cheeks in order to steer us to safety, but because most of my new beginnings in life have arrived with the purchase of a randomly selected, whatever is available, economy plane seat.
Side note: I secretly love boarding the plane last. I am so fascinated by people who prefer to stand in the boarding queue at five in the morning, their bags slung up all around them, half-asleep with a precious cup of airport coffee clutched in one hand, airline ticket clenched even harder in the other- only to then board (after getting clogged up in the jet-way first), sit down, and continue waiting for everyone else to board while now being trapped in a confined three-person seating arrangement. Seriously, waiting until the final boarding call to enter the plane and locate your seat is the economy equivalent of first-class boarding.
Anyway, in early 2015, the seat of my pants was steering me south. On a blustery March afternoon in Minnesota, I found myself playing Google flights Russian roulette. I would choose my origin airport and then expand my destination search to anywhere in the United States of America. Moments later, I was greeted with a one-way flight to New Orleans, Louisiana with the all too affordable price-tag of $72. I asked myself, “Why not?” To which I replied, “I don’t know? Why not?”
Prior to booking this spontaneous flight down to The Big Easy, I had recently undergone termination from my theoretical dream job while working in the public health sector. My fall from the somewhat typical 9-5 work week whacked me up good after realizing that working for the government in order to “help people” involved treating individuals as numbers while navigating through far more systemic social and race challenges than my science degree in nutrition had ever prepared me for. (How do you console an 11-year old girl who has just given birth after undergoing a C-section?) If years of chemistry courses had been replaced with years of empathy and social justice courses, I think I would have been better equipped for the position. Yet, there I stood, tangled up with my supervisor in one of the most scathing “pack your desk” conversations that I have ever undergone, only six months into the position and one year after receiving my university degree.
I used to disassociate from feelings of sadness. All of my teen years as a female living amongst men taught me that no emotion of mine was valid in light of my ever changing hormonal status. The men in my family were allowed to be fine or to be angry. Here I stood. But as I continue to age, I realize that I am actually an extremely sensitive woman who has often powered down her feelings hard drive in order to power up the you-can’t-hurt-me face.
So, at the time, reserving a one-way flight to the opposite side of the country and planning to stay in a hostel until I figured out where to go next was partly my “you-can’t-hurt-me” face presenting itself.
However, I did have a little explaining to do with my family…
“New Orleans is dangerous, Anna. Why would you go down there? Do you know someone down there”
I shrugged and replied, “No, I don’t know anyone. But nothing bad is going to happen. Plus, there’s NO snow down south during the winter.” And here I would grin.
To which my dad scoffed, “The winter? But it’s practically the beginning of summer!”
But I favored the heat, and the humidity. So, I boarded the plane last and flew up and beyond any dream I had ever known before.
After arriving in New Orleans and spending a two-week period collecting, replacing, and losing friends in a Garden District hostel, I quickly discovered that wandering around a city with little to no-purpose rapidly dissolved the sweet flavor of adventure into the bland taste of self-indulgence. With little to aspire towards in this strange new city, I decided to leave my presence up to fate and applied to a casual cafe job at a local art museum. If I got the position, I would stay. If I didn’t, I would fly home to Minnesota.
One week later, I was peddling the spokes of a borrowed mountain bike down Broad Street to the nearest department store in search of black shoes, black pants, and a black button up shirt. This would be my new uniform as a Cafe NOMA (New Orleans Museum of Art) employee.
If you know anything about New Orleans (Nola), you know the words, “Bourbon Street.” This is the iconic corridor of drunkenness, debauchery, and “big-ass beers.” What most weekend bachelor trips and spring breakers fail to realize about Nola is that it nests a vibrant community-orientated visual and performance arts scene by way of museums, galleries, theaters, buskers, private residences, and parade.
Although many of these venues, including the NOMA, are not on most tourists radars, they quickly reveal themselves at the tap of a local Yelp search when hung-over bachelors are sludging around the city on a skin-melting, lava-hot Saturday afternoon, looking for a low-key and air conditioned activity to bide their time with before the darkness sets them free to repeat the drunken events of the previous night all over again.
In addition to a few select locals and those who may have literally stumbled through the museum’s entrance, the NOMA received many international tourists who happened to have a genuine interest in and appreciate for visual art. (Sorry Americans, I realize I am making some strong generalizations here. I see you art lovers out there.)
Here is where Australia begins.
On a warm December afternoon and a watch-my-own-hair-grow slow work day at Cafe NOMA, I found myself wiping the same countertop repeatedly, despite its longstanding pledge to remain vacant. My 60 year old co-worker, Susie, who was somehow more petite and quite a bit more fiery and charismatic than myself, was chatting away about her Christmas plans while I mostly smiled and dutifully chirped in a few thoughtful words every now and then.
As we carried on with our mindless cleaning tasks, a dark-haired man with a noticeable air of mystery pushed open the glass doors and eased his way into the cafe. He glanced around the perimeter, strolled over to the counter, and ordered a cappuccino in a well-steeped British accent. Susie glanced over at me with large eyes and I read her mind instantaneously.
Although my vocal chords tend to swell up to the size of a butternut squash whenever I am face to face with an attractive individual, Susie however, rode directly into the face of social danger and began questioning the handsome stranger before us.
“Where are you from?” She said with a smile.
“Originally from England but I live in Australia now. I am visiting some family friends here for a few days.” He replied sincerely but without any hint of exaggerated youthful enthusiasm. This man was not in his twenties.
“What is your name?” She continued.
“Alan.” He retorted back while turning to offer the response in my direction as his voice hung in the air.
As the conversation continued, I sucked in all of his words like a helium balloon and quickly grew, elated. Eventually, he sat down at a table away from direct ear-shot and Susie, with her big brown puppy dog eyes, spun around almost immediately and pleaded, “You have to ask him out! I would do it if I were your age.”
Whew, I didn’t think so. At that point in my life, I had accepted the fact that I could never ask out anyone that I was attracted to first.
Before I could sum up the courage to glance over in his direction again, Susie christened me as the server who would walk his order across the cafe and over to his table. I gulped, picked up his cappuccino, and dressed up in my best version of casual-waitress-who-could-care-less-about-bringing-you-your-cofee.
“Uh, I’m really sorry officer, I had no idea that it was illegal to drive across the streetcar tracks. …Really, I’m just visiting from Minnesota.”
Was it a lie? Not exactly. I had lived in New Orleans for almost a year at this point but my northern license plate and I.D. offered up another story.
It was late Thursday evening and the impossible cafe stranger from earlier that day somehow magically sat in the passenger seat next to me as I awaited my fate to be dished out by the police officer shining her flashlight into the dark interior of my car. Earlier at the cafe, Alan had invited me to join him and a few friends at a local jazz show in Mid-City. At this point in the night, we were driving towards Frenchmen Street in search of more New Orleans flavored music right before I crossed the Canal Street tracks and sealed my tomb of first-date embarrassment. Thankfully, darkness hid the deep crimson electricity striking through my toaster-oven cheeks.
Sensing my shame, the officer extended a sincere warning and withdrew into the night. I shyly glanced over at Alan and offered up the only natural response conceivable to me at the time: a burst of laughter. The pale orange street lights flooded in through my windshield and illuminated a similar smirk on his face. “All good!” he proclaimed, “But I am ready for a dance now.”
And so, like a reborn New Orleans tourist, I danced my way through Frenchman Street that evening, flying by the seat of the moment.
“Attention passengers, the doors to the air-craft are now closed and we will prepare for departure shortly,” the flight attendant announced over the intercom speakers.
I breathed a sigh of relief, noting that the middle seat between myself and another woman who also appeared to be in her twenties remained vacant after the air-craft had finished boarding.
It was Valentine’s Day of February 2016 and two months after first meeting Alan. My flight from New Orleans to Los Angelos breezed by in comparison to the 15-hour flight from L.A. to Sydney that I was now mentally preparing myself for. Not only did the absent middle seat passenger give our cabin row more elbow-room, it gave us an excuse to chat.
“I’m flying down to Sydney for a few days and then I will head north to The Gold Coast to visit my extended family in Australia,” the window-sat woman offered up kindly. She proceeded to break the ice with, “My family kept teasing me about flying on Valentine’s Day- like I would end up sitting next to a cute guy on the plane and then we would fall in love by the end of the flight.”
I laughed audibly, admitting that the whole idea did sound exactly like a movie I had never seen before. She simply grinned and went on to ask, “So, why are you flying to Australia by yourself?”
I stuttered for a moment, anticipating judgment but pushing it out of my mind for the sake of putting myself out there.
“Well..” I began slowly, “…a couple of months ago, I met a guy from Australia in New Orleans and we genuinely enjoyed each other’s company for a grand total of three days.”
My flight buddy smiled again, obviously pleased with the holiday-appropriate romantic tone of my story. Flushed with a mixture of both pleasure and embarrassment, I smiled shyly and finished by saying, “So, on the last day of his visit, he extended an open invitation to visit him in Australia and I guess I thought, ‘Why not?’“
More to come.