A few days ago I was taking a red eye flight from San Francisco to New York for a couple of days of work in the city that never sleeps. Little did I know that I wasn’t going to get any shut eye either – not only because I can’t sleep on planes, regardless of the time of day, but because this flight was going to be a – well – let’s say new kind of experience.
It was a Tuesday night. I had been warned that flights might get delayed out of SFO because God had decided to open the floodgates of rain on California and the state that has been in a drought for the past five years did not have a modern enough aviation system to deal with these weather conditions. My sister picked me up from a dinner wearing a pajama, evoking boundless jealousy in me, because all I wanted after a long day of work and socializing is a warm home with a soft couch, a fluffy blanket and me somewhere in between. Alas! On the way to the airport I remembered that I forgot to pack my toothbrush. Was it because of a piece of lemongrass that was stuck between my teeth that I started thinking of the most mundane of things on an exciting trip to NYC? Since we were a bit early I asked my sister if we could stop somewhere to drink a coffee and maybe buy a toothbrush. No chance! She was wearing booties underneath her PJ and refused to step out of the car. Drive through coffee? No, she thinks it is uncool to sit in a car in the rain with a drive through coffee…with me. Hmmmpf!
My otherwise just-in-time track record of getting to the airport was broken by this early arrival. Lo and behold, I was the only one in the security line and made it to the somewhat spookily empty gate area with almost two hours left on my hands. Instead of trying to find a toothbrush I got the ridiculously yummy hot chocolate from a gourmet shop across from my gate because I was a) freezing and b) thinking that the heat of the drink will help “melt” the lemongrass out from where it was stuck. It had been a long day, you know.
Despite the torrential downpour the flight was on time. I had no idea where all those people came from suddenly but the plane was chock-full. Luck and I have never been best of friends so I got a middle seat to add insult to injury.
Now I was fully expecting there to be a baby in my row or within a two row radius of mine. God bless the potential future Mom in me but I was really not prepared for a red-eye-middle-seat-middle-of-the-week flight with a crying baby anywhere near me. Fortunately, parents thought the same and there was no one under five feet anywhere in sight. Three minutes into settling into my seat – with my coat on to prevent hypothermia – my aisle seat neighbor showed up. She was an unsuspecting Asian girl (woman?) – I can never tell. As soon as she sat down and shoved her bag underneath the front seat I wrinkled my nose and started sniffing like a disturbed little puppy. I knew this smell! It’s all over San Francisco and near bridges in San Jose. Weed! OMG, weed! This woman’s bag was full of weed. I couldn’t stop wondering how she got through security with this. I know marijuana has been legalized in California but she was flying into New York and the nauseating smell told me this was more than just a little pack or two. I looked around and no one was even flinching. Why? I was about to pass out from this smell. There were no other seats empty and I couldn’t just have gone to the flight crew and told them to please change my seat because – uhm, eh, my neighbor brought on a bag full of weed on board and I was about to throw up from the smell. My six hour misery began. I started hallucinating – not sure if it was the fumes of the weed getting to me or the thought that I had three days of jam-packed work ahead of me with little prospect of sleep.
About halfway through the flight, awake like I have never felt before, I was staring at the blank screen in front of me on a plane that was darkened for people to fall asleep. Suddenly, I sensed a flicker of light hitting the side of my face and the smell of the weed being diluted with the smell of something else I was trying to recognize. An elderly, cute gentleman, clad in a lungi, a long white kurta, an Islamic prayer cap and a long bushy white beard was violently shaking his fist that was tightly clasping around what seemed to be a tiny little flashlight. He must have gone to the bathroom and was now trying to find his way back to his seat not realizing he had way overshot his seat number and was now in the front of the plane. He was reeking of zarda. The smell was so strong that it woke up everyone in my vicinity and I saw more than a few worried faces when Uncle Zarda continued to pound his fist to get that flashlight battery to fall in place. I saw a woman quietly mouth the word “bomb” to her husband and I couldn’t help but laugh at the comedy of all of this. Or maybe it was just the potent mixture of the stomach churning smell of marijuana and zarda that was driving me nuts. Slowly but surely, after flashing at least five more people by accident Uncle Zarda made it back to his seat but left behind his cloud of sweet tobacco. That cocktail of smells must have woken up my window seat neighbor too – a very stylish, clearly NYC lady in her 70s, with white hair and as I found out instantaneously a runny nose. Now that she was up and awake she was snorting and thanks to a lack of tissues was “slurping” her runny nose “back in” every few seconds. I have no idea what the later is called. All I know is that it drives me baloni every time someone does it. If only I could have offered her a tissue. In addition to my nostrils being filled with the the dry pissy smell of weed and the sweet minty smell of zarda for the next three hours I had to endure this constant intrusion of nerve-wrecking slurp. An out and out attack of terroristic proportions on my olfactory and auditory senses! My head was spinning and if I had had a parachute in that very moment I would have put it to use!
We landed half an hour earlier than planned and given the chance I would have kissed the pilot’s feet for freeing me from this narcotic hell.
Looks like I was not the only one dying to get off this metal bird. As soon as the door opened a stout little New York woman started yelling from three rows behind me to “get the f*** off the plane” at which point my neighbor, gangsta Asian lady, turned around and gave her the look of her lifetime.
Having lived in NYC for a while I knew not to take a cab into Manhattan at rush hour so I made my way to the Airtrain station with puffy eyes and an assaulted nose. The train doors were about to close as I got to the platform so I jumped in and sat down next to an African American family of three – father, mother and a pre-teen girl. The mother asked a question, the father answered and within seconds both of them were in each other’s hair arguing about who said what. Spying through a thick black NY accent I deciphered they were arguing about whose decision it was to get on the wrong Airtrain. We were on the train to Howard Beach, not to Jamaica. What?! I was sitting on the wrong train too! For the next 15 minutes I circled around the airport to get back to where I started from with a fighting African American couple next to me, each trying to be louder than the other. Who needs a Broadway show when you have drama everywhere in this city?
20 minutes later I was on the right train to Jamaica Station. I got off, took the elevator down to the subway and while I was trying to make sense of all that had happened in the past seven hours I smelled it again! That sweet minty smell. I turned around and Uncle Zarda was right behind me. What in the world are the chances that I would see him again – that too on a busy NYC Subway platform after making a 15 minute detour on the wrong train? This time Uncle Zarda was holding a little pink tamagotchi like device in his right hand and was clicking on a silver button every few seconds all while murmuring a prayer. Now I am not easily terrorized or influenced by stereotypes but I don’t know what bombs look like these days. All I remember are the oval looking dark green ones in old Shatrugan Sinha movies. Maybe their aesthetics have changed over the years?
The E train arrived and we all jumped into the same wagon. That zarda smell and my complete lack of sleep was now slowly putting out parts of my brain. 20 minutes later I saw Uncle Zarda deboard and I continued on my journey into Manhattan.
With black circles around red eyes and a traumatized nose I made my way to the most amazing shower I knew of in the NYC office and let the hot stream of water wash away the past night of travel.