A Toast To … Single-Serving Friends
The film Fight Club (and I assume the Chuck Palahniuk novel, which I haven’t read yet) introduced the concept of the “single-serving friend”. They’re the people you meet briefly – on a plane, or at a crowded bar in an unfamiliar town – and start talking. You enjoy each other’s company for a few hours, then go your separate ways, never to meet again. In Fight Club, it’s a humorously cynical observation: casual partners for pointless conversation. An illusion of companionship to get you through a few hours of another day on your inexorable way to the grave. A brief distraction, nothing more.
Coming home from a trip to Miami for my day job, I had a 2-hour layover in Atlanta. I stepped off the plane hungry, but mostly thirsty, and beelined to the SweetWater Draft House & Grill (thanks to GateGuru on iPhone for the tip) for some hopefully good beer, and whatever meal they could provide.
The place was small and packed. The line for available seats moved quickly, but by the time I got to the front, no one was about to get up anytime soon. A voice said, “He can sit here if he wants,” to a hostess. As she walked over to relay the message, I realized the voice was referring to me. Why the hell not? I thought, and took him up on the offer.
Before I committed myself to the unorthodox arrangement, I eyed my unexpected dinner companion with the kind of guarded scrutiny that comes from having been in airports too long. He was my age, looked harmless, so I thanked him and sat down. He ordered a pint of 420 Extra Pale Ale and another for me on his tab, then introduced himself as Larry and told me where he was from. He too was on his way home from a business trip, and about to start the last leg of a grueling journey involving multiple connections.
I mentioned where I lived. “Austin! Keepin’ it weird!” he hooted. “What kind of music do you like?” It’s assumed worldwide that all Austinites are music fans (and it seems to be true). I named some of my favorites, and then asked Larry his.
“Gangsta rap,” he said. I nodded and told him how as a teenager I discovered what was left of a tape of N.W.A.’s seminal Straight Outta Compton next to an apartment complex dumpster, and how from that day on it’s been one of my favorite albums. Larry high-fived me enthusiastically across the table. We exchanged some profanity-laden lyrics that frightened the table next to us.
From N.W.A. we moved to Parliament-Funkadelic. Then hoppy ales. We talked about whatever either of us mentioned that excited the other. Larry told stories about the origins of idioms and customs – like toasting before drinking – with the zeal of an elder passing sacred knowledge to his tribe. They might have been good-natured bullshit, but in that moment it didn’t matter; I applauded each one. At some point, he complimented me on my quick wit. But mostly he talked about how much he loved his wife, and how much he was looking forward to holding his baby when he got home. I shared something equally vulnerable and private.
When his plane was boarding, Larry got up. We shook hands and wished each other safe trips. He left. A few minutes later so did I, and boarded my plane going in an opposite direction. Then it occurred to me that I had been speaking with a complete stranger in a way more honest and unguarded than I often do with my real friends, at least on a daily basis.
What was it that loosened our tongues, convinced us to let our guard down so completely? The beer? Doubtful. Two pints in an hour is hardly enough to get me going. No, I think it was the fact of speaking to someone I’d never see again that gave me a sense of liberating anonymity. But it was unlike the shadowy anonymity of the Internet, where faceless alphanumeric handles respond to candor by shitting all over people they’ll never have to look in the eye. This was anonymity with a face, with eyes that glistened and a mouth that curled up or down as the conversation turned: indelible markers of the reality of the human being across the table. It was radiant, like an element that burns too quickly to be viable as a long-term fuel.
We didn’t exchange numbers. We didn’t friend each other on Facebook. I did get a few laughs for the flight home, a fun story to share, and maybe some personality traits that will work their way into some character I write in the future.
But I also got a reminder of the fact that every other person in that airport, whether racing from gate to gate or standing in line for an overpriced beverage, is a real human being. They have names and stories to tell. They have spouses and children waiting for them somewhere. They have favorite songs playing behind those headphones fused to their ears, and they might be the same as yours.
So maybe the key is to appreciate single-serving friends for what they are: short distractions, yes. But distractions that can be enjoyed and remembered, and learned from. Does that make them much different from the books and movies we bury our faces in at the airport, trying desperately not to talk to strangers?