The Only Way to Fly

Jet Airliner

It is 1993. We arrive late in Denver. I miss my connection to Los Angeles. A United rep meets me as I disembark. She offers to arrange a hotel overnight. Then she realizes there is an American flight leaving in an hour for L.A. If, for some reason, it doesn’t go, they’ll still put me up in a hotel. But I might just make it home tonight.

I have no checked baggage. I take my rolling suitcase, computer and briefcase through the concourse to the American terminal. I arrive at the gate to find – no one. The seats are all empty. There is no one at the counter. The message board confirms this is the flight I want. I sit down and wait.

No one comes. After a half-hour a flight crew approaches with their luggage. They take seats in the otherwise empty boarding area. As they chat they occasionally look my way. Finally, a flight attendant gets up and comes over.

“You’re not on this flight, are you?”

I tell her I am and why. She tells me this flight is just to move the aircraft into position in L.A. They don’t have any food service and technically, I’m not supposed to be on it. I’m beginning to understand why the boarding area is empty.

After a few more minutes, the crew gets up and heads for the jetway. They beckon me to follow them and we board the aircraft.

I am the only passenger on an Airbus 340, the newest and largest of that company’s aircraft.

We stow our luggage and take seats in the First Class cabin. As they’re getting ready to push back, the flight attendant who spoke to me in the terminal gets on the PA system and begins singing ‘Crazy’ by Patsy Cline. I’m starting to like this style of travel.

I offer to do the safety demonstration.

The movie starts before take off. Once airborne, the co-pilot comes around with a pot of coffee and cups. I get up and walk around the empty aircraft, feeling like I’m in the Twilight Zone.

We land in L.A. as the movie is ending. I get the shuttle home to Long Beach.

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Chased From Jim Morrison’s Grave

It is 1990. I am photographing the grave of Jim Morrison in Père Lachaise cemetery in Morrison's GraveParis. At 5:00 pm the gendarmerie begin ushering people away from the grave, which is festooned with candles, incense, graffiti and a wedding photograph in a frame. It is closing time, but the gathered acolytes don’t seem to care. I have met people from Switzerland, Italy, from all over Europe who have come here just for this. They sit around the grave rolling spliffs and speaking in hushed, revered tones.

Suddenly the police begin pushing people. Before I know it I have photographed police shoving people to the ground. They look up and see me taking pictures, speaking to each other urgently in rapid French, which I do not understand. Two of them break off and come towards me. I turn and run.

I don’t know where I’m going and run on adrenaline and instinct. I’m scared and my heart is pounding. I’m wearing heavy hiking boots and running through grass in need of cutting, like the dream of trying to run and not being able to. I glance back over my shoulder as I pass a large marble monument. The police officers are still chasing me. As I look forward again my eye catches the name engraved in the marble: Balzac. I can’t believe it. I am being chased through Père Lachaise cemetery by the police and happen to run past the grave of Honoré de Balzac.

About this time I see another monument off to my right. My legs are screaming and I am sweating in the late summer heat. My camera is slamming against my chest as I run. There is a name carved in the large stone to my right: Chopin.

Morrison being buried here is like a fart in a museum. Or laughter in church. I want to laugh, but I don’t have the wind.

My Secret Geek

Euro TrainIt is 1994.

I board the night train to Copenhagen in Amsterdam. I am between jobs. I have frequent flyer miles. I have a couple of friends who have invited me to stay with them. I can be poor here or poor in Europe. Europe wins.

It’s my first time. I look like Richard Branson, a gold hoop in my left earlobe. I wear a T-shirt, bush shorts and boots. I’ve been awake 24 hours (Red eye flight from LA). I hope to sleep on the train.

A beautiful blonde enters the compartment. She’s from Sweden. Another beautiful woman enters, reddish-gold hair out of a fairy tale. She’s from Finland. We settle down as the train departs. I enjoy rail travel in Europe.

Then a young Brit arrives. He talks nonstop. He’s only staying the weekend.

Seems like a long trip from London for a weekend.
He tries to smoke in our non-smoking car. He unpacks his bag. He keeps going outside to smoke spliffs and pound Heinekens. He isn’t fazed.

I fall asleep. He opens the window so he can smoke. The compartment is a wind tunnel.

In the morning, we cross the corner of Germany. State Police officers board. They take no shit.

The Brit tears his suitcase apart in a total panic – lost his passport. He pulls the cushion off the seat. It is behind it.

Two officers arrive – black uniforms, boots and Uzis. One checks our passports. He looks at mine and looks up at me, surprised. He grins, glances at the other cop, who is watching us. He nudges him, nods at my passport. The other cop looks down, grins.

The officers leave. The others demand to see what made the German State Police officers smile. They. Never. Smile. They’re like the guards at Buckingham Palace, only nobody ever tries to make them smile.

My passport photo: short hair, neat beard, tortoiseshell horn-rimmed glasses. Oxford button-down with a tie.

The train moves drugs. The Brit was probably smuggling cocaine.

A smuggler would’ve had short hair, a tie. The passport would show long hair and an earring.

My secret geek made two of Germany’s finest grin.

#TBT When He Smiles He Looks Just Like Richard Branson

SmileIt is 1990. I am in London, having just arrived from Paris at Victoria Station. I am tired and carry a pack full of dirty clothes.

Across the street is a laundrette. I make my way there and throw a load or two in the machines. Two women enter with their laundry.

Their reaction when I greet them is an obvious glance at each other and supressed smiles – no – grins. I’m wearing my hair long, have a Van Dyke beard and moustache, and a gold hoop in my left earlobe. I don’t know what they’re going on about.

We chat a bit, then I get my wash and fold it. I can hear them whispering, and can see them glancing up at me. As I get ready to leave, they spill it.

“Has anyone told you that you look just like Richard Branson?”

I have no idea who Richard Branson is.

“He’s the president of Virgin – everything!”

They tell me he’s a millionaire. They tell me I should walk onto a Virgin flight and pretend to be him, since he’s known to drop in on flights like that.

I arrive in Cornwall that evening and after a restful night, join the other guests of my B&B. I chat with the British couple at the next table and tell them about my encounter in the laundrette. When I say the women told me I looked like Richard Branson, the woman at the other table minces no words.

“You look NOTHING like Richard Branson.”

So forceful is her statement that I am taken aback. She is offended at the thought.

“Those women were having you on.”

I take a deep breath. I’m finished anyway, so I get up and say goodbye. As I reach the door I turn and smile.

“I hope you have a wonderful day.”

The woman looks stunned. “I see it now. They were right.”

I look at her, puzzled.

“When you smile, you look just like Richard Branson.”