The conversation began as it sometimes does, with me offering to help put a bag in the overhead bin. I’m a tall, polite Midwesterner; I do this kind of stuff. The older gentleman targeted by my largesse was on the shorter side and verbalized his appreciation enthusiastically. Generally, this is where the conversation ends, punctuated by my donning of Bose noise-canceling headphones, the finest conversation-avoidance device since body odor.
I listened to the man and his wife talk to each other, ever so delicately eavesdropping. My wife would have thought them the most darling couple, and I sensed any woman who witnessed their interaction would have commented to an eye-rolling husband that “that’s what I hope we’re like when we’re older.”
At some point, the gentleman asked me what I was reading. I was later embarrassed by my answer given who this person was (as yet unknown to me). Small talk revealed that this couple consisted of two retired professors from McGill University. The gentleman was an English professor, so I joked about my failure as a writer and my unfailing love of literature. We talked about books and writers for a few minutes.
His wife jumped in and said their son was a writer. “What does he write?” I asked, out of politeness to an obviously proud mother rather than actual interest.
“He writes for The New Yorker.”
I’ve gotten half a dozen rejection letters from that damn rag, I wanted to say. Instead I mentioned that I read The New Yorker regularly and would probably be familiar with this writer who’s much better than I am. So who’s your son, lady?
I suddenly felt as if I was siting next to Britney Spears’ parents, were they incredibly intelligent rather than vapid and disgusting. From the loins seated in 20A and 20B sprang one the most versatile and talented social commentators of our time.
“I love that guy! Er, your son.” I was blowing it! Blowing it! Say something smart!
“I can’t believe I’m sitting next to Adam Gopnik’s parents. I loved Paris to the Moon. Man, I wish I was your son. I mean Adam. I have to tweet this.” Not smart. Blowing it.
Who would believe or understand this tweet? I was in an untweetable situation!
They also talked about their talented daughter Allison, who writes for The Wall Street Journal. I wanted to ask them what they thought about her penning pieces for a conservative broadsheet, but they were proud parents—they would’ve undoubtedly recounted some wise line about knowing thy enemy. I thought about how odd it is that I read The New Yorker and The Wall Street Journal with commensurate fervor, because I have no enemies.
These fine people were on their way to visit said daughter Allison in the Bay Area. I had an insatiable urge to invite myself over to her house for dinner while they were in town. Maybe it wouldn’t be weird if I offered to bring pizza. Maybe that would make it even weirder.
My thoughts during and since this encounter have generated a fair amount of guilt. I felt bad. I wished my parents were these people. I wanted to stay in touch with these surrogate travel parents, to be pen pals. I wondered how I might cook up an excuse to contact and visit them the next time I’m in Canada for work.
Then I thought about Adam Gopnik’s next New Yorker story, about some psycho dude who sat next to his parents on a flight and then flew to Montreal and showed up on their doorstop and asked if he could come in and drink tea and talk about books. His father was hospitalized from the shock but was recovering nicely, while the psycho American dude was serving hard time in a Québécois prison, subsisting on stale croissants and drip coffee. Drip!
I decided instead to quietly appreciate my parents and to relish all chance encounters. I then donned my noise-canceling Bose headphones and continued to ponder various unrelated things, alone.