Flying home

Sacramento is the destination. But the crowd waiting to board a Southwest Boeing 737 out of Los Angeles International Airport a week ago Monday night is still a long, long way from home. The flight has been delayed and the people at Gate 4A—many of whom already had been bumped or had missed connections to other flights—are tired of waiting in line. They’re getting ornery.

A scuffle breaks out.

A young guy near the front of line “B” curses loudly and is making a scene. When a black man seated nearby tells him to keep it down, the cursing guy goes into a rage. An Asian fellow with glasses steps off line to try brokering peace but he gets cursed out too and, ultimately, the troublemaker is escorted off by security.

The incident draws the waiting Sacramento nomads into a pack.

They’re all in this together.

Waiting to get home is a tall white male bureaucrat reading a sports magazine; an Indian woman who looks like the mom in Bend It Like Beckham; a pair of African-American women sharing Thanksgiving recipes; three white girls with too much makeup looking at pictures of young celebrity hunks—“ohmygod!”—in magazines; a Latina mom struggling to keep her wriggling toddler from going ballistic; a pretty Asian woman trying to avoid eye contact with all the men who want to flirt with her; and a friendly white teenager traveling alone with a Nano, cell phone and wool hat pulled low over his forehead.

The plane finally arrives at the gate and Sacramento gets on board. The smiling stewardesses, the narrow aisle, the packed overhead compartments, the squeeze into the middle seat. Here come the seat-buckle and safety tips. In case of an emergency, there is the usual counter-intuitive advice: Get yourself the oxygen before your child.

Then liftoff. Stewardesses take drink orders and present roasted nuts in small blue bags. The recipe women fall immediately to sleep. Bend It Like Beckham speaks in low tones to her daughter. A man presses a manuscript into the hands of an editor he spotted on the flight. The three girls jabber. A young punk rocker with red and green spiked hair is coaxed into conversation by a forty-something man returning home after flying across country to bury his father. A large black man in a leather jacket tries to nap but can’t manage it. The teenager with the Nano text messages his dad with his thumb, saying he’ll be arriving home later than expected.

Finally, at last, the plane tilts down into the fog, hits the runway, screams to a stop, and pulls to the gate. It’s still this side of midnight when Sacramento—in all its exotic diversity, scuffling truth, innate beauty and collective compromise—de-boards the aircraft, collects its luggage and goes thankfully home to bed.