The Painted Reed

To my right was the motley crew that constituted row 8, seats D-F. In the window sat an outrageously stylish woman in lace-up stilettos, a flowing skirt and denim vest few could pull off and a gold statement necklace of epic proportion. She had a subtly highlighted, choppy do, and oozed cool from every pore. This was all the more remarkable because our flight was scheduled to leave Houston just after 9am; I had previously felt awesome about having worn a bracelet today. Next to Ms. Style sat a prim, gray-haired, seventy-something swathed in all manner of practicality such as cushiony SAS shoes and an enormous, embroidered shawl. I was surprised, pleasantly so, to see how technologically adept she appeared, rocking her ear buds and swiping her iPad screen left and right in between sips from a full can of real Coke. Maybe tech-grannies are the norm on flights to San Jose and the greater Silicon Valley.

The Painted Reed anchored the aisle seat across from mine. Tall and willowy, she was garbed in brick red skinny jeans, a black tee, dark Ray Bans which appeared affixed to her head, more tats than virgin skin and, of course, black Vans. She seemed encircled by an air of drama, completely of her own making.

Her first phone conversation -you see, we were stuck on the tarmac for a while- was an eight-round frustration knock-out with a customer service agent. She felt she had reserved a room, they said it had been released. "But I need one! Are you telling me I CAN'T? have one? Why is this hard? Do you understand what I am saying? I have said the same thing FOUR times." Ultimately, I think she got it.

Her second exchange involved the retelling of this fiasco to a friend with whom she seemed unwilling to share airspace. She laugh-talked -really, it was such a bizarre gigglespeak- so unceasingly for such an impressive amount of time that I started to wonder if there actually was anyone on the other end; if her phone had rung, I wouldn't have been that surprised.

Ray Bans still on, she rummaged through her bag and opened a gray velour throw which she placed atop her lap with a flourish. Her reedy fingers then extracted from a purse (the purse thing surprised me; I wasn't expecting this bird to own a pursey-purse though it was greige), a vintage pill box. She opened it and the used one reed to nose though its offerings, finally selecting one capsule, popping it in her mouth and downing it sans water. Impressive.

Her compact mirror emerged for the first time. Ray Bans still decidedly on, the reedy digits began a lengthy, infinitely patient process of combing through and placing just so seemingly each individual strand of her hair, hair that had been dyed that maroon-raven color; you know, the so dark it has a vaguely purple cast to it.

She then ordered a Coke and bag of caramel brownie bites, and removed her cigs from her purse as if considering actually lighting up. Are you getting just the image of Painted Reed?

After snacking, she went another round of hair do'ing in front of her mirror before calling it quits and nodding off. She slept with her Ray Bans on and mouth pursed, lips slightly open, as if irritated, in pain or constipated. Most unfortunate.

I hope she makes it wherever she's headed.

And I hope the dear elderly woman wearing boots, a bike helmet and a full-on parka doesn't expire from heat stroke. And I hope the tatted-neck guy who boarded the plane clutching a sweet floral pillow with real love got a good nap with it.

I myself read, napped, wrote and met an extremely cool woman, Betsy, who also attended Northwestern and now does really fantastic non-profit work at benetech on behalf of literacy, environmental issues and human rights. Sing it, sister.