Twenty minutes to get to the airport, and I am wolfing down a fried chicken sandwich while it leaks coleslaw and orangey secret sauce all over my plate. Although I hate being late, crossing "Hattie B's Hot Chicken" off my Nashville list is worth the extra ounce of stress.
When we make it to the gate, the flight attendants are handing out blue and yellow-neon frosted cupcakes. Apparently this will be the farewell flight for our pilot, Captain Jim, after a distinguished 35-year flying career.
As we prepare for takeoff, the man himself takes the microphone to confess how embarrassing it is to have such a fuss made over him by his flight crew. But he is not fooling anyone; he is clearly pleased.
After beverages, Captain Jim's bio is distributed, printed on heavyweight stationery, his face beaming sagely out from under his captain's hat. I rub the luxurious paper between my thumb and forefinger as I read about his naval career, all the different kinds of planes he's flown, and what he considers his proudest accomplishment: helping Alaska transition to a completely paperless flight deck.
At some point, the flight attendant invites us to write down our questions about being a pilot, which Captain Jim might answer if he deems them worthy. Incentivized by the promise of a mystery prize, I write down two questions:
What was your most surprising in-flight moment?;
When was the time you felt the coolest for being able to say, "I'm a pilot"?
I scribble down my seat number and hand the paper to the flight attendant, who seems genuinely honored to be collecting these questions for her captain.
Then, muffled by my sound-canceling headphones, Captain Jim's voice comes on to say something about weather patterns and Mexico. I turn to the guy next to me, who is returning home to Seattle from a trip to Ireland with all his adult siblings in honor of his mother's 75th birthday. Together, the family and I take up two whole rows.
"Did he just say we're going to Mexico?" I ask.
"No, we nearly went to Mexico," he corrects, "to avoid that nasty weather pattern. And now we have to land in Boise, to refuel the plane."
I consider this for a moment. "Do you think he's kidding?"
"Maybe," the brother offers. After a moment, he shows me on his internet-equipped phone that our flight is scheduled to land in Seattle after the last connecting flight to SF, and I groan. He proceeds to look up flights to Oakland, which is sweet but equally fruitless.
Suddenly, I hear my seat number announced to the entire plane as Captain Jim decides to share his most surprising in-flight moments:
(1) a fire in the cockpit; (2) an emergency landing in a cow pasture in Iowa; and (3) that time a mouse crawled up his co-pilot's pant leg.
And as for the time he felt coolest saying he was a pilot? Of course: "The first time."
Awesomely, my dual questions generate TWO prizes, and I give one of my victorious chocolate bars to my neighborly brother-sister duo.
Touching down in Idaho, the attendants joke that Captain Jim just had to get one more landing in. As we taxi to the gate, the plane is bombarded by streams of water gushing from waiting firetrucks with all their lights ablaze - there to celebrate the end of a legendary career. When we finally land in Seattle, more firetrucks are there to greet us with more showers.
I shake Captain Jim's hand on the way out, thinking of all the pilots who have delivered me safely to various places around the world; and to whom I've never given more than a cursory thought. I ask him what he'll do now that he's retiring. He says: "I suppose I'll do a lot more fishing."
We find a cheap hotel nearby and return to SeaTac a few hours later for the first flight out. There is no celebration this time; just business as usual.
Back in my city, I take BART to 16th street and hop directly into a Lyft; thinking about the countless stories that are being lived right now, in this moment, all around us.
My driver, a cheerful 70-year-old man named Jess, is delighted to learn that my name is also Jess. I tell him about Captain Jim, and we reflect on how easy it is to be totally oblivious to other people's stories -- until the flight attendant makes you stop, and consider your pilot.
Stepping out at CCA, a glance at my watch tells me I am one minute late, versus the fifteen I'd predicted. I ask the security guard to direct me to N9, and walk into a roomful of art school seniors, a week away from their first professional showcase.
One of them glances up, sees the look on my face, and says "yes" to assure me I'm in the right place.
I smile in relief and gratitude, shake the professor's hand when he appears, walk to the whiteboard, pick up a marker, and take a deep breath.
"Hello! My name is Jessica. We're here to talk about story."