Planes, Trains & Automobiles

I’m not a good flyer. I’m too tall and too broad and the only way flying is comfortable is if I’m on an exit row or seated in First Class—something I’ve been able to swing only once. It was a last minute flight and for some reason, the First Class ticket price and the back-of-the-plane-where-the-turbulence-will-make-you-queasy price were identical. I was sure it was a fluke but I bought the ticket, half believing I’d get to the counter and the Virgin people would publicly shame me and shout “Imposter!” Not only did that not happen, but I lived like a little king in a plush seat with all the whiskey I could drink and so much legroom it made me horny. It was the best flying experience of my life and on my next flight, in the cheap seats in the back, I both wept and gnashed my teeth.

Regardless of where I’m seated on the plane, I happen to love airports. I realize I’m in the minority—something I think should warrant me scholarship money—but I really do love airports. Check-in and security are monotonous, that’s true, but I try to wear incredibly colorful socks to keep the mood up. I reference “the mood” as if my socks are putting a smile on the strangers’ faces who’re being told they can’t bring their mondo-sized bottle of Curious perfume onto the plane. But then again, socks embroidered with pizza slices or dinosaurs or pumpkins make me smile, so that’s reason enough to wear them.

With my shoes back on, and Auntie Anne’s pretzel bites in one hand and a fifteen dollar bottle of water in the other, it’s then time for the main event: people-watching. Plant me somewhere with a high volume of foot traffic and I’m a happy camper. People-watching happens to be one of my spiritual gifts. As a teenager, this gift first manifested in the center rotunda of the Vista Ridge mall where I’d watch all manner of persons and personalities weave in and out of each other on their way to Journeys or Spencer’s. Moving to New York, Times Square replaced the mall as the place to witness the unmissable. Now, I prefer airports. People of all distinctions move through the corridors, some with puppies, some with luggage, some with babies and some with attitudes. The terminal becomes a runway and I, the default Project Runway judge, comment to myself that they tried too hard, didn’t try enough, or look overworked. Time spent waiting to board the plane is also a concentrated time for reading, something for which there’s rarely enough time.

So to recap: airports, I like; airplanes, not so much.

I have to fly often since many of my family and friends live in Texas whereas I made the choice to live in New York. My mother reminds me how much easier it would be if I lived in the same city as the rest of my relatives, but alas, I love New York too much to turn my back on her. We may not have the best Tex-Mex in Manhattan, but we basically have the best everything else. “But you wouldn’t have to take the subway if you lived in Dallas,” she will say and while there are moments where I truly loathe the subway and the masses who use it, on most days, I enjoy it immensely. Why? People-watching.

I enjoy the idea of public transportation since I don’t have the money for new cars and repairs are a pain in the ass. I also bore easily with conversation about gas prices. It seems if you own a car, the price of gas is perpetually on your mind. I’d prefer to talk about most anything else other than gas. Even if you take the bus, you don’t have to hear talk of gas. Still, I’d rather ride the subway than a bus.

Soon after I’d moved to New York, while working for a nonprofit, I had to go to a homeless shelter in deep Brooklyn—in the wormhole where subways don’t reach and only the buses can venture. Trying to crack the code of which bus would get me to which street corner nearest to the shelter was one thing, but sitting on said bus for an extended period of time was unbelievably nerve wracking. It wasn’t like the 1 train where signs and announcers told me how many stops were left until my destination. I felt completely blind sitting on a foreign bus in deep Brooklyn, my phone out of power and my wits fried.

I made it to the shelter though (Pro tip: always write out destinations and directions on Post It notes and stick them onto your book or planner) and I spent the afternoon with homeless mothers and their kids. That will snap things into perspective pretty quickly. My transit anxiety fell brazenly under the column of irrational overreaction, but more than that, what a ninny I’d been to get so stressed out about a bus I had more than enough money to ride. To be frank, I could’ve afforded an Uber to get to the shelter; these kids had literally nothing except for the new children’s books I brought them.

Yes God, I hear You. I’m sorry. I’m going to be better and less self-involved. I promise.

At the end of my afternoon with the mothers and their kids, I boarded the bus back to Manhattan. Two Mormon boys in their white shirts, black slacks and small black nametags got on a few stops after I did and ended up standing next to the row where I was seated—perfect placement for people-watching. They were both thin and white, hair perfectly coifed, and looked like they’d fit in nicely at any number of country clubs. They talked to each other about whatever Mormon things they were up to and eventually, one of them made a statement that required group participation. It was the sort of sentence that ended with, “…you know what I mean?” and he spun around to poll the audience like a comedienne circa 1988. I was the audience apparently. I laughed, mostly because audience participation makes me nervous, and they responded by saying “hello” to me in unison. Cue the opening number from The Book of Mormon now playing in my head.

I offered up the empty seat next to me but they declined—they must’ve been used to this bus route and therefore didn’t need the support of a seat to quell their unnecessary anxiety. We had a pleasant surface-level conversation and at no point did they try to convert me, something I appreciated. I, only having had one Mormon friend and she was a girl who wouldn’t have to go on a mission, asked them how theirs was going. They were relatively new to the city and had been Mormon-ing in New York for around six months at that point. I commented that it must be nice to be assigned to live in New York City for two years as opposed to the deserts of Africa. They chuckled at my somewhat tacky missions-minded joke and politely agreed. Some of their friends were in the South American rainforest and they had to deal with snakes. I said that was of the devil and again, they agreed.

As we came up to the place where we bus people would become subway people, I asked if they were familiar with the musical named after the book in their hands. They smirked and said they hadn’t seen it but had heard about it. One of them, the more effeminate of the two, asked me if I liked it. I told him it wasn’t my favorite and that it was crass for the purpose of being crass, which bored me. He asked if they really let Mormons have it and I confirmed that they did, however, I added that compared to every other religious group that gets skewered in the show, the Mormon boys came out looking pretty good. They seemed to like that and we said our pleasant goodbyes.

Along with the ego slapping I got from God at the shelter, that commute reminded me of what can happen while in transit from one place to another. I dreaded that bus but it wound up being an incredibly teachable moment for me. The same was true for a flight (ugh, an airplane) to London.

When I began grad school, it took me about ten minutes to sign up for summer classes in London. More than an opportunity to earn course credit, it was a way to experience and absorb as much British culture as I could. It was also relatively inexpensive since as a grad student, we were given discounts and preferential treatment. I’d be able to spend the summer spinning around the streets of London like Freddy in My Fair Lady, singing “On the Street Where You Live,” and personifying every stereotype I could.

But my trip began as yet another example of the First Day of School Curse. Rain caused my first flight to be delayed, which prevented me from landing at the second airport when I needed to. I wouldn’t be able to join the rest of my group on the flight across the ocean and that sent me spiraling into an anxiety tornado. I don’t like lateness; I don’t believe in it.

Being late happens to all of us from time to time, but when it happens repeatedly, it hurts my feelings. My love language is quality time. I don’t need gifts or grand gestures, I just need you to want to exist in the same space as me—be that at a concert, at dinner or in front of the television—on time. I used to wonder why tardiness bothered me so much but it eventually dawned on me that someone’s repeated tardiness was really a lack of consideration for my feelings. If they cared, they’d show up. I’ll go as far as to say I view continual tardiness as a knock against someone’s character. Be a person of your word. Let your yes mean yes.

Anyone can get anywhere on time. You leave early, you Google where you’re going, you take simple steps to plan ahead—that’s how life universally works. In high school, there were two girls at church who you could count on to be late for everything. Lunch, rehearsals, services—they were going to be late. And not just a few minutes late either, the sort of “start without them,” “I guess they’re coming eventually,” “Plan around them,” sort of late. They were fundamentally tardy for life and that made for a very tired routine. Showing up on time is the courteous thing to do and on that same note, showing up early is just plain sexy.

Yet, on my trip to London, I was the one who was going to be late and I sat panicked in the terminal—so much so that I couldn’t even find enjoyment in people-watching.

After a lonely hour stuffing myself full of soft pretzels and mentally spiraling into my inner hurricane of “What if I can’t get a hold of anyone,” “What if I have issues getting through customs,” “What if the British decide I’m the American on which to take out their residual Tea Party angst,” I boarded the plane to find I’d been stuffed into a middle seat.

Come on God. Come. On.

I can’t remember a time when I was more anxious and downright surly as I sat down on a plane. Grumbling to myself, I prayed for tiny, skinny row mates to join me. One man almost immediately sat down to my right and he was smaller than me, which was nice. Then I waited.

There’s a moment of hope when the flight is about to take off and no one’s sitting next to you. You think of all the marvelous things you’ll do with that empty seat, how it will become the spare room in your flying house, how it will hold your journal and water bottle and laptop. The space beneath it will be a sofa for your feet, with room to sprawl out for the duration of the trip. I prayed God would bless me in this moment with the freedom of space. I prayed hard Pentecostal prayers full of promises and pleading. Then a large man walked down the aisle and plopped down next to me.

Seriously God? I pleaded. Whatever. Amen.

Wider and heavier set than I, he began to get himself situated. He had various iPods and headphones with him and I could see he was settling in for a long flight of light music and heavy sleeping. I’d tried to bargain with God, something that only works on sitcoms, and I now knew I’d be spending a compact nine hours in the middle seat. I pulled some Advil from my bag and created as much legroom as I could under the seat in front of me. Taking a long breath, I reminded myself I was grateful to be able to go on the trip in the first place and that people dream their entire lives of traveling across oceans to live in foreign lands for a couple months. My pep talk only sort of worked, but as I exhaled and looked ahead hatefully at the people still boarding the plane, I saw Kirk Franklin walking down the aisle to my left.

Here’s the thing: I would recognize Kirk Franklin in a crowd of a thousand little bald men because I’ve been listening-to and singing his music since I was in sixth grade. My first choir songs were his and now almost fifteen years later, he was walking down the aisle of the airplane I was to be trapped in for nine hours. If that wasn’t surreal enough, he stopped at my row and began talking to the large man sitting next to me! Kirk was checking on my row mate to make sure he was comfortable and taken care of. My eyes must’ve looked like dinner plate-sized pinwheels as I shamelessly tried to eavesdrop on their conversation.

Kirk is smaller in person than he appears on television, which is saying something since most people look like Goliath standing next to him as it is. As he left to go back toward the front of the plane, I turned to my row mate with no shame or cool whatsoever and I said, “I have to ask. I know that’s Kirk Franklin. How do you know each other?”

He smiled. “I play piano for his band.”

Now. There’s a scene in almost every X-Men movie where someone with mutant abilities screams and the piercing sound causes car windows and windshields to explode violently. This usually happens in slow motion. Well that was my inner dialogue—like a teapot that whistles until it explodes from the pressure. Bobby Sparks, the man who played piano on every Kirk Franklin record that had formed the supportive musical pillars in my life was sitting next to me.

This wasn’t an example of run-of-the-mill fanboying. Kirk’s music had a very pronounced and definitive hand in the evolution of my faith. Beyond singing his music with choirs and ensembles in church, his music met me during the quiet moments of my adolescence and my burgeoning adulthood. His was the music that played through my headphones when I needed to escape the tumult of not understanding what was going on inside me. His were the words that brought meaning to the presentness of God’s love in my small imperfect life. His were the reminders that once the song or the service ended, God wasn’t done with me yet. Those things stay with you.

Perhaps more than any other musician, Kirk Franklin’s heart-through-song has changed my life. As such, my mouth started moving and wouldn’t stop. I couldn’t help myself. I talked about every song we ever sang, From “Silver and Gold” to “My Life Is in Your Hands” to getting the “Revolution” album the day it came out. Bobby smiled and nodded along, placating the chatty white kid. I asked about the fanfare around the “Stomp” era and what it was like traveling the globe with the biggest gospel singer in the world. He said they were flying to London where they’d then change planes and fly to Sweden or someplace for a concert.

As if it were ordained, Kirk came back down the aisle right as we were talking about his music. Bobby introduced me and said, “This dude knows all our music.” Our music—more exploding teapots—I couldn’t believe it. Kirk was very kind, thanked me for being such a fan and I told him he’d influenced every phase of my growth as a man and as a Christian. He said he was humbled by that and thankful for my words. After he went back up front, I thought of another dozen questions for good ol’ Bobby but decided I shouldn’t be too much of a pest. He was ready for bed and the last thing I wanted was for Kirk Franklin’s piano player to remember me as the annoying dude in the middle seat who can’t sleep on planes.

I’m envious of anyone who has the spiritual gift of sleeping on transportation. I wasn’t given that gift and I’ve been plagued with alertness in all manner of planes, trains and automobiles. On the cross country bus trips our youth group would take for fine arts competitions, I’d be the only person besides the driver who remained awake in the night. It’s not for lack of trying. I’d attempt to find a moderately comfortable angle in which to contort my body so I could sleep a little, but it never worked. Meanwhile, my friends were out like the overhead lights, resting comfortably to the humming and mild vibrations of the charter bus lullaby.

To complicate my already tenuous relationship with comfort on planes, the in-flight movies I was promised on this nine hour flight were not working. So, alone with my iPod in the blackened plane cabin, I made the obvious decision to listen to the Kirk Franklin albums on which the person next to me had played piano. Physically, I was miserable, but in my mind, I was floating on clouds that felt as real as the clouds passing outside our tiny plane windows.

As a churchgoer, phrases like “What the devil meant for bad, God will use for good,” cloud the lexicons of pulpits, counseling sessions and prayer meetings. It’s mostly reduced to a platitude, fodder for inspirational posters, journal covers and pictures of sunrises on Facebook. It’s difficult for me to find God in platitudes because after hearing them on repeat for decades, they’ve become empty and commonplace. But in those surprise moments, especially those moments curdled with anxiety and stress and things outside of my control, God shows up—not as the God of platitudes, but the God of practicality. Of all the people I could’ve been seated next to on the single most uncomfortable flight of my life, you’re going to tell me it was a coincidence I’d encounter a man who was formative in my faith? Nope. I just don’t believe that.

When we landed in the UK, I got in touch with my group who were waiting for me at our flats and I headed toward customs. On the way out, I saw Bobby and the rest of the concert crew meeting together off to the side of the hallway. Kirk was giving them instructions about their next move. As I walked by, both he and Bobby waved at me and I waved back as enthusiastically as a Mormon boy in the musical’s opening number.

Ryan’s book of essays, I Really Like My Hands Today, is available now on Amazon

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