So I’m flying back from LA and I end up sitting next to a real live hippy. A throw back from the seventies, complete with a bushy salt and pepper beard, small round glasses, a Grateful Dead shirt and yes, there is a story here.
If you don’t already know this about me, I despise flying and only do so when a number of conditions have been met. First, I must have a gun to my head. Second, I must be fully medicated and lastly, I must do so alone – as a general rule, Craig and I don’t fly together. I have passed on weddings in Hawaii, bar mitzvahs in Cleveland and spring breaks anywhere we can’t drive. I’m lucky my husband has more phobias than me or I might find myself on eharmony once again.
My seat-mate is starring straight ahead, seemingly oblivious to the fact that he will soon be puting his life into the hands of complete strangers. I notice he orders his first drink before we even begin the safety instructions and it is crystal clear to me that I will not be able to count on him should I need oxygen or help with my seat cushion/water vest. When he throws that drink back and orders another, I make a bold decision, one I have not made in years, but one I know is the right one – I decide to not take my medication. Not only might I be called upon to assist in a search and rescue mission and need to have a clear head, but I am taking a big step, one that my therapists (yes plural) would be proud of. I reluctantly put the valium away.
Could I fly this plane?
I keep myself very busy with Sudoku through the takeoff, but it is an extremely nerve-racking time and I’m not happy. I’m convinced the pilot has violated his vow not to drink during the last 24 hours and I can’t get the picture of him staggering around a strip-club out of my head. It’s only when we reach 36 thousand feet, well past the threat of geese, that I can even begin to work on my goodbye message, the one I leave my children when the engines quit.
It’s a long flight from LA to Chicago and inevitably you must speak to your neighbor, either as you climb across his lap to use the bathroom or as he leans across yours struggling to see the Grand Canyon. I broke the ice first.
“So where you from?” I ask my flying partner.
He’s mumbles he’s from LA and something else, but I can’t make it out. I nod my head like I agree and wonder if the co-pilot is a dope fiend that has managed to slip through the system, undected. I mention good-naturedly that I don’t care much for flying and my neighbor says it “don’t bother him a bit, been doing it for years”. I ask him what he does for a living and when he speaks it’s slow and deliberate.
He tells me he’s the tour manager for the Billy Joel and Elton John Face2Face concert tour. This surprises me. Having been in the “business” for a number of years and met my share of tour managers, he did not fit the stereotype of a sharp, astute administrator, who was generally the only one not drunk or high.
But this is good for me. I have a puzzle to figure out – one that is forcing me not to dwell on the flight attendant’s ditzyness (I can’t belleive she’s qualified to react in an emergency situation, Where’s Sully and his crew when I need them?) and I dive right in.
“Really,” I say. “What exactly do you do?”
Well, he mumbles, he’s not the actual tour manager. He’s the assistant. He’s the assistant, but really more like a personal assistant to Billy Joel. He’s been with him for years, been in the business since the late sixties.
Now things are making sense to me. He’s a glorified gofer. I can easily see him in this position, picking out scantily dressed women from the audience, running to get more sequins for a costume, directing the caterers to pick out the brown M&M’s from the candy dish. But as benign as he appears, it’s apparent what living forty years of a rock n’roll life-style have done; he has that detached personality of one who sees the world revolving around aging men not willing to give up wine, women and song.
Sing me a song, Piano Man
Nevertheless, I have nothing against the “Piano Man”, and his assistant and I share war stories. He shows me the official tour book and points out when they will be in the Chicago area. Somehow talk turns to Van Halen’s former lead singer, David Lee Roth, and the “bimbo brigade” he has paraded through his dressing room after his show (three lucky girls get to stay!).
Billy doesn’t do that, he tells me. But he does have some hot girls picked from the nose-bleed seats and moved to the reserved area directly in front of the stage.
“Really?” I say encouragingly.
“Well,” he continues,” Billy’s married. It’s not for him”
“Of course not,” I reply. I do know his current wife is his daughter’s age.
“It’s for the guys in the band. He does it so they can play to some pretty girls. You know, they’re on the road for weeks at a time and he just wants them to have something nice to look at.”
“That’s so thoughtful,” I tell him.
“He’s that kind of a guy,” he replies.
“Sounds like a dreamboat.” I wondered how many times he’s been married. “You should write a book,” I tell him, thinking all kinds of devious publisher thoughts.
“A book. You know, share the great stories of all the legends you have worked with.” My mind was spinning with the possibilities.
“I do have some doozys,” he drawled, ”I remember this one time, I was working with Joni Mitchell, and we were on a plane…”
I cut him off. “Is this a scary plane story?”
“Yeah, we almost crashed.”
“Um, we’re going to have to put that on hold until we land,” I said, clenching my teeth. “I don’t care much for flying.”
“But it has a happy ending,” he added, coughing that scary throaty cough.
“Evidently. But I’m not interested in hearing it now. Really. Maybe when we land.” I was jerked back to reality and it occurred to me that I could be spending my last few minutes with the roadie next door. Would we hold hands and pray together?
He was quiet for a bit and it was obvious our relationship had changed. When lunch was delivered and I asked him a few more questions, he told me point-blank he wanted to eat undisturbed. Ouch. I guess that’s one book deal that we’ll never get.
But that’s par for the rock-star course. I’ll never meet Billy Joel unless I happened to get plucked from the nose-bleed section and I have a feeling, even though I’m a number of years his junior, I’m still too old for him.