This is Siamack Salari reporting to you from the Delta Business lounge at JFK.
Why are airline staff so miserable? Even the business Elite Check in desk staff make me want to hold them close and say that everything will all be alright in the end. Except I don’t want to. They can drown in their own misery as far as I am concerned. I begin with a smile to give them the opportunity to smile back. When my smile goes unanswered I eyeball them and follow through with monosyllabic answers to their predictable questions.
-- "Did you pack your bags yourself?"
-- "Did anyone give you anything?"
-- "Has your bag been with you since you packed it?"
And so on and so forth.
It’s not a person thing. This is a corporate culture thing. And Delta staff behave as if they are doing us, the passengers, a big favour. But as with any organisation there are exceptions. Take the Delta uniformed bar lady standing on the other side of the bar from me as I type. Things weren’t promising when I first sat on my stool and waited for her to acknowledge me. When she did it was a pained, almost anxious, expression which greeted me.
-- "Can you show me your red wines please?"
There was no answer. She pulled two bottles out to show me. I studied the labels and didn’t recognise either bottle. So I picked the Italian red to be safe. She poured. I asked her not to fill the glass to the brim. So she stopped pouring before it was even a third full.
-- "When is your flight sir?"
Her question took me by surprise. She was interested.
-- "Not for another 3 hours. Make sure I don’t drink too much OK?"
With this mildly jokey reply I watched her crack the most radiant smile. I smiled back. She asked me what Brussels was like. I told her. But we were interrupted when someone else approached the bar. Then I watched the pained expression return.
To be honest it doesn’t bother me too much. I don’t expect everyone to smile at me. Smiling too much shows weakness, no? Shows you are easy to please. Perhaps it even shows that you haven't quite understood.
I was in New York for a reason. I had to meet with a lawyer and I had to speak at a conference. The Market Research Association Conference. Usually I don’t dig the conference circuit. But this year I will have spoken at 4 events. More than I have done in the last 4 years combined. The subject of my talk was an expose of international ethnographic research. Spilling the beans on all of the cock ups, mess ups and screwy clients I had experienced over the years. I knew my talk would be oversubscribed. It was a far cry from the usual sanitised case studies which are so far from reality most people don’t even realise that politics, personalities and egos can make or break consultancy projects.
I was given a name badge with a big, loud ‘speaker’ ribbon hanging off it. As I walked around trying to mix with people, their eyes would dart to my name and label. We would exchange smiles and I would ask them how far they had travelled to get to the conference. I didn’t really care how far people had flown. I simply wanted them to hear my English accent and ask me where I was from. I would say Brussels hoping to impress them. To add jet set flavour I would add that my office was in London but that I commuted between cities.
My talk went down well (honestly, I’m not blowing my own trumpet). There was a line of people who had even more questions for me as I was rolling up the power cable to my Mac. The last person in the line of inquisitors asked me if I was going to the party that night. Which party? I asked. The party in Central Park at Tavern on the Green. I said I knew nothing about it but would like to go. She asked me if I had registered to go. I said no. She explained that it was now fully subscribed but that perhaps I could get my name down on the standby list.
At the conference help desk they asked my name and contact number so they could write it down on their party list (why couldn’t they just read my badge?). But as the lady was showing me how far down the list my name was going to go I saw, SIAMACK SALARI, hand written four names from the top.
-- "Excuse me! That’s my name - right there - I pointed. Who wrote my name down?"
-- "Some lady came and wrote her own and your name down."
I wasn't on standby for long. A few minutes later I received confirmation that a place was available.
The band playing that night was sensational. They were called, ‘The Nerds’. And they seemed to know my iTunes playlist as if by magic. They played all of my favourite songs. And the more Rioja I swigged the better they sounded. And the better they sounded the more I became determined to dance with someone. I did a stationary jig to their beat and looked around for a likely dance partner. People, women, would avoid eye contact because they sensed I was seeking a partner. A couple of French researchers I had spoken to earlier in the day declined my gesturing to dance with me. I smiled back quizzically. Why not dance with me? I’ve just lost loads of weight and KNOW I look more attractive than before. The mirror keeps telling me so.
A side note: I had called V to say I look ‘hot’ walking up 46th Street to the conference Hotel (the Marriott). She had asked if I looked hot and sweaty. I think she is so familiar with my look she has lost all sense of how good looking I have now become.
Back to the party.
A short while later I noticed a lady around my age standing next to me. I smiled and mouthed Hi. The music was too loud to talk. She looked at my chest for my badge but I hadn’t worn it to the party. So I leaned over and shouted in her ear that I had delivered the ethnography paper earlier that day. She smiled back. I knew she hadn’t heard me. I rolled my dice.
-- "Shall we dance?" I mouthed.
She cupped her ear with her hand.
I did a dancing gesture and pointed to the spotlit dance floor.
She nodded refreshingly eagerly and we headed into the melee. But as we did so a new song came on which was a slow dance. Slightly embarrassing. I hadn’t expected to hold her close to me with the first dance. We danced self consciously. I didn’t step on her toes. This was the first time I had danced with ‘another’ women for as long as I can remember. The next song came. It required us to do the twist. And for the next hour we rocked away until the band paused for a break.
Without the deafening roar we could suddenly hear each other talking. I was keen that she didn’t think I was on the pull. I told her I had twins and that they had demanded expensive gifts from ToysRUs on Time Square. She smiled and said that she too had twins. A boy and a girl! They were twelve years old. We talked about husbands and wives and more kids until the band reappeared.
My dance partner turned out to be of Armenian origin. She also loved to boogy. And by 11pm in between dancing, I had downed around 8 glasses of Rioja. I wasn’t drunk but I was euphoric and uninhibited. As we danced some more a group of her colleagues ringed us on the floor and managed to gesture that they were going on a carriage ride around the park. Would I like to come? Sure!
Note: If you have never been on a carriage ride through Central Park I couldn’t recommend it to you enough. It was as haunting as a late night gondola ride Varinder and I went on in Venice once. Silent, and very romantic. Except I was not in any way (let me be clear) romantically inclined towards this charming and wonderful dance partner of mine.
When the horse brought us back to the Tavern, the spinning sky told me it was time to get back to my hotel room. I hadn’t checked any emails all day and knew I had some films (work) to watch. But when I slumped onto my bed with my Mac on my chest I just couldn’t navigate to my emails. My mouse kept taking me to the Huffington Post, Digg and Stumble. I watched the brothers miming to ‘My Hump’ on Iranian.com so I sent it to Varinder. She emailed me back immediately with another even funnier one of them miming to an Iranian song wearing sunglasses. Will this be what the twins will be like in a few years I asked V. I woke at around 3am with a start. The Mac had slid off my chest. I had come to after slipping into a Rioja induced coma.
The next morning I Skyped V to offload the previous nights shenanigans. I listened carefully for any sign of jealousy. I detected none. I told her about the slow dance, the carriage ride and that I had danced with the same woman all night long. She told me funny stories about the boys. This reminded me of my own funny story: The crazy Thai air hostess on Delta when I was flying to New York. She had a heavy Thai accent and delivered most of the intercom messages throughout the flight. I have no problem at all with heavy accents. I find them charming. But it was slightly unnerving to have an air hostess ask us, just before takeoff, to have a nice fright. And when we landed she expressed hope that we would fry with Delta again.
So here I sit at the bar in the Delta lounge sipping my second glass of wine, filled to the brim. I have been typing on my Mac at the bar. And only in America will people walking past behind me look at the desktop picture of Siavash and Kourosh and stop to ask me about them. People, it seems, are relaxed about speaking to strangers although tacit social codes exist to ensure no one becomes over familiar too soon. I like chatting to people I don’t know. In Europe you risk coming across like, Peter Sellers in his classic film ‘The Party’. In America, at a function with 150 complete strangers, I found myself on a romatic carriage ride through Central Park with people I had met only a couple of hours before.
Then I have to confess. Yes, customer service can suck. Especially with the US airlines. But I love the American people. Their openness. Their seeming lack of conversational inhibitions. Opening dialogue with strangers feels a little like floodgates opening. I love hearing 4 minute long life stories. I love being asked questions which a European would respond to by telling you to mind your own business. And I love that there is a diner called the Red Flame on 44th and 6th Avenue which treats me like a long lost son each time I walk in there even with months between visits. My server, who has served me at the bar for the last four years, looked at me with deep concern yesterday morning.
-- "Have you been sick?"
-- "But you are so much thin."
-- "I have been on a diet."
-- "So you no been sick?"
-- "You look good my man."
Only in the US would anyone ask you such a potentially loaded question. I love you America. There, I said it.
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