Thursday, January 5, 2012

My Problem with People in Public Places

I have this thing about strangers. I don't like to get too close to them. I've never been much of a hand holder, and I always hated kissing people I'd just met on the cheek in Argentina (even a hand shake, in my book, is pushing it), so why would I want random people regularly invading my personal space?

Occasionally, I go a little extreme, and perhaps a tad bonkers, with my aversion to the nearness of strangers. If I'm walking down the street, and I feel someone walking too closely behind me, I'll sometimes stop and let them pass, just to avoid having some anonymous street walker literally breathing down my neck.

I don't know how I do it, but I can maneuver my way through a crowded bar or club without once rubbing shoulders, or elbows, or anything, with anyone on either side of me. If only others possessed the same aversion to being touchy feely in public spaces. Hands off the butt, and the crotch, please!

On Friday and Saturday night at DJ Station in Bangkok, this always became a problem. For all of their emphasis on good manners, Thais can be disarmingly impatient and pushy. Maybe in the capital, it's the effect of spending so much time waiting as they creep through traffic-jammed streets. In all my months in Bangkok, I can't recall one driver ever giving this pedestrian the right of way.

They were even worse when they were walking behind me at DJ Station. They'd often follow, hand on my back, as if that would get me -- and by extension, them -- from point A to point B more quickly. (Come to think of it, the locals did the same thing at Glam in Buenos Aires, but not quite as aggressively as in DJ Station.) How rude, I often thought, as I turned around and shot them a death glare.

Don't touch me there!

The only thing I hate more than being pawed by strangers is having to make small talk with them. And on Tuesday evening, as I sat down in seat 1E on Jetstar Airways flight 30 from Bangkok to Melbourne, I had to rub shoulders -- literally -- and engage in meaningless chatter with the guy sitting next to me. I couldn't quite place his accent. He sounded like a German who'd spent so much time living in Australia and traveling abroad that he now talked a little bit like Johnny Depp when he's playing "European" onscreen.

Before he ever spoke a word, though, he had already gotten on my wrong side -- my right side, by taking up too much of the armrest and making himself so much at home that I worried he'd drape his leg over mine just to get more comfortable. Through the corner of my right eye, I could see him glancing over at me, too.

Please don't speak, I thought to myself, repeating it, as if by some miracle of osmosis, that request would travel from my brain into his ears. It didn't. Soon we were touching on all kinds trivial topics, which included how Jetstar had added an extra aisle of seats to its new fleet, which meant less leg room in business class. We should consider ourselves lucky: We were able to extend our legs all the way in our first-row seats.

I didn't feel so lucky, but at least he never asked what I was doing in Bangkok, or why I was going to Melbourne, or any of those travel-related questions to which I now respond by handing over my blog URL and saying, "Read all about it."

Thankfully, once airborne, we spent most of the nine-hour flight in silence. He was immersed in some Bill Murray movie on his iPad 2, or whatever he was staring at (I'll admit it: I'm kind of new-technology dumb); I was trying to get some sleep. Every so often, I'd feel his eyes on me. I'd roll mine, as if to say, "Don't you dare say a word." He never got the message.

When we arrived in Melbourne, I made a hasty exit, without saying goodbye. I felt a little bad. I'm not sure why some people -- like the one sitting behind me who barely closed his mouth for the entire flight -- feel the need to engage the person sitting next to them on flights. Maybe it's boredom, or a fear of flying -- or dying. If the aircraft goes down in flames, you'll at least know a little about the person by your side.

But if I felt bad after I exited the plane, I felt terrible when I saw my former flight neighbor walking to Immigration with his carry-on in one hand and some kind of telescoping cane in the other. WTF! I had no idea. He's visually impaired? Didn't the same thing happen to Blanche on The Golden Girls? Actually, it did, twice -- once with a blind guy, another time with a guy in a wheelchair. Boy, was her power of observation shot or what?

I wanted to go over to the guy with the cane and offer some assistance, or apologize for not being nicer throughout the flight, though my silent departure aside, I'd been perfectly polite every time he'd spoken to me. I may be testy in public spaces, but unless you're poking me in the back at DJ Station, I generally gripe on the inside.

I was sorry about his visual impairment, but there was, at least, one upside. Thank God, I thought to myself as he walked away tapping the ground with his cane, he probably never even noticed me rolling my eyes.
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