A memoir of airplane friends, tiny liquor bottles, and the millennial experience.
Words by Colin Cossi, Illustrations by Krista Young
I. Carte Blanche
A long aisle. A quiet crowd. Sleepy and compact, the passengers take empty notice as I make my way to the back of the plane. On AA 418, row 33 is the final stop. Two women smile a silent invitation to take my aisle seat. “Wow, this far back? We must be the coolest kids on this plane.” They chuckle. “If this is anything like the back of the bus in middle school, we’re the designated troublemakers. Who’s got the first round of shots? Seriously it’s our responsibility to take shots at this point.” They laugh, say hi, and make room.
I never have a chance to speak to passenger 33A, but 33B keeps me company for a long while. Her name is something like Hannah. I can’t remember now. Something like Hannah and I make small talk for a while. Her blonde hair honors the simple white glow of the reading light. Her face is high and lovely. Her bright pink workout pullover ensures in-flight comfort. She might be a Lululemon model. It’s still up for debate.
Although we never strictly veto shots, a 10pm red eye from Portland to Philadelphia is no time to start drinking. Unless you’re with your college buddies; most of society’s rules don’t apply when you’re with your college buddies. Truly, society just excuses acting like barbarians on account of hanging out with your college buddies. Remember this universal truth at your next reunion.
As the plane jerks forward the in-flight video is shouting. “Buckle your seatbelts! Refrain from smoking! And in the event of a devastating, life-ruining crash-landing in the middle of Lake Michigan, remember that your seat cushion is actually a pool floaty. Complimentary margaritas will be served while you float, but we’ve run out of those little umbrella straws. Our apologies.” Hannah and I try to talk over the handsome actor-pilot and his unreasonably diverse crew, but the shouting match isn’t worth it. So we wait.
Hannah is from Tennessee, but currently lives in DC, when she’s not traveling. A medical tech company pays her to fly all over America and sell incredible, life-saving miracle-machines to hospitals, or something like that. She says the pay is worthwhile, but at 26, she still shares an apartment with a friend in Georgetown. It sounds less like a home, and more like a hallway with appendages. Her boyfriend runs a restaurant but thinks about graduate school. Everyone thinks about graduate school.
The economy class ticket comes bundled with a particular honesty. It’s hidden in the Terms and Conditions. Row 33 encourages this honesty with a lack of company and the engine’s muffled roar. Hannah is five years my senior and well spoken, both willing to admit defeat and offer advice. I trust her. We agree that high school graduates idealize the future. As dewy-eyed freshmen we dream of college graduation and immediate employment. We confuse a diploma with a supernatural certificate to instant adulthood with “I HAVE MY SHIT TOGETHER” printed boldly at the top, the dean’s signature penned elegantly underneath.
Hannah claims that no one has their shit together. Not at 22. Not at 26. And probably not by 30. Her twenties are cramped apartments. Her twenties are Chinese takeout on the floor. Her twenties are working a demanding job most of the time and reuniting with old friends at dive bars when she’s home. She’s changed boyfriends, cities, and careers plenty of times. As she creeps closer to 30, life trades its spontaneity for responsibilities and a salary raise once in awhile.
This complete lack of form is not some nightmarish void. Rather, it’s a sort of carte blanche. Uncertainty is the prerequisite to failure. And failure, lots of failure, is the prerequisite to success. No matter your major, there’s no guarantee that the path you’ve prepared for will even exist upon graduation. Your entire field of study could dry up, disappear, and turn into a Starbucks. All your old, nasty professors are now just bitter baristas. With some lowered standards of living, a decent attitude, and a bullish work ethic, the most rewarding path is the one you discover, the path no one mentioned in school. Armed with courage and a college degree, you won’t be in that Starbucks crying into an iced-caramel macchiato. You’ll navigate the turbulence as it comes, reinvent yourself a few times, read a lot, fail often, and keep going in spite of it all.
With tired eyes and easy smiles, Hannah casually shares more stories and advice as we coast above the Midwest. She tells me that Atlanta is less affordable than it used to be, DC is much worse, Tennessee is beautiful, Charleston is tiny, and everyone’s first apartment is microscopic.
After two hours we each fall asleep in the least comfortable positions imaginable, and wake up in Philadelphia feeling less rested than before. She asks when my next flight leaves for New York, and I realize that it departs in 30 minutes from the opposite terminal. She wishes me luck as we exit the plane, and I sprint towards my gate.
My advice includes: don’t ever wear flip-flops to the airport. Ever. They slap and sound against the airport’s faux granite floor as you run. With luggage strapped to your back, your running form becomes sub-human, devolving to that of a wild turkey.
II. Bon vivant
After an adventurous week in New York City and a two hour delay in Dallas, I walk through the aisle of my last airplane, finally back to Portland. I’m in the third boarding group, which is surprising; my tickets are so cheap they often create a sixth boarding class that’s just me and the snack cart. The snack cart is usually wheeled on first.
Upon sitting in my middle seat, passenger 27C says, “Hi, my name’s Ariel, like the mermaid.” Her voice is low and charming as she reaches out to shake my hand.
“I’m Colin… like the Farrell.” She thinks it’s funny.
Ariel pulls a little black box from her big black purse and says that she’s just bought a new Mophie (a phone case that’s also an external battery). If I can assemble it she’ll buy shots after takeoff. I’m in good company.
I read the instructions, set the charger up in about 30 seconds, and she orders us each two shots; two tiny bottles of Jack Daniels for me, two tiny bottles of vodka for her, and two tiny plastic cups filled with ginger ale.
I tell her of my week in New York. She tells me of her week in Kentucky.
My stories of hipster bars and Lower East Side pop-up shops are no match for her tales of horseback riding, distillery tours, and alcohol-induced adventures through uncharted southern evenings. Her charm bubbles constantly on the surface of our conversation, while her wit and intuition drive everything she says and the intensity with which she listens. Throughout the conversation a truth reveals itself: Ariel knows how to read an instruction booklet, but she cares enough to make a moment of it.
Ariel tells me that grew up on an island off the coast of Washington, graduated from high school at 17, and attended Arizona State on scholarship. Having almost completed four different degrees, she chose to leave school at 22 to bartend in Las Vegas. Divorce has scattered her family between Washington, Oregon, Kentucky, and Bavaria.
This needs deconstructing. At 17 she took a ferry to school. At 18 she walked between palm trees and pools to get to class. And at 22 she navigates the Vegas strip daily. Her family lives in three states and two continents. Her education spans business, psychology, human physiology, and now, mixology. She is the perfect millennial, the one you always read about in the New York Times: intelligent, intuitive, and completely, unabashedly restless. She’s everything your parents ever warned you about, and everything you love about Broad City.
“But in my heart, I’m an entrepreneur.” She says it like a weekend plan you tell a friend in a lecture hall: hushed and excited.
“What’s your latest venture?” My question is genuine but the rhetoric feels wrong. I feel there should be a verb form of entrepreneur. Like, what are you entrepreneuring? Or preneuring? Or what’s your latest entrepreun? I’m sure Ariel’s already invented one, but that’s a secret too.
“You’re done with your drinks,” she says, dodging. I offer to buy another round, but she refuses. She says it wouldn’t be fair for me to buy the drinks just because she bought the first ones. Maybe Arizona State teaches fairness differently than everywhere else in America. Maybe it’s custom that the lady buys drinks on the islands of Washington. Either way, we decide to play rock paper scissors for the next round.
I lose almost immediately. In retrospect, no one should play rock twice in a row. The stewardess delivers a third round of tiny bottles complete with ginger ale and ice. Within fifteen minutes we’re sky-drunk. Sky-drunk is land-tipsy, and boat-sober. So we’re just tipsy, sitting in United Airlines economy class: sky-drunk.
“Can I tell you my next business venture?” she asks un-prompted. She’s smiling with pride, still bubbly with charm.
“Of course,” I say.
“I’m moving outside of L.A. to sell luxury dog clothing,” she says with a smile.
I can’t help but smile back. That’s one hell of an entrepreun. She asks if I want to see her inspiration.
Yes, I want to see her inspiration.
She reaches under the seat in front of her. She lifts the big black purse onto her lap, and out comes a little black nose. And a little brown head. And little, pointy ears. There’s a Chihuahua in her carry on.
She explains she’s moving to Redondo Beach, an affluent beach town outside of Los Angeles, to start her line. She and the Chihuahua, whose name is Norman, will love Redondo Beach. Norman stays perfectly quiet for the rest of the trip, and eventually Ariel falls asleep.
Ariel, like the mermaid, certainly hasn’t told me her whole life story. She could write books. But from what she has told me, it’s clear she’s carved her path out of chaos. Ariel reinvents herself constantly, works tirelessly, and by our traditional standards of success, is already acquainted with failure in the form of dropping out. But she won’t quit, and I can’t imagine anyone telling her to.
Ariel, Norman, and I deplane and agree to have one last drink as we wait for our respective rides. Norman abstains. Ariel is waiting for her much-preferred stepdad to drive her to her less-preferred dad’s house. Apparently dad thinks working in Vegas is “for sluts.” Hopefully Redondo Beach has a market for luxury dog clothes so dad can stop calling his daughter’s work “for sluts.”
She asks if I’ve ever had a green tea. Somehow I know she’s not asking about the calming, hydrating, hot drink. According to Ariel, a green tea is one part Jameson, one part peach schnapps, and one part bitters.
“It’s how I get girls to drink whiskey,” she says with a smile. As if I hadn’t just drank three whiskey gingers from the United Airlines snack cart.
She orders one for me, for her, and for Dave. Dave is the suit sitting next to us at the bar, and he hasn’t taken shots since college. According to Dave, his life is traditional. A wife, kids, and a salary with benefits all put him on the American pedestal. He’s a man of accomplishments, a man to be revered. King of the suburbs. But Ariel accepts no excuses, not even from suits, and especially not from Dave. She doesn’t feel intimidated by his status. She wouldn’t even think to be. From where I’m sitting, Ariel’s right next to him on that pedestal, boldly editing the fine print of the American dream while ordering airport cocktails.
After the sweetest shot I’ve ever thrown back, Ariel and I exchange numbers, find each other on Facebook, and catch our rides.
III. C’est la vie
We’re all on a continuum of adulthood, Hannah, Ariel, and I. The millennial experience is to know rapid change and pervasive communication as life’s only constants. As we age we learn that the journey through adulthood is not as linear as a flight. You don’t print your ticket at PDX, transfer in Philadelphia, and deplane at La Guardia.
Adulthood seems more like a cross-country road trip: constantly stopping, seeing and learning new things, getting lost and finding new, unfamiliar, but exciting roads. It’s much more complex than a degree, an education, or a job. It’s a journey.
Hannah is Ariel four years from now. She’s broadly educated, well traveled, and eager to face the world. She’s failed plenty, and picked up the pieces every time. Carving a path out of chaos. Navigating the turbulence as it comes. Reacting to change with resilience. With time and experience we all start to look like adults, although we might never be willing to admit it.