Last week I flew from New York to Phoenix for a business meeting. This allowed me to hit the daily double in amputee-unfriendly terminals, with JFK’s Terminal 8 (American Airlines/US Air) – thanks for making sure not to repair the moving walkways, guys – and Phoenix’s Sky Harbor Airport, which notched top honors for worst U.S. airport for amputees in my recent, highly-scientific analysis.
On the flight back to JFK, I strapped myself into my aisle seat in row 19. I’m not a particularly social creature when flying. I always fear that the friendly smile or casual sentence to my seat mate could devolve into several hours of semi-awkward discourse from which I can’t easily escape. So I followed my regular protocol: headphones on; reading materials in front of me; pretend that no one else exists. I’m hard to distract when in my Cone of Solitude.
Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but feel the vibrations as a tall passenger hopped down the aisle towards me en route to the restroom. You might think because I’m missing a limb that my first reaction was, “Hey, he must be an amputee!” But because I actively pretend that I’m not an amputee for so many of my waking hours, my reaction instead was, “Hey, this guy must have really hurt his foot and can’t weight bear; that sucks.” But in fact, my fellow passenger was missing his left leg above the knee, and he hopped right past into the bathroom a few rows behind me.
At this point, some version of the following internal conversation began.
“Should I introduce myself to him? No, he doesn’t want to be bothered speaking to another amputee. It’s not like we’re soul mates because we’re both missing limbs. But then again, I did used to sit on the Amputee Coalition Board of Directors. Don’t I have an obligation to introduce myself? Get over it, you’re not nearly that important. He doesn’t give a damn about your previous volunteer work history. But how often do I get the chance to speak to an amputee on a plane? I’ve been logging hundreds of thousands of miles over America and Europe over the last 8 years and I’ve never seen an AK hopping down the aisle. Will I ever get this chance again?”
And so on.
Eventually – and it took me about 3 minutes to make this life-altering decision – I got up and waited outside the bathroom door for my fellow limbless flyer to emerge. (Yes, it feels creepy to wait for someone outside the bathroom door. I once washed my hands at the same restaurant bathroom sink as Patriots owner Bob Kraft, but couldn’t say anything to him because, well, we were in the bathroom. (I patiently explained to my oldest son that no, it’s bad form to use the bathroom and then ask to shake hands and get an autograph from a famous person at the sink without it being wildly uncomfortable. I don’t think he’s convinced.))
As the door opened and he hopped out, I blurted this brilliant opening: “So you decided to go the non-prosthetic route, huh?” He grinned and said yes, he had never worn a prosthesis. He made some comments about how he had a short limb and thus, had opted instead for crutches. He had heard technology had changed and should probably try it, but this is how he’d lived his whole life.
In another incredibly smooth move, I lifted my pant leg to reveal my prosthesis to indicate this was why I was asking him the question. He graciously nodded and said, “I figured you were part of the club when you asked me.” (Translation: “Dude – I’m not a moron.”) From there, happily, things got better. I learned that his name is Eddie McGee, and he splits time between NY and L.A., where he acts. That led me to name drop some amputee acquaintances who happen to also appear in TV and film, and not surprisingly, he knew all of them.
“Yeah,” he said, “whenever there’s a role call for a young amputee to play a wounded vet, there’s about 15-20 of us who all show up for the same auditions every time.” He mentioned that he had appeared in one of the Law & Order series and was now promoting the film, The Human Race, which, judging by its poster (below), involves Eddie in a leading role and lots of blood.
He didn’t mention that he was actually the Season 1 winner of CBS’s Big Brother, which was fortunate since I’ve never watched a second of the show. He also noted that he was a recent convert to aqua-aerobics, saying, “I don’t care what people think, it’s an amazing workout.” Judging by the fact that it looked like Eddie could bench press me with little difficulty, I didn’t argue.
After talking for about 7 minutes, I told him I’d let him get back to his seat. As I followed him up the aisle, he leaned over and had a quick conversation with the man sitting next to me in my row. As buckled my seatbelt, I broke The Cone of Solitude and asked the Man in the Middle, “How do you guys know each other?”
“Oh, we just met on the first leg of this flight,” he explained. “Cool guy.” He then called the flight attendant over and asked her to purchase a drink for Eddie on his dime. (Eddie later reciprocated. It was amusing to watch him and my seat mate toast each other from 6 rows apart, but they managed to pull it off.) The Man in the Middle then said to me, “I almost never see amputees and now there are two of them on the same flight. What are the odds?”
I smiled at him. “Yeah, we’re taking over the world.”