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[Photograph: russelljsmith on Flickr]

I drink ginger ale on only two occasions: when I'm swimming with Jim Beam Black or flying alone, a mile high. In my average Earth-bound human state, nary a sip crosses these lips. And as I occupy my eight insomniac hours from Heathrow to JFK by getting a few articles ahead before Christmas, I asked myself, flanked by holiday travelers ordering all manner of things from the Mad Men Joan-esque flight attendant, why we order what do we when we fly.

A perpetual aisle-sitter, I am often privy to the in-flight orders of the others in my row before perky Joan turns her attention to me. Why I would ever consider this an ordering advantage, I don't know, because I never deviate from my beloved ginger ale. But today, I felt like something different. Maybe because there are no more salted cocktail peanuts on flights, and ginger ale is the Ginger Rodgers to Mr. Peanut's Fred Astaire. Or maybe because trans-Atlantic flights leave me in such a state of desperate boredom that even saucy, spicy ginger couldn't pick me up today. All I know is that the lovely London chap over in 45K ordered a spicy tomato juice, and I said to Joan, "You know what? I'll have the same. And a soda water"—a back up or a chaser, depending on how the spicy tomato juice turned out.

Spicy tomato juice is an even stranger, never-order-on-dry-land, request for me, as I would rather slit my wrists than down a Bloody Mary. Just yesterday I sent back the most horrific tomato soup, and I order insalata Caprese exclusively for the mozzarella. But as I looked over at Joan's jolly little cart, I realized it was positively stocked with tomato juice. Do all these people drink tomato juice in their daily lives? Or is this just some strange zoological, anthropological curiosity resulting from heightened altitudes? Either way, it reminds me, and possibly 45K, and Joan, and everyone else on board of a time when peanuts came with the playing cards and planes had smoking sections and I could walk onto a plane with shoes and dignity intact. In other words, it reminds me of golden-era richesse, and sometimes hunger for the past can be satisfied with stiff, spicy drink.

Joan placed the red juice, matching her red hair, on my out-folded and awaiting tray. In it bobbed two half-moon slivers of lemon and a duet of ice cubes. A clear, yellow plastic stirrer. I smiled as I swiveled the concoction around and it went from Santa Claus to sanguine in color. It tasted of sweetness, of horseradish and black pepper, and of the mystery that is Worcestershire. It tasted old, and fresh, and bright, and I imagined myself just for a moment as I child hunched under the seat, look up my mother's stockinged legs to see her swirling tomato juice in a cup, cigarette threatening to ash from between her fingers, as she chatted to the lady next to her, lipstick intact.

We were flying back to New York, as I am now, and it was a city unmarred, riding a bucking bull market for well over eight seconds, and mastering the universe. And though I never had had a sip of spicy tomato juice before in my life, its vegetal cold fresh heat comforted me. And I realized that perhaps I only order ginger ale because it reminds me of peanuts, and that maybe 45K orders his piquant elixir for the taste of a past so secure as we hang in the sky, at our most vulnerable.

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