I recognized him the minute I saw him. I was already seated several rows behind the wing, Writing Down the Bones ready in-hand to read once all the commotion of boarding ceased, and I spotted him at the part of the aisle where First Class becomes Coach. He wrestled with a suitcase. A flight attendant preceded him down the aisle carrying another, and even from this distance, it was clear he was exasperated. Contempt curled his lip as he barked at the attendant, and a sheen shined upon his brow. I’d had my share of service jobs – waitress, busser, hostess, dishwasher – and every part of me recoiled from a person who so openly displayed disdain for a worker.
We’d been told the flight was full, but the seat beside me – the window seat – was still empty. The flight attendant continued down the aisle looking harassed. Please not me, please don’t let him sit by me. Which of course he did. He heaved his suitcase into the overhead compartment then took the other from the flight attendant and tried to cram it in, too. “Is there not going to be enough room for my stuff now?” he demanded
“I’ll find space up front,” the flight attendant said. She would find space for his suitcase if it killed her, just to get him off her back. She took the bag from him and started back up the aisle, her shoulders rounded from the weighty bag and from the berating.
He sighed mightily and watched her go, then finally turned his pale blue eyes on me.
Oh, I recognized him all right. I didn’t know his real name, and I hadn’t watched the show enough to be considered a fan, but here in front of me, putting on a polite even affable social face and nodding to let me know he had the window seat, was Sergeant Renko, racist southern beat cop from Hill Street Blues, a show several years off the air now, but still popular in syndication.
I resolved at that moment that under no circumstances would I let on that I recognized him.
I got up and slid into the aisle so Renko could take his seat.
“Thanks,” he said.
“Sure.” I sat back down and opened my book. A book served to secure my solitude during a flight. A book said Do Not Interrupt Me (Unless You Are the Flight Attendant with the Drink Cart). So while Renko adjusted himself in his seat, and stowed his carry-on bag, and buckled his seatbelt, and unbuckled it again to get something out of his carry-on, casting the occasional apologetic smile my way, I tried to appear engrossed in my book.
Indeed, Renko opened a book of his own, Iron John. Iron John was another nail in Renko’s coffin as far as I was concerned. I associated it with misogyny thinly veiled as a pro-manly-man agenda. (An aside here to reassure some of you that I view Robert Bly, the author, with a more nuanced eye these days.) And so, through taxiing to the runway, and hearing about what to do in case of a crash, and the usual exhilarating take-off, Renko and I read.
Then somewhere near cruising altitude, Renko let his book fall away and turned to me. “What are you reading?”
When another person does something I find baldly inappropriate, it is a flaw of mine that I can withhold forgiveness, can cling to their transgression, even as their better traits come to light. I am somehow convinced at these moments that if I steadfastly do not forgive them, they will examine their misstep and try not to repeat it.
On the other hand, I am not rude. “Writing Down the Bones,” I told him. I held the cover up for him to see.
“Oh. You’re a writer?”
I said , “Yes.”
He sagged a little. “What do you write?” Where earlier his voice had been animated, it now sounded dull.
“Fiction. Mostly young adult fiction.”
“Oh, yeah?” The liveliness returned. “When you said writer, I thought you meant you were in The Business.”
“Oh, no,” I said. “Just short stories and books.” I paused. “What do you do?”
“A lot of everything these days,” Renko said good-naturedly. “Mostly I’ve been producing television, directing some.” I knew this, actually, having read something to that effect in some LA magazine I’d read. “Sometimes I act. Hey, do you know this book?” He waved his copy of Iron John at me. His finger held his place. He was somewhere around halfway.
“I’ve heard of it.”
“It’s great. Bly just nails it. It’s about how men have been restricted by masculine ideals from the 50’s, how those ideas of maleness limit men and don’t reflect their real experiences.”
“Kind of the male version of ‘the problem that has no name,’” I said.
“Yeah, like that. Exactly that. We know something is wrong but it takes someone smart and brave like Bly to say what it is.”
We talked like that, easily, with enthusiasm, about Bly and Buddhism, writing and the creative life, men and women.
He never said, “Hey, I used to be on a highly successful TV show and was nominated for an Emmy for my role on it.”
I never said, “You know, actually, I do know who you are. I’ve seen Hill Street Blues. You were good.”
Wherever his fortunes once had been, Renko now flew in the coach section. But he was still at it, still worked and found pleasure in it. He was interested in his inner world, and he wasn’t at all put out that I seemed not know who he was. He appeared happy enough to connect with me without his celebrity being in the mix.
Of course now I wish I’d said something – precisely because he was the sort of person who wasn’t riding on his past glories, the sort of person who is interested in people and wants to know what someone is reading. I do hope he figured out how to be nice to service workers.
I also hope the next time he encounters someone who knows him that they say to him – with feeling – “Hey, Charles Haid. I recognize you! You were on Hill Street Blues. You were good.”