It's almost that time of year when people start talking about weird dreams, ghost sightings and their grandmother's superstitions they can't quite forget. I used to lump strange coincidences into that category, but no more. Recently, an intense flight from New York to Chicago made me see how important it is to take coincidences, premonitions and other extraordinary experiences out of the "magical" conversation and put them into the "another type of human communication" conversation. I learned the hard way that just because you have a weird coincidence, doesn't mean the result is going to be "magical." In fact, it's this assumption that gets people like me in over their heads.
In the emerging field of Coincidence Studies, I am what they call a High Frequency Responder. This means I have the experience of coincidence often, whether bumping into a friend 20 minutes after I think of them or having a dream about a person the night before they call me out of the blue. Though I am interested in psychic phenomena, I am not psychic. I have no control over when these incidents happen, I don't believe they make me more able to manage the future or, for that matter, the present. For a long time, I considered them to be a unique personality trait; in the same way I'm sensitive to noise and light, and talk to strangers a little too easily, I attract certain information to myself in an invisible, circuitous way.
Coincidental experiences occur in everyone's life, and about 1/3 of the population observes coincidences regularly. About a year ago, I started doing research on the frequency of these experiences and founded The Extraordinary Project, a web-based, living history of improbable incidents that happen to all human beings. It was on the return flight from The New York Launch of the Extraordinary Project that I experienced a darker side of coincidence, and how compromising they can be.
While at the gate waiting to board, I noticed a man, about 40 and good-looking in a Jersey Shore way; physically fit, workout pants, gold chains. I met eyes with him, only once, then returned to the word game I was playing with my daughter. The flight to Chicago was full, but I knew it was he who was staring at us. I could feel his eyes, not menacing, not harmful, just curious and insistent. In airport culture, staring is part of the deal. People can't help it sometimes; so many outfits and hairstyles and facial expressions you'll never see again. Still, as we lined up according to zone and every passenger of the full flight passed before me, his were the only eyes I felt.
Our seats were by the window and in the middle. Throughout boarding, my daughter and I leafed through SkyMall. We laughed at the pictures of pets on toilets and Merlin walking sticks. Passengers filed passed our row. Suddenly, the staring guy sat next to me.
The flight attendant spoke into the intercom, "ladies and gentlemen, as we prepare to take off..." Out of the corner of my eye I saw him take a tissue from his pocket, pluck a pill from the folds, and swallow. I knew instantly it was a sedative. The attendant continued, "beverage service will be coming around once we reach 30,000 feet."
He turned to me.
"I really can't wait for the little cart. I am not a good flyer. I'm not a good flyer at all."
I met his eyes now. They smiled through terror. I nodded and said something comforting, but quickly turned towards my daughter. She was tired and snuggling next to me, and quickly fell asleep. Never had I felt so grateful to have a child to tend to, where I could focus my attention. I'm not a nervous flyer and don't have a phobia to which I can compare, so I'd have never understood fear of flying unless I was seated next to someone like this. I could practically hear his knees knocking and teeth chattering, but because he spoke well, smiled at his own discomfort and exuded an otherwise pleasant competence, I worried less.
"God Bless her. She's such an angel. Look at her sleeping," he said of my daughter like any friendly seatmate.
Soon after take-off, two African-American flight attendants pushed the drink cart to our aisle, chatting everyone up on the way. My seatmate fished out his wad of cash.
"Credit only," the woman said sweetly.
His face paled to ghost white. He asked again and again, are you sure no cash? Sweetheart, can we make an exception? She grew uncomfortable as his tone became urgent. The next part happened very fast, and it's hard to remember my thought process. Part of me summed up the fact that the flight could be very, very unpleasant, given this fellow's anxiety and newly emerging aggression. We were on a plane, after all. Part of me just felt his desperation. I'm not sure which part of me -- the problem solver or the empath -- spoke next, but out of my mouth came the words, "I'll buy you a drink, sir."
He looked at me, incredulous, but declined. No, he said. He can't let a woman do that for him. I insisted, because I could already see the relief it brought him. A small part of me didn't want to even entertain the idea that this man could lose it, could totally blow and endanger everyone, but it was a strong possibility. Another part of me thought, he needs the help, and I can help him.
Finally he agreed. He ordered a double.
"I knew when I saw you at the gate that I was gonna be OK if I sat next to you. I asked God, if I can sit next to that lady and her angel daughter, I'm gonna be OK, because God would never let anything happen to them."
Like that, I became his savior. He had decided, perhaps at the gate, that we would go through this together. I wondered what were the chances of us being seated next to each other. I chalked this coincidence up to being a High Frequency Responder. He, however, saw it as a sign from God.
"I knew I was gonna like you. I saw you and I knew it. I knew it." He kissed the crucifix around his neck.
He drank his first rum, without the Coke. In a rolling monologue he told me everything about his life -- his work and his apartment in Manhattan, his second home in NJ, which, coincidentally, was a few blocks from my parent's home in the next town. He also told me he was on a game show 10 years ago, a famous one, where by mistake he gave what became one of the funniest answers in game show history.
"Google it," he says. "Google me and you'll see. I got a million hits. Literally. A million. I'm famous." He laughed and poured his other drink. Out of curiosity I Googled it a few days later, only after I recovered from the events that happened next.
He continued with too many details: he never was much into game shows, but his buddy, Frank Blank (not the real name), loved this particular game show and had been trying to get tickets for years.
I asked him to repeat his friends name; I thought I heard wrong.
"Frank Blank," he said.
I couldn't believe it. I actually knew Frank Blank. He delivered flowers for the florist where I worked when I was 16 years old. I ask my seatmate if his Frank Blank delivered flowers. Again, his face paled.
"You know Frank Blank?"
I described the person I knew, and my seatmate's eyes widened. He couldn't believe the coincidences, and almost looked worried, then more excited than before. With slurred speech, he started telling the story about how Frank Blank got the tickets, invited him to the audition, but only one of them got called. Another coincidence. Laughing hysterically, he took off his shirt. He wore a thin white tank top that revealed many tattoos, portraits of friends who died, he said. His dad was in the mob, and was murdered. His brother just got out of prison after 20 years, and he was going to visit him. He took a deep breath and told me how much he was enjoying the flight, how much he enjoyed talking to me, and how glad he was that he took a Xanax. Did I know how great Xanax is? Did I want one? Was I sure? Because we would have a lot of fun if I took one.
I declined. He understood, he said, because he respected motherhood. He respected that I was married. Otherwise we would have a really good time together, he said, a really good time.
I was familiar with deflecting this kind of conversation, and went on autopilot for a while. My daughter still slept, and we were nearly halfway to Chicago. A strange exhaustion overcame me, and I realized it was fear. I was almost certain I did the right thing by helping this man, by buying him the rum and Cokes, by distracting him from his anxiety with conversation. But the burden of our coincidental connection was larger than I thought. Coincidences brought people together. They fostered a type of energetic connection in addition to whatever else people "believe" about them. But are they always supposed to precipitate trust? My seat mate thought so, and before this moment, I had thought so, too.
Things changed when the person in front of him moved a little too severely.
In an instant, my seatmate was cursing under his breath, horrible insults. I peeked between the seats and saw an African-American passenger wearing headphones. Threats and racial epithets ensued from my seatmate. He would smash his skull if he moved again; that wise a** mother f****** wasn't going to walk off the plane if he kept it up. Suddenly, my intuition to buy two drinks for a frightened, scary person who already took a Xanax seemed like a ridiculous decision now. Alcohol and Xanax had been lethal for Whitney Houston, I only just remembered.
I said something casual to him like, "Nah, that's not necessary." Like it was no big deal to decide not to smash someone's skull.
He turned to me with surprise, "No?"
I shrugged and faltered, "It's a small plane, we're all close together, we'll be landing soon."
Eagerly, he checked his watch.
"Only 45 more minutes," I sang.
By luck, his mental state was as easily distractible as it was violent. Now, though, he leaned on me to leer out the window.
"Are we landing yet? How much time do we have?"
Again, I told him 45 minutes. He told me he was once on a game show. How I had to Google it, how he was famous. I nodded to hide my helplessness. I was his safety person, everyone's safety person. If I escalated the situation to the flight attendants, his racial hostility might transfer to them. If I turned on him in any way, I risked my daughter, not to mention the rest of the plane, suffering his wrath.
"My ears, my ears are all clogged. They're clogged. I can't hear." He started to gag.
I told him to open his mouth like this, and demonstrated. He did it. I told him to practice breathing in and out through his nose. He did it. He thanked me profusely for guiding him. He asked me again when we will land. That God blessed my daughter, she slept like an angel. He pulled his ears and opened his mouth wide, like I showed him, like a child. He asked for another drink. Before I could answer, he was up and walking to the front of the plane. He joined the flight crew, who regard him cautiously. Somehow, they made him laugh and convinced him to sit back down. I was amazed at their professionalism, and envious of their authority. I wished I could call on them when he began whimpering, then threatening, again. Instead, my survival mode prompted me to distract him: to show him pictures of my dog; to share with him a game on my Kindle. He grew quiet, as if soothed. I play Candy Crush, he admitted shyly. I was relieved to have found the part of him that was human again, but wondered how long it would last.
The agony of the rest of the flight came not just from my seatmate's alternating panic and ranting, but from the burden of his interpretation of our commonalities. He believed we were put next to each other by fate, and I couldn't justify arguing with someone who hung onto that belief for dear life. I wanted to cry when the flight attendant announced our descent. The flight couldn't end soon enough. My seatmate leaned up against me hard, in fear, like someone might clutch their loved one's arm. I playfully engaged him in counting backwards from 50 very slowly. He did so. Every so often, he paused to look out the window, then to thank me again for guiding him, for leading him, until we touched down. It was the longest landing ever.
When we pulled into the gate, he unbuckled and surged to the front of the plane without a goodbye. I wanted to do the same, but instead, remained a moment to thank my lucky stars that we al l-- my daughter, the rest of the plane -- were safe.
Other people who hear this story believe I saved the plane. If he had sat next to another, less compassionate passenger who brushed him off, he might have completely blown, they say. I like to think I helped this man, but I wish I hadn't felt like I was the only one who could help him. Next time, I might just take the coincidences for what they are -- a type of communication between sensitive people that is still in need of research, and very much in need of demystifying -- and press the call button.