Well, it's disingenuous to claim Maya Angelou as mine, but don't we all kinda feel that way? She sat next to me once in first class on an early-morning flight. I can't tell you where I was going to or coming from -- most likely a comedy gig. I really don't know. All I remember with any clarity is that I was sitting next to Maya Angelou.
I had boarded early and was ensconced in the window seat selfishly hoping the one next to me would remain open. I looked up and saw Her coming down the aisle. At first I thought, "Hmm... she looks familiar." I think this was my brain's way of protecting me from taking in all at once the reality of who I was seeing.
Alice Walker? Cicely Tyson? And then... "It's Her. It's Maya Angelou!"
I stared -- well, I tried not to and failed -- as She walked up, stopped at the empty seat next to me, and began sitting down. I'm not schizophrenic, but the voices in my head became a screaming mob:
I'm not staring.
Yes, you are.
Okay I'm staring.
Well stop it. You're being creepy.
Are you gonna say something?
What? No. It's Maya Angelou!
Exactly! It's Maya Angelou! You can't be rude.
But maybe She wants to be left alone.
Just say, "Hi." Don't try to sit in Her lap.
Well hurry up and say something before it gets weird.
I took a deep breath to get my heart out of my throat and said, "Good morning."
She said, "Good morning."
And that simple exchange of pleasantries was all I could handle. That's right. I get paid to essentially talk for a living and now I couldn't. I had no words at least none on the outside. On the inside it was the Tower of Babel:
Oh. My. God.
She spoke to me. Did you hear that? She spoke to me!
See, that wasn't so bad.
Should I say something else?
Oh for the love of god, no.
Because you'll embarrass us!
And so I sat there quietly reading my book. And by reading I mean staring at type on a page. Don't ask me what the book was. I have no idea. All I remember is that I was sitting next to Maya Freaking Angelou. How I wish I had been reading And Still I Rise so the voices in my head could've debated about asking for Her autograph.
A flight attendant asked Ms. Angelou if She wanted anything to drink. Without missing a beat She said, "I'll have a vodka and orange juice."
The voices in my head all said, Well, damn. Is that why the caged bird sings?
And it wasn't even 10 a.m.
As the flight got underway The Phenomenal Woman took out Her laptop and the voices said: OMG Maya Angelou has a laptop?
Of course She had a laptop. But somehow I thought She crafted Her brilliance with a feather quill and parchment. And then I thought:
Maya Angelou is gonna write a poem right here, right now, while She's next to me! Is this really happening?
This is happening!
I had to see what She was writing. I just had to. You understand that, don't you? And so, as nonchalantly as I could (which means not at all), I shifted my position in my seat so I could see Her computer screen from the corner of my left eye. And that's when I saw that The Maya Angelou was playing solitaire.
You heard me. Solitaire.
And just like that she was transformed into a real person -- a human being, My Maya. True, the vodka and orange juice before noon should've clued me in, but I'm a slow learner. I eased back into a comfortable position in my seat and the voices were quiet for the rest of the trip.
And now that My Maya has taken her final flight, her seat next to me while vacant will never be empty.
Good night, My Maya. We'll miss you. Safe travels.