Movie-like Vignettes in Real Life

A colorful movie film strip overlaid on a sparkling blue background.

Movies seem larger than life but every now and then you may experience a moment that makes you feel like you are living in a movie. These movie-like vignettes are short stories we live through from beginning to end. And they are magical experiences.

Everyone knows that nothing in movies happens the way things do in real life.  Life is boring and mundane and movies are magical.  The whole point of movies is to help us escape from the everyday doldrums.  Yada yada yada.

The other side of that coin is that movies often fail to represent what real life is like.  For example, suppose you make a movie about a 30-hour hike through enemy-held territory when the actors’ platoon or company engages in three short firefights.  The movie will not be 30 hours long.  And a disproportionate amount of film time will be devoted to the firefights.

People on the street in Mumbai. It really did look like this every day I was there.

People on the street in Mumbai. It really did look like this every day I was there.

Nonetheless, you can’t tell a good story unless you have some life experience.  Well, that’s what all the old writers used to say to us young’uns when we were frustrated at having our book proposals rejected.  I would guess that the same maxim is oft repeated to young film students (never mind all the young film-makers who create pretty interesting footage).

How much life experience do you need before you can tell a good story?  I would say not much.  But maybe you need a little more life experience than that to recognize a movie-like story unfolding in front of your eyes.  It’s the small, quiet, often private moments that remind me of scenes in films.  Here are some examples of movie-like vignettes I have witnessed in real life.

Well, Here We Go …

I don’t recall where I was flying to.  There was a time for about ten years where it seemed like I was always on an airplane.  I flew across the US many times, visited Chile, visited Great Britain, and flew to India during those years.  Most of those flights were business related.  Some of them were personal.

I don’t remember the year, where I was flying from, or where I was flying to.  I may have been in the Atlanta airport but I say that only because of what I witnessed.  Before I get to that experience, let me try to frame it for you.

By the time this event happened I had seen the 1989 movie “Say Anything …” starring John Cusack and Ione Skye.  It’s a teenage love story that ends well.  The final scene has them on an airplane about to fly from the United States to Great Britain.  They have a normal conversation.  That’s all it is: just a normal, real world conversation.  Of course, it’s intense but it’s a conversation I have heard many times over while traveling.  What Cusack and Skye say doesn’t matter.  The point is how the movie ends: they are on a plane and they flying off together to start a new phase of their lives.  It’s not “the rest of their lives”.  It’s just the next phase (she is going to university).

That is how a lot of movies end: the characters have completed some great chapter of their lives and they are ready to move on to the next adventure.  A more contemporary example would be the ending of “Guardians of the Galaxy” where Peter Quill and his friends are in the newly restored Milano and trying to decide what they’ll do next (after having saved the galaxy from Ronan).  It’s a kind of normal conversation but the movie ends and you don’t get to see what happens next (unless you watch the end credits, but don’t count that).

So there I was in some major international airport, standing in line.  I was either waiting to board my plane or I was waiting to get my boarding pass.  I was in the terminal and at the gate.  This part of the concourse had several gates.  I was at the end of the concourse, I guess.  There was a rather large group of people standing close by saying good-bye to two young girls.  They were probably 17 or 18 years old.  (Yes, in those days, friends and family could accompany you to the gate.)

So as I stood waiting for my line to move I began to hear snippets of the conversation from the group saying good-bye to the girls.  Tears were flowing.  There was occasional laughter.  It was quite obvious there had been a long build-up to this trip.  You could almost put together the pieces of the last 10-12 months they had spent preparing for this trip.  They had to save up the money, which meant they had to get jobs.  They had to go through some sort of application process.  They had to learn Spanish.  There was quite a bit of celebration in the conversation.  You could just feel the group’s pride in the accomplishment of these two young friends.  Their year had not been uneventful.  They had struggled to overcome whatever obstacles stood in their way.

And so with final kisses for mom and dad and a wave to brothers, sisters, friends, aunts, uncles, and maybe some grand-parents, the two girls turned toward their gate and started walking toward the plane.

At this point my own line began moving.  And at this point I was definitely in line to board my own plane.  The whole scene I just described lasted for 10-15 minutes.  Whole civilizations rise and fall in that kind of time frame.  I am sure I was not the only person paying attention to the girls and their families.

As it so happened my plane’s group had to pass through the same doorway as their plane’s group.  Their plane’s access bridge or gangway was to the left and ours was to the right.  So the girls turned a corner and started walking down the long gangway corridor.  They were holding hands.  They were so obviously scared and excited and ready to get moving I am sure they were both trembling a little bit.

The last words I heard from them were, “Well, this is it.  Here we go …”

I felt like I had just watched the ending of a movie.  The people around me were smiling.  I am sure they had similar feelings.

I believe that plane was heading toward Puerto Rico.  I have always wondered what happened to those girls and what the purpose of their trip was.  I am sure their story would have made an interesting movie.

Can You Sit Any Closer?

I don’t know if I have ever watched a young Vince Vaughn in any movie but I have seen a few of his films.  He’s a good actor, has great comedic talent, and can be quite entertaining.  He somehow chooses roles that take ordinary situations and turns them into chaotic extravagances.  This is, of course, a long tradition in comedic film-making that began with over-the-top films featuring Laurel and Hardy, the Keystone Cops, Simon and Garfunkel … okay, maybe not the last two guys.

So imagine you’re sitting in an airport terminal somewhere and a young Vince Vaughn comes and sits down next to you.  There are like 5 seats to the right and 5 seats to the left where Vince-wannabe could have sat down but he chose a site on my left.  People are strange like that.

And the next thing I know a girl about the same age as Vince-wannabe comes and sits down on my right.  So now I am sandwiched between these two people and I realize before anyone says a word that I am THAT guy, the third man out, the dude in the middle who is about to become insanely immersed in a conversation he wants no part of.

I mean, the girl was cute and all but she was obviously not there to hit on me.  And this was another of those multi-gate areas so who knows where everyone was going.  It was just obviously not going to be my moment.

So there is silence.  Awkward, mind-bending, can you please get on with it SILENCE for a couple of minutes while they both do their own thing.  And I am sitting there thinking, “Why the FUDGDE couldn’t these two go sit somewhere else?”

I began fiddling with something, maybe a laptop computer.  I don’t recall.  Maybe I was trying to read a magazine.  It was hard to concentrate because they were both SO intense.

And finally the conversation started up.  It wasn’t just that they had known they were going to talk to each other. It’s that they had chosen to come talk across me for some reason.  By his tone and his questions I could tell that young Vince-wannabe either had not spoken with the girl before or he was a damned fine actor.

And so I kept thinking, after she responded three times with energy and obvious interest, that he would do the natural thing and move around me to sit next to her.  But he didn’t.  Mr. Clueless just keep rattling away about whatever it was they were talking about.

And the conversation began drifting into topics in which I was more well-informed.  They were trying to figure out some problem and I knew the answer and I couldn’t stand the fact that I was supposed to just sit there and read my magazine and ignore them while they grew up in life experience.  I started to make faces and gesture with my hands.  I tried to cover up my reactions by turning the pages of the magazine.

But the urge to intervene, to correct the erroneous attempts at logic, to fill in the gaps in their knowledge, to inject myself into this bizarre conversation — the overwhelming feeling of this should involve me in some way — just kept growing stronger.

Finally, convinced that Vince-wannabe was not going to do the classy thing and move the conversation to her side of me, I packed my stuff and got up and walked away.

I had NO INTEREST in learning how that movie moment would play out.  Some of you may be thinking, “Oh, that’s where you say ‘get a room'” but even though this guy was obviously chatting up the girl and she wanted to be chatted up, there was no way anything was going to happen.

To this day I cannot imagine how I managed to project myself as the kind of guy who should be talked over in an immature pre-mating ritual.  From that day forward I made it a point to claim as many seats in the airport as I could reasonably get away with.  I clear my stuff away for pregnant moms and senior citizens.  All the hormone-driven young would-be couples have to find somewhere else to learn about life in an airport.

May I Carry Your Bag?

I can honestly say I had many small adventures when I visited India.  I flew there for business.  I was able to do some sight seeing.  I was even able to do some shopping.  And I attended a few meetings and spoke with people who wanted to pick my brain.  And I got sick, too.

While it has been many years since I visited Mumbai I remember the airport vividly.  There was no air conditioning at the time.  I had been in a few airports, or walked on tarmacs, where there was no air conditioning but visiting Mumbai in July or August is very different from walking out to your plane in Arizona.  The humidity inside the airport was almost suffocating.  But there were hundreds of people around me going about their weary business without a care in the world. So I wandered through the airport and found my way (eventually) to the shuttle bus that would take me to my hotel.

A week later, after all those adventures I am not going to share here, I found myself in the airport again.  One thing I noticed at the time was that there were armed soldiers everywhere.  I don’t recall if that was normal or if there was a terrorist threat.  It seems like nearly all my international flights occurred at times when someone was threatening to shoot down a commercial airliner.  I remember feeling a little worried during one of my visits to Great Britain.  My supervisor went along on that trip and she laughed at me for being anxious about terrorist threats.  “Do you know how many threats these airlines hear every year?” she asked.

And she was right.  We had grown up with a generation of airliner hijackings, a few mid-air bombings, and many disasters.  Nonetheless everyone who was getting on a plane in those days made a point of saying somewhere in one of their many conversations about their trips, “You know, flying is safer than driving in your car!” (I concede that having been in more car accidents than plane accidents that so far this maxim has proven to be true for me.)

But there I was in India, passing through Mumbai’s airport again on my way home after a week of enjoying Indian food, hospitality, and seeing a city that was ancient when my European ancestors first came over to the Americas.  Technically, as I understand it, what we consider to be the city of Mumbai only emerged a few hundred years ago but the city is built on several islands off the western coast of India and people have lived in those islands for thousands of years.  I just felt like the place was dripping with age in a way that no city in the United States can (not even St. Augustine, our oldest city).

It was night when I arrived in Mumbai and there were people all over the airport. It was nearly as busy in the middle of the night as many large American airports were during the day.  But when I returned to the airport later that week during the daytime the place was packed with people almost from wall-to-wall.

There wasn’t much of a movie-like feeling to the place for me.  I was just a bit stunned at how busy and crowded the place was.  The building was modern.  There may even have been air conditioning on that day (I think someone told me they had turned the air off the night of my arrival).  It was not an uncomfortable situation.  As an experienced traveler I knew what I needed to do to get to my plane.

So I started to walk toward the counter I needed to be at and got about five steps before a man came up to me and offered to carry my bag.  “No thank you,” I said.  “I can manage.”

He was very polite but somehow in the next 1 minute he managed to explain to me that he earned his living by carrying bags for travelers in the airport.  I thought, “Well, I guess I’ll be the foreign guy with the local baggage handler.”  So I asked what he normally requested for a fee and he said some (to an American at the time) unimaginably small amount (in Rupees, of course).  I handed him the money and he took the bag from my shoulder and led me away.

We traveled about twenty paces and then he put the bag down at the feet of another local man.  “Thank you very much,” the first local man said.  “This is my friend.  He will take your bag from here.”

I remember looking around to see if this was where an airport police officer would step up and arrest the two guys.  A soldier with a very loaded semi-automatic rifle strapped over his shoulder was standing about ten feet away from me.  He looked straight at me with a bored expression but didn’t say a word.

“I’m a stranger here,” I said politely to the two baggage handlers.  “Is this really how you earn your living?  I don’t want to sound insulting.”

They assured me it was.  There are so many people in India that (at the time) the poorer families will take whatever work they can find whenever they can find it.  The baggage handlers in the airport had a territorial system.  Each one handled bags in his territory.  I looked around and saw a few foreign travelers like me going through similar negotiations.  Not one local traveler was being offered help carrying their bags.  There were women with children, elderly travelers, and even a couple of sickly people.  They all managed to get along without any help.  I felt like a fool, like I was taking advantage of poor people, and like they were taking advantage of me.

But they were asking for so little money that I didn’t want to say “no”.

In fact, I should share a couple of my small adventures with you.  Every day the company that paid for my trip hired a car to take me from the hotel to the business park where I was scheduled to do my work.  I had taken cab rides many times before in life but this was no cab ride.  It was a luxury car, the driver was dressed in a suit, and his only job was to convey me to wherever I needed to go.  If I wanted to go for a walk in a local park he would drive me to and from the park.

I remember looking at the residents of the city each morning and evening as my car wound its way through Mumbai.  There were people everywhere.  Some of them were quite wealthy and successful.  Some of them were very poor.  I saw people living on the side of the road in converted trucks.  I saw an old man bathing in the street.  There were cattle in a lot of places.  And there was just an endless number of children.  Some of them wore school uniforms and walked to school or waited for buses.  But some of the kids were obviously poor and never attended school.

One day the British gentleman who had arranged for my trip invited me to go with him into the city.  He had never visited India before but he was an experienced traveler.  I had been advised not to wander around by myself so he suggested we both do a little shopping for our families.  We were sharing the same car and driver that day so there were three of us.  Marcus had heard of a small shopping district he wanted to visit and the driver was quite familiar with the area so he took us directly there.

About halfway through the trip the car stopped at an intersection.  Marcus and I were chatting away, lost in our foreigners’ thoughts, when suddenly his face went pale.  He was surprised, shocked, and a little concerned but not frightened.  When I looked around I saw an unimaginable number of children pushing on the windows of the car.  “Do not open the windows!” our driver cautioned us.

“What are they doing?” Marcus asked.

“They ask foreigners for money,” the driver explained.  “You should never give them any money.”

“But they look hungry,” I said.

“They just give the money to the local [Hindi word],” the driver replied.  “The mafia you could say.  They send the children to ask the tourists for money and the children never keep any of it.  They are never far away even if you don’t see them.”

These kids were, by the way, very experienced at looking homeless, hopeful, helpless, and innocent all at the same time.  Marcus and I struggled to reconcile what we were seeing with what the driver was telling us.  We sat there in embarrassed, anxious silence waiting for the car to move again.

I’ll never forget their faces as long as I live.  All those kids would have grown up to have their own families by now.

It was because of these things I had seen while passing through the city, to and from a modern office park where high technology workers managed a complex banking system that serviced dozens of countries around the world, that I believed what the baggage handlers in the airport were telling me.  Not everyone who heard this story on my return home agreed I should have paid the handlers.  One co-worker from India told me that I did the right thing.  It cost me nothing (the company paid for the trip) and I was only paying them a very small amount of money by American standards.  The baggage handlers focused on the foreigners, she said, because we usually had plenty of money to spare.

So I paid the second guy to carry my bag another twenty feet.  And there he handed the bag off to a third handler.  But we were also standing in front of the ticketing counter I needed to reach, so I apologized to the third handler and told him I had reached my destination.

He stared at me blankly.

“He doesn’t understand you,” the second baggage handler said.  “He does not speak English.”

“This is my counter,” I told him.  “This is where I will check my bag.”

“They will take your bag?” he asked.  I nodded.  So he explained to the third handler in Hindi or whatever local language they were speaking and the third guy walked away.  I guess he had heard that story a thousand times.

I don’t know how far into the airport the chain of baggage handlers would have extended.  I don’t know if they still earn money from foreigners there today.  But I had a very surreal feeling.  It was not quite that movie-like experience that I describe above, but it felt like I was in another world.  I was briefly passing through other people’s lives with no idea of what to do or why I was expected to do anything.

Some years later while channel surfing on cable television I saw a documentary about India.  I stopped and watched it for a while.  There were some American tourists waiting to board a train somewhere in the heart of India.  A local man was trying to take their baggage to load on the train for them.  The Americans were middle aged but healthy, and they didn’t have large bags with them.  They could easily have handled their own luggage.

I watched in fascination as an elderly man gently explained to the visitors that this was how many people in India still earned their livings.  It was honest work and they were proud to be able to support their families.  They didn’t want any sympathy or handouts.  They just wanted to do whatever they could to earn their own upkeep.  Upon hearing this the Americans relented and paid the local handlers whatever fees they were asking.  And, of course, to an American it wasn’t much money at all.

I remember thinking, “I have been there.  I have lived this moment.  I know exactly what those people are thinking and feeling right now.  I am glad they paid the handlers.”