Of course, the plane — a red eye — was delayed and, in sorry compensation, we were waiting with other customers who were waiting for other delayed flights. Strangers watched sports TV together; a pregnant woman talked angrily into her phone.
We sat by the window, looking up at the sky, wishing we were in an airplane looking down at the ground. Two men sat a few seats away. They were chatting in the desultory way strangers do when they want to make a pleasant first and final impression, and mean nothing to each other. There were exchanges of destinations and professional data. Both had retired from the same field of business: a lucky hook to hang conversation on.
After a while, an older, heavy-soled woman limped to the chair next to them. She was having trouble with her carry-on bag, and also, it turned out, with her life. She dug out a cell phone from the bottom of her pocketbook and dialed a family number.
Though we didn’t mean to listen, still, we learned: Her flight had been rerouted to Chicago with a dawn trip home from there, but she didn’t know where she would sleep — she had never been to Chicago before. The airline agent had suggested she make it easy on herself and sleep in the airport. She was trying to reassure her family member that this would be a little adventure, but she was not convincing . . . or convinced.
Like us, the two men overheard everything. After she hung up, one leaned forward. “Stuck in Chicago?” he asked. She nodded. “Listen,” he said, “you don’t wanna sleep on these chairs. I have points for the Hilton Hotel in O’Hare. Lemme give you some.”
These offers cannot be trusted. Even children know that. She shook her head and said something about how she couldn’t possibly.
“No really,” he said, “really. I’m gonna call right now and book you a room.”
He dialed a number while all of us listened in. The older woman started to protest, then realized that her great uncertainties were about to be solved by a stranger. These moments of generosity are so unlikely and so cinematic they almost make crises attractive. She stopped herself and listened in too.
Our hero spoke to the Hilton O’Hare representative with authority, making what appeared to be familiar arrangements. When he explained that someone else would be claiming the room for him, there was a question on the other end. He paused.
“Oh, right,” he said, with his hand over the receiver, and turned to the woman whose life, briefly, he had just reconstituted. “By the way,” he asked, “what’s your name?”
Elissa Ely is a psychiatrist.