At 36,000 feet, a little thing becomes a big relief

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

The dark-haired woman in the window seat had an irresistible laugh, but it took 2 ½ hours to hear it.

She was troubled, clearly. Then she was sleeping, fitfully.

Then she was paging through the SkyMall catalog, and suddenly, she was snickering — which led to chortling, whooping, shared guffawing, and a timely reminder for the columnist in the next seat:

Sometimes, it really is the little things.

We all know that, of course. You can’t buy a double rainbow over the Detroit River, or an I-know-exactly-what-you’re-thinking glance from a friend you’ve had since high school, or response so perfect a screenwriter could have written it when your kid needs a jolt of reassurance.

But knowing and appreciating can be as far apart as Phoenix and Detroit, the beginning and end of the dark-haired woman’s early flight on Sunday.

We are awash, after all, in Big Things. ISIS. Ebola. A plague of campaign commercials, leading up to today’s election. And then there are everyone’s personal crises, like the dark-haired woman’s ailing 79-year-old dad.

She didn’t mention him at first. She didn’t say anything at all, except to politely excuse herself as she stepped in from the aisle.

After she laughed, she started to talk.

She used to live here, and now she lives in Scottsdale, not missing Midwest winters a bit. She has two kids, 16 and 12.

She was in Detroit last week because her dad had a heart valve replaced. Once he stabilized, she went home.

A few days later, though, things started to go wrong. Not drastically, but wrong enough that she slid into her black running shoes with the pink tongues and headed back to the airport.

So there she was in a window seat, in a funk and an early-morning fog, worrying and sporadically dozing and finally leafing through the familiar seat-pouch brochure, past the $99.95 instant badminton court and the $8,499 massage chair.

She paused near the center of the magazine, at a two-page display of T-shirts, and it was as though the clouds were parting and the Arizona sun was breaking through.

Smile. Wider smile. Stifled laugh. And ultimately, laughter so welcome and freeing that she had to share the cause with a stranger.

She pointed to a gray shirt with what looked like a rectangle from the periodic table. “Um,” it said. “The element of confusion.”

Above that, in black: “Those who can, teach. Those who can’t, pass laws about teaching.”

And the one that put her into convulsions: black shirt, white triangle with measurements on two sides and x along the third, like a high school geometry problem.

“Find x,” it said at the top, and below the triangle was a notation in red, with an arrow pointed toward the letter:

“There it is.”

Humor can be about the moment as much as the punch line. In truth, the geometry joke was a retread, and maybe the others weren’t worthy of spasms of laughter.

But they were what she needed at that place and time, what she reached across and showed, and what made her feel better. A few pictures of shirts, barely more than a square inch apiece.

The little things.

Will the real Neal Rubin...

Sharing someone’s glee was the second good thing that happened in mid-air. The first was when Delta Air Lines flight attendant Rick Hahn of Trenton told me he reads The Detroit News every morning, even the ones where we don’t bring it to his house.

It’s nice to watch someone work who clearly loves his job and does it well, and yes, it’s nice to be recognized.

Or even sort of recognized.

The scene last week: Lunchtime at the Dime Store, a very cool restaurant in the Chrysler House downtown.

A pair of two-person tables are separated by maybe 6 inches. A man at one of them looks up as another customer walks through the door and stops at the hostess stand 15 feet away.

“I think that’s Neal Rubin,” the man says to his companion.

“Actually,” I say from the adjoining table, “that’s Nolan Finley. I’M Neal Rubin.”

Hey, I’m just glad he’s a newspaper reader. We can work out the details later.