Note 1: Talking Through Identity. 1/4/99
On a recent flight from Dallas to New Orleans, returning from a Modern Language Association convention in San Francisco, I enjoyed the delightful company of a young woman who was flying back from a skiing vacation with her family in Colorado. Ordinarily I am not particularly inclined to talk to strangers on airplanes. She, however, insisted on maintaining a dialogue, rather persistently in fact, which defeated every effort I made, or did not make (I'm usually passive in such situations to the point of rudeness), to avoid talking to her at all. Her strategy involved making a statement which ended with a direct question to me, a situation leaving no choice but to answer or, more often as the conversation progressed, of ending her comment in a way that invited a response to the verbal exchange she was creating. She decided, apparently, early in the exchange that I was not particularly motivated as a conversationalist and took upon herself the task of keeping the dialogue moving along a path that suited her own design. The dialogue was interrupted numerous times by in-flight announcements by the pilot, as all flights are, that provided opportunities for her to plan her next statement, to think of something else to say that would either continue a particular topic or shift the ground to a new one she wanted to pursue. There were also a number of short pauses between the flow of statements that seemed to function in the same way.
To say that her technique of managing a conversation with a stranger was odd, unusual, or striking in itself would probably be the same as overdetermining the situation that confronted her because I was not particularly inclined to be responsive. At the same time, however, it did strike me as unusual that she persisted in making the effort to keep the dialogue alive when there was no apparent reason for doing so. She was not a compulsive talker of the kind who cannot help themselves when given any opportunity to fill a social context with meaningless verbal noise and she did not seem to be bothered in the least by a silence between us as some people are when a topic of polite conversation has exhausted itself. She was not desperate to talk; she was not embarrassed by silence; she was relaxed and perfectly at ease.
The exchange began when she said hello while taking her coat off to store it in the overhead bin above the pair of seats we were to occupy on the flight to New Orleans. She was a strikingly attractive, if not beautiful, woman with long, tightly curled, brown hair. She was about five feet four inches tall and was in excellent physical condition. She seemed much younger, perhaps mid-twenties, than she actually turned out to be, probably late-thirties. We did not exchange names at any point in the conversation and for the most part the ground we covered was essentially neutral and of a non-personal nature. After a few minutes of silence, she asked if I had had any problem making the flight. She said she had come into Dallas from Colorado, that the plane had been delayed, that she had landed at concourse A and had been forced to run through the terminal to concourse C in order to make her connection to New Orleans. My experience on the way to San Francisco five days earlier was exactly the same as hers; being forced to run through DFW to get from A to C, not knowing at any point whether the connecting flight would still be at the gate when I got there. My flight back was in some ways worse. I only had to cover seventeen gates in concourse C but the plane coming in landed five minutes after the connecting flight was scheduled to depart. That flight was also delayed so both of us managed to reach the gate and board the plane before it departed.
In the first exchange, then, a common ground of experience was discovered which became a kind of trope for the shape of the dialogue that followed. One discrepancy surfaced, however, in what she had said about her arrival at the gate. She had used the first person singular in describing her progress through the airport and she was, as far as I could tell, traveling alone. There was no one else with her when she appeared to claim her seat. This is fundamentally significant because later in the conversation she told me that her husband and three of her four children were also on the plane but sitting in the forward part of the cabin. That, of course, is neither unusual nor impossible because the airline we were flying assigns seats to passengers on a first come basis and if a party of five people make reservations after most of the seats have been assigned they are seated according to available space. There was another discrepancy in her description of her family that I will come back to later since I am getting ahead of myself in telling this story.
The next exchange, which occurred several minutes later, began with a typical question travelers ask each other on every flight: "Are you just visiting New Orleans or do you live there?" I told her I lived in the city and was returning from a convention in San Francisco. I returned the question and she said she lived in Slidell, a smaller city than New Orleans on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain at the eastern edge of the lake. A New Orleans/Slidell opposition, as it were, creates a curious dynamic in any conversation between people, strangers or not, because New Orleans is considered to be urban and dangerous while Slidell is thought of as "rural" and safe. There is also a wide divergence in demographics that plays a significant role in identifying who you are in the area surrounding Lake Pontchartrain. New Orleans is predominantly African-American (70%) and the communities on the north shore are predominantly white by about the same ratio. White flight and fear of the Other (African-American) populated the cities surrounding New Orleans (Metairie to the west but still south shore, Covington and Mandeville to the north, and Slidell to the east) during the decades of the '70's and '80's, when large numbers of white New Orleanians left the city to seek a "safer" place to raise their children. Most of them commute to jobs in the city, of course, and contribute little or nothing to its tax base. Desegregation was the underlying cause of white-flight, certainly, because most white southerners would rather live in an undeveloped swamp than share "civilized" space with violence-prone black savages on an equal footing. Part of what transpired in the conversation was played out across the divide between staying and leaving New Orleans for the safety of "Slidell."
She told me for instance that she and her husband, who I did not know existed before that moment, owned a house in New Orleans that they were renovating. She said it was on Race Street, a few blocks from Tchoupitoulas. Anyone who lives in New Orleans would have serious problems accepting the validity of this claim for several different reasons. A person who lives in Slidell, who had lived there his/her entire life as she told me she had, apologetically of course because Slidell is considered to be unsophisticated in comparison to the other suburban cities in the area, a kind of red-neck backwater, as it were, would be unlikely to purchase property in New Orleans for the purpose of renovation. The location of the house, however, really threw doubt on the truth of the assertion because Race St. is located very close to the St. Thomas Housing Project which is one of the most dangerous places in New Orleans and may be one of the most dangerous areas in the entire country. Nearly a quarter of the drug murders that occur in this city happen in St. Thomas, in the streets that run on any given side of it. No white person, which I assumed her to be, would even consider owning property in that neighborhood. White people who know the area do not even go there in broad daylight. When she told me where the house was located, the expression on her face, in her eyes, told me she expected to be challenged in some way over the improbability of her claim. I did not say anything to suggest I doubted her word.
After a brief silence, she described her house in Slidell as being in an area that was more rural than urban, probably northeast of the center, and close enough to Lake Pontchartrain, or one of the bayous "flowing" into it, to allow for the periodic appearance of an alligator in her backyard. She said that a seven-footer had been removed from her yard the year before and that, just before she left on the ski-vacation, she had called the Sheriff's office to report a ten-footer in the area that had probably eaten one of her dogs. She dead-panned the disappearance of "Old Blue" by telling me that he had taken to incessant barking along the lakeshore several weeks before the ski-trip, a sign in its own right, apparently, that a gator was in the neighborhood, and had not been seen by anyone for a least a week before they left for Colorado on Christmas Eve. She did not seem to be overly concerned about the fate of her dog, who was a stray that wandered in from the street and may have left on his own for a new abode anyway, and hoped that the Sheriff had sent someone out to check for the gator during their absence.
A story like that, while probably bizarre in most contexts, is actually not all that improbable in the area where she claimed to live. There are alligators that get into peoples' yards in the northeast section of Slidell, even though that only happens during the summer months of the year, and a week before Christmas makes for a hard sell in terms of believability because alligators are virtually inactive after September in this area. Not impossible, however, because it was quite warm here during December, warm enough at 80-85 degrees for the period in question for a gator to remain active that late in the year. So, why tell a story like that to a stranger on an airplane who lives in New Orleans when you live in Slidell? Taken together, the fact that she owns a house virtually in St. Thomas, and has the periodic alligator in her backyard in Slidell, puts her on an equal footing, where dangerous living conditions are concerned, with the person who has remained behind, or who has chosen to live, in the unsettled and violent world of the African-American dominated inner-city. Drug-wars or not, having an alligator in your backyard is just as dangerous as living in the inner-city.
During our discussion of origins, that she had always lived in Slidell but was able to travel often and to distant places, I mentioned the fact that I had only been in New Orleans for about eight years and had originally lived in El Paso, Texas. After mulling that over for a few minutes, during one of the silences that punctuated the dialogue, she asked me if El Paso was close to Mexico and wondered if I had spent much time "across the border" while living there. She then said she had been in El Paso herself and had taken a side-trip into Mexico. "It's near Tiajuana, isn't it?" she asked. I said no, just across the river (Rio Grande) from Juarez. She was clearly on unfamiliar ground here, mostly because one can hardly mistake San Diego for El Paso and Tiajuana for Juarez, and wondered how far the two cities were from each other. I told her it was possible to walk across the border in downtown El Paso. She then told me how she had walked into Juarez during her visit to El Paso and had purchased a suede jacket with fringe cut and left hanging on the sleeves. Such things have always been available in Juarez but I figured it was highly unlikely she had ever bought one there.
At this point, nearly halfway through the flight, the dialogue turned to family and children. She had vaguely alluded to the fact that she was traveling with other people, as I mentioned earlier by reporting the details (husband and three children which I did not know about myself before this point in our talk) and mentioned the fact that her oldest child was planning to attend college in Minnesota "next year," after he graduated from high school in Slidell. She said he was 18 years old. Fifteen minutes later, the "oldest" child became female and was finishing her last semester as an architectural major at Colorado State in Boulder but was probably going to shift to furniture design in graduate school because she liked that much better. She was 21 years old and visiting her at Christmas was the reason for the trip. She mentioned during this part of the dialogue how difficult it had been getting her three children and her husband through the concourse, when I thought she had made that journey by herself, and how upset the two younger ones were (12 and 8 years old) at the prospect of having to spend the night in Dallas, rather than in Slidell, if they were unable to get to the gate before the plane departed. She said they had checked ten pieces of luggage in Boulder and never would have made it to the gate if they had had to carry the baggage through the concourse.
We parted company, as it were, when the line of passengers leaving the plane reached our row at the back of the cabin. She walked directly in front of me from back to front and did not meet anyone she knew among the passengers who had remained in their seats as everyone else left the plane. Two or three other passengers moved between us as we made our way into the airport from the tunnel connecting it to the plane. Again, no one approached her, no one was waiting for her to catch up with them, as one might expect, if the other members of her family had left the plane well before she was able to do so herself. I did not see her in the concourse after I followed her from the tunnel. In fact, I did not see a group of five people ahead of me, two adults and three children, anywhere along the entire distance from the plane to the baggage claim area. I did not see her, or anyone who might have belonged to her group, in that area of the airport either.
Having spent the better part of my adult life in the company of crow and coyote, traditional native American trickster figures, as well as in close association with the old man who tells me only as much as he wants me to know and has been more than willing to shade the truth whenever it suites his purpose, it is difficult for any ordinary human being to lie to me without my being aware of the fact that they are doing so. My companion on the plane, a completely delightful and engaging young woman, and a person with whom I would freely spend time under almost any circumstances, had spent nearly two hours telling me a story of her life that was clearly fabricated from a few elements of truth and a preponderance of "facts" that were half-truths and outright, if not outrageous, lies. Her technique of questioning me in order to draw out details of my life to which she then attached fictious elements of her own tended to soften and elide the obvious disparities and gaps in her knowledge of places and experiences she was in the process of claiming as her own.
She knows something about the borderland between Mexico and the U.S. but was not in the least bit familiar with the El Paso/Juarez section of the border, a place she claimed to have visited. She knows New Orleans but not really well because she seemed unfamiliar with the Mid-City section of the city and asked where it was located. After I told her the streets that are generally recognized as forming its borders, she asked me if I had ever eaten at Ginghis Kahn, a restaurant less than five blocks from my house and located on a street I had mentioned as forming one of the borders of my neighborhood. She knows the restaurant but not that it is located in Mid-City. The number and ages of her children seemed less than certainly fixed. I never had any direct confirmation of the fact that she was traveling with at least four other people. All in all, everything she said about herself could be perfectly true but, at the same time, nothing she said seems, in retrospect, to be firmly anchored in an incontestable truth.
Her ability to lie, if indeed she was doing so, was both profound and well-practiced. I was never in the least bit offended by the fact that many elements of her story did not add up to a seamless, unconflicted history. Looking back on the experience now, I can truthfully say that the time I spent talking to her was perfectly delightful, even in those moments when I was sure she was being anything but perfectly honest in fabricating her identity. I could not then, and cannot now, think of any reason why she would have chosen to create a totally false impression of who she was. When someone lies to you, they always already have a hidden agenda they are practicing in order to gain some advantage over you. If she had such an agenda, she gave it up early on and simply passed the time fabricating a persona that suited her at the moment and under those particular circumstances.
Getting down to the business at hand, the experience itself, while it was occurring and now in retrospect, seems like nothing so much as it does that I had been caught up in some writer's composition of a scene in a novel. There were two characters in the scene, a woman and a man who met on a plane flying from Dallas to New Orleans on New Years Eve, all quite by chance, who found an inevitable, if not inescapable, compatibility with one another and decided, literally against all reason and against all prior commitments, to spend that night, and perhaps the rest of their lives, together. The precise motion of the author's intent is immaterial and I have no reason to believe that the woman I encountered was actually looking for a way to escape from the situation in which she found herself but I was, nevertheless, profoundly aware of the fact that she was constituting an identity in the course of our dialogue that was considerably at odds with the actual circumstances of her real life.
The point I wish to make here, of course, is that each and everyone of us constitutes our personal identity in precisely the way that the young woman on the plane created hers. In the microcosm of flight, where she and I were isolated from every real context and from every real past and present moment in our actual lives, it became possible to constitute an identity, firmly grounded in real speech, and virtually nothing else, based solely on the dynamics of actual dialogue. Speaker A makes a statement or asks a question. Speaker B, to whom the utterance was directed, replies with a statement of his/her own. Speaker A talks back. Speaker B responds. The exchange itself is open-ended; it has no real beginning, middle, or end. In this specific case, of course, the duration of the flight from Dallas to New Orleans placed artificial limits on the length of the dialogue but under other, different conditions, the speech act could have gone on indefinitely. To make the same point in a different way: if I happen to encounter the woman again, under different circumstances, she and I can pick up the conversation where we left off and both of us can add to or detract from the identity we have already constituted in and for each other. She might find or lose a child or two by not-remembering how many she said she had in our first encounter. I might decide to join the game and be less truthful about the details I use to create the story of who I am.
In fictional worlds, of course, in the use and appropriation of novelistic techniques, there are no limits imposed on the author when he/she sets about the task of creating characters in a narrative context. In dialogic discourse the dynamic of the conversation I have reported here is precisely the same as the technique a novelist uses to create fiction. They are indistinguishable. At the same time, one must recognize the fact that, where Word is the dominant force in the creation of identity, the same conflict between truth and falsehood inevitably and inescapably obtains. Identity cannot be fixed, finalized, made whole and perfect simply because it depends too much on the "sliding science" of language use, on the imprecision of the word caught full force in the relativized world of (wo)man's life and experience. God did not create language. (Wo)man created language. Language, like the speech act itself, is just as true and pure as anything else human beings do for and to each other. Should the woman I met on the plane, who probably lied more than she told the truth, be condemned for that? Of course not. She harmed no one. She (c)harmed, she entertained, she danced the language of self to a far higher plane than any moralist I have ever met. Live long, prosper, talk yourself into whoever you want to be.
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