It was a cold night at JFK and the terminal was eerily (yet understandably) quiet. Just a few weeks prior two planes had flown into the World Trade Center, and most people were avoiding air travel. The mood was somber, to say the least.
I was “listed non-rev” on the last flight back to LA for the night, which is airline lingo for waiting on the stand-by list as a non-revenue passenger, thanks to my friends and family benefits with the airline. This was long before the airlines automated this system with online check-in and in-app status notifications. The protocol back then was to wait patiently by the gate for your named to be called, just minutes before the gate closed.
This was an art form in and of itself; you wanted to be close enough to hear your name if the gate agent chose to just yell for you rather than use the PA system, but not so close that you annoyed the gate agent. Just like today, gate agents have a tremendous amount of discretion in seat assignments and lurking over the podium for your name to be called was the fastest way to be seated in the back next to the restroom … or not get a seat at all.
So there I was quietly standing off to the side, listening for my name, when the phone rang at the gate. The exchange went like this:
Gate Agent: Hello?
[The Gate Agent pauses while listening]
Gate Agent: Hold on, let me check.
[The Gate Agent picks up another phone and dials]
Gate Agent: Do we have any Bailey’s on the plane?
[The Gate Agent pauses again while listening]
Gate Agent: Thanks.
[The Gate Agent hangs up the second phone, and goes back to the first call]
Gate Agent: No, we don’t. [short pause] Ok, thanks.
About five minutes later, an airline employee comes up from tarmac with a large bottle of Bailey’s Irish Cream. He hands it to the Gate Agent, who rushes it down the jetway to the plane.
Before I continue I feel that I have to level set that everyone, including myself, was on edge. Just a few weeks prior terrorists had hijacked three planes and used them to kill thousands of people. The FAA had only recently allowed planes to fly again. I can’t speak for everyone else, but personally I was being (perhaps overly) vigilant.
And in my hyper vigilant state, I started to ask myself questions about that bottle of Bailey’s Irish Cream. What was so important about the bottle? Did it go through security? It was much larger than 3 ounces, …. could it be disguising something else? Could someone have put an explosive in a fake bottle, and thrown it over the tarmac fence to avoid security?
You hear stories about people who have an intuition and get off a plane, only to find that it crashes on that flight … I quietly wondered to myself if that bottle of Bailey’s was a sign that I shouldn’t be on this plane.
Did I mention that it was late?
After some internal debate – which I’d like to be able to say was short but in truth likely took longer than I’d like to admit – I realized that my concerns were irrational and resolved myself to get on the plane, Bailey’s or not. This decision was eased by the fact that the Gate Agent had called my name and assigned me a seat in first class.
The seating configuration of the first class cabin was (facing forward) two seats on the left / aisle / two seats in the middle / aisle / and two seats on the right. My seat was 6B, on the left side of the plane just a few seats down from where we boarded.
I quickly got on board, and settled into my comfortable leather seat for the flight home – the bottle of Bailey’s now only a faint memory.
Just as the flight attendant made the final pre-flight announcements, I noticed Ray Charles and his assistant getting on the plane. His assistant helped Ray into seat 6E, across the plane from me in the same row, then quickly ran behind the first class section to speak to the flight attendant taking the pre-flight drink order from the passenger behind me.
Ray Charles’ assistant: excuse me, did you get the bailey’s?
flight attendant: Yes sir, we have the bailey’s.
ray charles’ assistant: great, ray won’t fly without his bailey’s. He’ll have a bailey’s on the rocks.
I quietly breathed a sigh of relief as I now understood the importance of that bottle of Bailey’s. And when the flight attendant asked me “Mr. Gordon, would you care for a drink before flight?”, I confidently said … “I’ll have what Ray’s having”.