Zamboni Small Talk

I can’t stand small talk. Somehow I don’t think I’m alone in this. What is intended to be polite has become mundane. And there’s only so much you can say about the weather. Or the local sports team. Even politics and religion seem like good alternatives to the cotton candy drivel that we discuss when passing someone on the street or sitting uncomfortably on the bus.

There’s a limit too. After all, you can only ignore someone for so long. One minute elevator rides deserve nothing but a passing glance and an offer to select a floor for your fellow passenger. Beyond that, they’re on their own. Any more than a passing glance and it suddenly gets uncomfortable. So we look at the ceiling, then at the floor, then at our watch and finally at our Blackberry, nevermind that the only thing we can find is the junk e-mail advertising a certain enhancement therapy – it’s still better than making eye contact. Subway and bus rides test the limit. For these we feign sleep, read the newspaper or tap on a keyboard. We pretend to not notice the person to our right (or smell the person to our left), but without the use of these tools, we might just feel the need to talk. Even if it is only about the weather.

But cross over an hour and even the newspaper won’t work. The laptop runs out of battery and no one sleeps that long without snoring or drooling, and that would violate altogether new levels of behavior. And so we break down, turn to the person that doesn’t smell and start a conversation. For me it typically happens on an airplane with the person next to me – also too cheap to pay for anything other than coach. For some it may happen with your spouse – but that’s another matter.

In years prior, I’d ask the typical questions:
• “So is San Diego-Chicago-New York-Des Moines-Moosomin home?”
• “So what do you think of the food?”
• “They’ve certainly increased the size of the seats, don’t you agree?”
• “Lose any good luggage lately?”
• “How’s the weather – is that a hurricane outside the window?”

Okay, so maybe the hurricane question might be more of a statement, but you get the point. Either way, the responses were always typical and the follow-up questions were expected. And in the end, we did nothing more than traded lines and consumed oxygen for several hours. So when I was recently offered the chance to travel to San Diego, I figured I’d better plan accordingly. I brought two laptop batteries, stocked up on newspapers and grabbed the MP3 player, only to be seated next to the most outwardly conversational person on the plane. And he wasn’t going to give up. So after several abrupt responses that “I wasn’t from San Diego”, the “I didn’t like the food”, and “I had no idea what the weather was like”, I replied rather flippantly to his next question of “so what do you do for a living”. “I’m the purple Power Ranger in the feature production of Power Rangers on Ice,” I replied. Clearly this was not what he expected. To be honest neither had I; sometimes these things just come out without much thought. But now it was too late. I had to back it up. He asked how I got the job. I told him I took Ice Sciences in college. He asked how long the show lasted. I told him it was four months of work every year. He asked if I knew how to drive a Zamboni. I told him it was all about getting the outside circle first and learning to lean into the curve.

Pretty soon I started elaborating on my lie. I told him I learned karate for a brief stint with Japanese baseball. I also told him that I was auditioning for a roll in the upcoming ice show based on Star Wars. I wanted to be Yoda, I told him. And I think he believed me. And before I knew it, the plane ride was over. He shook my hand and offered me a business card. Turns out he was an elephant trainer. Much more interesting that a Power Ranger. Too bad I never asked him about his job. Either way, it was much better than small talk.

Since then I anxiously await the opportunity to talk on the airplane. The last time I travelled I said I had a hand in the invention of the little plastic tables that they put in the middle of your delivery pizza so that the box doesn’t smash your cheese. Thankfully the person next to me wasn’t the real inventor of this fantastic device. If he had, it would have been a very uncomfortable trip. Still, I described the invention in detail, even telling about how long it took us to find the perfect blend of plastic that wouldn’t melt and how the initial prototype was made out of wood. Who knows, I might have even put more thought into the lie than the real inventor put into the invention.

In the end, I enjoyed these conversations; not because I wanted to be a Power Ranger or I like the idea of inventing something like a pizza table that may make me a millionaire, but because I also met some wonderful people that I wouldn’t have met if I buried my nose in a newspaper or tapped on a keyboard. I still hate small talk, but at least now I have something to talk about. So the next time you’re on a plane with a man that claims to be the inventor of Lucky Charms cereal, have some fun and make up something too. Pretend to be a Zamboni captain. And remember, it’s all in the wrist and the first curve.

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