Friends in High Places

For someone who had done as much traveling as I had done in the past 8 months, I had done remarkably little flying. I’d caught countless trains and plenty of buses, but planes had only really been my choice of transit when there was almost no other option, like getting to Italy from Spain without taking 3 days to do so, or crossing the Atlantic Ocean. But when I’d been planning my trip across the Southwest while still in Austin, Aaron had advised me that flying in and out of Las Vegas was usually pretty cheap, considering it was a hot spot destination for domestic tourism. At the time of booking the flight I wouldn’t quite know it, but I would be very relieved that I wasn’t getting another bus onwards from Las Vegas. There was another particular reason for choosing to fly instead of travelling via road, other than the cheaper cost of flights – my eventual flight out of the mainland US would be from Los Angeles, and geographically that was the most logical city to drive to from Las Vegas. But there was no way that my visit to California would be complete without a visit to San Francisco, so I decided that I would fly further north first, and then travel down the coast to LA at some point during my final weeks in the US.

Another reason that I preferred other methods of travel to flying was that they were usually more interesting than flying. While I’d enjoyed most of the overland travel I had done, with the ability to see different places and meeting interesting people, all of my experiences with flying had been either uneventful or just downright traumatic. And I know it’s somewhere between an obvious cliché and an offensive stereotype, but I have to say it – if you have a male flight attendant than there is probably like a 90% chance he is going to be gay. Fabricated statistics aside, this had been my experience, at least, on the handful of flights that I had been on, and so far it had not made my journeys anymore interesting. But my flight to San Francisco was different…

After watching the funky new safety procedure video that Virgin America had just released and staying in my assigned seat for take off, I noticed that there there was a row of three seats that were completely empty. When the seatbelt sign was finally turned off, I gathered my belongings, quickly smiled at the woman I was sitting next to so that I didn’t look totally rude, and shuffled across the aisle and down a row to set up camp in the empty seats. Sure, the flight couldn’t have been much longer than 45 minutes, but extra space was extra space and I’ll take small wins wherever I can find them.

There was also something else that I had noticed during the takeoff procedure, and that was the flight attendant. He was tall and cute, and every time he passed me down the aisle we ended up making eye contact and exchanging some kind of semi-awkward smile. It was totally flirty, and I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t had similar experiences with other flight attendants before, so while it was a bit of harmless fun, I didn’t think too much of it. As entertaining as the thought of joining the ‘Mile High’ club was, I sat back to enjoy my short journey and let him get on with his job. Although given the nature of his job – serving passengers like myself – it wasn’t too long before we interacted again. Once we were in the air, the drinks trolley was whipped out and wheeled down the aisle, and of course when it got to me I was face to face with my flight attendant crush.

“Hey, how’s it going? Can I get you anything?” he said with a friendly smile.
“Hey… um, sorry, but do these drinks cost extra?” I was aware that when you were flying with the cheaper, discount airlines, you often had to pay for the little extras.
“It’s only the alcohol that costa extra,” he said, and then be smiled at me again. “But it’s okay, what would you like?” He flashed me a very subtle wink, and I could feel myself blushing.
“Oh, no, it’s okay, don’t worry. I’ll just have a Coke.”
“No really, it’s fine”, he said again, still smiling at me. “Coke? Coke and…?”
I have no idea why, but he had me fidgeting and blushing like a schoolgirl. “Um… bourbon?” I said coyly. He just kept grinning at me, and sneakily handed me one of the those tiny bottle of Jack Daniels.
“Thank you,” I said as I mixed the bourbon with the cola, and he assured me it was his pleasure, before continuing his way down the plane.

He visited me a few times again throughout the flight. The next time he returned with more bourbon – sneaking another 4 miniature bottle of Jack Daniels back and dropping them in the seat next to me – and the second time he had a handful of packets of salty snacks. I couldn’t believe it was happening – I mean, it’s not like we were shacking up in the toilets or anything, but to be honest free food and booze is an equally direct way to winning my heart. After all the other passengers had been served, he came down and sat in one of the  spare seats that I had scored for myself in the beginning of the flight.
“Hey,” he said as he slipped out of the aisle, and I had to do my best to keep the stupid, giddy grinning to a minimum. I felt like I was in some kind of cheesy romantic comedy – does this kind of thing even happen in real life?
“Hey! Thank you so much for the drinks and the food,” I said. “You didn’t have to do that.”
“Ah, it’s not a problem. We have heaps back there, no one will ever know” he said with a smile and a wink. “I’m Andrew, by the way.”
“Nice to meet you, Andrew. I’m Robert.” We chatted for a little bit, just introducing ourselves some more and getting know each other. Andrew had only recently started working as a flight attendant and was currently living in Las Vegas. He was on this flight to San Francisco, but he would be travelling one step further to San Diego from there before his shift was done. I told him that it was my first time in San Francisco.

“It’s a great city. I used to live there.”
“Yeah, I’m really excited to check it out.” We were both aware that we didn’t have a lot of time before Andrew would have to start getting ready for the plane to land. “So like… I don’t know, I feel like… do you wanna exchange numbers, or something?” It felt a little weird, knowing that I probably wouldn’t be seeing him again, but it felt like the normal thing to do in that kind of situation.
“Well, yeah. I actually…” he trailed off as he fished around in his pocket and pulled out a napkin, where he had already written his name, phone number and email address.
“Oh cool! Here, let me write down mine.” I scrawled my details out on a piece of paper to give to him.
“So are you meeting anyone when you land?” Andrew asked me.
“Actually… you know, I’m not. I don’t have anyone waiting for me.”
“I’ve got a little break before I need to head to the plane and get ready for the next flight. Send me a text once we’re on the ground, maybe I can meet you.”
“Sure thing,” I said, and then said goodbye as he hopped up to continue with his duties.

Welcome to SFO!

Welcome to SFO!

After disembarking and picking up my luggage, I met Andrew down in the arrivals terminal. We chatted some more, and when I explained my accomodation situation to him, he helped me find the shuttle bus service that could drive me to wherever I was going in the San Francisco area for only $20, and then sat and waited with me until the shuttle was full with passengers and ready to get moving.
“Well, it was lovely to meet you,” I said to him and he helped load my bags into the bus.
“Likewise. It’s too bad we didn’t have a little more time to hang out.”
“Yeah, oh well. But keep in touch. There’s always next time, and we both travel a lot – you never know where in the world we might end up,” I said with a final smile.
“True,” he said as he returned the grin, and gave me a final hug before sending me on my way.

We kept in touch, but despite him travelling to and from California pretty regularly with his work, I never ended up meeting Andrew again before leaving the US. But it was still a very memorable way to meet someone, and it’s those fun stories and quirky tales that you can look back on with fondness, knowing that you simply just opened yourself up to possibility and lived in the moment.

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Midnight Jazz and a Gentleman’s Kiss: my first taste of New Orleans

After heading down into the depths of the French Quarter and having dinner at a dive bar called Yo Mama’s Bar and Grill, recommended to me by Brett earlier that afternoon. I finished my burger and my beer, but it was still pretty early in the evening so I headed back to the hotel to figure out what I would do that evening, and just take my time getting ready. It was starting to dawn on me that for the first time in a couple of months I was completely alone in a city where I didn’t know a single person, and I didn’t have a local friend to turn to for advice or ideas. There’s always TripAdvisor and other travel sites you can consult, but I was also interested in meeting more people. So of course, enter Grindr. Or Scruff. Or any one of the numerous gay dating apps that have been connecting the already geographically close gay men of the world for years. Many people consider them to be ‘hook up’ apps, and it’s true that there are a plethora of users who are interested in nothing more than a cheap trick, but over the course of my travels I had met a handful of really amazing and genuine guys via the technology, such as Allistair in Vietnam or Anthony in London, all of who I am still good friends with and am still in touch with. So once again I turned to the grids of headless torsos in search of a friend.

Houses along the French Quarter, decorated for the upcoming Halloween.

Houses along the French Quarter, decorated for the upcoming Halloween.

Sipping on the Jack Daniels I’d bought duty free in Brazil, I chatted to guys here and there, scoping the place for fun or interesting looking guys, but never really getting past a round of half-hearted introductions. That is, until I got a message from Vincenzo. I can’t remember exactly what he said, but it was more than “hi how r u?” or “looking?“, so he was already off to a flying start, and he appeared to be gorgeous. He offered a few compliments, I probably blushed to myself and awkwardly returned them. He told me he was currently at work, at one of the smaller hotels around the corner from my hotel, and I told him an abridged version of my story, how I was just in town and looking for some things to do, or someone to show me around. I also mentioned that I was only in my hotel for a few days, and then I would be looking for some other accommodation, probably a Couchsurfing host. That’s when Vincenzo informed me that he too was part of the Couchsurfing community, and he even sent me a link to his profile, and then suddenly everything changed. I guess I felt like I was able to trust him a little bit more once I knew he was an active member of Couchsurfing, and not just a pretty face I’d stumbled across on an app, and suddenly we were making plans for me to meet him at his work when his shift was over.

I was a little nervous when I set out around the corner to meet Vincenzo. He’d been a little bit flirty, but not at all sleazy, so it kind of felt like an impromptu date or something. When I entered the hotel he was sitting sitting behind the reception desk, looking even more handsome in person. It was a small business-type guesthouse, and since it was getting late he was the only one around. We reintroduced ourselves, this time in the physical world, and then I was introduced to Princess, Vincenzo’s adorable Rat Terrier dog who had been cautiously watching me from the safety of in between his ankles. She warmed up to me rather quickly though, and we were only there a few more minutes before it was time for Vincenzo to close up the reception for the night and head off.
“I’m happy to take you out to a few bars along Frenchman Street,” Vincenzo said as we headed out the door and down the street, in a New York accent that originated from the Bronx, with only a subtle hint of the Southern drawl of the local region. “But first I need to take this one home,” he said with a motion down to Princess, who was trotting along in front of us on her leash.
“Works for me,” I said with a smile. “I’ve got no other plans.”

***

Vincenzo lived in a small first-storey flat in one of the upper corners of the French Quarter, with a lush overgrowth of greenery in the front garden behind the metal gates, and a banana tree whose leaves canopied across the railings of his rustic, wooden porch. When you stood on the porch and looked out onto the road, it was easy to forget you were in the United States of America, and in all the travels I did through the country, the French Quarter – and even parts of wider New Orleans – had a particular charm about it that was undeniably unique. The flat was relatively small inside too, and Vincenzo apologised for the apparent untidiness.
“I have a friend staying with me here right now,” Vincenzo said as he nodded towards a fold-out bed that was set up in the corner of the kitchen, the only other room with space that wasn’t his bedroom or the bathroom. “Although she’s actually not here tonight, but she’ll be back for one more night tomorrow.” He’d been putting out some food for Princess, who was now happily munching away, but now he turned to face me directly. “So, I’m not sure how long you’re staying at the Royal, but if you do need a place…” he half shrugged as he motioned to the room around him. “Just let me know.”
“Thank you,” I said with a smile, already quite sure I’d take him up on the offer. He had a carefree vibe about him which I felt was always good in a host, but his charisma also made him incredibly charming.

“Now, I do wanna change my shirt before we go. But first, how about a drink?”
“I’m Australian – I’m always down for a drink,” I joked with him as I sat down on the edge of the fold-out bed. The space was small, and there weren’t any tables or chairs, perhaps due to the fact the bed was there in the first place.
“Do you drink bourbon?”
“It’s my poison of choice.”
Vincenzo chuckled and looked at me with a friendly smirk. “Ice or no ice?”
“I’m fine without ice.” He poured two glasses of neat bourbon and brought them over to me, handing me one before taking a seat beside me on the edge of the bed.
“Cheers,” I said as I took the glass, and held it up to clink it with his before taking a sip.
“Cheers,” he said in return, and when we held our eye contact as we sipped our drinks, there was definitely some kind of connection. I stared into those beautiful blue eyes as they edged in closer, and Vincenzo leaned in to place a light, delicate kiss on my lips. I kissed him back with equal delicacy, although after a few moments he pulled back again.

“I’m sorry. I don’t normally… No, I never do this to Couchsurfers.” He seemed a little flustered, as though he was really conflicted with what he’d just done. “I just don’t want you to feel pressured or anything, just because you might need a place to stay. You don’t have to do it if you don’t want to.” I just sighed with a smile, and placed a hand on his leg so that he looked up and into my eyes again.
“Well, technically we didn’t meet on Couchsurfing anyway,” I said with a grin. “And besides, does it really look like I wanted you to stop?”
Evidently more relaxed, he let me lean into him this time, his big bright eyes closing in surrender to another delicate kiss.

***

Though I could have kissed his gorgeous face all night, Vincenzo had promised to show me around a little bit, and actually go out for a drink.
Not to Bourbon Street,” he said as he quickly changed his shirt, barely suppressing the shudder seemingly at the idea of it. “We can walk to Frenchman Street from here. It’s a lot less touristy, and there’s a lot of live music. You’re a musician too, right? I remember reading that somewhere.” It’s always refreshing when the people you meet online actually took the time to read your profile first.
“Yeah, I am. Acoustic guitar and a bit of ukulele.” Vincenzo himself was a singer and songwriter. “And live music sounds great!” We finished our bourbons sitting on Vincenzo’s porch, as Princess curiously examined the new stranger in her house, and then when we were ready we headed off into the night.

Princess was thoroughly investigating me. I don't think she liked having the competition for Vincenzo's attention.

Princess was thoroughly investigating me. I don’t think she liked having the competition for Vincenzo’s attention.

It was the end of October but the air was still quite warm, and it was only several minutes later that we turned onto Frenchman Street and I experienced my first taste of authentic New Orleans. There were plenty of people out and about, but the road wasn’t overcrowded and choked with tourists. There were people standing around on the street outside some of the bars, sipping their drinks and smoking their cigarettes, although upon entering the first establishment I realised that they were more than allowed to do that inside too – something I hadn’t seen since Berlin. I simply followed Vincenzo, so I can’t quite recall the name of the venues. I think we hopped between a few throughout the evening, but they all appeared to be relatively small, hole-in-the-wall type places, although they were obviously popular with the locals. Wooden architecture, dull but colourful lighting and grungy, dive bar atmospheres, these places had character, and it was all topped off with the live music. I can’t say that jazz is always my first choice in music, but it was the prevailing genre of New Orleans and boy, did they do it well! Vincenzo and I got our drinks and chatted in between listening to the music, and he explained a little bit more about the city and the street we were on.

“Frenchman Street has been a pretty important entertainment district, especially after Katrina,” he told me, in reference to the hurricane that had ravaged the city in 2005. “It’s definitely more of a local scene, though, for the arts and the music rather than the partying and the drinking.” He went on to tell me about Bourbon Street, arguably the most famous street of the city yet one that so many of the locals apparently loathe, disappointed that the tourist trap ultimately prevents visitors from seeing the rest of what the city has to offer, despite them still claiming to have had an “authentic New Orleans experience.” I’d had a few friends who had travelled through the city, and I had to admit that “when I was out on Bourbon Street” was probably the most common phrase in conversations about their visit. So I actually felt incredibly lucky that I’d chanced upon meeting with Vincenzo, someone who was obviously extremely passionate about his city, and who was able to show me a different side of things and lead me away from the brazen distractions. He’d lived there for a long time, knew of the pre-Katrina New Orleans, and had been there helping rebuild it ever since the storm hit, and just seeing the passion and enthusiasm when he talked about the city was inspiring. Those types of people make the best hosts for travellers, and it was during that evening that I knew I definitely wanted to stay with Vincenzo. The fact he was both totally gorgeous and a great kisser were just an added bonuses.

We stayed out late, and we drank a fair bit and maybe even danced a little, swinging to the beat of the devil’s music. Eventually we called it a night, and though it wasn’t on his way home, Vincenzo remained the perfect gentleman and walked me home to my hotel through the quiet, empty streets of the French Quarter.
“Well, New Orleans isn’t really that unsafe,” he confessed, “but it wouldn’t be right to let you walk home by yourself on your first night in a foreign city.” Ever charming as he was, I couldn’t help but blush and oblige, since his company was more than welcome. “And of course, any excuse to spend a bit of extra time with a beautiful man like yourself.”
All I could do was continue to wear my giddy smile, and in the argument for extra time together I invited him to stay the night. Although with no actual set departure date from New Orleans, I had a feeling Vincenzo and I were going to spend plenty of time together.