Jim Flatley Wasn’t a Recliner

Every time I get on a plane, I think of Jim Flatley, the vice-president of sales at my old company, Plumtree Software. Corvette-driver, hair-gunker, suit-wearer, sausage-eater, Jim was about as different from me as a person could be. It took us many years to become friends.

And because Jim was so very good at sales, which I once assumed was the art of turning customers upside down and shaking every penny from their pockets, it took me years to notice how generous he was. The first day I did was on a flight we took together.

As soon as we were aloft, I reclined back in my seat. Jim looked over in horror.

“You’re just going to recline like that, wide awake?” he said.
“Yep.” I said.
“What about when the meal comes?”
“Even then.”

He shook his head. So far as Jim was concerned, reclining was fine for grandmas from Tulsa on once-a-year Christmas trips. But business travelers didn’t do that to one another.

I was surprised that Jim was so meticulous about airline etiquette. Commercial flight tortured him. He must have been 6’5”. He didn’t like to crease his jacket by stowing it overhead. Whenever he started a new notebook, he carefully transferred a photo of a Gulfstream jet from the old notebook to the new one. If he saw me looking at the jet, he’d tell me his goal was to buy one.

“Fractional?” I’d say.
“The whole thing!” he’d say.

Jim never brought up the reclining issue again, but it stayed with me. I stopped reclining when Jim was around, then stopped almost entirely even when he wasn’t. The last straw was when someone reclined on me, leaving me almost no room to use my computer.

I fretted about this situation for years before asking for a ruling. “I’ll allow it,” Jim said. His eyes twinkled, either because he was pleased at being consulted, or because he was in the position of granting an indulgence to a lesser, more-recumbent being. I wanted to ask which it was. But I was at an age when feeling silly stopped me from asking a lot of questions.

Years later, Jim got a job running sales for Seattle-based Verdiem. We went out for dinner with a few other old friends, and Jim proposed we start with cocktails. He asked for my order first, and I suggested the only drink I knew, a Cosmopolitan — there was a time when I thought this order was cosmopolitan. Jim’s face froze, then he ordered Cosmos for the whole table. They came in pink glasses.

A month later, Jim was dead at 50 of a massive heart attack. Everyone loved talking about Jim, and everyone talked about him that day. It was already all past tense: is became was, you became him.

But Jim’s still with me. Rising up from Boston this morning, someone reclined on me. In a cycle that will outlast us all, I reclined in turn. But that cold aluminum button in the armrest acted like an on switch for the projector in my mind that re-plays everything I love about Jim. It reminds me that taking whatever you can isn’t savvy, it’s just selfish. I hear Jim telling me that on every flight. I wish you all could too.

Discussion