Duel of the Dawdlers

(This article appeared in the Boston Globe Magazine on July 13, 2014)

There is one area of my life in which I always come in dead last. And I couldn't be more proud.

You see, whenever I fly, I have to be the last one on the plane. No exceptions. When I look around the gate, there can be no other stragglers, no other challengers vying for the title of "Leader of the Back."

I’ve had my challengers. Some have proven to be worthy opponents. But all have fallen victim to my legendary patience and fanatical desire to bring up the rear. A recent return trip from Las Vegas, however, proved to be my Waterloo.

After the first four waves of passengers had boarded, I scanned the gate area for any potential threats. Did anyone feel lucky today? Was there any person brave enough – or foolish enough -- to take me on? As usual, it seemed that no serious contenders would appear.

But after the fifth and final group had almost finishing boarding, a challenger emerged. Not just any challenger. This one was different. I don’t know if it was his unassuming appearance, his relaxed demeanor, or his vintage R.E.M T-shirt that did it, but a cold chill ran menacingly down my spine. “This guy could be trouble,” I thought.

After the gate area had emptied out, it was just R.E.M and me. I started feeling a bit unglued. The man exuded a frightening sense of purpose, a locked-in focus that screamed out, “I don’t care when I get on the plane. In fact, I might not get on the plane at all.”

When the agent made the first “final call for boarding” announcement, I felt a twinge of hope; surely this will break him. As he reached into his backpack, my optimism grew: he must be getting his boarding pass.

No. His hand emerged from his pack with a bottle of Dasani firmly in his grasp. He calmly unscrewed the cap, took a healthy swig, then nestled back into his chair like a man about to watch a “Breaking Bad” marathon.

I started to panic. The agent had already given the second final call and was shuffling her papers, an obvious prelude to closing the jetway door. As I grabbed my carry-on bag, pondering my next move, I looked over once again at R.E.M., praying for some sign that he might be cracking.

He was reading People Magazine.

I started to feel faint. Was R.E.M. even human? Clearly, he was a man on a mission. He was willing to make the terminal his permanent residence if necessary. He would have food delivered. He would raise a family here. But he was not getting on that plane before me -- it was just that simple.

The reality of my predicament created an unexpected calm in me. I knew I had been beaten. In some ways, it was a welcome relief. While I had always relished the competition – and more importantly, the inevitable victory – the constant challenges were grinding me down. Heavy lies the crown, or something like that. I had had enough. It was time to pass the scepter on to a new king.

As I walked the empty runway to the plane’s interior (all passengers were already onboard by this time; several of them had already begun preparations to hack and cough for the duration of the flight), I heard footsteps behind me. I stopped and turned around. It was R.E.M.

We exchanged looks. There was no gloating, no taunting, no air of superiority. Just a flat, business-like expression that declared, “I won. You lost. Time to move on.”

Unaccustomed to being humbled but still wanting to appear gracious, I offered the only words that seemed appropriate: “Well played, sir. Well played.”

He smiled ever so slightly, as he replied, "No one ever remembers the guy who came in next to last.

"But, of course, you already knew that.”