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The Thing about Airplanes

Updated on March 20, 2012

out on a wing


Ode of the Crabby Flight Attendant

Airports have the potential to be the world’s happiest or saddest places, yet they somehow maintain a stark disinterest in the people that pass through them. Unless you’re catching a connecting flight, you don’t have to think; in, out, that’s all she wrote. Sign upon sign leads you to the bathroom/gate/baggage claim, holding your hand until you reach your intended destination. People surround you and yet airports can often feel like the loneliest places on the planet. Human interactions are most definitely at the bottom of the airport totem pole, just below privacy and decently priced coffee.

Oddly, I find gate-side waiting areas to be hugely contemplative. A litany of thoughts cross my brain the second rear meets pleather seat:

Did I forget my toothbrush? Do I have my boarding pass? Should I buy a $10 bottle of 4 Dramamine or risk ralfing on the plane? Where’s my ID? I hope to God that baby keeps it together. Damn, I didn’t get a window seat. I will never finish this book. Hungry? I think that guy is watching me. Welcome to Siberia; whose idea was it to run the air conditioning in the middle of winter? He’s seriously watching me. Of COURSE my sweater’s in my checked bag. Whoa, creeper. I should pee. What if there’s turbulence and I can’t get up to pee? What if I pee my pants? I’m an adult, that won’t happen, I’d absolutely die. I swear, if that baby has a tantrum… Dear God, I just want to pee and make it home safe. A little help with the babies and the creepers would be much appreciated. (Can people ride in the cargo hold?) Amen. I’m sure you could, if animals can. Dude; keep your eyebrows to yourself. Oh and God? Let that guy be outside my vicinity ten seats in all directions.

What I do enjoy about air travel is the absolute anonymity.

The TSA screeners know my middle name and bra size but everyone else merely glances at me through what I like to call “terminal goggles”; eyes glazed over with anxiety or exhaustion or focus or whatever seem to look right through me. But this doesn’t bother me of course, because these ghosts of the airways are invisible to me too. Until I arrive at my gate, people walking faster than a normal pedestrian gait are formless and just unconscious of me as I am of them. We are little more to each other than warm breaths of air passing by in a linoleum purgatory.

Every person I’ve ever “seen” in an airport blends together into one shapeless, faceless, sexless denizen of the skies. He/She loves Lady Gaga, rereads Harry Potter every summer, lives in the house they grew up I with nine kids and three cats or maybe the other way around, is dying, just DYING to get out of their good-for-nothing sleeper town, which always has just one stoplight and a truck stop loaded with truckers, stuffed with the World’s Best Cinnamon Roll.

We’re rarely enthralled with one another, us travelers, and if we are, we’re separated somewhere between the gate and baggage claim before we’ve had the chance to exchange emails. And if we manage that much, we promise and always forget to send the greatest online knitting pattern and the other always forgets to receive it. And if we do manage some primitive communication, what then? What has formed between us out of a formless coexistence? All we know of each other is what we communicate; we don’t even know last names. Sometimes we don’t know firsts.

People don’t come to airports to make human connections, just flights.

There’s some kind of disconnect between the waiting area near the gate and the plane, and a marked difference between the relationships built in those places. Just one fluorescently lit dark hallway bridges ambiguity and camaraderie. Something about passing through the air lock binds you to your fellow passengers in some intangible way. You have each other’s backs. If, God forbid, the plane goes down, those seventy-some people are your last confidants. There’s a silent knowledge that if you need assistance, one of the mob will come to your aid.

Clumsily, I wheel my heavy carry-on suitcase filled with a popular book anthology down the narrow aisle. I harness some kind of superhuman strength in order to lift my bag into the overhead compartment across the aisle from my seat and it clearly sticks out. Flanked by a military duffle and a designer handbag, my red bag looks like a zit. I figure the flight attendants will rearrange the compartment to help it fit, as they had on my first flight, so I sit down and pop some $10 Dramamine I purchased in the airport souvenir store. Right before taxiing away from the gate, the flight attendants close all the compartments up to mine. A female attendant named something like Debbie taps a witchy fingernail on the handle of my poor bag.

“The red bag’s gotta move! Come on, people, these have to close. Red bag, let’s go!” She glares simultaneously at everyone and nobody in particular. I raise my hand dumbly.

“It’s mine, I need help-“

Debbie doesn’t hear me. “Make it fit! Let’s go!” She growls, storming down the aisle to the front of the plane. I stand in front of the only open overhead compartment as rows 13 through 24 watch me expectantly. Barely missing two people’s heads, I yank the stupid bag out and with much effort, replace my bag in the small hole. I smack the handle until it fits. Another bag is now preventing the compartment from closing, the military duffle.

“Whose green bag is this?” I hope to spy its owner and ask permission to adjust it.

“Green bag?” Echoes all around me as we, the people of rows 13 through 24, search for the owner. No luck. I don’t know what else to do; I don’t work on an airplane, so I sit down again just as Debbie passes by. She stops, as if slapped by years of indentured servitude to the Man.

“What did you do, just stare at it for a second and sit back down again?” Debbie asks pointedly down her nose at me and I pick my jaw up off the floor. Excuse me? Did you miss the nearly crippling bag rearranging ballet that I just performed? If I hadn’t been so shocked, I might have retorted with something like:

Hey, lady. We’ve ALL been up since 4 am. I’d like to speak to your supervisor and tell him what a rude, sad, lonely human you are. I don’t tell you how to do your job!

Instead, I sit there defenseless, riddled with fragments of my dignity.

A contained buzz doctors my wounds as the witnesses to this humiliation plan revenge. Once the engines began, it is only a matter of time before the ambush on Debbie breaks loose.

Every good revolution begins with a leader, and we find her in Cherie: a petit African-American lady with lasers for eyes and piano key teeth who sits a few seats up from me in a tracksuit the color of pink justice. Her age isn’t apparent until she speaks; if she hadn’t told me straight out that she was seventy-eight, I might have thought her my mother’s younger 40-something age. Cherie waits patiently for Debbie to wheel the drink cart up next to her seat. I am now completely invisible to Debbie and she pushes right past me, in spite of my neighbor’s persistent call: “Miss! Miss! Miss!” Cherie looks once over the offending attendant and winks at me.

“Honey,” to Debbie she speaks. “Honey, do you like your job?” Debbie says that she does. I’d never want to play cards with Cherie after the come-to-Jesus look she gives Deborah, Patron Saint of Overhead Compartments.

“Boy, it sure don’t seem like it,” Cherie sips her diet soda with an eyebrow cocked. “Get them panties outch yo ass, girl!”

I don’t know what happened to Debbie after she stormed off with the drink cart. Sometimes I like to imagine she locked herself in the lavatory to write sad poems on the mirror in Angst Red lipstick. Whatever Debbie’s reaction, Cherie followed the Code of the Passengers and came to my defense most gloriously.

The Dramamine only lasts long enough for me to question

if I’m developing juvenile Alzheimer’s and it allows me to witness the reclamation of Debbie’s soul by two twin 6-year-old boys sitting behind me. It is long-past the one-time drink offering (I assume this much by the empty cocktail-size glass of ginger ale resting on my own tray table… when did I order that?) and half-way through the in-flight movie when two little voices pierce through my sound-blocking headphones.

“Um, can we get some ginger ale? ‘Cause we’ve been driving all night and we left at nine so we’re tired but we’re going to Gramma’s and she always lets us nap on her bed because it’s a pillow top and we’re really good all the time so she lets us do that- do you know about those? My brother might fall asleep again so he needs some ginger ale and I need some because I’m just really tired-“ the monologue of youth continues and a ripple of laughter erupts around the boys. Debbie has no hope against the forces of cute at work here. A regular Grinch-turned-Saint Nick, Debbie cracks her face into something resembling a smile and whips out a tattered credit card. Like a cat, she purchases the television service for each boy and slips them recently-expired goldfish. The grimace stays plastered to her face the rest of the flight and I am pleased by this. Debbie doesn’t apologize for insulting my intelligence but at least she learned the value of kindness from the twins.

Wheels meet pavement and the cell-phones come out to text: “Mom, we landed!” Debbie oozes sugar over the loudspeaker and everyone ignores her while they try to remember how the safety demonstration (which they also ignored) had instructed the removal of seatbelts. Two men scramble to help me wrench my suitcase out of the hole I shoved it into in an effort to satisfy Debbie; my hands never get past my waist.

“These are rough,” Helper One smiles, practically nailing Cherie in the head with his briefcase. Helper Two flat-out carries Cherie’s bag off the plane for her while she tottles behind him, muttering, “Oh Lordy, you sweet child,” over and over.

“You’d think the attendants would at least help. You know?” One says to me as we wait in the cattle line to disembark the airbus. He’s right and I tell him so. Debbie sits in the front row, over-compensating for her heinous behavior by firmly shaking everyone’s hand. If I had a free hand to shake, I sure wouldn’t have shaken hers.


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