Friday, January 4, 2013

Hungover at 30,000 Feet

Five years ago, leaving Oakland for Albuquerque on Southwest Airlines, I decided that I was going to win the seating lottery and get the exact best seat. I had carryon luggage, was familiar with the aircraft and airport, and had obtained my “A” boarding pass. It was before they numbered each pass and if you had an “A” you could stand in line when you arrived and get to your seat first. I was first. I was at the Oakland Airport three hours before my flight. Checked in easily and was the first in line. Yessir, Number One, my choice of the very best shitty seat on the plane. Heading up the “A” line, I sat on the dirty carpet and read my book for two and a half hours until we started boarding. I bounced up, looked behind me at the second place people, sneered and entered the Jetway. The seats are three across and I sat in the second row, right side, aisle. No uncomfortable bulkhead, I could recline my seat and once we landed, I’d snatch my bag and be out the door in seconds. Hah.
The plane filled up and a nice quiet guy sat at the window. The seat between us remained empty. We smiled, knowingly. Soon everyone was seated and I was not only perfectly positioned, I was buffered by the only vacant seat on the plane. The crew was whispering to each other, pointing in my direction and pretty soon they stepped aside and a sweating 400-pound man entered the plane. He was wearing lots of jewelry and I could smell his cologne. When they led him to the empty seat next to me, I blanched. I stood up, docilely,  and he slid into the middle seat, overflowing, and asked for a seat-belt extension. No shit. After several minutes he was settled, rolls of fat overlapping the armrest and falling into my lap. His loud breathing was labored and wet. Take-off was difficult with the extra weight and as soon as we were airborne the fat guy reached into a plastic bag and took out a Gatorade bottle filled with cheap wine and sipped it for first hour of our two-hour flight. The rest of the time he spent sleepily pressing up against me as I leaned into the aisle.
I’ve given up trying to outwit the Airlines.
Every time I enter an airport, anywhere, I am positive that there will be screw ups, anything from a short delay, nasty counter personnel, security issues, to spending three nights on a filthy floor due to weather conditions or, possibly worst case, a two minute drop from 30,000 feet into the ocean and death. I’m not afraid of flying, though, I’m afraid of not flying. Long delays, canceled flights. It never helps to complain or worry. That only draws attention from unhappy, underpaid, unrested and unlaid airport employees. With all the trouble the airline industry is having, along with the fear, crappy food, bad seating, expense and unusual odors, there is nothing I can do other than stay home, but I enjoy traveling too much. Before we departed Paris I had a talk with a friend who was leaving for the states for the holidays and he said he was terrified of flying. He had a therapist, mantras, tapes, pamphlets and anti-anxiety meds, but was still terribly frightened; I could see it in his eyes. Fiery death, terrorism, turbulence. I tried to be of assistance. I told him that turbulence was just like a car riding on a rutted frontage road for a few miles, terrorists were looking for other ways to kill him, and if the plane went down, he had to die sometime, didn’t he? Might as well suck it up and be grateful he didn’t have cancer. He might not die, either. Had he ever watched “Lost”? I could tell I wasn’t helping.
I once flew from Las Vegas to Denver in storm and there was a lot of violent motion in the cabin as the weather manhandled us; the plane bounced and rocked and plastic cups flew around the cabin. Worse, though was my seatmate, who had Tourettes Syndrome. Much worse. The dude just clicked his teeth and muttered and smacked his lips and snapped his tongue. It was like riding through the desert on the back of a flatbed truck with a Mariachi band.
Our return travel day started December 31, 2012 at 8:00 a.m., the perfect New Year’s Eve, and got us to Albuquerque 24 hours later. It was a crowded flight, as they all are, but the screaming kid was in the front of the plane (sorry business and first class), the fat guy was on the other side of the aisle, back about ten rows. The two twenty-ish young women behind us were curled up in their jammies, sleeping, or pretending to. From time to time the one behind me would get restless and kick the seat for few minutes before drifting off. Probably wanted me to read her a story. A stout woman directly across the aisle had an iPod, an iPad, a smart phone and a laptop and was busier than hell for the whole trip switching from one personal entertainment device to the next. Her tote bag, gigantic and polished, buckled, zippered and snapped, looked like real alligator and contained all of her crap. She, of course, got a special meal, which I’m sure was yummy, and she was the first person on her feet the minute the plane touched down. She had to be reminded to stay seated, seat belt fastened, until the plane came to a complete stop and the captain turned off the seat belt sign. This is another thing that probably shouldn’t have to be repeated, again and again, on every goddamned flight, every day, everywhere in the world, but it has become part of the soundscape of travel. A message for the confused, unconscious and stupid.
Aside from being an hour late for takeoff, it was a seamless flight. Calm, steady and relatively quiet and aroma-free for a small tube containing 250 people. Food was served at precisely the time I was ready to eat pages from my notebook, so I enjoyed opening the little plastic bags of strange, organic substances and chewing on them. The reason we were an hour late was because, according to Captain Higgs, a friendly straight shooter, we were waiting for a passenger who had a “Ticketing Problem”. I love that. There’s always a euphemism for the reasons  the customers are being insulted. What the hell is a Ticketing Problem? I had mine in hand plus boarding pass and passport; I went through security with only a few minor slipups. It looked like everyone else had, too. So what was the truth? Why do they think for a second that I’ll believe, in this world of paranoia, overamped security personnel, long lines, recorded warnings, myriad signs, checks, double checks, groping and questioning looks anyone could have a fucking Ticketing Problem?
“We’ll be opening the door and reconnecting the Jetway,” said Captain Higgs. Pardon? Did that mean that we were all ready to leave, had disconnected from the umbilical of the airport gate, had shut and sealed the door, strapped in, revved up and now we had to reverse the departure process because some dimbulb had a Ticketing Problem?
After nearly an hour of watching Alligator Bag Lady switch from iPad to laptop and back again, I noticed the flight attendant quietly, with her eyes averted, lead a man to his seat in the back of the plane. Not a first class passenger who had paid through the nose for a warm towel, but some schlub, like me, like the rest of us in coach. He looked pissed off but resigned. Then I got it. It was the Air Marshal. Another relatively new addition to the confusing world of travel.
I play games at the airport. I watch people and wonder how they can live. What sustains them, keeps them alive, who dresses them and why are they still married to that guy. It’s fun and keeps me occupied. I have a paperback novel, a comic book and an iPod in my carryon, but I get bored and uncomfortable unless I’m monitoring and criticizing others. One of my games is “Spot the Cop”.
There may be an air marshal on every flight, or only on five percent of them. The government keeps that information confidential so that, I guess, we can never be sure. Helpful. I figure there’s an air marshal on every flight I’m on and I try to guess who it is. It’s pretty easy. A slim man or woman in good physical condition, conservatively dressed and well groomed. They don’t stand out, and they are unusually comfortable in the crappy onboard environment. They have the same look in their eyes as the flight crew, a look that says, “I hate my job but I have to keep coming back in order to pay my mortgage, my alimony, my health insurance and these needy, ugly, badly behaved people are cattle and why should I care if they don’t like the food or are uncomfortable and afraid of flying? Frigging airline is about a week from bankruptcy, again, anyway. Hope something kicks off today. I need the bonus.”
The air cops are the only passengers carrying nothing but a small bag, no bigger than a wallet. Gun?
Mr. Ticketing Problem was not young, though. He was near retirement, burned out, in his mid-fifties, and rumpled. His graying hair stuck up on top of his head and he was wearing faded Levis, a sport shirt and a quilted down vest; an odd ensemble for a flight from Paris. I watched as he plopped in his seat in the back row. Hungover. Badly hungover. So the story was that the captain thought an air marshal was onboard, but when the crew did their head count they noticed an empty seat, discovered that the air cop was not present, called into the terminal for a replacement and got the old guy who had crashed in the break room after a rough night on the town. I’m generally wrong about this stuff, but it keeps me busy during the inevitable delays. I also play Spot the Hooker, Spot the Entitled Prick, Spot the Person Going Home for a Loved One’s Funeral.
I settled down, relieved that I had figured out the truth. It was simply a late arriving, exhausted, hung over, highly pissed off and heavily armed government worker.
I felt good when I identified the marshal, I even said, aloud, “A-ha!” Which drew some nervous looks from those around me. They were worried that they were sitting near the guy with Tourettes Syndrome.

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