I feel sorry for anyone who has to fly a lot these days. Flying on airplanes used to be exciting adventures, but that was before you had to get X-rayed, frisked and yelled out by TSA agents, who are often as stupid as they are tyrannical. And it’s hard to feel excited about flying when airlines are so flinty that they charge us for taking on our own luggage, for goodness’ sake, not to mention food, headphones, and seats with more than eight inches of leg room. It won’t be long before they’ll charge for breathing oxygen in the cabin.
At least people who can afford business for first class seats can stretch their legs out as they recover from the indignities of pre-flight procedures. People like me who fly plebeian class travel the skies in the same manner as my immigrant grandparents traveled the seas before me: in steerage class.
It’s hard not to feel jealous of first-class flyers. Not only do we stand around and watch as they board first, but they are settled serenely in ample leather-upholstered seats and sipping their first complimentary cocktails when the rest of the mule pack tramp past them, dragging our belongings. If we’re lucky, we will have a bit of space to stuff in our carry-on bag in the overhead compartment by the time we trudge back there.
I suspect that even my immigrant ancestors might cluck with sympathy at my woes on a recent flight from Los Angeles to Boston. No sooner had I buckled up when a flight attendant asked in a desperate tone for a volunteer to trade seats with another passenger, to allow a mother and child to sit together. This plea pulled at my heart strings, and I waved my hand eagerly.
What a chump. I should have been suspicious when the flight attendant smothered me with oleaginous thanks as she pointed me to the hinterlands of seat 23E, which was not only in the last row of the aircraft but was also the middle of the three seats and next to a “person of size.”
No good deed goes unpunished, I thought as my new neighbor twisted out of her seat to let me in. I get claustrophobic when people stand or sit too close to me. I back away from shoppers in line who are in my airspace, and once had to tell a friend, “I like you, but you’re too close to my face.” This was going to be a nightmare.
My super-sized seatmate and I exchanged greetings. Then I turned to my neighbor to the right and said hello.
“Me no English,” she said, smiling.
“Me no personal space,” I whispered back. The flight attendant thanked me for my sacrifice by swiping a credit card in my four-inch personal video monitor so I could watch the in-flight entertainment for free. I would have waved my appreciation to her, but my left arm – the very one that had raised itself so recklessly and was responsible for this mishap – had been impaled by my neighbor’s massive flapper. What damages might I collect from the airline if the circulation in my arm was cut off? A coupon for complimentary cheese and crackers on my next flight?
Soon into the flight, the seat in front of me reclined, just missing my chin. I was defenseless, since seats in the last row of aircraft cabins do not recline. Meanwhile, people were crowding the aisle next to our row for the bathrooms, forcing my seatmate of size to lean over me in a near tackle position. In row 23, it was survival of the fattest, and I fought for airspace, despairing. We weren’t even over Tulsa yet.
I tried to practice gratitude for what I still had. First, I would change planes in Milwaukee, which would enable me to retrieve my left arm in only four and half hours. I also enjoyed the novel sensation of being thin, even though it had come at a terrible personal cost and was still temporary. Finally, I could watch a movie for free, except that I couldn’t. Apparently, the airline’s generosity for my heroic deed only extended to letting me watch reruns of The Office and other TV shows (a $6.00 value) but not a movie (an $8.00 value). Impaled arm or no impaled arm, the flight attendant simply did not have authority to let me watch a motion picture on a 4-inch screen. Talk about something costing an arm and a leg!
I focused on physical and psychological survival, and used my remaining free hand to turn the pages in my book. By the time I got to Milwaukee, I was nearly ambidextrous. I also vowed that on the next flight, even if an elderly, wheelchair-bound, wheezing, ventilator-dependent passenger was on board and begged me to relinquish my seat, I wasn’t budging.
To my great relief, on the next flight my seatmate was waif-like. I looked at her with tears of gratitude in my eyes. I was sure I had leftovers in the fridge bigger than she was. As we flew from Milwaukee to Boston, circulation returned to my left arm and I relaxed, even falling asleep. When I woke, I remembered my dream: I was flying on another airline, serenely stirring my complimentary cocktail, in Business Elite, watching the unwashed masses trudge by.
Next time you plan to fly, combat the misery of a coach seat by taking my books with you: Till We Eat Again: A Second Helping and The Women’s Daily Irony Supplement. Don’t miss a single edition of Mirth and Meaning—please subscribe on judygruen.com.