The human herd descends down the jetway, as though entering the tiny tunnel of a time machine, to board the metal vessel – a blatant attempt to outwit nature. Stow, sit, strap-in, snooze – the “default commands” travelers endure as they prepare to hurtle through space at the speed of sound. You pop an airborne to combat the affected coughing and sneezing jackass who, by no mere coincidence also intentionally avoided washing his hands in the terminal’s urinal after peeing next to you with an initial grunt followed by the relieved sigh of a positive flow. Jamming your bag into the overhead compartment appears easy, easy until one realizes that other passengers have taken advantage of the “one carry-on” rule and stuffed half their wardrobe into a duffel bag, which now fits into the overhead compartment like a morbidly obese donut-shop worker wearing Saran Wrap.
Now you stare at the primitive seat assignment system, trying to decipher the hieroglyphic like coding of numbers and letters as you search for your final destination. Ah yes, 24 B! At this moment you wonder at the lottery-like selection of humanity, which will accompany you on your journey through the clouds. As you enter the aisle, you mentally scratch off the silver filings of your lottery ticket, assessing the life form in 24 A. Will he be a gifted conversationalist, blessed with insight and business acumen such that you depart from this summit a more educated and versed man, or perchance, a sleeper, the strong silent type who allows you freedom to enjoy your trip without the crushing pressures of restrained conversation with a stranger but then strangely smiles and, as you quit the plane, says “Have a good one” as though you’ve been engaged in a friendly conversation between old acquaintances for the entire ride, or possibly the overindulgent and annoying questioner, the one that interrupts your reading with inane queries about your hometown and the status of your relatives, forcing you to adorn your ipod headphones and close your eyes while pretending you’ve actually turned the volume on? Or maybe, just maybe, in some fortunate tribute to fate, you’ve scratched your ticket and found the smiling jackpot symbol, the beautiful woman whose warm grin and amicable eyes offer hours of possibility, a sensation you enjoy for a brief moment before wondering whether you are now the sick psycho who will disturb this woman with your inane queries as she suffers through your interminable pestering for the duration of the voyage. Luckily, the airlines’ pygmy-sized blankets offer some small sense of asylum, for nothing is more enjoyable than napping while fighting the chilling air of thirty-thousand feet as it courses first through your collar then up your pant legs, an impossible foe to combat with your typewriter-like pulling of the linen washcloth three inches this way or that. I often wonder if the blanket-producing department is situated in some airline hangar just off the runway, where some four-foot eleven-inch hobbit spends the day laughing in vengeance as she watches, through those tiny plane windows, the frustrated faces of normal-sized passengers struggling with disappointment as they attempt to cover themselves from the cold, using these diminutive dishrags.
On planes, sleep comes easily, a consequence of the pilots pressurizing the cabin with just enough air to sedate the passengers without killing them, an appropriate method for taming the herd, since euphoria and awareness would scare the shit out of anyone pondering the insanity of hurtling through the air in a metal cylinder five miles above the earth.
Once slumbering, the tete-a-tete with wakefulness begins, the myriad opponents of forty winks presenting themselves like British soldiers, their ranks thick, one replacing the other with each failed attempt. A baby screams and you lurch, the piercing wail slicing your eardrums like a blade, but unconsciousness calls and you drift off again, resting your chin gently upon your hand, leaning slightly into the aisle. The stewardess pummels you, treating your head like a punching bag on her way to more pretzels for the old lady in the third row who “needs a little salt for her perspiration problem,” and you tilt back into your seat, wondering whether to hit the “call button” for an icepack.
Now, resting your head straight back on your perfectly upright seat – because allowing decline would mean thirty dollars less per flight for the airline warlord, and God forbid he go without this years new Ferrari such that his clients might be able to fight insomnia during the four hour jaunt to JFK – sleep comes once again, but succumbing to the forces of gravity as your head snaps forward as though at a hanging, ironic because the chiropractor in the next seat is smiling at you when you look over with red-faced embarrassment at your snooze-induced contortionist routine. He passes you a business card and you turn slightly, trying to remove your hand from the two-inch metal railings, those imprisoning accoutrements of divisiveness that separate you from the other passengers.
One last attempt at restfulness, the final passage into sleep and you are flying, blessed with the achievement of REM, until the whopping woman at the window decides her oversized stomach is now pressing too hard on her petite bladder and she urgently needs to crawl over you – urgently meaning with flapping arms, obscene morning breath, and the shuddering flailing of desperation – those massive dual driver’s side airbags called breasts pressing against your face like boxing gloves, pinning you against your seatback, as you pray she will turn a little harder and knock you out for a few hours.
Finally, you surrender to the awakened state, flawlessly falling into step with the stewardesses now traversing the aisle with some semblance of overpriced airplane food. First, the peanut appetizer, sixteen per bag, shelled and sugar coated, the precursor to anaphylactic shock for at least three unhappy passengers. Next, accompanied by the inevitable plastic spoon and knife too flimsy to butter anything, let alone cut, the meal arrives – though one questions the term meal, as the concoction of meat substitute and now-crystallized mashed potatoes shouldn’t legally qualify as hearty fare and may or may not be edible. Luckily the fruit does not appear poisonous so you’ll be receiving your daily dose of whatever nutrients honeydew and pineapple can offer (which is essentially sugar and citrus, so you’ll avoid scurvy but suffer high-altitude insulin shock), and all of this at the low price of thirteen dollars, a price which, if you were at a restaurant, would cause you to raise and hurl this fabricated foodstuff at your insufferable host. You place the hot plate – in fact a tiny heated slab of metal which singes your hand but does nothing to cook the raw meat substitute – on the tray contraption you’ve unfolded from the back of the persons head in front of you, like some scene out of a Ridley Scott film, and you perform a minor scraping of the fiberglass tray-top in hopes of removing some of the less-than-delectable cuisine from the last thirty four passengers who’ve previously suffered through fictitious lunches at this diner in the sky. And then you eat, performing some eerie elbow contortions reminiscent of the chicken dance in a failed attempt to keep from bumping the grossly overweight version of femininity currently devouring her meal with the intensity of a African lion, as if she would notice in the midst of her gnawing and thrashing.
Lunch ends, the scattered remains of death flung about your seat and tray, as though Jackson Pollack had chosen row twenty-four for a sampling of his artistic exploits, and now you sit, trapped underneath the debris, the claustrophobic intensity rising with each nauseating gaseous outpouring from the obviously digestively-challenged passenger situated directly in front of you. Finally, the stewardess comes by, relieving you of Hell’s kitchen and you glance at the man in the exit row, now struggling to navigate his seatbelt, an observation, which inspires some serious introspection. After all, you spent hours steering your way through airport parking, ticket lines, TSA, gate security and figured out how to get eight days worth of clothes into one bag so you wouldn’t have to pay the extra baggage charges and this guy, who can’t discern the inner workings of a seatbelt is rewarded with sixteen more inches of legroom and responsibility for the lives of his fellow passengers. His fumbling is apparently supposed to inspire confidence that “in the event of an emergency” he’ll be able to decipher those emergency door instructions, let alone figure out how to pull down that idiotic oxygen tube that dangles like an IV drip from the ceiling and, even though may not inflate, rest assured the oxygen will be flowing – and hell, if it’s not, you’ll be dead in the next thirty seconds and won’t be able to complain about it anyway — and you think to yourself, “Fuck, I’m in hell.”
The moment passes and once again, you attempt sleep, the unique combination of depleted oxygen supply, rectal air, and fake meat driving you toward comatose. To make matters better, you’ve found an airline pillow, and though it is the size and consistency of a wet sponge, and probably riddled with the dandruff and drool of thousands of prior passengers, you place it against your seat and search for the fluffiest part upon which to rest your cheek. Thankfully, the captain has “turned on the quiet tones of the in-flight movie for your viewing pleasure” and the extremely inappropriate showing of 9/11 The Documentary fills the screen as passengers shut their window shades, not in an effort to create a better viewing environment, but rather, to distract them from the fact that they are now in the exact scenario as the planes represented on the film, the ones which are about to slam into the World Trade Center, and for a long second, one wonders at the intelligence gap between those who chose this film, and those who are flying this plane, hoping the discrepancy is massive. Of course, in your row, the spiteful and malevolent bastard in the window seat has left the shade open in an obvious stab at curtailing your siesta, and the effect is like an incessantly beaming streetlight perched outside your bedroom window. Your last thoughts before drifting off to slumber…the stewardess in first class sure is sexy and definitely mile-high club worthy…followed by a curious contemplation on where the bathroom waste goes when you flush.
Twenty minutes into a peaceful repose, you are interrupted by the captain’s voice over the intercom, and as you do your best to contend with the notion that Charlie Brown’s parents are apparently flying the plane, you interpret the various “Wahh Waaaah Wahh Waaa Wa Waah’s” to mean you are about to experience some turbulence, a polite term indicating the pilot is tempted to perform some aerial acrobatics and wants to blame the wind. As you strap on your seatbelt and wonder how in the hell the Orca next to you is going to make those metal fasteners reach around that girth, you envision the pilot and co-pilot in the cockpit doing their version of Chubby Checker’s The Twist, and make a mental note to investigate train travel for your next business trip.
Finally, the seatbelt sign dims and it is now “ok to move about the cabin.” You unbuckle your belt, the slight chuckle a recognition that this act is like solving the Rubik’s cube for many of the gene pool’s dead weight currently flying with you, and lift your leg into the aisle. There, the cocktail cart is now firmly planted in your path and you roll your eyes and drop back down to your seat hoping you can hold it, and with a subtle and abbreviated rub of the hand, squeeze off the flow without embarrassing yourself in front of the other passengers.
The child behind you is now awake, and playing soccer on your spine and you wonder if there is such a thing as premature bladder relief. To distract you, you pick up the $395 dollars per minute phone on the back of the center head rest, and create various theories as to why you can use this phone, but opening up your cell phone on the plane will get your both arrested, and victimized by the terrorized and angered glares of other passengers.
At last, Mr. Brown announces your impending landing and asks you once again to buckle up. You calculate the twenty-minute descent followed by the intolerable wait for these idiots to grab their bags and exit, plus the thirty-second OJ Simpson-like dash through the terminal to the nearest restroom and decide you can hold it. Shamu, apparently terrified of landing – a strange fear as it indicates safety and security a hell of lot more than tearing through the blank space of the lower atmosphere – begins praying and humming, and now, the malevolent bastard is toying with the window shade, creating a strobe-like effect upon the cabin, one which is likely to cause someone an epileptic seizure, or at the very least, the obese woman to believe she is truly immersed in some universal struggle between heaven and hell.
Ah, the rumble of the landing gear and hard slam of the wheels on pavement, followed by the roar of the brakes and the grotesque sweat of the seated whale who is now wringing her hands at the sky screaming thank you God thank you and dousing me with armpit residue. As I perform my little two-step down the aisle, disguising my struggle to keep from wetting myself, I get a brief glimpse of the cockpit and wonder why only little kids get to go visit that video game-like console. I consider asking the stewardess for a pair of wings, really hoping she will pin them to my chest with her phone number, then stumble out to the jetway and begin my sprint to the bathroom. Two minutes later I am midstream when Orca walks in and begins screaming again. Apparently, in my rush to relief, I’ve made a minor, and perhaps Freudian error, and entered the wrong facility, something I will note at my next psychology appointment after picking up the rest of my baggage.