19 December, 2008

The joys of air travel

I think it's a rule that I can only fly home if I'm sleep deprived or hungover, or a combination of the two. This always makes for miserable traveling experiences. I finished my capstone paper just after 10PM on Monday and even though I had a flight in the morning I decided the best thing to do was drink with some friends. I had just finished college so drinking seemed appropriate.

My flight home on Tuesday had a layover in Atlanta. It was a tight connection because the flight out of Boston was late but of course the flight to San Antonio was also delayed. The Atlanta airport is probably one of the worst designed airports I've ever seen in that there are nowhere near enough seats at each gate. At my gate there were probably twenty seats and obviously more than twenty people were going to be on the flight. The people who didn't have seats were sitting on the floor and milling about. As I was standing around trying to decide if I should sit on the floor or find some place else to wait I saw a woman with her child on a leash. He looked to be about 4 and he kept pulling against it, just like a badly trained dog (my dog Berkeley comes to mind). I ended up walking further down the terminal to another gate which had a few empty seats and waiting there until boarding started.

When I finally got on the plane I realized that I was in the middle seat- 19B. I don't think anyone likes the middle seat. There was an elderly woman sitting in the aisle seat and I had to ask her to move so that I could get in. Right as I sat down I coughed and the woman's head jerked around accusingly as she asked, "do you have a cold?" I didn't have a cold, just a bad cough for the last couple of days. I told her as much and when she didn't seem convinced I said that it was just allergies. This was was acceptable for her and she told me about how her cousin or someone has allergies and what a shame, there's just nothing anyone can do about it. I began to worry that she was a talker so I left my headphones in to try and discourage her from striking up a conversation later. If only that had worked.

I got a text message and took my phone out to reply. "What's that?" the woman asked. "Uh, it's an iPhone. It's a cell phone, computer and iPod basically." "Oh, yes! My son has one of these and he's always using it! He absolutely loves it." The headphones obviously weren't going to keep her from talking to me and I took my book out hoping she wouldn't interrupt me. Having random people interrupt me while I'm reading is one of my pet peeves. I hadn't been able to read a book for pleasure in so long and I was really enjoying it. I hadn't read half a page before the woman turned to comment on the kids behind us. "I sure hope they don't keep this up the whole time," she said. I had hardly noticed the kids at this point. I stopped to listen and there were obviously two children in the seats behind us talking and laughing. They sounded young but they weren't being overly loud. I grunted my agreement to the woman and hoped that would suffice for a response.

As the plane finished boarding they turned the cabin lights off. I turned on my overhead light to read and the woman asked if I could turn hers on for her. I pressed the button but the light stayed off. Pressed it a few more times. Nothing. "I think your light must be broken, I can't get it to turn on," I told her. "How am I supposed to read? They turned all of the lights off and now I can't read!" she said. "I'm sure they'll turn the cabin lights back on once we take off. It's not a late flight," I replied. "This is just such a nuisance. And those kids!" she said. The kids were still making noise as we taxied over to the runway. They weren't noisy enough to bother me so I ignored her comment. As we took off the kids called out "bye-bye Atlanta! bye!"

I returned to my book and the old woman sat in silence for a few minutes before speaking again. "I can't go the whole flight with these kids acting like this. I'm going to scream!" The plane was rather quiet and she said it loudly enough so that I thought the kids and their mother behind us might have even heard. "Mmm," I said. I didn't know how to reply to her. The kids were young and yes, a little noisy but nothing to make a fuss about. The cabin lights still hadn't come on and the woman decided she would lean over me and try to turn her reading light on again. I paused in my reading while she struggled to reach the button. The light still wouldn't work of course. This combined with the kids behind us made her quite unhappy. By now the kids' voices had elevated to a louder level. While still not loud enough to be obnoxious it was loud enough so that I could no longer completely tune it out. As far as annoyances went the woman was winning that battle. She turned around and stuck her face over the seat, "you two need to quiet down! Hear me? Quiet!"

I was amazed at her display of bravado. Ignoring the mother and speaking directly to the kids seemed pretty ballsy. I wondered why she hadn't just asked the mother if she could do something. The noise from row 20 quickly subsided after the talking-to but only for a couple of minutes. The kids were soon at it again and louder than before. From the sounds of it the brother had taken a toy of the sister's and she was now screeching at the top of her lungs for him to "give it baaaaaack!" Surely the mother will step in and moderate the dispute, I thought. Maybe a minute went by of the screeching and yelling before finally the old woman shouts, quite loudly, "jesus christ!" People were starting to look over to see what was going on. "Shut up!" the mother shot back. I began to worry the mother and old woman would be at each other's throats and I'd be caught in the middle of it. The old woman couldn't let it go at that. "Those are the worst behaved kids I've ever seen. Maybe you shouldn't let them sit next to each other." The mother muttered something back but I couldn't decipher it over the jet engines and the kids, still squealing behind us and oblivious to the row between their mother and my seat-mate.

The woman discreetly shushed her kids, probably trying to prevent the old woman from overhearing her victory. They calmed down some but still chattered at their previous volume. About this time the woman with the snack cart came by. "Would you like peanuts or cookies ma'am?" "I need you to do something about this racket! These kids behind me are terrible, just terrible. Can you do something about it? I can't sit here with this going on." "Uh, I'm sorry, we're really not allowed to say anything.. it's a public space, you know," the flight attendant said uncertainly. "This is NOT a public space! I paid for this seat so it's not public!" the woman replied. "Well, public space... uhm, well I guess this is a private airline, so it's private like that, but it's a public space on a private plane." The flight attendant obviously didn't know how to respond to the woman's verbal outrage. "Well they're out of control and the mother just won't do a thing! And my light won't work and I'm not able to read my book so all I can do is listen to those brats." All of this was said loudly enough for the mother and those around us to hear. "I'm very sorry ma'am," the flight attendant said as she began edging away from the woman. She seemed to realize the complaints wouldn't stop. I hadn't gotten my peanuts though. "Miss! Uh, could I have some peanuts please?" I interrupted. She hurriedly gave me two small packages of peanuts and backed down the aisle.

"Can you believe this? Utterly ridiculous," the old woman said to me. I didn't bother to reply as I tore open the peanuts and went back to my book. Another flight attendant, male this time, came by with the drink cart. Before he could even ask us what we wanted to drink the old woman launched into a nearly identical string of complaints about the kids and the reading light. The guy was very nice and apologetic to her and tried to get her light working. When that failed he offered her a glass of wine. "No, I don't want to pay for anything else," the woman told him. "It's on us, ma'am. I'm sorry for the inconvenience of the light and the noisiness." "Oh. I'll have a glass of white then," she said. Handing her the iced wine in the usual plastic cups they serve soda in, the flight attendant quickly took my drink order (ginger ale) and moved along. I returned to my book.

The kids turned silent as they drank their newly acquired sodas but the one behind me decided this would be a good time to exercise his legs by kicking the back of my seat. Seriously? I though. Does the mother have absolutely no control? The old woman, content with her wine, was oblivious. The kicking finally subsided and all was quiet. I finished the chapter just as the woman finished her wine. She seemed to think I required a break from the book. "Is San Antonio your home?" she asked. "No, my family is in Texas. I live in Boston though," I told her. "Oh, I just love San Antonio!" she remarked giddily. "My sister lives there and the river walk is just so pretty! Are you in school?" It began to dawn on me that the single cup of watered down wine had gotten the old woman buzzed. Fuck, she was never going to stop talking now. "Yeah. Well I just finished actually. I went to Northeastern University." "You finished?! But you're so young! Oh, but you must get that all the time. It's a good thing, you know. Why did you choose to go to Northeastern?" she asked. I never know how to respond to that question. When I was a freshman I said I chose it for the co-op program. When I decided co-op was worthless I told people I went because they gave me a scholarship. After discovering the dialogue programs and study abroad I said it was because of the foreign opportunities. The scholarship answer seemed like the best way not to prolong the conversation so I went with that. "Oh but you're so smart!" she said before asking the inevitable 'what are you going to do now?' that I keep getting from everyone. "Just try and find a job I guess," I said. "The economy is so terrible right now! You poor thing, such a bad time to be looking for a job. My grandson is in the same position. He's finished with school and can't find a job. But he's not as smart as you!" Right. Because she can tell how intelligent I am based on this nonsensical conversation. She asked what I studied and I told her international affairs. "That's wonderful, so important nowadays. Do you know any languages?" she asked. "I know some french," I told her. "Hmm..," she uttered contemplatively. "What's that French airline called?" "Air France?" I offered. "That's it! You should call them up and ask for a job! You studied international affairs, you speak French fluently, it's perfect!" "Ah, I don't speak French fluently. I studied it but I'm nowhere near fluent," I said. "Well they don't have to know that honey! Just exaggerate your abilities, everybody does it."

By now I had resigned myself to the conversation and had even sat my book upside down on my lap. This obviously wasn't letting up anytime soon. "Hmm.. you know, Bill Clinton is from down there like you, Arkansas you know, and I've met him. Maybe I could write him for you!" What do you say to that? "Oh, wow," I replied, not even bothering to feign that I was impressed. "Bill is just so smart, completely brilliant. I've met Hillary too, a long time ago. She had big legs, rather unfortunate, and very long hair. She was a hippy. A lot of people say that she's the smart one but that's just not true. Bill is the smart one. He's just so smart. People always talk about her now but it's really Bill who is the really smart one." "Right," I agreed.

The conversation moved to her brother-in-law ("such a Texan, he just loves football"), her deceased husband ("I miss him, but he had vascular dementia and his death was really a relief"), her former job as a journalist ("you could write! I'm sure you're a wonderful writer. Oh, but the newspapers are going bankrupt. Maybe that's not a good idea for you"), my family ("do you have any siblings who are as cute as you?" (ugh)) and finally back to Boston and Northeastern ("do they have any cute girls at Northeastern? Yale doesn't have any cuties, not a single one"). She praised Northeastern as being better than the Ivies, making that the second time someone had said that to me that day. Note: repeating "NU is better than Harvard" 50 times doesn't make it true. "At Harvard all of the classes are taught by students! I bet Northeastern has great professors," she said. "Michael Dukakis still teaches there," I offered up. Dukakis truly is our professor-célèbre at NU. "Oh, Mike! I just love Mike. Such a great man. I didn't know Mike taught still, how wonderful. I don't know about that Kitty though. She was just off. I think she was bi-polar." Kitty suffered from clinical depression and not bi-polar disorder from what I know but I didn't correct her.

The old woman (whose name turned out to be Mary Lou)'s buzz finally wore off and she said, "please, go back to your book. I don't want to keep you from it when you're so close to finishing." Freedom! Relief! Solitude! I open the book back up and read a few lines before- "what is that you're reading?" Uh-oh. I happened to be reading Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas for the first time, which is a pretty fucked up story about drug abuse. I hesitatingly told her the title, expecting in reply either a fervent look of disdain as she wrote me off as just another young druggie or an inquisitory glance as she asked what it was about. "What a wonderful book!" she exclaimed. I was obviously surprised. Maybe she's confusing it for another book, I thought. "The main character is just so interesting! Full of self-loathing and he does so many questionable acts but such an intriguing story. The movie is wonderful, too. Have you seen it?" She added that to the list she had made of films I must see (the only other one I remembered was In Bruges which I have yet to finish).

I finally was able to go back to the book but unfortunately I finished it when we were still 15 minutes from San Antonio which led to more conversation. Upon landing I stood up and glanced behind me into row 20 to try and gauge the ages of the children who had so tormented the woman who had in turn tormented me. The boy was none other than the leashed child from the Atlanta airport. I laughed to myself at this until I saw the mother eyeing me suspiciously. She probably assumed I was associated with the old woman.

Mary Lou opted for a wheel chair when we landed as her knees were bothering her after the long flight and I avoided her at the baggage claim. She spotted me outside waiting to be picked up and said, "goodbye Daniel! Good luck with everything." I told her goodbye and thought myself lucky not to have been asked for my email address, phone number or mailing address. Although I don't know how Bill can find me a job without even knowing my last name.


  1. About damn time!

    Katy and I had a lady like that, though not as nosy as yours, on our way to Long Beach. There was the cutest little girl in front of me who just had to play peekaboo for what it seemed would be the entire flight. I love kids, so I couldn't resist making faces. The woman next to Katy (I was window, Katy was middle) freaked out at the kid after take off and kept complaining to Katy non-stop about her. Which really made me feel aweful because I didn't want to get this little girl yelled at but at the same time she clearly wanted to keep talking and make faces at me, and on top of that I was having fun.

    Grumpy old woman ruin everything.

  2. Kevin didn't mention that he made faces at this girl every time the woman next to me wasn't looking. Then when the woman would complain to me (as I was in the middle) Kevin would pretend he couldn't hear from his side of the seat.

    Flying small talk is the worst. Daniel, I have more comments on this post than I can remember (due to it's length I think).

  3. I was on a flight where the lady next to me directly chastized the children in front of her, and I was horrified. I think that's one of the rudest things ever, especially because it seems like in your case (as was in mine) the kids were just being normal kids).

    Hope you don't mind that I've found you here, I've always liked your writing... and stalking... I'm a creep.

    Stay safe coming or leaving, wherever you happen to go :)