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What a Long Strange Flight It’s Been

US Airways Flight 927, Seat 19C
Somewhere over Michigan
Evening

From my journal entry for November 14, 2008:

As a general rule, I try not to get too interested in my fellow airline passengers. I’m afraid of flying as it is, and overhearing the guy two rows behind me talk about the three kids who will be waiting up for him when gets home makes him, you know, an actual human being. I don’t want to fly with anyone who can fill column inches in Time magazine with her hopes and dreams, nor with anyone whose backstory would make for an interesting plot twist on Lost. For a guy who thinks in terms of narrative, flying with a crowd of strangers is safer than flying with 88 real people.

But people on this flight are imposing their realness on me. There is the young woman in 20E who was loud before she was drunk, and who got exactly what she wanted when the wisecracking flight attendant announced to the plane that today is her 28th birthday. The young woman’s mother (20F) has this annoying way of acting as if she and her daughter are both thirteen and flying for the first time, making stupid wagers (“I’ll betcha.”), taunting and tickling her grown daughter, and just generally acting like she needs a good talking-to from a certified adult. The two of them together have this way of conversing that makes it plain that their real audience is the rest of the plane. We know that there is a son in Iraq. We know also that they are huge Oregon Ducks fans. Oh my. The daughter is squawking now.

Also in the cast of characters is the young guy sitting in 16B who acted stoned in West Palm Beach, acted stoned in Philadelphia, and has just been generally loud and annoying the whole time. I’m pretty sure that if we crash, this kid will have an unwitting hand in making the plane go down. He just almost dropped a suitcase on somebody’s head.

There is some hope. I just met an adorable little girl who is flying with her mom to Portland to pick marionberries and eat waffles. Also, the lanky, white haired man who went past me earlier looks uncannily like Wendell Berry. Down to the plaid shirt. So, if we crash and some of us survive, we’ll be able to farm for our food until they send search and rescue.

Update:

I am safely on the ground in Portland. Here’s the full story on the kid who was acting stoned:

When we got to the airport this morning, we were informed that our flight was delayed by two-and-a-half hours due to heavy rain in Philadelphia. Our layover in Philadelphia was only 90 minutes. The only way we wouldn’t miss our flight from Philadelphia to Portland is if that flight was delayed too, which, at that point, it wasn’t. My business partner and I were the last ones in line to talk with the agents about rerouting our trip home. By the time we got to counter, it was forty-five minutes past our original departure time. The agent told us that if we could find a way to get ourselves there, she could put us on a plane from Ft. Lauderdale to Phoenix and then another plane from Phoenix to Portland. I told the agent I would call my brother to see if he was available to give us a lift. She asked us we if could also give a ride to another guy; this guy also needed to catch flights to Phoenix and then Portland. I said yes and started dialing. The guy we were going to give a lift was the guy I mentioned above, the one who would somehow accidentally bring down our plane. He was young, no more than 21 years old. He wore a heavy fur-lined coat and a baseball cap with the number “561″, the area code for West Palm, emblazoned up front. It turns out we didn’t need to give him a ride after all. Before I connected with my brother, the word came from Philadelphia that we could leave right away. With a little luck, Andrew and I would still make our connecting flight. Which we did. (It was delayed an hour and forty-five minutes anyway.)

It was on the flight from Philly to Portland that things got weird. The kid in the 561 cap sat three rows in front of me. From the beginning, he was kind of tweaking out. He constantly got up out of his seat and pulled his suitcase down from the overhead bin. He shouted to the flight attendants to get their attention. He wore a cigarette behind his ear, which would turn out to be more than just a provocative fashion statement. Our flight was only half-full, so there was plenty of room to switch seats. It didn’t take long for the woman sharing his row to move across the aisle.

About a quarter of the way through our trip, this kid got up to go the lavatory. While he was in waiting in line, he pulled out his cell phone and turned it on. One of the flight attendants, standing right there, told him to turn it off. The kid protested that he was just checking his messages. They argued, the flight attendant won, and the kid turned off his cell phone. When the kid came back from the lavatory everyone he walked past, including me and my business partner, could smell smoke on his clothes. Sure enough, here comes the flight attendant who demands the kid come with him to the back of the plane. The guy had been smoking in the bathroom. I can only assume that he disconnected the fire detector but I don’t know for sure. Anyway, the kid eventually returned to his seat and the rest of the flight passed in relative peace.

When the pilot came on to announce that we would be landing in Portland in fifteen minutes, the kid in the 561 hat got up to go to the lavatory again. Just then, another guy two rows ahead of me realized his computer was missing. He had set it under the seat ahead of him – the seat belonging to the kid in the lavatory – but now the computer was gone. The flight attendants asked us all to look in our bags to see if one of us put in our bag by mistake. They asked us to look underneath our seats too, in case the computer had slid back. The flight attendants got down on their hands and knees to look underneath the seats. Just then, the kid came back from the lavatory. He saw the commotion and asked, “What’s going on?” “I can’t find my computer,” the guy said. “Oh,” said the kid. He got down on the floor to help the flight attendants look. Then he stood up and said, strangely, “Did you check my bag?” Good idea. The flight attendants checked his bag, and they found the missing computer. This odd kid, the one who we were supposed to drive to Ft. Lauderdale, had stolen it.

Once the kid was escorted to the back of the plane for the last few minutes of the flight, the people around me started laughing at how dumb the kid obviously was. They laughed especially at his insistence that the flight attendants check his bags. I admit I found the whole flight very odd (I wouldn’t be writing it here if I didn’t find at least a little interesting). But I didn’t laugh. I felt bad for writing what I did about him earlier. Now I couldn’t help but wonder about this kid’s backstory. The complete disconnect between action and consequence seem to imply either mental illness, a difficult home life, or both.

When we got off the plane there were four uniform cops waiting for the kid from West Palm. As we made our way through the baggage claim, where loved ones were being reunited, my business partner voiced the question I had been asking myself for the last half-hour: “I wonder if any of the people standing here are waiting for the kid in the 561 hat.”

K. met us at the front entrance.

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