The A-B-C’s of Flying



13810 135th Ave, Jamaica, NY

Neighborhood: Brooklyn, Rockaway

I have found that the tedium of flying is exceeded only by the greater tedium of waiting to fly — of arriving at the airport hours before takeoff, inching slowly along serpentine lines with the hoards of other bored or frightened fliers, waiting to have my Nikes examined by shoe-sniffing dogs and a magic wand passed over my privates by employees earning minimum wage.

Whenever I have to get into an airplane these days, for financial reasons, I fly economy, no frills — Jet Blue or Southwest. Jet Blue is the cheap airline with little TV sets in the backs of every seat. Southwest is even cheaper, probably because they don’t have little TVs sets, just fold down trays on the backs of their seats. And another thing Southwest doesn’t have is assigned seating. In order to prevent their customers from rushing the airplane en masse with an “every man for himself” mentality, however, they offer A-B-C passes, to determine the order of their boarding, which passengers can print twenty-four hours before flight time. It is a good idea, but only in theory.

So, with Homeland Security safely behind me and takeoff still looming two hours ahead, I sat inside the Southwest waiting area by Gate 125 and settled into my chair, removed from the others but within eye- and earshot of the overhead TV tuned to CNN showing film loops of international disasters. Armed with my single carry-on (although “armed” is probably not the appropriate word in any airport post 9-11), a leather backpack filled with reading material, several started New York Times crossword puzzles, two fine line markers and my writing journal, I clutched in my sweaty hand the pass that I had printed on my home computer one second after midnight hours before. I was an A and there was something about being an A that made me feel vaguely superior to the B’s. Two B’s, an elderly couple holding hands, sat in front of me until it was time for them to line up under the big B sign.

And I knew I was far superior to all the poor C’s who obviously hadn’t gotten around to printing their passes until all of the A’s and B’s were gone. Banded together under the big C sign, the Cs looked ashamed as they tried to hide their boarding passes and their worry that they might have to fly all the way to New York holding on to overhead straps, like riders on the BMT during rush hour.

From my seat I watched as harried parents with screaming infants, invalids in wheelchairs, men carrying canes or hunched over crutches, and the morbidly obese slowly, silently, surreptitiously stacked up against the window beside Gate 125. Neither A’s, B’s, nor C’s, they were those deemed “special” by Southwest standards — the “pre-boarders,” a class unto themselves, many of whom might have ridden in the “little yellow bus” when they were in school. Now they resembled a procession vying for a cure at Lourdes instead of first crack at a better, roomier seat on the plane.

With an hour still left to go and no airplane in sight, some of the less secure A’s started lining up, first one, then three, then fifteen. I resisted the urge to give up my comfortable seat and refused to be stampeded into joining the herd. I looked at the crinkled, soggy A in my hand and then at the growing line, made longer every minute by newcomers arriving directly from Homeland Security, passengers who hadn’t invested any waiting time, but would now, by standing on line, get a better seat than mine. And then it occurred to me if I waited too long I would be reduced to an A minus or a B plus at best. I wavered until the stress became too much for me and then I succumbed to the unspoken pressure. I slung my backpack over my shoulder, attached myself to the tail end of the beast and I waited until all the pre-boarders, the walking wounded, were safely aboard, and the line began to move. I smiled at the elderly hand-holding B couple and smirked at the lazy C’s who averted their guilty eyes as I passed them. I resisted the impulse to wave my A and blurt, “I sure hope there are enough seats for everyone!”

Once on a Southwest flight I had a strategy for picking my seat, one that I have used with great success in the past. I learned early on to avoid all the “pre-boarders,” people with kids and/or pets and all those others “special people” who generally landed up front and in the bulkhead seats where they could stretch out their withered limbs or let their wide ends encroach upon the center seating space. I never chose a window seat because I’d feel too confined and I preferred not having to crawl over bodies in case nature called (which it does more often these days), or in the event I’d have to depart the aircraft quickly in an emergency, unless, of course, the window seat is an emergency exit and I could be the first one off the plane. Instead, I looked for a row where the window seat was already filled, because no one, except maybe kids and/or pets, would ever choose a center seat . . .

I sidled up the aisle past a red-faced sweaty man in row three, avoided the hard candy-sucking granny in four who smiled and patted the seat next to her as I passed. I stepped over the screaming kids in six, missed stepping on the yapping schitzu by inches and parked myself in the aisle seat in row seven next to a window woman with promise. At best, I figured, we would talk to pass the time and maybe flirt a little. At worst, the woman would turn a cold shoulder, give me the silent treatment and I could read in silence the book I’d been putting off; or I could try to write a travel piece for publication.

But as the saying goes, the best-laid plans of mice and men oft gang a glee.

“Oh, my God!” a little C in fashion jeans and an overwhelming designer scent shouted at the top of her range when she stopped in the aisle by my seat. Her outburst caused the flight attendants to flinch and sent some of the passengers, who thought it might be a hijacking, scrambling for cover. “I don’t believe it!”

I stared at the C in confusion as she pointed past me at the window woman.

“Pardon,” she asked me in an English accent that might have been charming under different circumstances and if it weren’t so loud. “Is that seat taken? Do you mind?” And she scrambled over me before I could answer, banging her Louis Vuitton into the top of my head.

Immediately and without interruption, their high-pitched conversation rose above the scream of the engines and drowned out the flight attendant demonstrating emergency procedures. The two women were more non-stop than the flight, comparing at full volume everything from their respective marriages and wedding rings to home shopping network bargains and their children’s SAT scores. Suddenly, the prospect of a center seat next to a twitching, obese “pre-boarder” didn’t seem so unappealing. I looked around, but the plane was full and I was trapped.

Throughout the flight I heard about restaurants (“Jack and I had reservations for Nobu in Manhattan. It’s pricey, but the food is good — if you like fish, which I don’t. But we did see Howard Stern there with his girlfriend.”), resorts (“We spent four weeks in the Keys, until they evacuated us before the last hurricane hit. Next year we’ll do Aruba instead.”) and recipes (“Rachael Ray is cute, but she drives me crazy with that E-V-O-O crap of hers! Besides, I like Giada’s recipes better. But I hate her because she’s so thin! The bitch.”)

The little British C in the middle twisted the knob and stole my overhead air. She dominated the armrest and violated my personal space while I was trying to pretend to sleep. And several times she scrambled over me and headed to the bathroom to eliminate some of the gallons of wine the two of them had been consuming!

In disgust I pulled my backpack from under the seat and started scribbling frantically in the notebook, three angry, detailed pages. I was in the middle of painstakingly recreating their inane dialogue when the window woman asked, “Excuse me. Are you writing a book?”

I stopped mid-pen-stroke, stunned — caught in the act, like an unfaithful husband with his pants down, like a kid with his dirty hands in the cookie jar. I felt my face turning red. “Um, no,” I managed, covering the page so they couldn’t see what I’d written. I closed the book. “This is my, um, journal,” I stammered. “I’m writing about my visit with my son in Florida. I’ve been there four times now and I like to keep a record of my trips,” I went on to distract them, fanning the book quickly so they could see the pages were filled with writing.

“Oh. We thought you were writing a book about us. Poor you. You’ve had to listen to the two of us babbling for two hours. And so loud!”

“Oh? Have you been talking?” I asked. “I really hadn’t noticed.” I smiled and suddenly everything changed. I no longer wanted them dead! I turned in my seat and leaned toward them. Made bolder now by our interaction, I held up the leather journal. “No, I’m not writing a book exactly, but maybe a travel piece for a magazine,” I said.

“Really?” they replied in unison and smiled.

“So you’re a writer then?” the little British C asked, obviously impressed. “Have you written anything else?”

“Oh, two novels,” I expounded, assuming the tone of a best-selling author. “And a collection of short stories. If you’re interested you can Google me. And you’ll find my books on Amazon.” I spelled my name for them. “Like the Supreme Court justice,” I added.

They were greatly impressed.

“Now if you tell me your names, maybe I’ll put you in this travel piece I’m working on.” I held up my book.

The window woman became Debbie, and the little English C told me her name was Biggy.

“It’s a British thing,” she said, anticipating my next question, “that would take too long to explain.”

I wrote their names down in my book, on the bottom of the last page of my latest entry while they watched as the airplane touched down smoothly, without serious incident.

No longer just three letters of the alphabet brought together by chance and Southwest, we headed off on our separate ways.

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