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Tuesday, September 21, 2004
Pamela Ribon, writer and webmaster of pamie.com and author of the novel 'Why Girls Are Weird', living in LA.'
I'm on an endless flight from LAX to JFK. It's one of those two-seat, three-seat, then two-seat configurations, where the movie (the already forgotten Jersey Girl) plays on a screen approximately one hundred meters away from my head. I have had better seats at Paul McCartney concerts.
On my right, two women are joking about how they haven't been virgins for a very long time. On my left, two men are sharing a DVD player, watching Calendar Girls.
I am seated in front of a family of four. A screaming baby has been passed from lap to lap as the older daughter sits in a car seat. The couple had, at one time, been interested in keeping their young son from his bloodcurdling screeches of terror. They've now resigned themselves to admitting there's nothing they can do, and they're now taking it out on each other.
"I would like to continue to discuss your demeanor," the woman says to the man, "because I find it to be insulting."
"I am simply saying that bringing the car seat was a waste of a seat. There's not enough room for all of us."
"You keep saying that. How is this helping?"
The daughter in the car seat quietly watches a Pooh video. The baby is now on his stomach, wailing the one word "Daddy" over and over again.
I know all of this because I have stood up to watch them. The back of my seat has been used as a large handlebar for the past two hours, and I'm tired of being trapped in the world's most expensive slingshot as I wait for this couple to file for divorce.
Sometimes I wish to be one of those people who can justify splurging on first class seats for every trip. A friend of mine does that, claiming, "Life's too short for coach." As I decide not to eat the slice of pound cake they've deemed breakfast worthy, I am starting to realize my first class friend is a genius.
Still, jumping up to the wider seats and silverware with dignity would make me miss out on the patriotic experience of travel. Back here in economy, we are all alike. No matter how big or small, childfree or covered in baby drool, snoring deep in a narcotic coma or fidgeting from too much cold medicine - we're all cramped in these too-small seats and we all want the same thing: we want to get off this damn plane. It doesn't matter what language we speak or how many carry-on items we smuggled past security. The reading material is the same. The laptops all use the same software. The movie sucks for everybody. We are forced to drink the same crap coffee.
If I moved up to first class I'd miss these nuggets of Americana, like the time I watched a woman pull her daughter into her lap and complain to her husband: "Well, great. Now Emily smells like beer for Gramma."
If I ditched my people in the back of the plane, I'd never have seen the woman who carried all of her belongings onto the plane in a laundry basket. She was wearing slippers, a robe and pj's. I've never seen anyone look more comfortable on a flight.
How my reflex time would suffer from no longer having to dodge the seat back in front of me as it randomly jolts toward my head. I'd lose muscle tone, not needing to hold my body in a rigid line for several hours, my head facing forward, my feet on the floor, unable to cross my legs.
I know just where to cram a tiny Nerf pillow in the curve of my neck to get a nap without permanent disk damage. I can curl my body over three seats while still wearing my seatbelt. I have tricked my brain into equating the luxury of a nap in an empty aisle with sleeping on a pillow-top mattress.
My social skills have improved, as I've had to sit closer to complete strangers for hours at a time, becoming more familiar with people I'll never see again than to some friends I've known for years. I've talked to newlyweds, businesswomen and soldiers. I have had the most inappropriate conversations about breast implants, divorce, and birth control. I've survived the rambunctious flight to Las Vegas, the one filled with the slapping of playing cards and the clatter of dice, where everybody is a winner and the booze flows at nine in the morning. I have also experienced the pin-dropping silent flight back, filled with sunburns, hangovers and regret.
I've met strangers I'll remember for the rest of my life. The week after my father passed away I sat beside a woman who had recently lost the last person in her large family. She touched my hand and looked forward. We spent the next few minutes sharing a quiet cry.
I ended up on a middle seat to Atlanta between two large gentlemen. After buckling up, we reached for our reading material. I pulled out an issue of GQ. They each opened a hardcover copy of the fifth Harry Potter.
On a three-hour flight to Texas I found myself sitting next to a man about forty years my senior. We were still on the runway when we began talking about the weather. By the time we landed that night, we had discussed everything from literature to religion, scribbling each other's book suggestions in our day-planners. We exchanged email addresses, but the unspoken airplane rule seems to be what happens up there, stays up there. We still haven't contacted each other.
The great equalizer known as Coach reminds us that we're human beings, and when stripped of cell phones, cars and to-do lists and forced to simply be with each other, we all need the same things: a good time-waster, a blanket that isn't scratchy, enough room to cross your legs and a movie without Ben Affleck.
The women who were discussing their virginity moments ago are back to their gossip magazines. The gentlemen on my other side are laughing at their half-naked British ladies. The family behind me has fallen silent. I turn to look. The mother and father are fast asleep, heads resting together. The baby has his eyes closed, thumb in his mouth, stretched across both of his parents' laps. The girl in the car seat quietly changes her DVD. We're all almost home.
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