A good friend and regular reader of this blog, One More Thing to Read, suggested that I revive On the Road but as an edgier version. I appreciate that observation, and it does seem that several posts have something to do with traveling. I’m not sure that I travel all that much, but it seems that when I do, I observe every aspect of my ever-changing environment.
For instance, on a recent flight, I was seated next to a woman whom I considered one of the last people who still makes an effort when traveling. One is so used to seeing travelers emerge from jet-ways looking as rumpled as the clothes in their luggage after a TSA bag search, so I was impressed that she had taken the time to pull herself together.
The flight wasn’t packed, so she opted to put her carry-on bag under the middle seat in front of us. I was already focused on a re-read of The Catcher in the Rye when she sat down. Reading a real book with actual pages to turn provides me the opportunity to mind my own business the moment my seatbelt is fastened without having to wait until the captain has reached the proper altitude for electronic gadgets.
Let me be clear: I say that I have the opportunity to mind my own business. That doesn’t mean I do.
I was involved in the antics of Holden Caulfield, so it wasn’t until I heard the first muffled bark that I realized the carry-on at my feet was indeed moving on its own. Earlier, I thought I had seen movement in my peripheral vision, and I was relieved to know that the bag wasn’t haunted. It was merely possessed.
The anxious Yorkie in the bag had let out a muted cry, and its owner reacted with such surreptitious attention that I was under the impression that she’d smuggled the little dog aboard. As she glanced around her in all directions, the woman projected the nervous demeanor of someone who has just shoplifted something sparkly from TJ Maxx, and based on the bling in her blouse, I suspected she was familiar with the store.
My seat-mate frequently bent over to get her head close to the bag, and it seemed to me that she was having difficulty letting the dog relax and settle down. From the corner of my eye, I watched as she constantly opened the pet carrier to speak to the dog. She would pull out some kibble, offer it to the poor little thing, and then she would grab its head and shove it back in like it had been naughty. The severity of her shoving may not have seemed such a big deal to her, but from where I sat, it looked like she was trying to un-deliver a baby. She struggled to zip the bag after each discourse, causing me wonder why she would continually open it if it was so much trouble to shove the dog back inside.
I looked up for a second to give my eyes a break from reading, and I saw the Yorkie ram its head through the small opening where the two zippers didn’t quite meet. Aha! The dog was unzipping the bag, but its owner had not thought ahead to put something through the holes in the zipper handles to keep them from separating. Even if she didn’t have a lock, surely she had a safety pin or even a paperclip.
Finally we were cleared for takeoff, and she shoved her pooch under the seat after giving it a final pre-flight lecture. This lasted so long that she missed the entire speech on safety belts and oxygen masks. The flight was just commencing, but I was curious as to how our trip was going to turn out. On the first leg, I’d shared a seat with a very interesting woman who had once lived near the Grand Canyon. We talked of the Southwest’s scenic topography, and we exchanged stories about the cuisine of her native New Mexico. I didn’t hold out much hope that any conversation with the Dog Whisperer would be as interesting since she was preoccupied with keeping her cantankerous cargo under control.
Because the flight was not full, and there were no assigned seats, her husband had opted to sit across the aisle. On a 95-degree day in both our departure and arrival cities, he spent the entire fight wearing a corduroy jacket and a facial mask as though the cabin air was cold and poisonous. I had yet to hear about MERS, and SARS had not been en vogue for over eight years, but he was afraid of something. I considered the possibility that pet dander had forced him into a seat across from his wife, but I assume he lives with the dog and was able to tolerate any possible allergens. Judging by his rare attempt to communicate with his wife across the aisle, I wondered if the mask’s purpose was to separate himself from a woman who had clearly insisted on bringing her dog against his will and better judgment.
I had gotten a quick look at my seat-mate as she made her way toward me, and she looked about 45. By comparison, the husband looked significantly older, which made me think the woman was a trophy wife.
After all her struggling and fidgeting, my reading material was less interesting as I repositioned myself in order to get a better look at the situation. We were not in the air very long when I noticed that she had taken off her shoes and had brought her legs up so that she could sit on them. I couldn’t miss the fact that they were plastered in bandaids. Was she treating blisters or preventing them? And those were not her only feet issues, as she had prominent lumps on both. The sort of lumps one gets from having worn the wrong shoes for decades, and the bandaids were a sign that she had not yet learned her lesson. In comfort mode, however, she had shown herself as the type of person who kicks off her shoes at the drop of a hat.
I’ve become even more germ conscious in recent years, and my imagination runs rampant when I think of the surfaces we walk on while wearing shoes. Just getting from your home to the airport, you’ve walked on the sidewalk at the terminal, across the floor, into a public restroom, across even more floor and then onto a plane. Add to that, shuttle buses, taxis and urban landscapes, and then multiply those exposures by the millions of other people who fly on a single day. The floor of an airplane, then, is a bacterial brew.
I cannot believe a single person thinks that the cabin floor somehow gets cleaned every night. They’re not shampooing those carpets when the crew leaves, and even when they do clean the carpet, you can be sure they’re not using antiseptic. If you’ve noticed that your tray table, when in the unlocked position, has something sticky on it when you take that first flight of a morning, you must accept that cleaning the floor isn’t even an afterthought. Keep your shoes on; especially if you have such pronounced lumps that could hang a jacket.
Coiled up with legs under her, my seatmate fidgeted as we flew over Arizona and New Mexico. The dog continued to unzip the carrier from time to time, and its owner continued to scold it as if the poor thing might suddenly comprehend English. I decided to say something.
“If it makes it easier on you, feel free to bring the carrier up to the seat. Perhaps your dog will relax if it’s seated next to you.”
“Oh!” she replied. “I can’t do that. They won’t let me.”
Her husband looked over and lifted up his mask in order to communicate. She told him that I had made an offer, but she couldn’t accept. He nodded toward me to acknowledge that they had been through this before, and there was nothing to be done. The dog’s restlessness didn’t bother me at all, but it was stressing my seat-mate. I felt that we’d all have a better flight if she could sit still.
Her excessive movement was causing her to get hot, so she pulled off her sparkly blouse to uncover a revealing halter-top. In California, we get anti-tobacco commercials, and they have shown to a generation the effects of long-term cigarette smoking. If only someone would form a campaign that shows the results of damaging sun exposure, we could change the look of senior citizens within our lifetime. The poor woman’s shoulders looked like the forearms of a redheaded farmer.
I couldn’t help myself, but I had to get another look at her face. I would have guessed somewhere between 40 and 45, but considering those arms and working my gaze down to those tragic feet, I calculated 11.7 years for every foot of her length. My hat is off to whoever worked on her face since she had barely a wrinkle or a blemish for someone so thin and sunbaked.
I ate my little bag of peanuts and returned to reading. The dog finally settled down, and I assumed it had gotten bored and decided to take a nap. It wasn’t until I looked up again to hand my trash to the flight attendant that I noticed my seatmate’s splayed position. Her left knee was pulled up to her chin, and her heel was barely preventing this foot from sliding off the seat. At a glance, it appeared that she had extended her right leg at a 45-degree angle. If she were trying to maintain some level of in-flight flexibility, she was succeeding.
Then I realized that her right foot was inside the pet carrier. If the dog was still inside it and awake, what was it doing? I felt like I was suppressing laughter in church. She was a shorter woman with smallish feet, and the pet carrier made it look as though she was wearing a cast boot the size of a small sleigh. For all her attempts to look elegant, she had failed. Her husband looked over and rolled his eyes as he turned away. I could only imagine the exchange before she won the argument to bring the pooch, but he was saying nothing while thinking, “I told you so.”
© 2014 by Patrick Brown