I’m giving Clio the afternoon off that I might answer a question that’s on everyone’s lips today, to wit: “How was your flight from Chicago to Newark this morning?”
Well, folks (thanks for asking), it was memorable from start to finish.
The specialness began at the security checkpoint, where my carry-on bag (though not my backpack, nor shoes) was singled out for search-and-sniff treatment. Mr. TSA emptied it out and rubbed my belongings with some sort of CSI-style magic swatch, then inserted the impregnated swatch into his spectrometer or whatever his magic evil-detection machine might be called. He studied the readout and told me, “You’ve alarmed the machine for explosives.”
So I’m like, “I’m sorry?!” Because, you know, explosives simply don’t play a large part in my lifestyle. But he’s all, “You’ve alarmed the machine for explosives. You’ll have to step over there so I can pat you down.” So I stepped over there, assumed the scarecrow stance, and was duly patted down. Then I was sent politely on my way–as if a tentative, rubber-gloved patting of my armpits and thighs could reasonably acquit me of the presumed intent to blow up a commercial jetliner.*
Fresh from that bracing non sequitur, I boarded the plane to find my seat was already occupied. The young woman sitting in it told me she was “a nervous flier” and asked imploringly if I would mind switching seats so she could remain at the side of her supportive boyfriend. Even though it meant swapping an aisle seat for a window seat, I said sure, because that’s just the sort of friendly and obliging mad bomber I am.
But it transpired that my second seat was also already occupied. The squatter this time was a middle-aged woman with a bright red dye job, six kilos of platinum jewelry, and a palpable force field of hauteur and fizzing insanity. Evidently she had already established herself with the flight crew as a personality to be reckoned with, because two flight attendants interposed themselves between us before I had a chance to speak word one to her. “She’s Russian–doesn’t speak any English,” explained the male flight attendant to me, but I had already worked out that there was a language problem from the way that his female co-worker was addressing her (loudly, slowly, lots of gestures). The patient request that she surrender my seat yielded a snarling torrent of Russian for which I really would have loved to see some subtitles. Her body language, though, made it real plain that she wasn’t going anywhere. “That’s okay,” I said. “I’ll take the center seat.” (You can take the boy out of Canada, see, but you can’t take the etc etc.)
I took my seat next to the Czarina, but the business between her and the flight crew wasn’t over. First, she had a mountain of shopping bags (2 over the carry-on quota) at her feet, and the female flight attendant had to patiently negotiate their removal to an overhead storage bin, which resulted in lots more snarling and sneering and spitting–picture a hybrid of Eva Gabor and a rabid wolverine.
Only then did it dawn on the crew members that Mrs. Mafiosovich was seated by an emergency exit, and needed therefore to be ritually deputized to operate same in the event of emergency. The two attendants had an anxious sotto voce huddle, from which I (eavesdropping intently) learned that they (or probably the airline I suppose) faced a potential $25,000 fine for letting a non-English-speaker sit by the exit. They looked at her, decided against a winter siege of Stalingrad, and ask me instead if I were able and willing to do the honors with the escape hatch–across her lap or over her dead body I supposed. I didn’t say “Heck no, I’m here to blow the plane up.” And so the plane took off on time.
That, my friends, is the power of crazy, and it will trump mere safety considerations most every time.
*Last November Atlantic Monthly published a terrific article by Jeffrey Goldberg documenting the inane futility of our post-9/11 pre-boarding rituals. Turns out nobody at policy-making level takes them at all seriously: to them it’s all “security theater” (that’s actual insider jargon) designed to reassure the public, as opposed to, say, screening out actual terrorists, crazy people etc.