O Tempora O Mores!* or Ode to Flight 2542

By Kit-Bacon Gressitt

“You don’t mind if I sit here, do you,” he said. After his briefcase hit the empty seat.

I looked up from my book and was not surprised by what I found: older white male, expensive suit, assumptive bearing, and a physique to match the sonorous voice — he was too large even for the exit row. But upon a second, sneaky glance, while he stowed his luggage and adjusted himself into his seat, I noticed the faint hand tremor, the thinning hair approaching white, the hint of a stoop revealing his seventy, maybe seventy-five years.

I let a sigh slip. It was the damn tremor that swayed me, forcing me to close my book — Sue Townsend’s cruelly hilarious spoof of the British royals — and exercise the social graces Mother taught me. Besides, if he’d offered a question rather than a declarative before tossing his briefcase, I wouldn’t have thought twice about his claiming the seat. So I turned to him and said, “Of course not — please join me.”

He looked down at me without making eye contact and nodded a suitable smile in my direction as he unfurled his Financial Times, and I thought I caught disappointment flit across his visage. If only he had boarded a little faster, he might have landed next to the babe who’d sashayed down the aisle before me. She had a caboose even I noticed — as did the hungry hunter who snagged the seat next to her, licking his chops in anticipation of getting a mouthful of those sweet cheeks. So the poor old fellow was stuck with me — baggy jeans and sweatshirt (Father always said I dressed like an old boot) and a befuckled mood (I’d lost the joy of flying when the airlines stopped providing those cool little salt and pepper shakers in coach).

A flight attendant distracted our minimalist encounter when she requested verbal affirmatives from those of us in the exit row, thereby committing us to assisting in the event of an emergency. With the threat of terrorists misbehaving on planes, I took this responsibility quite seriously, but checking out my fellow prospective heroes, I had to question the legitimacy of the airline’s process.

There was one brooding skateboarder, who, upon declaring “Yes” that he was ready and willing to assist, reinserted his iPod earbuds, despite having obediently turned off the contraption, and pulled his baseball cap over his eyes, assuring neither social interaction nor emergency readiness. He was probably dreaming about the sashaying caboose.

Next to him was a gal who appeared to be on her first solo flight post aerophobia treatment. With clenched knees and jaws, her wild-eyed stare boring into the seatback in front of her and barf bag in her lap, she clutched the armrests as beads of sweat grew on her blanched face and nervous snot flicked from her nose.

Clearly neither she nor the kid could be counted on, which lent a new appreciation for my presumptuous seatmate. He looked as though he might still be strong enough to help me hoist the 70-pound door and I, having worked in social services, had proved my crisis-management abilities manyfold. In fact, the aerophobic’s nose reminded me of one such incident at the program I once directed for multi-handicapped blind adults.

I’d received a frantic call to my office from the nurse’s station one sunny California afternoon. “Conrad bit Nadine!” the shift supervisor shrieked.

“Is she OK? Did you isolate Conrad?”

“He bit her! He bit her!”

“Yes, I got that. Take a breath. Is Nadine OK?”

“He bit her! He bit her nose! In her room! There’s blood everywhere!”

“Bring bandages and an icepack to her room.” I ran from my office and met the supervisor at Nadine’s door, where Nadine stood silent and still, hands covering her face and blood drenching her blouse.

“Conrad bit my nose,” she said, dropping her hands to reveal a bloody void where her nose once was.

“Shit. Where’s the nose?” I asked the supervisor. “Did he swallow it?”

She was busy tossing her lunch in Nadine’s trashcan, so I had Nadine press a bandage to her new facial concavity, and I dropped to the floor. There I was, in my tidy little business suit and pumps, crawling across the institutional carpet in pursuit of a nose — which I found under the bed, right where Conrad had spit it.

Later, when I asked him why he did it, he said, “She was rude to me, so I felt for her nose and I bit it.”

So, yep, pushing people down the inflatable slide seemed manageable, as long as the old fellow could indeed help me lift the door out of the way. This thought shifted my predisposition from dislike to acceptance of the man.

Except then he blew it. After folding his newspaper and tucking it in the seat pocket, he settled his elbow on our shared armrest. Now, this alone is an annoying but common maneuver on a plane. Men do it to women without a thought, although bold women preempt it by getting there first. But it was the subsequent pressure of his upper arm against mine that set me off. I shifted every body part that I could toward the empty space between my seat and the emergency exit door, but it was not enough. Still his arm pressed to mine. It was surely an intrusion, and it was unbelievable that he couldn’t feel it.

Now, my Southern upbringing precluded my saying what I was thinking — that he move his fucking arm — so out of desperate discomfort, I leaned forward and buried my face in my book, determined to disregard him the rest of the flight.

But he had other plans. Having consumed his Financial Times, he proceeded to interpret it for the rest of us. “Obama Bin Laden,” he chuckled, “he is doing everything he possibly can to slow down our financial recovery.” My hackles began to rise, and I pretended to continue reading.

“People of wealth will never vote for him again,” he continued, “and the young derelicts who did in 08 might actually acquire the discernment to think twice in 2012, particularly the trust fund kids. I have one client whose offspring have probably voted away their inheritance.”

My pretense shattered and I turned to him, preparing to challenge him for likening the President to Osama Bin Laden.

But he prattled on: “Thankfully, it doesn’t much affect me. I’ve made a lot of money in my lifetime — of course, I am bragging — but, yes, I’ve made a lot of money in my lifetime. It’s long gone, now.” And then he paused, looked at me directly, and laughed a melancholy little laugh. “Most of my colleagues invested in commercial properties, things like that, but I didn’t. I saw the world instead.”

This time, it was that little laugh that swayed me. If nothing else, he deserved some consideration for his regrets, whatever they were. And there was that pesky Southern thing again. So I listened to his stories and nodded, oohed and ahhed in all the right places, and learned that as a young man he’d ridden his motorcycle across Europe; he was divorced years ago and never remarried; he didn’t usually reveal that he was an attorney, but he was; the district attorney and he barely tolerated each other, but he was friendly with a lot of the judges; he had no children he owned up to; he smoked fine Cuban cigars, but of course, he said, he was bragging again.

I patted his arm. “You’re entitled, Honey.” And he regaled me with his stories for the rest of the flight, while the skateboarder snored under his baseball cap and the aerophobic came to her senses and demanded to be moved from the exit row.

•     •     •     •     •     •     •     •     •

The lawyer was on my mind as I drove home from the airport. When I arrived, I Googled his particulars and found his name in an attorney directory, where he mugged with one of his spiffy cigars. I searched for more and found an article. “Sweetie,” I called to my husband. “Look at this. I chatted with this fellow on the plane. In the 80s, he got into a wee-wee contest with a judge over wearing a turban in court.”

“Was he packing explosives in his underwear?”

“I think that’s probably racist, Sweetie. Besides, you joke like that and I’ll have to frisk you.”

“OK, then I’m packing explosives in my underwear.”

“Funny boy.” I kissed him. “Seriously. He refused to explain why he wore the turban, and the judge insisted that he couldn’t wear it without stating a 'legitimate' reason. He prevailed eventually.”

“Was he wearing it when you met him?”

“No. I suppose he’d made his point when he won.”

“Hmmm. So, what’s your point?”

“Oh, I’m not sure. It’s just interesting. Nothing, I suppose.” I went back to reading the case, amused by his eccentricities and disappointed I hadn’t been a little nicer. But I don’t know, maybe it was just that Southern thing again.

©2010 Kit-Bacon Gressitt

*Oh the times! Oh the customs! – Cicero, 63 BC

(NOTE: Photograph by Nathan Rupert via a Creative Commons license.)


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