Humanity at 30,000 feet
You can pick your seat on Southwest, but choose wisely and be prepared to own your decision.
As the warrior-poet Pusha T once wrote, if you know, you know. Well, folks, I happen to know that if a Southwest flight lands at Burbank Airport, they deplane from both the front and back of the aircraft.
Armed with this knowledge, I formulated a strategy prior to boarding. The computer, which can be a capricious overlord, had dealt me a challenging, but playable hand with the A-45 boarding position. I knew that wouldn’t be good enough to snag an aisle seat near the front of the plane and get overhead bin space for my rolling bag. But perhaps, I thought, A-45 might be good enough to grab an aisle seat and overhead bin space at the very back of the plane. I crossed my fingers and let the indifferent gate agent scan my boarding pass.
At first, things looked bleak. The first dozen rows were packed. Then, over the intercom, a flight attendant broke the bad news.
“Folks, this is a completely full flight to Burbank,” the flight attendant said. “Chances are you’re not going to get the seat you want, but you will get a seat, and the sooner you take that seat, the sooner, we get this show on the road.”
Of course, where we were going we wouldn’t need roads, but I got the gist. My gamble to sit at the very back of the plane might not pay off. If it went bust, I might end up somewhere in the sweaty middle of this flying steal tube.
I leaned to my left, trying to get eyes on the back of the plane. But I couldn’t see past a pregnant woman struggling to lift her bag and place it in the overhead bin.
“Can I give you a hand?” I said.
“Thank you,” the pregnant woman said.
I took her bag and placed it into the overhead bin. She thanked me again, then took her seat. I turned to look down the aisle. The rear of the plane was still relatively empty! Fate, or maybe karma, was on my side.
Quickly, I made my way toward the back of the plane. I found room in the overhead bin for my bag, then grabbed the aisle seat in the very last row. I was, quite literally, sitting pretty, and for a moment, I was relieved.
Of course, you see some shit at the back of the plane, and this flight was no exception. The first sign of trouble was a man carrying a large McDonald’s bag. Mr. McLovin It took the aisle seat across from me, lowered the tray table, and proceeded to unpack a feast of twenty chicken McNuggets, assorted dipping sauces, two cheese burgers, one large order of fries, and an apple pie for dessert.
For a time, the sight of Mr. McLovin It feasting in the aisle seat was enough to keep other passengers away from his row. But eventually, the seats around us began to fill up, and an eagle-eyed woman spotted the last window seat in the row occupied by Mr. McLovin It.
“I’ll take that window seat,” she said.
With a mouth full of cheeseburger, Mr. McLovin It groaned. Then he got up from his seat and stepped out into the aisle, leaving his tray table down.
The woman was too polite (or too shy) to ask Mr. McLovin It to move the culinary obstacle. For a moment, I thought she might abandon the last window seat in favor of the middle seat next to me, but she persisted.
Contorting her body in order to squeeze past the lowered tray table, the woman made it to the window seat. But unfortunately, her purse knocked a chicken McNugget to the floor.
“Sorry,” she said.
Thankfully, Mr. McLovin It didn’t seem too upset. With nineteen chicken McNuggets left, and a full compliment of dipping sauces, he was still in good shape.
Sadly, I couldn’t say the same thing for a married couple two rows ahead of me. The good news for the married couple was that there was still room in the overhead bins for their rolling bags. The bad news was their rolling bags were too stuffed to fit.
“Push it,” the man yelled at his wife. “Push it!”
In the next row up, two people began to sing the lyrics from the Salt-N-Pepa classic.
Push it, push it real good!
But no matter how hard the woman pushed the bags, they just wouldn’t fit into the overhead bin. Pretty soon, a flight attendant arrived on the scene.
“You’re going to have to take some stuff out,” he said, “or we’ll have to check your bags.”
Now, as every traveler knows, checking your bags this late in the game is a one-way ticket to a lost luggage claim. And so, facing the prospect of losing everything, the couple checked their dignity. Putting their bags on the floor, they began to unpack right there in front of their fellow passengers.
Instead of working as a team, husband turned on wife, and wife turned on husband. According to him, she had brought too much “crap,” as usual. According to her, she had married a “real son of a bitch.”
The Real Son Of a Bitch grumbled as he removed hoodies and a pair of gargantuan sneakers from his rolling case. Mrs. Crap didn’t say a word as she removed a hair dryer, make-up kit, and a vibrator from her bag. Nearby, Salt-N-Pepa kept it topical by switching to another hip-hop classic: Let’s Talk About Sex. Meanwhile, Mr. McLovin It opened up a carton of bbq dipping sauce and began to work on his McNuggets.
“Folks, if you’re looking for a window or an aisle seat, you’re outta luck,” the flight attendant said over the intercom. “Time to grab that middle seat, and make some new friends.”
I looked up from my book to see a large man weighing his friend options. The man wore a Trump 2020 t-shirt. Stretched out over the man’s round belly, the shirt displayed an illustration of Smokey The Bear. Only this version of Smokey wore a red MAGA hat, and the text on the shirt read: only you can prevent socialism.
To his right, Smokey The MAGA Bear saw Mr. McLovin It and his immovable feast. To his left, appropriately enough, Smokey The MAGA Bear saw me. While I disagreed with his political and sartorial choices, I completely understood Smokey The MAGA Bear’s decision to take the middle seat next to me.
“Sorry partner,” said Smokey The MAGA Bear as he squeezed into the seat next to me. “Planes are too damn small these days, and I’m too damn big.”
Maybe the FAA could do something about the elbow room on planes, I thought, and make flying great again. But in the meantime, we’d have to make do with the space we had been given.
“No problem,” I said. “We can share the space.”
I didn’t bring up the fact that sharing sounded like socialism, and Smokey The MAGA Bear didn’t say anything about my choice of reading material—Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism by Amanda Montell. Instead, we sat there in silence, elbow-to-elbow, waiting for the final passenger to take their seat next to Mr. McLovin It, who had finished his McNuggets, and was now hurriedly jamming fistfuls of fries into his mouth.
Eventually, Mr. McLovin It finished his fries, returned his tray table to the locked position, and stuffed his trash into the seat pocket. Then, almost as if on cue, we pushed back from the gate. A few minutes after that, we took off, climbed to 30,000 feet, and set a course for Burbank, California.
Somewhere over Utah, Mr. McLovin It slipped into a hard-earned food coma and fell asleep.
The Real Son Of a Bitch and Mrs. Crap stopped bickering and soothed their marital troubles with adult beverages. Jack & Coke for him. A white wine for her.
I didn’t hear another peep from Salt-N-Pepa, but that wasn’t surprising. This was a domestic flight, and music budgets aren’t what they once were in the golden age of air travel.
Smokey The MAGA Bear drank his Miller Lite in silence. Then he nodded off and began to snore with such ferocity that I thought he might suck his mask right up his nose. But I ignored the noise to my right, while I read all about cults.
We touched down at Burbank airport right on time. Two minutes later, we were at the gate. As soon as the fasten seatbelts signs were turned off, I jumped up from my seat, grabbed my suitcase from the overhead bin, and stepped into the galley in the rear of the plane.
The flight attendant and I watched as the ground crew wheeled the stairs to the rear door.
“Clearly, you’ve done this before,” the flight attendant said. “You’re gonna be the first one off the plane.” Then he looked at my bag and added, “And from the looks of things, you’ll be halfway home while these people are still waiting at baggage claim.”
“If you know, you know,” I said.
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