by Jennifer Ryan
Every once in a while, I catch the movie Titanic on some random cable television station like TBS. I’ve seen it a dozen times or more, and viewing the movie complete with commercial interruptions is a serious undertaking. I don’t know what possesses me to watch it. Maybe I’m feeling a bit nostalgic, and I just can’t help myself. I saw the movie during its original release. I left the theater with my shirt soaked in my own tears. I thought it was the most romantic movie I had ever seen. Now, I find myself laughing through parts of it. Hang on. I’m not a monster. I don’t take delight in the misery of others…most of the time. The movie is pretty heart wrenching but the hand on the steamy window, the Celine Dion song, “I’m never letting go.” You have to admit that parts of the movie are carved from cream cheese. During one scene, the crew is lowering the last of the lifeboats to the water. Billy Zane’s character grabs a small child whom he’s never seen in his life and runs to one of the boats. A crewmember takes the child from his arms, and Billy Zane tries to climb into the boat behind the child. “Sorry sir,” the crewmember says, “Women and children first.” Billy Zane responds, “Please, I’m all that he has in the world.” The scene is meant to illustrate what an egotistical asshole Billy Zane’s character is, but I think it dates the movie to the early twentieth century in which it’s set. Imagine Billy Zane’s character alive today, and he’d simply be your average passenger on a commercial airline. If you want to witness the downfall of civilized society, book a flight.
I didn’t always have such negative views on flying. I actually remember my first flight rather fondly. My sister and I were flying to visit our dad in Oklahoma. Our mom took us shopping and bought us each a new outfit to wear on the plane. She even baked a batch of cookies to take with us. After we boarded, we shared cookies with the other passengers. A kind, elderly man sat next to us and chatted with us the entire flight. Overall, the experience was a sweet adventure. Of course, if our first flight occurred today, no one would take the cookies because they’d assume the cookies had been poisoned. The elderly man would redirect us to an unmarked van in a parking lot and sell us into a sex slavery ring. Other travelers might think, “Ghee, I wonder what that man is going to do with those two young girls. Something here isn’t right.” However, no one would intervene because no one at an airport cares about anyone else. Our parents would plead for our safe return on an episode of Dateline. Meanwhile, my sister and I would be turning tricks in a foreign country to financially support our heroine addiction. Don’t get inside my head, people. It’s a dark place.
The changing attitudes in airline travel didn’t happen overnight. Long security lines, incessant delays, cancellations for no discernible reason, and poor customer service have shifted the mantra “women and children first” to “every man for himself.” People are herded through a TSA checkpoint like cattle through a stockade. A group of twenty people will suddenly shift into another line to avoid a pitiful mother, who is struggling to get her diaper bag through an X-ray machine. Red alert. Red alert. She has a child. She has a child. Step away. Step away. Save yourself. Save yourself. The twenty aforementioned people now stand behind a businessman, whom they have deemed the “safer and more convenient” option. Unfortunately, the businessman has decided his carryon, which clearly violates the dimensional requirements for carryon luggage, has to pass through security because he refuses to check a bag. He can’t wait at baggage claim later like everyone else. He’s a unique snowflake. Somehow, a TSA employee gets his luggage through the X-ray machine with a shoehorn. This same man will delay another twenty people on the plane, as he tries to stuff his luggage in an overhead compartment.
The scene that I just described is commonplace and just one of many that I’ve witnessed during the course of airline travel. Words like “courtesy” and “etiquette” no longer exist in the same sentence as “airport.” When I was pregnant, I remember flying home from a tradeshow. I was tired. My legs were swollen. My stomach felt like an overripe watermelon. I sat in the middle seat next to a sweet, elderly woman. She and I exchanged pleasantries during the flight. The plane landed. The seatbelt light went dark, and chaos ensued. The man sitting to my right bolted from his chair. As he grappled with his carryon, I was treated to a bird’s eye view of his crotch. He nearly hit me in the head with his luggage. Then, he turned to face the exit, and his ass was in my face for several minutes. All across the plane, people were pushing and shoving each other. The elderly woman touched my arm and said, “I’m not in a hurry. Let’s just wait here.” We were like two time travelers who had somehow managed to land in the middle of a Mayan ritualistic sacrifice. No, you folks go ahead. We’re not supposed to interact. We’re just here to observe and document.
I’ve only flown with my son once, and once was enough. If you’ve never flown with a child, don’t start now. Don’t start ever. You will be embarking on the voyage of the damned. I booked a flight to Tennessee to visit my mother. My son was eighteen months old, so I had to bring a stroller. I stood in line at the TSA security checkpoint, and people avoided me like the plague. As I wrestled the stroller and a diaper bag that weighed fifty pounds onto the security conveyor belt, I could hear an ocean of groans and sighs. The people behind me could have offered to help, but no. My back was already killing me. I pushed the stroller and my child across the airport to the gate, which is where the real fun began.
Once upon a time, airlines allowed passengers with children to board the flight first. Unfortunately, this is no longer the case. Now, the airlines board their “preferred members,” the people whom the airlines consider their “real” customers. For the record, I was not a “real” customer. Their real customer is Mr. Johnson, who flies ten times a year in business class on the company dime. The five hundred dollars that I spent from my own pocket is chump change. Sure, I gave them money, but I only fly once or twice a year. Therefore, I’m not really a customer. I’m an asshole. I’m also a parent. Oh, you have a kid? Well, that’s your poor decision. Get to the back of the line…asshole.
I was at the gate, waiting patiently for my boarding group. I folded my stroller and sat on the floor. My son was sitting in my lap. My belongings were stacked in a pile next to me. Finally, the woman at the gate called my boarding group. A wave of people rushed the gate like a herd of wildebeests during their annual migration. They hurried past me because they didn’t want to get caught behind me in line. Oh my God!!! Sweet Jesus!! Look!! She’s got a kid!! Go! Go! GO! Let me paint you this picture. I had my kid balanced precariously on my hip. The diaper bag was flung over my right shoulder. The curved handle of the stroller was hanging off my left arm. I looked like a pack animal, like one of those South American alpacas with a bundle of blankets and sticks strapped to its back. I was holding the paper ticket in my left hand, which was shaking from the weight I’d been carrying. I approached the gate. I set my legs in a wide stance to support this ridiculous load of diapers and child and stroller and five thousand other things. I extended my ticket two inches toward the gate attendant because that’s all I could manage. She looks at me and says, I shit you not, “Oh, you need to run your ticket through the scanner.” She then points to a laser contraption to my immediate left. Oh. Ok. Sure. I’ll just do your job for you. No problem.
In summation, the friendly skies are not so friendly anymore. Traveling through an airport has become a living excerpt of Lord of the Flies. Only one rule exists and it’s this: Kill or be killed. And, that’s why I drive.