When I got an upgrade into premiere class on a transatlantic flight, I didn’t realize I’d also be getting a glance into the nature of cattle cars and cancer, but there you go.
Now, on this economy airline, “premier” means wide and roomy seats and a chance to be whisked through lines.
It’s pretty swell.
Unless you’re Louie, an old guy in a wheel chair traveling with his wife. Then nothing seems swell at all. One glance at him, at the fragility in his big frame and at the avocado green and cement grey of his complexion, and you knew he was ill. As in, next to death’s door.
He had a certain gallantry. Once he arrived at the head of the line, he tipped the woman who’d pushed his wheel chair, thanked her profusely in French, saying she’d done a heroic job. His courtliness and his theatrical baritone suggested a past as an academic, but maybe one with a profitable sideline in consulting.
Because of a hangup, we had to wait on the causeway for an extra 20 minutes. The other premier passengers didn’t seem as if they had to wait around very often. You felt their impatience, the way they felt personally affronted, and you heard complaints. Murmured complaints in low voices, with an appeal to the good humor and understanding of anyone who might overhear their grumbling.
But we finally boarded. Louie’s wife sat next me in our La-Z-Boy-sized seats. Louie installed himself in the seat in front of her, diagonal to me.
Like the swine I am, I wallowed in the sudden sense of wealth and comfort.
Not long after takeoff, a fight broke out in front of me. Louie, polite old Louie, was bellowing at the steward. His seat didn’t recline. He was being ripped off. So Louie aimed his mobile phone at the steward to photograph the steward, who put his hand over its lens.
“You are not taking my picture,” the steward said.
As he kept yelling, Louie continued trying to get a clear photo of him. The steward, politely, but with his eyes blazing, continued to push back on the phone with his palm.
“Sir, you must stop,” he said.
Louie’s wife, who’d been pleading with him to take it easy all along, told him to stop, too.
Louie didn’t stop.
Louie started to wrestle himself out of the seat to stand up.
“If you continue,” the steward said, “we will turn the plane around and you will have to leave.”
Now, all during the struggle, the other passengers were reacting. First, heads craned around, trying to figure out what the fuss was about. When the shouting started, a lot of the ladies gasped or made little cries of fear: oh, oh, ohs. Others inhaled, sharply. Even in the middle of all the excitement, it seemed oddly theatrical, even artificial. Badly directed, I’d say.
Shows of real anger terrify a lot of people. Not me, but that’s likely an accident of temperament and background. I’m used to displays of fury. But nice people — the sort who wear Patagonia down sweaters and Rolexes, above pants woven from high-tech fibers — seem less accustomed to it.
So, as an audience to Louie’s rage, you felt the first wave of shared bewilderment. Then a second wave of intense terror.
But when the steward threatened to re-route and land the plane, everyone turned against Louie. Stand in line again? Wait for another two hours—maybe four!—to get another take off time? After All We’ve Been Through Already?
On my right, a guy with white hair and unlined skin looked so infuriated that I wondered if he was going to leap out of his chair and hit Louie.
Louie’s wife tried again: “Take my seat, Louie, it reclines.”
“I’m not taking your seat. I want my seat. I want this seat.”
Two other stewards, both women, arrived to try to defuse the situation. Louie staggered up toward the front of the aircraft, but they blocked his way, then corralled him by the bathroom up front.
HIs wife tried to explain to everyone. She said he was dying of cancer. Some people get depressed, she said, but for Louie, it comes out in anger. She’d clearly had to explain this before. Often.
Word got around. Then Louie stomped back to his seat, still angry, but the crazy, high-octane rage had left him. It looked as if the plane would continue on.
The same white-haired man that had been ready to kill Louie offered his and his wife’s seat to the couple. Louie’s wife thanked him, but no, Louie didn’t want to move.
A few minutes later, a man in a uniform appeared, eyes twinkling, radiating charm, an Ed Harris lookalike. He knelt down by Louie’s seat to hash out the final details. Whatever he said or offered, it worked.
The rest of us settled into reading books, watching movies, or playing games. Tedium, an underrated blessing, set in. Louie’s wife read her Kindle.
I thought about how cancer doesn’t just hit the patient alone. I thought about all the other scenes his wife must have witnessed, explained, tried to justify as Louie’s spittle flew. Or about shadowy late nights at home, Louie raging about … sheets. The way she fluffs his pillow. The way we’re designed to run out of time and die, some of us slowly and painfully. About getting the wrong DNA. Who knows?
And about how quickly a group of people can turn against you. With wrath that’s just barely short of violence.
And how they can flip to kindness as well. Especially when it’s just a matter of changing seats in premiere class.