At roughly 7:15am, a quarter-mile-long line snaked out from security at La Guardia’s Gate D, turned a corner and continued on almost to the check-in counters, where we joined it. Half an hour later I could see the other side and began feeling the taste of my first coffee in the same way that, at the other end of a day, one might palpably feel the near-future of sleep as she sits on the bed and removes her shoes.
Then, in the dull florescence of the airport morning, my shoes were already off, already in a plastic box, waiting in their own line for a security check.
“Are you all together?” a woman asked me out of nowhere, gesturing to the one person ahead of me, who was currently pushing the last of her items through to the x-ray machine before walking through the metal detector.
“Nope,” I answered, perplexed.
“Great,” she said, and began loading her own luggage and wayward clothing onto the conveyor belt in front of me. It was only then that I noticed her flight attendant’s uniform. I stood still and watched her, drifting off into a cranky consideration of the ways in which the TSA could more politely get airline staff through to their jobs. Also, a consideration of how much less annoyed I’d find this particular scenario if the flight attendant had said sorry or thanks so much or in any other way acknowledged how she was pulling me up just short of the land where coffee was available to waiting passengers.
Just then, three more flight attendants appeared, also seemingly out of nowhere, yapping hellos to the original one and turning the mere obstacle she’d created in front of me into a full-blown blockade.
“Really?” I said, loud enough for them to hear, as they erupted into a spin cycle of scarves and shoes and hats and jewelry. It was like a cat had just caught a bird up there (feathers flying, fur trampling, etc).
“Yes, really,” the male one retorted. “Some of us have to get to work.” Spoken in a tone that could easily have been accompanied by an ostentatious finger snap somewhere above the head.
Recognizing that my situation could not be improved by a retort of my own, no matter how sarcastically delivered, I settled for an “Oh my god” and an eye-roll, which prompted a reactionary eye-roll from him, and then a few minutes later the whole thing was over and I was drinking a coffee at the gate, calmer now and hoping mightily that those were not the flight attendants servicing my flight.
I remembered my rage two days later on the return flight to New York City when, as “Group 2” boarded the plane, a young family a few spots ahead of us in line was stopped and ordered to test its carry-on luggage in the—as American Airlines calls it on its website—bag sizer. When a suitcase wouldn’t quite fit, the gate agent told them they’d have to check it. After a round of protests, the young wife erupted, “I don’t know why you’re so angry … or why you have it out for us … or why you’re being so unreasonable.”
“I’m not angry,” said the gate agent, obviously aware of the scene being made and desirous to have it ebb. She turned away from the family to scan more boarding passes.
I filed past the young family as they checked their baggage. On the walk to the plane, the young wife fell into line behind me, already on the phone to customer service to register an official complaint against the gate agent, who according to her subsequent conversation had been “completely unprofessional.”
That young family happened to be sitting across the aisle from us on the plane, and by the time takeoff was upon us, had resumed their role in life as people of good judgment and compassion, not to mention secure privilege. (The young father carried a tote emblazoned with the logo of Black Rock, the powerhouse asset management firm.)
As the crazy in them calmed, it rose in another. The plane achieved cruising altitude and the flight crew came down the aisle with the drink cart. When it stopped next to me, the flight attendant in front asked, “What you would like?”
“Coffee,” I said. He stretched his neck toward me and raised his eyebrows to form that expression that inquires what was that? “Coffee,” I said again.
“I don’t have any idea how you take your coffee,” he said, again with the tone that a snap above the head could have accompanied. Apparently that expression from a moment before can also inquire cream and sugar?
“Oh. Uh, cream,” I said, with ‘tude.
“Sugar?” he asked, with ‘tude.
“Nope,” I answered, with ‘tude.
“Do you want some orange juice with your coffee?” he asked then, as if I’d have thought of it myself if only I were more of a cognoscenti, like him.
It was the orange juice question that provided a flashing glimpse into this flight attendant’s stumbling state of mind, and by extension, the states of mind of the young family and the state of mind of my own self as I struggled with the anger of impotence, the impatience of disregard, the need to lash out that inevitably trails us on our travels as we fly through the circles of hell to prove that we love our families.
A version of this essay originally appeared in A Veblenesque Gorge.