Airplane smell. It hits you before you make it past the phony smiles of the flight attendants stationed at the door, the ones who don’t trust you to locate your seat without their guidance. Symmetrically, your journey through the plane begins and ends in cramped space. Between the crowd of boarding passengers, pilot, and attendants stationed at the entrance of the aircraft, and your own tight little seat at the rear, there is a brief interval of spaciousness: first class. It’s the aisles between the rows that really strike you; you could do a cartwheel in that amount of space. Inevitably, there will be a small child sitting in one of these wide leather armchairs, his small legs dangling, unable to take full advantage of the bed-like reclining ability. The degree of bitterness this unworthy occupant causes you directly correlates to the length of the flight.
That smell again, but this time with a renewed vigor. It’s because of the vast number of cloth seats packed in back here. The faded fabric is in colors that Crayola doesn’t even believe in, like ’seen-better-days blue’ and ‘this-is-what-the-paper-bags-are-for yellow’. The worn, tired material makes the smell stronger; it holds it in, embraces it, so that the odor of staleness, of recycled breath, is everywhere. The headrest is covered with a thin film of what looks to be a softer version of the bib the dental hygienist makes you wear. How often do those get changed? Whose head was resting on it before? How many people get lice from airplanes?
These questions swim through your head as you scan the overhead bins for your seat number. You enter your row as quickly as possible, clumsily squeezing past any passengers that might be stationed in your path. If the row is empty, then the next several minutes will be spent eying the people flowing down the aisle, trying to tell by their darting glances where they plan to deposit themselves. You conjure your mental powers to will certain people to move past- the mother with the infant, the large, sweaty man – but really, you have no control.
With the sliding in of the buckle, a mandatory submissiveness sets in, as if exuded from the air vents. No longer do questions run through your mind. You actually rest your head on that flimsy paper, in resignation. The autonomy, the thought, the planning, the strategy, all of which got you to this seat, through this airport, with all the appropriate items packed and stowed safely away, are all useless.
Looking around, you see the mindlessness settling in, like mist, on everyone. Businessmen stare blankly ahead. Intellectuals take out their newly acquired trashy bestsellers. Middle-aged women read Cosmo, shamelessly. The drop in intelligence is tangible as people relinquish all decision-making power. The flight attendants smirk with heightened authority as they determine your feeding, drinking, bathroom breaks, lighting, tray table and seat back position, and use of electronic devices. They brim with self-worth at the thrill of enforcing rules.
The intoxication of the air begins to fade as soon as the plane lands. The attendants come down from their power trips, already plastering on the phony smiles again for the deplaning. The fidgeting, that kind that happens when a professor continues to lecture after his class time is up, becomes ubiquitous among the passengers. But it’s not until the final moment of taxiing that the spell is finally broken, when the passengers again spring to life, as if awakened from hypnosis, at the ding of the seatbelt sign going dim.