Under the nails


A lot of people hate air travel. They complain about being cramped in little chairs and about sitting next to unpleasant people who have bad breath and who fart. They fondly remember the days when airlines served terrible food that left you angry, your stomach full, and your psyche filled with self-loathing at having stooped to chewing on the miserable rubbery salted chicken parts. You knew the food was putrid but you were too weak to refuse it.

People complain about everything, but long before Louis CK talked about the marvels of sitting in a chair and flying in the air, I had made peace with the vagaries of planes and airports. It was simple. Would you rather cross the continent for five months in a covered wagon? Would you rather do it in a steam-powered train? Or a stagecoach? No? Then shut the fuck up. The worst thing that you can possibly encounter is no more than a mild inconvenience.

I was recently able to get in a flying chair and go to Houston, ride my bike with some pals, and take the flying chair back to Los Angeles, all in the space of five days.

On the return flight, a lady got on the plane who was more than a mild inconvenience, but the key thing is that she wasn’t my inconvenience. She was seated two rows back on the opposite aisle. She got on late, you know, that tense moment when the plane is almost completely full and all that’s left are three middle seats in the rear of the plane.

The people next to the open middle seats were clenching the seat rests and trying to look unfriendly or fartacious or ill, but the stewardess had said that it was a full flight so now it was down to roulette. Would she take it or keep moving?

“Is this seat taken?” the giant woman asked, and you could see that both guys wanted to say “No, but please don’t sit here, for dog’s sake keep moving,” but they made that fake smile, a grimace actually, as the end guy got up to let her in, but not before she took a massive rollaboard and smashed and mashed and crushed it into the small remaining space in the overhead bin. You could hear the Ming vases and the sand dollar collections already carefully stored in the bin disintegrating into dust as she gruntingly shoved the oversized suitcase into the clotted shelf.

The guy next to me, who was fairly slim and very conscientious about not taking too much armrest space, exchanged glances with me. “Sucks to be them,” we telepathed to one another.

The plane took off and the big lady fell asleep. She didn’t have a cozy little neck sleeper thingy because there was so much back fat on her neck and shoulders that her head had plenty of support to keep it from lolling. Unfortunately, she had sleep apnea. After fifteen minutes of huge snores, snores that reverberated throughout the cabin, snores as awful as that deathlike sucking sound of a flushing airline lavatory, snores that began somewhere down in her bowels and shook the airframe of the plane itself, she woke up. Sitting in a cabin with a sleep apnea gag-and-snore person is like watching a stranger take a dump. It defiles everyone.

She tried to stay awake but couldn’t, and the cycle repeated itself. I buried my head in my book, repeating the mantra: “This is better than a Conestoga wagon. This is better than a Conestoga wagon.”

I glanced at my neighbor, who was reading a book called “Negotiating with Giants.” I saw he was on Chapter 3: Filthy Rich Asians. Then I noticed he was cleaning out his fingernails with the exceedingly long middle fingernail on his other hand, which appeared to have been groomed for just this purpose. He collected a fair amount of grime, then sniffed it, then ate it. He thought I was not looking.

“Dude,” I said. “Did you just eat the smeg from underneath your fingernails?”

“What are you talking about?” He pretended to be offended. The first rule of airplane etiquette is to pretend that whatever disgusting thing is happening isn’t really happening. This is the only way people survive trans-Pacific flights with poopy babies, malodorous neighbors, and that awful backdraft smell of shit and chemicals that hits you every time someone opens the toilet door.

“You just scraped the muck out from under your nails and ate it. I saw you.”

“What if I did?”

“That’s nasty.”

“You know what’s nasty?”

“What?” I asked.

“That stewardess. She’s nasty.”

“What are you talking about?”

“She’s a sexual pervert. When I got on the plane she waited until I passed and then she pressed her butt up against mine. She sexually assaulted me.”

I moved as far away from him as I could. “You’re nuts.”

“I can prove it. Watch.”

He got up from his seat. The flight attendant was standing halfway up the aisle. As he passed her, he drew in his butt to make as much space as possible. Sure enough, she stuck out her rear and rubbed his bottom as he passed. He went to the lavatory and then returned with a triumphant grin. “See? She’s a pervert.”

“She is not. She was leaning over two seats to hand someone a coffee. You’re the whack job.” The sleep apnea lady began to gag and blow giant spit bubbles. Somewhere in the cabin a digestive system cried silently for help in the form of pungent methane.

I tried to focus on my book, but couldn’t shake this thought: “If only I were in a Conestoga wagon.”



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