For me, one of the best parts of air travel is the people watching. The regional variations in dress, speech patterns, and mannerisms are fascinating. I could sit in an airport all day long and not get bored.
I took a trip this past week. Overall, it was a good time, but we had a bit of a scare before departing the gate in SLC . . .
I’m minding my own business, strapped into my seat, nose deep in my cellphone screen, trying to piece together the right words for a tweet about a mind-blowing Jocko Podcast I’d just finished, when I hear a male voice.
“Ma’am, ma’am, are you okay?”
I’m in a window seat, so I look toward the aisle.
The woman at the end of my row is slumped over, completely unresponsive.
“Ma’am,” the flight attendant pokes the woman’s shoulder, “ma’ma, are you okay?” Poke, poke, shake. He walks away.
She’s still slumped over, in her mid-fifties, toothpick-thin. Her glossy white Samsung has slipped from her grip and is inching its way down her thigh, toward the floor.
The guy in the middle seat next to me nudges her. “Hey, you okay?” Nothing. He shakes her. No response.
My heart is racing.
Is she dead?
Two minutes ago, she’d been talking up a storm with someone a few rows down. She’d mentioned getting a Bloody Mary after take-off.
Now I’m staring at her for signs of life. I can’t tell if her chest is moving. Her head is rag-dolled to the side, mouth slightly open.
Her finger twitches, but that doesn’t mean anything. It could be a death rattle sort of thing.
Two flight attendants come back. It’s the same man and the cute Latina from the entrance. They loom on either side of the woman’s seat.
The man’s robotic calm is impressive. He pokes the woman and asks, “ma’am, are you okay?”
A passenger, another mid-fifties woman, comes forward from several rows back. She pushes past the male flight attendant and really shakes the woman. “Betsy, hey, wake up.”
The woman, Betsy, stirs. “Huh?”
“Ma’am.” It’s the male flight attendant again. “Are you okay, are you taking any medication?”
Betsy’s groggy as a bear in mid-winter. “I took a Valium.”
The male flight attendant’s voice is the same smooth tone. “Are you okay to travel? Will you be okay for a three-hour flight?”
Betsy’s barely with us. “Yeah, I’m good.”
The flight attendants stare at her for a moment, look at each other, then leave in opposite directions.
And just like that she’s out again. She slumps forward, folded in half at the waist. Her seat belt’s the only thing between her and the carpet.
She does this all flight long, coming-to every so often, then blacking out again. Maybe she’s some techie’s glitchy cyborg. Might be a simple wiring problem or a faulty battery pack; hopefully it wasn’t sourced from Samsung Galaxy Note 7s…
For half the flight, she’s leaned so far into the aisle that bathroom goers have to push her head out of the way to get by.
She wakes up and puts her tray down when the flight attendant is about to serve us our first round of drinks, then she’s out. She may have been conscious for eight seconds. Something isn’t right. I don’t know what it is, but it’s there.
At some point, she manages to order a drink.
The flight attendant pushes his cart away and the woman’s head lolls toward her tray table. Her forehead is half an inch from her plastic cup of diet coke.
“Hey,” I say to the guy next to me and point to the woman. “She’s going to hit her drink.”
He wakes her up and she sits back. It’s twelve seconds before she’s inches from her cup again.
Part of me is pissed. It secretly tells her she’s being an inconsiderate asshole. Why the hell should I waste my time worrying about her nosediving into her beverage?
A bigger part of me wonders why she’s in this state. What is her affliction, and how did she come to this point? Is she sick in the traditional sense of the word, or is she a junkie who’s so far gone she’s lost all self-respect and doesn’t give a shit about what she looks like or does in public?
It’s too easy to believe the latter. To call her an asshole in my head. It’s the weak way out, the path of least resistance.
So I go the other route and ratchet up the compassion. I hope she gets better. I don’t think anyone would choose to act the way she is in public.
Her steps are unsteady. She toddles up the aisle, pulling and pushing on the seats as she goes.
I silently wish her well and wonder if I, or anyone I love, has ever been where she is.