Fifteen Minutes: Not My Friendly Skies

There's nothing quite as charming as the 32nd aisle of an MD-80. I've often wondered whether it stems from the
By C. MATTHEW Macinnis

There's nothing quite as charming as the 32nd aisle of an MD-80. I've often wondered whether it stems from the lack of a window, the intimate proximity to the engines or the savory aroma that wafts out the nearby lavatory, but as I descend into Logan after a fetid and sightless flight from San Francisco, I am reminded that its greatest charm is not any of these. No, the drops of water falling into my magazine remind me that its charm lies in the air conditioning that graciously drips all over passengers in the 32nd aisle.

And what can I do about it? Absolutely nothing. That I am seated by row according to social status is, to say the least, puzzling. It makes me wonder of how airlines stay afloat when they treat their passengers solely based on their pocketbooks. Knowing your social status, and acting accordingly, defines Confucianism--a train of thought that supposedly died long before this century. Except, it would seem, in the friendly skies.

Nothing broadcasts this reality more clearly than the curtain that hangs twenty aisles away from me. On the other side of that curtain is seated the privileged few; the mile-high club, as it were. Depending on your fluency in doublespeak, they may be First Class citizens of the airplane; they may be BusinessFirst(tm). Regardless, the curtain makes my economy seat seem somehow unchaste. For them, drinks before take-off, and service anytime, even when the fasten-seatbelt sign is illuminated by Der Fuhrer in the cockpit. For me, a sip of air conditioning refuse at the whim of the machine.

But why the curtain? Each of my flights leaves me to ponder this question. Is it that my stewardess may get confused as to which social class she's attending to this week? Perhaps it's to prevent the elite from seeing that there are others on their airplane. No, surely they're smarter than that. Clearly, I conclude, it is a Maoist declaration of my proper place in a society that exists only at 32,000 feet.

"Oh well," I say to myself, "At least I'll get my money's worth." I shift in my seat to face the stewardess with the beverage cart.

"What can I get for you, sir?" she asks with a smile.

"Why the hell are you so happy?" I reply. "You like being trapped in this hellhole day in and day out? How about you find me a bigger seat and fix this goddamn air conditioner?"

No, rewind.

"I'll have an iced tea, please."

"Oh, um," [she digs through her drawers] "we don't have any iced tea, actually."

I reply, "I bet they have it on the other side of that stupid curtain. How about you go get me my drink up there? Get me some champagne while you're at it."

No, rewind again.

"That's ok, I'll have an orange juice, please."

And this is the best part. The stewardess opens a can of orange juice and pours half of the can into a cup filled with ice. She hands it to me with a corporate smile.

I glare at the iceberg floating in my OJ. "Hey, uh, how about some orange juice with that ice?" I retort.

Whoops. Rewind again.

"Thanks," I smile, and she continues past the outhouse to the coach-class cuisine preparation area at the back of the plane.

Being trapped inside this flying penis leaves me with little choice but to swallow my juice and relax. (Unfortunately, being in the 32nd aisle gives me a non-reclining seat.) Before I get the chance, however, I am struck by an overwhelming urge to occupy the room at my back, and am forced to make the short, but frustrating voyage to the toilet.

Again, the class distinction is brought to the forefront as I make my way from the windowless window seat to the aisle. I look for the nearest vacant bathroom and find that for all 127 of us in la section bourgeoisie there are but two. Neither is vacant, and there is a line. I am determined, at this point, to explore the realm beyond the curtain, and decide to finally penetrate the most stolid symbol of oppression in the room. I placed my hands nonchalantly into my khaki pockets and sauntered casually toward the front of the plane. But as I made my way through sleeping bodies, screaming babies, and people too large to fit into their seats, I was foiled by the very thing that caused this trip in the first place--the beverage cart.

You see, in el-cheapo class, the aisle is wide enough only for the beverage cart. It effectively prevents you from getting from where you are to where you want to be. So I swallow another pill, and start toward the backside of the plane where the line for the powder room has shortened. As each person returns to their seat in turn, I am thrilled to have the opportunity to rub body parts as they squeeze by me in the aisle. And when my turn comes, I am more than ready to have my go at squeezing into the well-used facility.

I'm greeted with the dilapidated remains of a washroom that was, at one time, fairly modern, but has long since fallen into disarray. The "No Smoking" sign has yellowed--perhaps due to cigarette smoke--and the supply of wet naps dried up ten people ago. Luckily, I'm male, and don't have to come into contact with the seat I'm standing over, and I indulge myself in what has to be done. I am, in the process, distracted by the warning label next to the smoke detector. "Tampering with the smoke detector," it reads, "is strictly prohibited." I take a sigh of relief, and am thankful of the warning. My uncontrollable urge to vandalize would otherwise have gotten the best of me.

I step into the aisle once again and turn to face my seat, just steps away. Meal time, it would appear, has arrived at the head of the airplane. There are no stewardesses on this side of the curtain, yet the aroma of distinctly pristine food has wafted back to the 32nd aisle. Luckily, the curtain doesn't allow me to verify this suspicion, and adds another element of mystery to the world beyond its border. And despite its resounding message, nobody complains, and the airlines continue to keep us in our kennels because we couldn't afford to be on the other side. It's always stood as the sort of Berlin Wall of social distinction I've wanted to destroy. And I figure someday I'll gather the courage that Reagan did in '88, to stand up and proclaim what is right and just. "Mrs. Stewardess," I'll scream out into the galley, "Tear down that curtain!"

C. Matthew MacInnis '02, a foreign refugee living in Lowell House, prefers Quantas for his travel. When not writing endpapers, he rails against Palm Pilots and preaches the gospel of the Newton, which was years ahead of its time.