It was our final leg, and we were finally sitting on the plane. Chicago to Minneapolis. OK. We can do this. The last time we had gotten decent sleep—”decent” being defined as eight hours in a horizontal position with our heads on a pillow—was Monday night. In the time zone of our departure, it was Thursday morning.
I had watched the man and his family at the gate in Chicago. He was short with jet black hair and a black mustache. I was guessing he looked older than he really was. After crossing 12 time zones, I was finally operating once more in my native language. He and his family weren’t. His wife was petite and gave an impression of possessing that rare quality of meek strength. I was guessing she looked younger than she really was. He, the man of the family, had to lead with confidence, whether he knew what he was doing or not. His culture no doubt demanded that of him. From where I was standing, it looked like he was doing the best he could to resolve some problem with the airline workers manning the gate desk while his two beautiful daughters, perhaps seven and nine, quietly stood next to their mother.
We finally got on board, and like the cattle we were, we were herded to our seats. The family wasn’t seated together. I think the wife and daughters were somewhere behind me. The man was a few rows ahead of me. He had been called to board later in the boarding process and was struggling to find an overhead compartment into which he could stuff his carry on bag. He finally succeeded and took his seat.
At some point, a flight attendant walked down the aisle asking if two people traveling together would be willing to switch seats with a family who hadn’t been able to sit together. The flight attendant stopped at the row where the man was sitting and repeated her question. I didn’t follow the exchange closely, but she pointed several rows on up, and the man raised his hand.
“No, I need two people traveling together,” she said.
The man stood up.
She put her two index fingers together and said, “Two people together.”
I didn’t see how the whole thing shook out—did I mention the last time I’d slept in a bed had been on Monday?—but the next time I looked up, the man had switched seats. Now he was in the middle seat in an exit row. I doubt he ever understood exactly why he was now in a different seat.
Soon another flight attendant came down the aisle and stopped at the exit row. She was holding a safety card and asking for a verbal “yes” from each person sitting in the exit rows to affirm that they were willing and able to assist in the event of an emergency landing. She made eye contact with each person and stopped when her eyes met the man’s. I couldn’t hear from where I was sitting, but apparently, she wasn’t getting her verbal “yes.” The flight attendant, herself a minority, repeated her question: “Are you willing and able to help in the event of an emergency landing?” There was no answer.
She went on to the rest of the people in the exit row. I heard another woman say simply, “Español.”
“I think we’re going to have to change two seats,” the flight attendant said, signaling to a colleague behind her.
The next time I looked up, the man with the mustache had been moved yet again. Again, I doubt strongly he had any idea why.
I’m speculating that the guy who had taken his place must have complained to the flight attendant about the fact that the seats in the exit row didn’t recline because the flight attendant, with no small amount of distain, scoffed and said, “Sir, it’s only a 57 minute flight.”
Something as big as a seating fiasco the size of this one all on a small plane didn’t go unnoticed. Cue the hecklers.
“I wanna change my seat,” some hot head called out from behind me. “I wanna sit up front! Come on already. We’re already 10 minutes late, and people are wanting to change their seat? We should have been in the air 10 minutes ago.”
I couldn’t believe my ears. It sounded like I had been transported back to elementary school recess, a.k.a., future heckler training ground. I was embarrassed to share the hot head’s skin tone, his gender, his education level, his native language, and his socio-economic class. No doubt to the man with the mustache, the heckler and I were cut from the same cloth. By all appearances, such a conclusion would have been justified. But oh to God that such a thing never be!
How I wish I could have communicated to the man with the mustache that I understood how difficult it is to operate in a foreign language, how exhausting it is to traverse the world with all your possessions having to fit within airline weight requirements, how embarrassing it is to not understand, how shaming it is to be shuffled around like a dumb animal while the hecklers look on and heckle in a foreign tongue, their intonation needing no interpreter. But the great linguistic gulf that separated me and the man with the mustache was too great. Babel continued to work its effects.
So I sat in silence and anger and disbelief, and before the plane had even taken off, I was asleep. I dreamed I was back in a place in which I didn’t face a single trial the man with the mustache had to face. Oh, wait. That wasn’t a dream.
I saw the man and his family at the baggage claim carousel. Instead of collecting name brands suitcases like most of us did, he collected five or six cardboard boxes wrapped in clear packing tape. May the rest of his stay in this country, whether long or short, be filled with fewer hecklers and more people who embody the advice Atticus from To Kill a Mockingbird gave to give daughter Scout: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view—until you climb into his skin and walk around in it” (39). And may I be found to be a person who does exactly that myself.