There was a woman on my flight this morning who was doing her level best to cough up both her lungs. Nonstop.
It was Thanksgiving morning. I, along with everyone else on the plane, was flying home to see family. And holidays are, for those of us traveling from a blue state to a red – or vice versa – fraught with its own special brand of terror. And none of us really wanted to add the flu or Tuberculosis to the fun factor.
The woman – a tiny, fashionable lady around 60 – clearly felt that covering her mouth would consume energy best conserved for things like lying to the gate agent. As she handed him her ticket, coughing directly into his face, she said, “Someone is SMOKING in here.”
Because, you know, that’s legal.
This was Southwest Airlines, so it was open seating on boarding. Several people around me and I all whispered together as we walked down the jetway.
“Sit way behind her.”
“Sit on the other side.”
“Why do I feel,” I said, “like we’re gonna have to divert to a hospital when her lung lining lands on the floor?”
Needless to say, as we boarded, everyone on the plane was clued in, and, since the flight was only 85 or 90% full, passengers were giving her a wide berth. No one sat in her row – an exit row with the coveted extra legroom. No one sat in the row in front of her, or across from her. We all crammed into the remaining rows like oarsmen on a slave ship.
One of the flight attendants was standing in the row in front of me during boarding, and she recognized me from another flight. As we chatted, I nodded in the direction of the emphysema victim – like I needed to – and said, “Do you guys have masks?”
She smiled. “I’ll take care of it.”
Once everyone was boarded, she brought a mask and politely ordered the woman to wear it if she wanted to remain on the flight. The woman complied.
And then, 15 minutes into the flight, I realized something: Typhoid Mary, who had been coughing to the point that everyone within 20 feet was busy breathing through cocktail napkins, was silent. An hour passed. No coughs. People began to move into the abandoned rows around her. Another hour passed. She laid across her luxurious exit row, thumbing through a magazine as though expecting a pedicurist to show up any second. Not a single cough – until we landed, when she began hurling up another lung and everyone moved out of her way once again. (Clearly, she had somewhere to be.)
And I realized the truth: she had faked this little performance to guarantee herself extra personal space.
I really should have been incensed at her manipulation. How f-ing selfish and greedy. And on a day that’s all about giving thanks and being – at least until the stores open at 6pm – a little kinder and gentler with one another.
But instead, I realized that I was impressed. Because this chick had really committed. And I wished I’d thought of it. Not that I’d ever do it. But this is what the airlines – by shoving more and more seats into planes – have reduced us to.
Maybe when I’m boarding my next Southwest flight, I’ll fake fake sneeze a few dozen times. I can keep one of those perfume atomizers in my pocket (note to self: replace Britney Spears Fantasy with water) and I’ll just covertly press the little air bulb as I sneeze, spraying mist across the rows around me.
It’ll be as close to flying private as I’ll probably ever get.