Thursday, August 12, 2010

Flying the Friendly Skies (With John Updike)

As someone who's flown more than 1,000 times, I feel sympathy for the Jet Blue flight attendant who went a little crazy the other day after a confrontation with a passenger. I'm not taking sides here, and Steven Slater may be totally in the wrong--or not. Whatever the case, his exit from the plane via the emergency slide--with a can of beer in one hand--was nothing short of inspired (yes, I realize the potential danger in such a stunt, but no one was hurt--and what a way to go).
I flew for the first time when I was five, in 1956 (New York/Chicago). Everyone was well-dressed, a holdover from the elegant days of the great ocean liners like the Queen Mary. I wore a tie and jacket--a stewardess (as they were called back then) pinned a set of wings to my lapel after she took me into the cockpit (this is true) to meet the flight crew. It was a thrill.
But over the years, flying turned into a drag: people dressed like they just got out of bed, and all were packed into too many small seats, eating dreadful food, some acting boorishly. I understood why flight attendants occasionally lost their cool. Who wouldn't?
The writer who best described contemporary air travel was John Updike, himself a frequent flyer. In his 2001 collection of poems, "Americana," Updike touched a truth, at least with me.
Hoping the good folks at Knopf will grant me fair use (in the unlikelihood they'd ever come across this blog), here's Updike's very funny--and very accurate--poem:

"The Overhead Rack"
Worst of all, and most hated by me
as I sit docilely crammed into my seat,
crammed and strapped like a psychotic in restraints,
are these bland-faced complacent graduates
of business school, trained to give each other
and the rest of the poor world the business,
who attempt to stuff their not one but two folding bags
big enough to hold an army of business suits
into the overhead rack, already crammed
with traveling crap like a constipated ox’s
intestine. The blond doors cannot lower,
the hats and bags of earlier arrivals
are crushed. Why don’t the smug smooth bastards check
their preening polyester wardrobes and
proliferating printouts, sheaf on sheaf,
at the ticket counter, or, better yet,
stay home and attend to their neglected wives
and morose, TV-mesmerized offspring
instead of crowding their slick and swollen bags
and egos onto my airplane, my tube in space, my
clean shot home? Like slats of a chicken coop
overrunning with dung are the overhead racks.
If we crash, thus overloaded, the world
will yield up a grateful sigh at the headlines:
one less batch of entrepreneurs to dread.
Oh, kill, kill, kill, I think, watching the filth
strap itself in, exhaling export beer
and nasal exchanges of professional dirt,
these fat corpuscles in the nation’s bloodstream:
oh, would I were a flying macrophage
to eat them all, their bags and all, and excrete
the vaporizing lava into space!


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