I have been dreading the first time I would be flying again. Travel used to be fun. Always a pain and complicated for no reason, but in the past I never had the fear that complete chaos would take over the plane the way it has because of the pandemic.
This past Sunday was my first post-lockdown pando flight and it was both entertaining and a nightmare.
With fingers and toes crossed, I boarded the small plane that would be taking me from San Francisco to Portland for a work trip. It would be the first time meeting my team in person, and wine-tasting was on the agenda.
I upgraded to premium seating, which on a small plane is not first class, but has extra leg room, free drinks and less worry of having to check my bag. I found my seat, 7B, and just as quickly as I sat down, a woman dressed in overalls, Converse shoes, bangles jangling from her wrists and rings on every finger spotted her seat next to mine.
She began to push her way through, and I offered to get up, and she replied, “Oh, no, it’s okay. As long as you don’t mind all this,” to which she shimmied herself—facing me—across my legs. We were getting comfortable with each other quickly here.
Now, let me back up a bit. There is a shuttle that goes from my neighborhood to the airport. It’s very convenient, only 3 stops, and replete with a bathroom and comfy reclining seats.
On that bus, was a woman from my stop. Let’s call her Karen. You’ll see why later. I don’t interact with her on the bus, but wouldn’t you know it? She’s on my flight, in the seat directly in front of me.
Karen spots me and immediately gushes at me, “You were on the bus, right? In Marin?” Yes, I say. “Oh my god, I love your hair! I saw it on the bus, I just love it!”
Great, Karen loves my purple hair. Short and perky, she reminds me of Molly Shannon doing a character on SNL. She wants to talk more, but her flight neighbor has arrived, and her attention turns from me–a pure blessing—and onto this other woman.
My neighbor, with whom I’ve already brushed knees with, is already prepping to talk to me as she buckles in. She adjusts her fanny pack, brushes stray gray hairs back into her messy bun, and zeros in on my earrings.
“Oh, I see you like jewelry!” Sure, I have earrings in, a ring on each hand, and a necklace on that she can’t see. “Let me show you. I have these earrings in my bag that are sort of like yours.”
She begins to root around her fanny pack and pulls out a gold earring.
“Isn’t this sexy? Don’t you love the design?”
It’s at this point that I know I’m in trouble. Hello, Human Resources? This woman is using the word sexy, and we just met. I quickly pull out my air pods to send a blatant message, but she is undeterred.
For the next fifteen minutes, she tells me about this jewelry company. She shows me all the rings on her fingers, the bangles, and her necklace. How it’s all made by Kenyan women and a percentage of the proceeds goes to them. She also says about her necklace, “Isn’t the clasp sexy?” This woman has a very intimate relationship with her accessories.
“Do you know your ring size? I went into this store and got all my fingers measured. You know you can do that, right?” Of course you did, one must do that to fill up every finger I suppose. Next, I learn about the silver bracelet her brother bought for her in India when she was twelve and still wears it every day. I am a tiny bit jealous of her tiny wrists that apparently have not changed in fifty years.
She is sporting an N95 mask with the vents—you know the ones that only protect yourself? This will be important info later—and pulls out her book, Choose to be happy: the pendulum of life.
It’s only 9 am, you see, and I can’t drink yet. If I wasn’t on my way to a work meeting, that bar cart would be mine. I learn that her daughter lives in San Francisco and works for a management company and gets free rent because of it: a two-bedroom corner apartment. Now, I’m actually jealous. It’s not enough to speak about her daughter, now she pulls out legit real photos—yes, actual pics not on a phone—and I think they are supposed to be modeling shots or something.
“You know, you’re going to Portland at the right time. It was over a hundred degrees every day last week.” Yes, I know, I say, it’s going to be much cooler this week.
“Well, you know why, don’t you? The meat industry. It takes six-hundred and sixty gallons of water to make a hamburger.”
Vegan hippie alert! Little did I know how much I didn’t know about the planet burning and how much she was going to educate me on it. I wanted to put my fingers in my ears and yell, “lalalalalalala” and zone her out.
WE HAVEN’T LEFT THE GATE YET. Twenty-minute maintenance delay. I pray to the maintenance gods to please hurry up.
At this point, you might be thinking, wow, you’re being awfully harsh to a woman who is just making conversation. We’ve all been in lockdown too long, and people are lonely. Nope, sometimes you just get a vibe.
“And, corn! I love corn, my favorite vegetable. But you just can’t grow it. It takes three thousand gallons of water for one bushel of corn. A hundred and twenty-seven to grow one pound. I know, because I tried growing it. I love corn, but it’s destroying our planet.”
Wow, I say, and politely nod. We are moving, finally. As we line up for take-off, she closes her eyes and makes the sign of the cross.
All is quiet for a bit as she delves into her happy book and I pull out my laptop to work on my stupid synopsis for more agents to reject—bitter, much? Beverage service begins and again, I’m sad that I can’t wash this anxiety down with a cheap, sour Chardonnay. When the flight attendant hands out the cookies, my seat mate immediately thrusts it back at her. Nothing is said about it, but I’m guessing sugar is evil in her world, therefore, no, we will not be having cookies over here. After she is given her box of water and black coffee, she claps like a child and says, “Yay!” and looks to me for feedback. I take a deep breath and eat my evil cookie and wash it down with a Diet Coke. I feel her judging eyes and do not care.
The flight attendants have instructed us to keep our masks on, and between sips and bites we may take it off. The instructions are repeated repeatedly.
I’m working on my second cookie when I see her straining her neck around behind and in front of us like an ostrich craning over a fence. I thought she had to pee. I have my laptop and drink and all that set up, so of course, terrible timing. But, I had to go as well, so I thought, okay, we can both just go now and get it over with. How I wish it had been that simple.
Suddenly, she leans into me and says, “There are at least four people around us not wearing their masks!”
OH, NO. NO, NO, NO. We’re really doing this? Right here? Right now? This is why I don’t want to fly.
Well, yeah, I say, we’re all eating and drinking, it’s okay.
“Not that one!” and she points to Karen in front of me. Now, Karen has been blabbing non-stop the entire flight. If the woman next to her didn’t want to talk, she really had no choice. I could hear her through my noise cancelling headphones at times. She was a very busy Karen. And apparently, not eating at that very moment and had her mask off.
“There are twenty-thousand people dying a day from the virus! This is how people get sick and how it spreads. People just care about themselves. I don’t want to be around when the apocalypse happens, I’ll tell you that!”
Yes, I say, the unvaccinated are dying for sure. She scoffs and goes on about the virus mutating and this is when it hits me. She’s an anti-vaxxer. I know we already have a Karen in this story, but let me introduce you to the other entitled Karen (for those of you who don’t know why someone is called Karen, consult the Google and come back to the story.) It takes great restraint not to remind her that her mask only protects herself and not others. Panic builds in me as she continues with her ostrich pivoting. Read your happy book, lady. You’re not choosing to be happy.
I head to the bathroom. I realize that we are quickly heading into that scenario that I see on the news just about every week. I have to stop this, now. I don’t have it in me to physically restrain fighting women at nine in the morning. I approach the young flight attendant. Her fake eyelashes are so long I don’t know how she can even blink properly.
I have a situation up there, a potential mask situation, I tell her. The woman next to me is freaking out because the woman in front of me is supposedly not eating and not wearing her mask.
“Here we go! Show me which seats,” she says, rolls her eyes, and pulls out the seating chart.
In between that, she compliments me on my Zia necklace, saying she’s been wanting to get a tattoo of that for years. Great, maybe we can talk about that after we cover the more important issue right now. And she also loves my purple hair.
I pee. Back to my seat and it appears Karen in front has her mask on. Relieved, I’m hoping we’re done with this. Not quite. While eyelash girl is speaking to front Karen, side Karen is texting furiously in very large text on her phone. She shoves her phone at the attendant to show her.
Apparently, Karen in front was told at the airport “three times” by “them” to put her mask on. She needs to be watched; she doesn’t want to wear her mask. <Large text here to enhance the experience.>
I can hear Front Karen complaining to her neighbor about how she can’t breathe with the masks. How kids need to be back in school, socializing. Side Karen is clucking her tongue and seething through her overbearing early-pando-days mask. She cannot believe the gull of other Karen. So, I have an anti-masker in front of me and an anti-vaxxer next to me. It’s now 10:30 am.
The pendulum of life is swinging back, and we are finally descending. Side Karen has calmed down.
“Are you from Portland?” No, work, I tell her. “In the city?” No, some place I can’t remember right now because I am completely traumatized that my first post-lockdown flight has been such a disaster.
What do you do for work? Gawd. Do I have to tell you? I know where this will lead. I sell dental implants.
“Oh! Those are expensive. What’s it- about seventy-five thousand dollars for those?” Oh, sure, that sounds about right. Why would I correct her? Or get into the details? Doesn’t matter, she’s going to keep talking. She has to get a deep cleaning. Her brother got swindled by a dentist. I going to assume she probably uses toothpaste that is fluoride free.
I figure out the name of the restaurant we’re going to for dinner and she says, “Oh, they have a great vegan pizza.” Naturally. She introduces herself to me, and no, her name is not Karen. It’s very unique, like her, but I’ll keep that to myself.
After what seems like days of flying, we finally de-plane outside the airport and have to walk back inside. Front Karen rips off her mask as soon as the air hits her face. She is finally free. And so am I. Walking to the baggage claim has never felt so good.
I may have to fly again in a few weeks, and I may have yet another story. I hope I don’t. By the way, I did go online, and the jewelry line is amazing. I already ordered the “sexy” necklace and earrings and two rings. What can I say? Side Karen was right—I do love jewelry.