No Commode Hero Needed -or- How Not to Make Friends at 30,000 Feet

December 23, 2020

When you can’t sit for more than a few minutes at a time and you are cruising at 30,000 feet somewhere between Iceland and Greenland, heading for San Francisco, your near-term future is not real rosy. People get tired of your narrow-aisle strolls. You become bored with the cool onboard gadgets within your first five or six laps around the coach section. And the flight attendants who initially feigned patience and sympathy start to snarl.

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Sciatica sucks just about any time, but particularly on transatlantic flights that are filled to the brim. People don’t take it kindly when you try to lie down under your seat, with your small carry-on placed in your chair and your head on their feet. I found this to be especially true if they have just met you.  So, you stroll around again, because the unbearable white-hot pains in your butt and down your leg demand it.

Fellow passengers tend to notice when you keep walking around in a plane. Notoriety is inevitable when you do dozens of counterclockwise laps wearing loose-fitting red hot chili pepper print chef pants and a Norwegian flag fleece. Never known as a fashion maven—and needing to be extra comfortable for the long flight home to have spinal surgery—what other choice did I have? Maybe it would have been better if I had worn Norwegian flag sweatpants and a tropical fruit print hoodie. Maybe I shouldn’t have bumped so many people who were asleep or desperate to sleep. I probably should have smuggled a bottle of akevitt on board and passed out after drinking every drop of that gut-burning Scandinavian whiskey. But I didn’t, to the dismay of my annoyed cabin mates. If I hadn’t been me on this flight, I would have found me obnoxious.  Come to think of it, I was me on this flight and I found myself obnoxious.

In order not to be a disheveled disrupter for the entire flight, I spent hours in the back of the jumbo jet walking in place in the small hall lined by five bathrooms. I lost count of how many times I said, “I’m just standing,” as I politely pointed to the vacant bathroom in front of me. At times there would be lines of people and at times there were none. Sometimes people took a long time in a stall and sometimes people were very quick. “How did they drop their pants in that little bit of time?” was one recurring thought I had.

Another was, “Why doesn’t anyone use bathroom number three?” It seemed always locked, even when there was no line. I would walk around the plane and come back to it “not available,” time and again. I refused to believe that it was just a coincidence that the little red line through the LED person above the door was lit every time I stood next to that head. The latch or signal had to be broken. Knowing just how much the good people on board would appreciate a full complement of bathrooms available to them—and to make up for being a nuisance—I decided to do something about it.

Even in my diminished physical state, I was still tall and heavy. My hearty hand smack against the accordion hinge in the middle of the door didn’t break it free. I knew that a solid shoulder dropped into it would. I waited until no one was around and lowered the boom. The door folded in—literally. It folded in between a woman’s legs as she sat with pants around her ankles.  “Oh, how rude,” she screamed. I didn’t see her face and I am not sure she saw mine as she slammed the door shut.

I headed back to my seat. I sat for as long as I could. But pain overtook the fear of inevitable embarrassment and I went for another lap. I had no idea which of the dozens of women who stared at me was the one I had intruded on. I thought that maybe she wouldn’t recognize me—the one who did that dumb dirty deed—because maybe she had not seen my face. Then, I remembered: when you are standing in front of someone sitting on a toilet, chili pepper pants are right at their eye level. Since this was not a charter flight for Mexican food cooks returning from Scandinavia, I had no cover.

To this day, I have no idea who the woman was who suffered from my misplaced effort to be the “American Airlines Commode Hero.” Sometimes I wonder, as I am eating at IHOP, being seen by a health care specialist, or just returning a library book, if I am recognized from that fateful flight. If you happen to be that woman and are reading this now, I apologize. I have learned from my mistake.

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