I’m finally on my plane. It’s a small one. 20 rows, 80 seats, close together, tight. Sardine tight. I’m short, 5.8 with 30-inch legs and still my knees are pushing into the magazine pocket of the seat in front of me. When the man who has that seat gets on and settles in, he immediately says to the man next to him “I know I’m getting heavier, but not this heavy. I need more room.” It’s a programmed response, an ice breaker, plane rhetoric, polite conversation with a stranger he has to rub elbows with for the next 60 minutes.
Planes never seemed very spacious to me. These days, magazine and newspaper articles, segments on TV news, stand-up comedians, everyone is telling us how uncomfortable we are on airplanes. How they are too crowded even before someone reclines his seat into the poor schmuck’s lap behind him. We have a lot of things to complain about in the nebbish world of flying—parking lots are crowded and too expensive, security lines are long and move too slowly; we have to empty our pockets, take off shoes and belt, find our shampoo, unpack the computer, get blown by air and/or patted down. We can’t make jokes, and this level of hassle is faced by traditional American travelers; if one looks Arab or some other suspect category, everything gets worse.
When I take off my shoes and put my 65 cents in the bucket with my cell phone, and then TSA says “ your belt too,” I want to ask as Arlo did of Officer Opie, do you think I’m going to strangle the pilot with my belt and hijack the plane to Cuba? Why can’t the scanning systems tell that my loafers don’t have a bomb in them or that the buffalo and Saint Christopher medals on the silver chain around my neck won’t hurt anyone? TSA guys get really pissed when they try to figure out the little black boxes in my carry-on bag. Lee Oscar harmonicas apparently come in TSA proof containers. If the little three-inch metal things inside the black boxes were bombs, we are all about to die. The clock is ticking. His security manhood is on the line and when I mockingly offer to show him how to open the case, he gets a little unprofessional. Finally, he figures it out and sees the shining silver harp inside. He looks at the other five cases. Why so many he asks? Need a lot of different keys I tell him, as if everyone knows that. He doesn’t open the other five (trusting me, I guess, that they are not bombs.)
All of this preliminary shit primes us to complain once we are finally on the plane and guards can’t snatch us out of line, pat us down, make us go through strip searches or cavity searches to make sure the really evil harmonica is not tucked in my ass. But all in all, I’ve been in tighter spots than these seats—my old VW’s back seat, my friend’s MG Midget, bumper cars at Kennywood. A kayak.
We complain about conditions on the plane because we are supposed to complain and maybe, too, we are spoiled now. We expect comfort, we are so privileged that any delay, any shortcoming seems an assault on our privileged lives. Even if we live in a tin can mobile home in our real life, we complain that air travel is uncomfortable. We complain about buses and toilets in third world countries, complain that a letter takes four days to get from Pittsburgh to San Francisco.
When the beautiful woman next to me, reading a book in a language that I can’t identify, wiggles in her oh so close seat, she brushes my hip with her knee. I don’t feel like complaining. Sometimes when she turns a page and I look at the foreign words, her arm touches my side. I don’t think that it’s erotic to be touched by this beautiful stranger. I don’t fantasize that she wants me, that she will let me know after we are cruising at a safe altitude that we should meet in the restroom. I probably wouldn’t understand her if she said “meet me in the restroom” in her language and I don’t expect any woman on a plane to want to meet me in the restroom.
I think, just for a moment, “god (hers or mine?) these seats are really jammed together, but I am not complaining. Maybe if it was the fat stinky crazy guy who was jammed in next to me a couple of trips ago, I’d be more upset.
For some reason I wonder WWJD? Would he suffer in silence as he was sometimes known to do, or would he, at 25,000 feet above the earth, activate his God self and make some adjustments? He might showboat and make his leg space a little larger, turn just his seat into a first-class accommodation. When the stewardess brings him his one small bag of peanuts, he might turn in it into loaves and fishes—sushi grade tuna–and if he’s feeling generous, send wine around to all of his cramped companions.
If I were to see this, I’d become a believer. How could I not? I would ask for a disciple application, maybe he could send an app to my cell phone and relax the airline’s out of date policy on using phones while in the air. Jesus would not turn off his phone because he would know that the plane was not going to crash.
In fact, Jesus probably wouldn’t complain too much about any of this traveling stuff and he certainly wouldn’t go ballistic on his fellow passengers. He wouldn’t toss his wine on the person in front of him who reclined his seat smack into Jesus’ loving lap. No, he’d say something like “Brother, there’s room for everyone in my lap.” Jesus always had a pretty good sense of humor. He was droll. The jerk in front of him probably wouldn’t get it, but Jesus would let it go and just make some more wine. By now the flight attendants would suspect that something unauthorized was going on, but since they don’t usually believe in miracles and no one was yelling or fighting in the aisle they might close an eye and overlook the free wine.
If Jesus decided to travel in his authentic image instead of his Charlton Heston disguise, he’d have some trouble with security. But say he did want to test the system, see what it’s like to actually look like a terrorist’s profile, if he mumbled in Aramaic or Farsi while he was standing in line, he would stand a great chance of being treated to the full scrutiny that the TSA has to offer. It would be far worse than just having a bag full of blues harps. The guys in uniforms with ear buds active and receiving status reports from hidden security agents would in a mockingly polite tone ask him to come with them. Just two of them, at first; after all, they don’t know he’s Jesus. I guess he would cooperate, for a while.
Where are you traveling to sir? Their “sir” might strike Jesus as both ominous and disrespectful and it might get him a bit on edge. Being Jesus, he might be able to read the agents’ minds and know they don’t mean sir but really you fucking Arab dirt bag. “Can you show us some other form of ID, sir? How come you don’t have any luggage, sir? Jesus always travels light because he can make whatever he wants to wear just show up when he needs it, like poof, like I Dream of Jeanie. Sometimes he’ll carry a shoulder bag, a holdover from the days when he traveled by donkey a lot.
Jesus can do linguistic code shifting when he wants to talk and be understood, so he answers the agents with a slight Irish brogue and tries to explain that this is his first plane ride. Usually he uses private transportation but today he wants to see how Americans live. “I am going home to my Father in Palestine,” he says. Silent alarms are going off now.
“Sir, how did you get to this country?”
“By boat,” he says, “with Peter and some other disciples.” Security code shifts “disciples” to cult followers or cell members and they suddenly think Jesus looks rather Taliban. Jesus would be in a shitload of trouble if he wasn’t the son of God. More security personnel enter the little windowless room. They are speaking into the Bluetooth things and Jesus thinks they might be crazy, talking to themselves, so he moves into full God mode, not Son of God, or demi-God, but full blown Godhead as was accorded to him after much debate, torture, burnings at the stake and such by one of the Councils at somewhere (Jesus didn’t really care too much about all of this “angels on the head of a pin” stuff since he always knew he was the son of God). He realizes that he’s not getting out of this room by turning the other cheek or loving his neighbor. “Fuck this shit,” Jesus says and security personnel back up a couple of steps and pull their weapons out. They have tasers and pistols. Jesus is pretty pissed now so he turns them into pillars of salt and visits boils and personal plaques on them and this thoroughly disarms the whole bunch. Jesus shuts off the security cameras and other alarms too like a hacker wizard and then figures enough of this appearing in human form stuff, so he just dematerializes and uses a transporter that his God the Father made for him (like on the Starship Enterprise) and he beams up and over the Eastern seaboard and who really knows where he goes after that.
There’s little chance that Jesus would really submit himself to this degrading and pathetic ritual that we call air travel. Maybe he was really a patient and caring man/God, but there’s nothing in this for him—traveling on mid-line aircraft, not even a 747 or something big and fancy. He’s not trying to win votes by showing he can “get down” with the common man. Shit, he’s already Elected, big time. He’s Christ for Life. He’d fly Trans-God Airlines: We get you there before time.
I am not flying with Jesus, just Delta.
My cheek did not burn from his kiss. His skin was old and dry.
I’d been standing in the back of a room, a reception for Gerry Stern; I was talking to a woman lovely in her bones. It was all about poetry that night. I was weak and tired. This was one of the first times I’d been out in public since I had been diagnosed with throat cancer. After months of radiation, my half full glass said I was cured, but it was really too early to bet on anything.
Gerry was standing with Campbell McGrath, holding court at the front of the room. He was one of the featured writers at the Miami Book Fair. I was a spectator. I told my companion that Gerry Stern was one of the most important poets I had ever read, but I had never met him. You should tell him, she said. He would want to know. I doubted it. Everyone in line to greet him thought he was important. I’m not good at being a groupie, I told her. I was a groupie, but soft core. I rarely announced myself and bared my soul.
Go, she said. She was pulling me along. It had been a long time since I had been touched and I like being touched, so we gradually made our way to the front of the room.
Go she said, and I found myself in front of the table, next in line. Then I looked at Gerry and saw that he was holding Judith Ortiz Cofer and kissing her. I had often held Judith and been the recipient of her double cheek kiss. I don’t know what happened but suddenly I said, too loudly, hey buddy get your hands off my woman. Everyone froze. Judith looked at me. She was going to ask who is the asshole, then she saw it was me. She backed away from Gerry as if he was on fire and put her arms around me. I was afraid you were going to die, she said.
Gerry was looking at me like I had peed on his shoe, then Campbell leapt in. Gerry, do you know Rick Campbell? He’s a fine poet and runs Anhinga Press. Gerry recovered his poise. Yes, yes, I know the books you’ve published. Then he leaned over the table, pulled me toward him and kissed my cheek. We were all a bit stunned. To this day I thank Campbell for saving me.
I never told Gerry how important his poems were to me. I want to think he knew. I kissed Judith goodbye and melted into the crowd. My companion seemed happier than I was because I was still stunned. That was worth it, right? Are you happy?
Rick Campbell is a poet, essayist, and editor living on Alligator Point, Florida. His collection of essays, Sometimes the Light was published by Main Street Rag Press in the spring of 2022. His most recent collection of poems is Provenance (Blue Horse Press.) He’s published six other poetry books as well as poems and essays in journals including The Georgia Review, Prairie Schooner, Gargoyle, Fourth River, Kestrel, and the Alabama Literary Review. He teaches in the University of Nevada-Reno’s MFA program.